Sunday, July 19, 2015

Frederick Leehart & the execution of Mary Surratt

This is Norwood's Frederick Leehart at some point in his four-year Civil War military career --- looking distinctly militant. Two revolvers and a sword should just about do it.

The oval portrait, enlarged from a much smaller image many years after the war and mounted behind domed glass suitable for parlor display, is among war-related artifacts from the Lucas County Historical Society collection that will be on display Tuesday evening, during our ice cream social. The portrait was donated to the society during 1980 by Frederick's grandson, Waldron R. Leehart.

Frederick was a native of Mecklenburg, Germany, born Aug. 23, 1841, who arrived in the United States with his family at age 13 and settled in Des Moines County, Iowa, where he was living when the Civil War broke out.

On Aug. 12, 1861, he enlisted as a private in Company K, 2nd Iowa Volunteer Cavalry, and served honorably for three years --- until his unit was mustered out on Oct. 3, 1864, having completed three-year terms of service. He had been wounded at least once.

Frederick then enlisted in a unit known informally as Hancock's Veterans Corps, and served an additional year. The unit was named after Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who organized it while recovering from wounds sustained in combat. It consisted of enlisted men and officers disabled by wounds or illness and incapable of regular service, but who still wished to serve. Some still were in service when transferred to it; others, like Frederick, re-enlisted.

After the war, Frederick returned to Des Moines County and on Sept. 27, 1866, married Cynthia Ann Canterbury. They moved west to farm in what became the Norwood community of Lucas County during 1867. There were two sons, Karl R. and William E. He died at home near Norwood on Aug. 25, 1927, age 86, after a long and honorable --- but otherwise unremarkable --- life. He's buried in the Norwood Cemetery.

Here's the line in his obituary, published in The Herald-Patriot of Sept. 1, 1927, that's the attention-grabber: "Mr. Leehart bore the unique distinction of of being one of the guards who witnessed the execution of John Wilkes Booth and Mrs. Surratt, assassin and confederate, of President Abraham Lincoln."

Now part of this statement is inaccurate --- John Wilkes Booth was not executed; he was shot to death at the Richard H. Garrett farm in Caroline County, Virginia, on April 26, 1865.

However, four of Booth's convicted co-conspirators --- Mary Surratt, George Atzerodt, David Herold and Lewis Powell --- were indeed executed; hanged on July 7, 1865, at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington, D.C.

Gen. Hancock was one of the men in charge of the execution and members of Hancock's Veterans Corps did indeed serve as guards. Four of them were stationed on the gallows. 

There is no reason to doubt that Frederick, now at rest out there west of Norwood, was among them, witness to one of the more interesting footnotes to U.S. history.

The ice cream social begins at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday when all buildings on the museum campus open for tours; free ice cream will be served in the Pioneer Barn between 6 and 7 p.m.; and at 7 p.m., a program of live music from the Civil War era will begin on the patio. The display of war-related artifacts will be located in the commons room of the Lewis Building.

My own --- very minor --- footnote. I was stationed very briefly during 1970 at Fort Leslie J. McNair in Washington, D.C., formerly the site of Old Arsenal Penitentiary. The execution site is now a tennis court.

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