Saturday, November 9, 2019

Assassination of Captain Watkins

This week we present a guest post by Kyle Dalton; the story of a Civil War era murder by a probable Lincoln assassination conspirator. Kyle Dalton is a public historian and museum professional currently employed at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. He writes and maintains the website British Tars: 1740-1790, exploring the lives of common sailors through primary sources. This post was largely researched and composed for Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, Maryland, where Kyle was employed as the Public Programs Administrator.

Assassination of Captain Watkins
By Kyle Dalton

Captain Thomas Watkins, closeup, 
(The Horse Soldier collection)
In 1861 most white residents of the South River in Maryland were pro-slavery if not outright secessionists. In the presidential election of 1860, only three people in all of Anne Arundel County voted for Abraham Lincoln. The county was narrowly won by a slim margin of twenty-four votes by Stephen Bell and his Constitutional Unionist Party, which sought to avoid the issue of slavery. Voters for Bell’s optimistic neglect of the issue were closely trailed by Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, and his virulently pro-slavery stance. We do not know for sure who made up the three voters who publicly declared their support for Abraham Lincoln, but it is quite possible that two of them were Dr. Benjamin Watkins and his son Thomas.

Even after the outbreak of war, the Watkins family were outspoken about their unionist sympathies. In a later congressional report, it was said “that at the commencement of the rebellion, Thomas H. Watkins…became at once an active supporter of the Union, when so to declare himself was visited was to be visited by the obloquy and contempt of a large majority of his friends and associates in the county.” His father, Dr. Benjamin Watkins, was elected to attend the Union State Convention in 1864, where the delegates voted their support for the North’s war effort. Thomas went further than words. He enlisted in and recruited for the cavalry contingent of the Purnell Legion, a unit of pro-Union Maryland cavalry, artillery, and infantry companies. Watkins mustered in as a Captain, commanding Company B, on September 20, 1861.

In declaring his loyalty to the Union, Watkins set himself apart from his South River neighbors. By enlisting, he proved he was willing to kill and die for the Union. After the introduction of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in 1863, Watkins served alongside men of color, including enslaved and free black men from the South River. He reinforced, intentionally or not, his support for destroying the institution of slavery and arming the men his neighbors held in bondage. It is not difficult to imagine that he was despised by the whites of the South River.

The same year his father attended the unionist convention, General Grant’s Army of the Potomac besieged Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg. Both sides settled into trench warfare. Among Union forces was the Purnell Legion. Captain Watkins and his cavalry troopers were dismounted and armed as infantry to fill the earthworks. Watkins and his loyal Marylanders took part in continuous assaults on the Confederate lines. He could probably have guessed that his neighbors from the South River were among the Confederate lines.

At the Battle of Globe Tavern, General Grant sought to cut railroad links between Petersburg and the outside world. The V Corps, including Captain Watkins, was ordered to seize and destroy the line. The Confederates launched a heavy assault against the Union forces. In the melee, Captain Watkins took a bullet through the scalp.

Watkins was evacuated to Philadelphia on the steamer Augusta with several other wounded Maryland officers, where he was treated at McClellan Hospital. A largely recuperated Captain Watkins returned to the South River that Fall where he was ordered back to active duty by General E.B. Tyler in late August or early September 1864. 

General Tyler’s orders state Watkins was “to arrest certain returned confederate soldiers.” Among those Watkins was ordered to take into custody was the notorious Confederate spy and guerilla John H. Boyle. 

Twice, Boyle was captured as a spy and once was held in the Old Capital Prison for five months awaiting execution. It is unclear if he was pardoned or escaped, but regardless he was unrepentant. Boyle served under General George H. Steuart at Gettysburg, even earning a commendation in his fellow Marylander’s official report: “I am greatly indebted for valuable assistance rendered, and of whose gallant bearing I cannot too highly make mention.” Steuart was the son of a major South River landowner, and the only Marylander to rise to General Lee’s staff. 

Captain Watkins' pistol, 
(The Horse Soldier Collection)
By the time Boyle made his way back to the South River in late 1864, he was a mere horse thief operating under the thin veil of the Confederate cause to justify his crimes. General Tyler ordered Captain Watkins to apprehend Boyle. Watkins might have been assisted by local detectives who had captured Boyle in 1863 at his mother’s house in Marlboro. However Watkins went about it, Boyle chose to take the fight to the Union officer’s front steps. Boldly stealing a horse and saddle from Dr. Benjamin Watkins’ home, where Thomas himself was staying for his recovery, Boyle fled to Prince George’s County. Captain Watkins tracked him to the front of a store, where “some angry words ensued, [Boyle] took a pistol and fired at the Captain, the load taking effect in the horse.” Watkins overcame Boyle and bound his wrists. 

Sometime afterward, Boyle slipped his bonds and attacked Watkins, nearly killing him with a blow to the head. Watkins was carried to his father’s home for recovery. Though he made a clean escape, Boyle pursued a vendetta against the prominent Unionist, “and made frequent threats that he would kill him, Watkins, at the earliest opportunity.” 

Captain Watkins' pistol, detail of butt, 
(The Horse Soldier Collection)
While stewing over his hatred of Watkins, Boyle became entangled with John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators in their designs on Abraham Lincoln that would ultimately culminate in the assassination of the president. In his confession, George Atzerodt named Boyle as one of the conspirators, and Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg in the wake of the assassination believed that Boyle was one of the conspirators. Part of Dr. Mudd’s defense was his “fears of the vengeance of that desperado.” Perhaps Boyle acted as muscle for Booth’s gang, or maybe he only dabbled with joining in the initial plot to kidnap Lincoln but drifted away to pursue Watkins. We will probably never know, but we can say that Boyle was a dangerous man and Watkins would pay with his life for crossing him.

