Lewis Thornton Powell was a conspirator who gained notoriety during the American Civil War when he became involved in the plot to assassinate the President, Abraham Lincoln, and William H. Seward, the American Secretary of State.
Powell was born in Alabama in 1844 and moved with his family to live in Florida when he was 15 years old. Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Powell joined the newly formed 2nd Florida Regiment, which became part of the Confederate army, at Jacksonville in Florida in May 1861. In 1863, he was one of the Confederate troops involved in the Battle of Gettysburg, during which he was wounded and taken prisoner.
He was admitted as a prisoner of war to the hospital at Pennsylvania College before being moved to the West Buildings Hospital at Baltimore in Maryland. During his time at Pennsylvania College, he became involved in a relationship with Margaret Branson, a volunteer nurse at the hospital. Less than a week after his arrival at the West Buildings Hospital he staged a successful escape bid, almost certainly with the help of Nurse Branson.
The Confederate Secret Service
Powell managed to make his way to Virginia, where he enlisted with a unit of the Confederate cavalry known as Mosby’s Rangers. During his time with the Rangers, he was recruited into the Confederate Secret Service. Under instructions from the Confederate Secret Service, he returned to Baltimore in January 1865, and took up lodgings with Margaret Branson, who ran a boarding house. He claimed to have deserted from the Confederate Army, and signed an Oath of Allegiance to the Federal state. He used the alias Lewis Paine when taking the oath.
While in Baltimore, he teamed up with other Confederate Secret Service agents, David Preston Parr, John Suratt and John Wilkes Booth. Booth was planning to kidnap President Lincoln when he attended a play in March and use his capture to negotiate the release of Confederate prisoners of war. The plan collapsed when Lincoln cancelled his visit to the theatre.
The conspirators then escalated the plot to an assassination attempt, and selected Lincoln and other figures in the Federal government as targets. Powell was given the task of assassinating William Seward, the then Secretary of State. Seward had been involved in an accident and was confined to bed in his home.
Attack on Seward
Powell called to Seward’s home on the pretext of delivering medicine to the Secretary of State. He barged past the servant who opened the door and began making his way to the secretary’s room. He was confronted by the Secretary’s son, whom he attacked and left unconscious. Next, he overcame George Robinson, the Secretary’s bodyguard, before bursting into Seward’s room and attacking him with a knife. Robinson had recovered and with the help of two others, halted Powell’s attack on the Secretary.
They were unable to restrain Powell, who made his escape, but he was arrested three days later at the Suratt’s home and brought before a military court. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hanged with three fellow conspirators on July 7, 1865.