MoCo History: Germantown’s Link to the Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln

by Susan Soderberg

The Lincoln Assassination Connection, by Susan Soderberg

Many of you who have seen the recent movie The Conspirator will know that George Andrew Atzerodt (alias Andrew Atwood), was one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators executed on July 7, 1865. Atzerodt was arrested in Germantown, the town where he had spent many years as a boy. How he got involved with the Booth gang and why he ended up back in Germantown is a compelling story.

This story begins in 1844 when Atzerodt, age 9, arrives in Germantown with his family, immigrants from Prussia. His father, Henry Atzerodt, purchased land with his brother-in-law, Johann Richter, and together they built a house on Schaeffer Road. In the mid-1850s, Henry sold his interest in the farm and moved to Westmoreland County, Va., where he operated a blacksmith shop until his untimely death around 1858.  At this time Atzerodt and his brother John opened a carriage painting business in Port Tobacco, Md.

After the Civil War broke out the carriage painting business was not doing well, so John went up to Baltimore and got employment as a detective with the State Provost Marshal’s office. Atzerodt stayed on at Port Tobacco, but his main business was not painting carriages, it was blockade running and smuggling across the Potomac River.

It was on one of these clandestine trips that he met John Surratt, son of Mary Surratt, who was acting as a courier for Confederate mail. In November 1864 Surratt convinced Atzerodt to join the group, led by John Wilkes Booth, planning to capture President Lincoln, take him to the South and hold him for ransom. Since they planned to take their hostage through Southern Maryland and across the Potomac River, Atzerodt’s knowledge of the land and the river was indispensible.

Surratt took him to Washington where he met John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators. One plan to kidnap Lincoln on his way to the Veterans Hospital on March 17, 1865 failed when the President changed his plans at the last moment. The surrender of General Lee, however, had convinced Booth that more drastic measures were needed. The plan he presented was to immobilize the federal government by removing the top three heads. Booth would assassinate Lincoln, Lewis Powell would take care of the Secretary of State William Seward, and Atzerodt’s assignment was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson.

Atzerodt’s courage evaporated when the time came, however, and he spent the evening drinking and wandering around Washington. In his confession he would claim that he never intended to kill the vice president and that he threw away the knife and pawned the gun that were given to him. Yet he did accept the knife and gun, and he did not turn in the other conspirators when he knew that the plan had changed from kidnapping to murder. These two things were what convinced the Military Commission that he should be executed.

After he heard that Booth had actually carried out his part in the plot, Atzerodt decided that he should leave Washington as soon as possible, and not in the direction of his home in Port Tobacco since that is where he knew Booth had gone. He would go to a place where he had friends and family, where they would welcome him without questions – his old home in Germantown. The following morning he managed to get through the blockade around Washington by buying the guards a few drinks. Then, catching a ride with William Gaither, he made his way to Gaithersburg and, after stopping for a drink at Mullican’s tavern, he proceeded on foot toward Germantown on the Barnesville Road (now Clopper Road).  It was very late when he crossed the wooden bridge over Seneca Creek and saw a light in the Clopper Mill.  He asked the miller, Robert Kinder, if he could stay the night, and Kinder, who knew Atzerodt from his previous visits to the area, showed him hospitality (for which he would later receive six weeks in jail).

 In the morning Atzerodt started on his way to his cousin, Hartman Richter’s house just two miles away.  He was very hungry, though, and, it being Easter Sunday, he decided to stop at the Metz home which was on his way.  The family invited him to stay for dinner. The Leaman brothers, Somerset and James, were also visiting the Metz family.  Of course, the assassination was the topic of conversation of the day, and Atzerodt must have let a few things slip to arouse the suspicion of the Leaman brothers who later testified against him. A neighbor, Nathan Page, was also at the Metz’s that day.

After dinner Atzerodt cut across the field to drop in on his cousin Hartman Richter, son of Johann.  Knowing nothing of Atzerodt’s part in the assassination conspiracy, the Richters took him in and gave him a job on the farm. For the next three days Atzerodt did odd jobs at the Richter farm.  On April 19, Atzerodt was sound asleep in an upstairs bedroom of the house. He was awakened at 5 a.m. by soldiers, one of whom was pointing a revolver at his head.  He was quickly arrested and taken to Washington.

The soldiers, stationed in Clarksburg, had been alerted of a “suspicious character just up from Washington” by a tip from one of their local informants, James Purdom. Purdom had run into Nathan Page earlier and Page had told him about Atzerodt and what he had said at the Metz home. Purdom and Page would end up splitting the $25,000 reward for the capture of Atzerodt. Atzerodt was a goner anyway. A few hours after Atzerodt was arrested another group of soldiers arrived at the Richter home looking for him. This second posse had been sent by the Provost Marshal after receiving information from Atzerodt’s brother, John.

Hartman Richter, the Leaman brothers, as well as the old miller, were also arrested and imprisoned on a ship in Washington until the trial, after which they were released. Atzerodt was tried and convicted by a military court. He was hanged in the yard of the Arsenal in Washington along with Lewis Powell, David Herold and Mary Surratt.

The ruins of the Clopper Mill can be seen on the west side of Clopper Road just to the north of Seneca Creek opposite Waring Station Road. The home of Hartman Richter on Schaeffer Road in Germantown accidently burned down in 1982.

Much of the information on Atzerodt’s arrest came from the book, “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” by Edward Steers.

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