George Washington Gayle and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr. El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie LLC, 2018; Reviewed by Emil L. Posey, Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table
President Lincoln was reviled by many in the Confederacy, being considered the cause of the Civil War and the personification of all the wrongs the North had perpetrated on the South. As the war ran on, and particularly in its waning days, many concluded that his assassination was warranted. These feelings came together on the evening of April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth shot the president at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward had also been targeted that fateful night. President Lincoln died the next morning. The would-be assassin targeting VP Johnson lost his nerve, and Seward was only wounded.
Anger and hatred flared in the North, and federal efforts to find and bring the conspirators to justice were intense. Booth was shot resisting arrest in a barn on Garnett’s Farm in King George County, VA on the morning of April 26, 1865. In the ensuing days and weeks scores of others were arrested (including co-conspirator David Herold who was with Booth when he was killed.) Having had the slightest contact with the conspiracy was grounds. In the end, all were released except for eight. Of these, each was found guilty of participating in the conspiracy. Four were executed by hanging, three were given life prison sentences, and one sentenced to six years.
One of those caught up in the sweep was an Alabama firebrand lawyer, George Washington Gayle, former Democratic state legislator and US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama– the “Million-Dollar Man” whose involvement in the assassination Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr. studies in this book. Conventional histories portray Gayle as a tangential figure, certainly sympathetic to efforts to bring President Lincoln down, but not a direct player. Mr. McIlwain sees Gayle’s role differently – less tangential and more direct. What was Gayle’s contribution to the assassination of PresidentLincoln? It revolved around his publication in a local newspaper, the Selma Dispatch, in December 1864 a call – an advertisement – for contributions towards raising $1 million (and towards which he contributed the first $1,000) for the express purpose of paying for the assassination of President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Mr. Seward by the following March 1, 1865. Serious intent? Did it substantively contribute towards the actual assassination? You must read the book to find that out, but I will say that Mr. McIlwain provides substantive argument and well–reasoned conclusions.
This is a substantive yet concise read. It provides history at the personal level of the growth and development of the Secessionist movement and, ultimately, the assassination plot, principally as that history developed in South Carolina and Alabama, with the focus on Gayle within the pantheon of local politicos and activists all along the way. Mr. McIlwain’slawyerly experience and training shines through with his meticulous attention to detail and masterful reliance on period newspaper reporting and commentary for flavor and contemporary context.
It eventuated that Gayle was apprehended by federal authorities and held in prison pending trial by military tribunal – a trial that never came. For various reasons analyzed by Mr. McIlwain, the trial was delayed. Then, in an interesting turn, President Andrew Johnson authorized his parole from the prison at Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia. The terms of his parolerequired him to return to Alabama for trial by a civil court rather than a military court (which was falling out of favor as the venue of choice). President Johnson finally pardoned him in full on April 27, 1867, before the civil trial could be arranged. It turned out to be quite a ride for Mr. Gayle, and quite a tale described by Mr. McIlwain. Enjoy!
Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr., has been practicing law for more than three decades in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This is the third book Mr. McIlwain has written. The other two were Civil War Alabama (co-authored with G. Ward Hubbs; Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016) and 1865 Alabama: From Civil to Uncivil Peace (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017). He has also published several articles in a variety of history journals.
Your reviewer is Emil L. Posey, former Vice President of the TVCWRT, now continuing to support by being part of the Stage Crew. His work history spans almost 45 years of military and civilian service to our country. He retired from NASA/George C. Marshall Space Flight Center on December 27, 2014. He has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Hood College, Frederick, Maryland; is a former president of the Huntsville chapter of the National Contract Management Association, and is a life member of the Special Forces Association. He is also a member of Elks Lodge 1648 (Huntsville, AL) and the Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society. He is a dedicated bibliophile, and is a (very) armchair political analyst and military enthusiast.