Thomas Nelson Conrad feared for his life while in the company of conspirators.
The only human contact he had for days were the Union Army soldiers who thrust plates of food through the opening in his cell door.
Locked away in solitary confinement, the 1857 Dickinson College graduate wrote how he heard “the tireless tramp of the sentinel” patrolling the corridors of the Old Capitol Prison.
He was being held on suspicion of being part of the plot that assassinated President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. By some accounts, the Virginia-born preacher and educator turned master Confederate spy even resembled the shooter John Wilkes Booth to the angry mobs seeking vengeance.
The irony was Conrad had his own conspiracy brewing in September 1864 to kidnap Lincoln and hold the Great Emancipator hostage in the South. But his plan was foiled by the sudden appearance of beefed-up security. It was clear Conrad did not approve of Booth killing the president.
“Had he (Lincoln) fallen into the meshes of the silken net we had spread for him, he would never have been the victim of the assassin’s heartless, bloody and atrocious assault,” Conrad wrote in his memoir “The Rebel Scout” about his espionage activities in the Union capital during the Civil War.
While he had some loose connections to Lincoln conspirators Booth and Mary Surratt, there was no direct evidence linking Conrad to the assassination. He was released from prison, but arrested in July 1865 for being a wartime spy. According to his memoirs, Conrad escaped Union justice by leaping from a moving train after fooling the guards into thinking that he had dozed off in the passenger car.
Conspiracy of roommates
He wasn’t always a daring spy. From 1857 to 1861, Conrad was principal of the Georgetown Institute, a boys’ school he had established in Washington. For his efforts, Conrad was awarded a master’s degree from Dickinson College in 1860.
Conrad enlisted the following year as a chaplain in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry and eventually rose to the rank of captain. His service in the Rebel army led to opportunities in espionage including the operation of the “Doctor’s Line” that supplied reliable intelligence to Confederate authorities in Richmond, Virginia, according to the college’s online archives.
Among the operatives working for Conrad was his former roommate, a Virginia native named Daniel Mountjoy Cloud, who graduated from Dickinson College in 1858. Cloud was a teacher at the Biblical Institute in Conrad, New Hampshire, when the war started.
Cloud returned to his home state to serve with the 7th Virginia Cavalry before being transferred in 1863 to the Confederate Secret Service, the archives read. In September 1864, Cloud and Conrad teamed up on a scheme to kidnap Lincoln and spirit the president away to Richmond.
“Mountjoy ... could be relied upon for deliberate strategy and bold execution,” Conrad wrote in “The Rebel Scout." By then, Conrad had been a Washington, D.C., resident for years. He was familiar with ways in and out of the city that could ease their escape.
Conrad learned from sources that Lincoln used the Soldiers’ Home on the northern outskirts of the city as his resort. “We set to work at once to learn at what hour of the day it was his habit to leave the White House, the route he was driven going and coming, who accompanied him, if company he had (and) how long he remained,” Conrad wrote.
The college roommates observed Lincoln from Lafayette Square across the street from the presidential mansion. They learned how he left the White House “in the cool of the evening” in a private carriage without an escort bound for the Soldiers’ Home where he could still stay in touch with his administration by telegraph.
“This he did every pleasant day,” Conrad wrote of Lincoln.
By studying the route, the conspirators determined the best place to halt the carriage and abduct the president was a point just beyond where it entered the 14th Street entrance to the Soldiers’ Home grounds. The building was accessible by a series of winding and hilly driveways cut through acres of old growth forest.
The Bull and the Lion
“Two of us were not sufficient to execute our undertaking,” Conrad wrote. So they recruited a man named “Bull” Frizzell who lived along a canal a few miles north of Georgetown. “Having been thrown in prison more than once and treated very roughly, he was eager to join the fray,” Conrad said of Frizzell, describing him as a “big, rawboned, rough and ready athlete, used to grappling with danger and afraid of nothing.”
Conrad also recruited his man slave named Williams, whose mother was a mulatto and father was an Indian. “He was six feet in height, straight as an arrow ... and when with me as bold as a lion, having fought at my side in more than one affair.” Conrad said of the 23-year-old. “I wanted him ... to mount the seat upon which Mr. Lincoln’s driver sat and, with pistol in hand, make him (the driver) obey my orders ... to drive with lightning speed.”
Meanwhile, Frizzell was tasked with handcuffing Lincoln after stepping into the carriage with a drawn pistol. Conrad was to lead the entourage to the escape route along the Potomac River while Cloud brought up the rear.
“We selected Saturday evening as the time, feeling that after the work’s worry with official duties, Mr. Lincoln would be very much fatigued and ... in a very unresisting condition,” Conrad wrote. The conspirators fine-tuned their plan and continued to observe the president.
The evening of their “grand coup d’etat,” the conspirators met in Lafayette Square ready to pursue the carriage and spring the trap. But just then they noticed the carriage was being escorted front and back by squads of Union cavalry.