Sources on what exactly happened are confused. Only days after the murder, a reporter for The Alexandria Gazette insisted Watkins “while at supper, at his residence on South River, [was] shot through the head by a man supposed to be John Boyle.” A later congressional inquiry stated that “Boyle stealthily approached, and knocking at the front door, it was opened by Captain Watkins, whereupon the said Boyle drew a revolver, and, without giving any warning, chance, or show for life, foully and brutally shot down and murdered in cold blood the said Captain Watkins.” This version of events may have come from The Marlboro Gazette, which a reporter in The Baltimore Sun disagreed with strongly: “The assassin did not knock at the front door as stated but entered by an entry door which had been left unfastened, and took Captain Watkins unawares, who was sitting before the fire reading a paper” after supper. All sources agree that Boyle was joined by a gang, and The Baltimore Sun stated the gang fired at both a doctor who had come to check on Watkins’ four-month-old child, and Watkins’ wife or sister before making their escape.

Whatever the case, Boyle had committed cold blooded murder against an unarmed man in the presence of his family for revenge. The state was in an uproar. Governor Bradford offered a thousand-dollar reward for Boyle’s capture, and placed advertisements in newspapers throughout the area calling “for the apprehension and delivery to the jail of this county the said John Boyle.” He was captured in Frederick (coincidentally on the day Lincoln died) and kept under a tight military guard. This was the fifth time that Boyle was captured by Union authorities during the war, and this time they were certain he would not escape. His fellow gang members were never identified or apprehended. 

Though convicted and held for a few years in prison, Watkins’ murderer was pardoned by Governor William Pinkney Whyte for “war-related activities.” In announcing his 1872 pardon, The Baltimore Sun noted Boyle was banned from ever entering Anne Arundel County, and “that Boyle is not expected to live a great while, and his friends intend to move him to Florida.” We might assume from the Sun’s reporting that Boyle was ill, but he was healthy enough to take a job as a detective for the Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans Railroad. He also continued his nefarious ways and was brought up “on a charge of passing counterfeit money.” Boyle would not “live a great while,” but it was not natural causes that would end it. 

Eight years later and a thousand miles from Maryland, an unknown vigilante ambushed Boyle in Tougaloo, Mississippi. The manner of his murder seems to echo the assassination of Captain Watkins. A Maryland newspaper reported that he “was assassinated by some unknown parties…at his home.” In a letter to the editor of a Mississippi newspaper, it was said: “Mr. J. H. Boyle, while sitting with his family, at eight o’clock in the evening, was fired upon by a concealed assassin.” It was speculated at the time that Boyle’s violent death was “just retribution” the assassination of Watkins. 

Only one arrest was made for the crime: an African American man named Henry Barnes, who was brought before a Grand Jury. A reporter for The Weekly Clarion speculated that Barnes and Boyle were part of a gang who “had planned to throw the south-bound passenger train from the track, and during the confusion likely to follow, to rob the passengers, and also the depot house…and that Boyle having lost courage before the time for action arrived, was killed by his co-conspirators.” There was “no convincing evidence against” Barnes, and the charges were dropped. It would have been surprising indeed if the former Confederate spy and potential Lincoln assassination conspirator joined with a black man for train robbing deep in post-Reconstruction Mississippi, and given the ease with which innocent black men were routinely convicted in that area and time, the evidence must have been weak indeed.

Whether Boyle was tracked down and killed in revenge for the assassination of Captain Watkins, or by fellow criminals for his cowardice, we will probably never know. Authorities were not terribly interested in investigating. The famous detective Allan Pinkerton refused to take the case and said Boyle was "one of the worst men he ever knew...He regards his death as a good riddance.” One Tougaloo citizen complained, “no attention was paid to it, and the man [Boyle] was placed in the ground without having the coroner investigate the murder, or the Sheriff making any effort to ferret out the parties who did the cowardly deed.” 

Several newspapers in Maryland and DC shared the same assessment of Boyle’s comeuppance and its implied connection with Watkins’ assassination: “The mills of the gods grind slow, but they grind exceeding fine.”

The Alexandria Gazette, January 22, 1863, page 1; March 28, 1865, page 3.

The Baltimore Sun, “The Election Returns,” November 10, 1860, page 2; January 23, 1863, page 1; “Union County Convention,” February 18. 1864, page 1; August 27, 1864, page 2; “Serious Injury of Captain Watkins,” September 15, 1864, page 4; November 27, 1864, page 4; March 30, 1865, page 1; “The Murder of Captain T. H. Watkins,” April 1, 1865, page 1; “Correspondence of the Baltimore Sun,” April 19, 1865, page 4; May 1, 1871, page 4; July 3, 1880, page 3.

The Cecil Whig, “Patriotic,” June 11, 1864, page 2.

The Comet, June 26, 1880, page 2 and 3.

The Detroit Free Press, January 25, 1863, page 1, January 28, 1863, page 3.

Photographs courtesy of The Horse Soldier.


Howard Brown says:
November 9, 2019 at 10:48 AM

Terrific story, Robert ! Thanks to Kyle for sharing.

Kyle Dalton says:
November 12, 2019 at 11:17 AM

Thanks for hosting me!

Unknown says:
November 12, 2019 at 5:05 PM

Fantastic story. Thank you.

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