The hardest part about managing anyone, including spies, is initiative. When someone is acting as your employee, whether as a spy or in any other capacity, you are responsible for their actions. They don’t know the big picture. They can’t know the big picture. You can’t have them running around knocking things over and messing everything up. Spies, like any other employee have to take direction. James Bond better not kill anyone unless it is authorized.
That is what is so wrong with the Booth conspiracy. The idea that any spy ring would act without authorization makes as much sense as you going to work and deciding what your job assignment is. Even if Booth himself decided to kill Lincoln, it is difficult to believe that the rest of the ring would go along without authorization.
Abraham Lincoln is the only president known to have been killed by a conspiracy. There have been suspicions about others. The fact of eight convicted and four executed confirms conspiracy. Did Booth have orders? Would his spy ring have followed him if they thought he was operating independently? Does a spy ring continue to operate once its side has lost? Would losing the war give you greater confidence and initiative?
It is easy to believe that the South would want revenge on Lincoln. Targeting Seward and Johnson leads to the supposition of some tactical objective. The conspirators are not simply targeting a foe; they are removing Lincoln’s successors. Obviously, winning the war was not the objective. Why three targets? I think the other two targets were window dressing or distraction. In the official version, the original plan was to kidnap the three in some mad Southern plan and thereby somehow gain a bargaining advantage. Then this bizarre plot degenerated into murder.
It is perfectly reasonable to doubt the sanity of Southern strategy, but this seems a bit much. Who else would want Lincoln dead?
This leads me to the Pinkerton’s. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired by Northern industrialists to protect Lincoln’s life. This reminds me of my mother’s crack when someone pointed out one of Trotsky’s bodyguard:
-Didn’t do a very good job.
But the Pinkerton’s thought they had done an excellent job. According to the Pinkerton’s glowing reports to General McClellan they frustrated several attempts on Lincoln’s life, without Lincoln’s knowledge. Once McClellan was dismissed these same industrialists saw no point in continuing the protection.
Could Northerners have an interest in Lincoln’s demise? One of my favorite themes in history is common knowledge lost to posterity. The Democratic Party platform of 1864 is an abject treasonous document. The Democrats are depicted as war weary. But they are obviously acting on principle. There is disagreement as to whether they should surrender to the South, but they support slavery without equivocation. It is said that General McClellan would have had greater success against Lincoln if he had not repudiated the Democratic platform. In any case he received 45% of the vote.
When Lincoln is criticized for being ponderous, recognize that 45% of the Northern voters opposed the Civil War.
How would these Northerners have reached into the South and somehow provocateur or finagle the assassination? It wouldn’t have been the South. Southern intelligence was run out of Canada and Booth’s courier, John H. Surratt, worked out of New York.
Just as Northern sympathy and support for the South has been lost to account, imagine how reluctant investigators may have been to uncover Northern encouragement or participation in Lincoln’s assassination.