This sudden appearance of armed guards stopped the conspiracy in its tracks and baffled Conrad and Cloud, who returned to Lafayette Square in the days that followed searching for a break in security that never came. Conrad learned from sources that threats mailed to Lincoln prompted the Army to assign guards dressed in civilian clothes and carrying concealed pistols, but not one of those soldiers ever accompanied the president on road trips.
“Then why the cavalry escort?” Conrad asked in his memoirs. “I knew no one of our quartet ever breathed our scheme and that our movements had never awakened the shadow of suspicion.” Conrad blamed the beefed-up security on the failed plots of other Confederates whose mistakes must have tipped off the authorities.
Escape into custody
Less than seven months later, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865. That event triggered other surrenders that ultimately ended the war.
“The shock overpowered me and in the most desperate despair, I was ready for any fate,” Conrad wrote in “The Rebel Scout.” “I never dreamed of such a result. My faith in God, Lee and right was so great that I could not accept such a verdict.”
Conrad crossed the Potomac River on April 15, 1865 and fled into the Maryland countryside. His first hint of the assassination of Lincoln was in seeing Union warships pass up and down the river with their flags draped in mourning. On Sunday night, April 16, Conrad was asleep in a farmhouse when he was arrested by a detachment of soldiers from the Union steamer Jacob Bell.
Conrad was stripped naked, and every piece of his clothing was thoroughly searched for any incriminating material. The crew of the Bell threw Conrad in irons and threatened to hang him at first light. “President Lincoln had been assassinated Friday night and the naval officers were so outraged their fury and venom knew no bounds,” Conrad wrote.
Instead of executing the Dickinson College graduate on the spot, the crew transferred him over to the “merciless custody of Captain Parker," commander of the Union Navy’s Potomac Flotilla. At that point, Captain Foxhail Parker subjected Conrad to “a fiery fusillade of insolent epithets and bombastic threats” before sentencing him to bread and water until further orders.
Conrad was eventually transferred to the Old Capitol Prison and placed in solitary confinement in a cell adjoining the rooms of those suspected in the Lincoln assassination. The Army doubled the prison guard in response to an unruly mob that demanded the government hang the conspirators on the spot without benefit of a trial. Conrad was mistaken for John Wilkes Booth, who was still at large.
Though eventually cleared of any involvement in the assassination, Conrad mentioned in his book “The Rebel Scout” connections he had to Booth and Mary Surratt.
A young Confederate soldier named “Tippie” Ruggles served as a courier for Conrad and his Washington, D.C., spy network. Ruggles was riding a horse through the countryside near Port Royal, Virginia, when he was hailed by two people — one of whom was John Wilkes Booth.
Booth broke his leg after jumping from the balcony where he shot Lincoln to the stage of Ford’s Theatre. Seeing that Booth was injured, Ruggles dismounted the horse, helped the assassin into the saddle and then guided the rider across the Rappahannock River and into the custody of another sympathizer.
“The horse which Booth rode was my Old Whitie, a favorite scouting horse,” Conrad wrote. “Many a dark and dreary night had he borne through swamp and thicket, over hill and dale. Unlike his master, he never blundered.
“I had known Mrs. Surratt in peace times,” Conrad added. “Her husband kept a country tavern some miles from Washington in Prince George County, Maryland, on a public highway.” Conrad used to take meals at the tavern on trips to and from the capital city.
After her husband died, Mary Surratt closed the tavern and moved to Washington, where she kept a boardinghouse. She was arrested in connection with John Wilkes Booth and the assassination, put on trial and was publicly executed on July 7, 1865.
In his memoirs, Conrad disputed claims that Surratt knew of Booth’s intentions but did nothing to stop the assassin. He believes the conspirators would not have confided the details of the plot to a woman who was “motherly” and “full of human kindness and sympathy.”
Though located in a northern town, Dickinson College had strong Southern leanings prior to the start of the Civil War. From 1850 to 1860, 41 percent of its enrollment came from border states, while another 17 percent of students were from Southern states, college archivist Jim Gerencser said.
At the time, the college had close ties to the Baltimore conference of the Methodist church, which drew students from southwestern Virginia up the Shenandoah Valley to the Cumberland Valley, Gerencser said. He added the large number of Southern students meant that an uncomfortable silence existed on campus regarding the issues of slavery and state rights.
College trustees were split between North and South, and the prevailing attitude on campus was to agree to disagree and not press the issues underlying the cause of the Civil War, Gerencser said. When the war started, Dickinson College experienced a dip in annual enrollment from about 125 to 90 that resulted in less revenue from tuition and a tighter operating budget.
Sixty percent of the alumni in uniform served with the Union Army, while 40 percent including Conrad and Cloud fought for the Confederacy. The college has identified 22 alumni who died during the war.