His story started like that of many young men in the South. Lewis Thornton Powell was the youngest son of nine children born to the Baptist minister and plantation owner George Calder Powell. The Powell family was forced to sell their Alabama plantation due to financial difficulties when Lewis was young and moved to Live Oak, Florida, to start anew on a family farm. When news came that the Confederacy was in need of volunteers, Lewis and his two older brothers joined their ranks on May 30, 1861. Private Powell and the 2nd Florida Infantry first marched into battle during the siege of Yorktown in April 1862. After this the 2nd was attached to Jubal Early’s Brigade and participated in numerous battles including Williamsburg, Seven Pines, Gains Mill, Second Manassas, Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.
However, it was the Battle of Gettysburg that altered the path of Powell’s life. It is unclear when Powell was injured. Osborn Oldroyd and Leon Prior claim he received a wound to his wrist during Pickett’s Charge, however Edward Steers claims Powell was injured on the second day of the battle.
In any event, the wound was serious enough for hospitalization. Powell, now a prisoner of war, was taken to the makeshift hospital at Pennsylvania College. The conditions at the college were not ideal as there was little food and insufficient beds and bedding for the estimated 600 wounded treated there. Doctors, volunteer medical staff, and people from the town worked tirelessly to provide whatever they could for the wounded for over a month as Pennsylvania Hall was used as a hospital. One indicator of the scope of the hospital operation on the campus is the fact that Pennsylvania College received $625 from the federal government in a post-war damage claim.
Volunteers came from all over to aid the wounded from the battle. An officer from the North Carolina 47th regiment wrote in a letter that the sweet Southern ladies who came up from Baltimore were much more sympathetic to the wounded Confederates, while the Northern ladies treated everyone equally. Lewis Powell quickly befriended one of the volunteer nurses from Baltimore named Margaret Branson. Powell assisted Branson during her rounds, helping his fellow wounded despite his injured wrist. Powell soon acquired the nickname Doc. While it is unclear if Powell and Branson had a romantic relationship, the two became close enough that she aided in Powell’s escape when he was transferred to a prison near Baltimore, and even sheltered him for a time in her family’s boardinghouse.
Whether he still felt a sense of patriotic duty toward the Confederacy or because he did not want to miss any glory to be had in continuing to fight, Powell left Baltimore for Northern Virginia and reenlisted with Colonel John S. Mosby’s cavalry unit during the winter of 1863. Powell served as a Confederate ranger until January 1865. He then deserted his unit, assumed the alias Lewis Payne, and took the oath of allegiance in Alexandria, Virginia. Powell, now Payne, then made his way back to Baltimore and Margaret Branson.
While a few sources claim that Payne could possibly have met John Wilkes Booth during the beginning of the war at a theatrical performance, it is commonly held that they were reacquainted or introduced for the first time during this second stay with the Bransons. It would seem Booth was taken with Payne form the start and never had any reservations about Payne or his commitment to their cause. Payne was a frequent visitor to Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse, which Andrew Johnson referred to as the “nest that hatched the egg” of assassination. Booth would later claim that Payne was the only one he ever trusted with the full details of his plans against Lincoln and the Executive Branch. Payne’s part in Booth’s plot was to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward. Payne came remarkably close to completing his mission. Due to an earlier carriage accident Seward was bedridden and Payne was able to stab the helpless man multiple times before family members could force Payne from the home. Payne was arrested a few days later when he returned to the boardinghouse where Booth had planned the attack.
The question is, why? Why attack the President and the Executive Branch? This remains nearly as hotly debated in 2012 as it was in 1865. Many scholars have put forth the idea that Booth was attempting to buy the Confederacy time to regroup, but does this reason apply to Powell as well?
Some sources believe this to be true. However, if Powell was such an ardent Confederate, then why did he suddenly desert his cavalry unit and take the oath of allegiance? William Doster, Powell’s attorney, attempted to make the case that Powell was mentally unstable and therefore incapable of making moral decisions. However, toward the end of his trial Powell told authorities in a interview that what he most regretted was going back to the Surratt’s boardinghouse because it subsequently led to the arrest of Mary Surratt, who he had wanted to protect. Powell also was said to have shown signs of remorse and wished to apologize to Seward. This in conjunction with his time assisting the wounded in Gettysburg, would seem to contradict any claims of insanity or moral incapability.
It is more likely that Powell was acting out of pure self interest. Perhaps Powell was in search of a moment of glory. When he first left home to fight he did so because he believed he was protecting his rights and because he did not want to miss out on the events he believed were going to define his generation. The fact that Powell reenlisted twice during the war, once after he had found a safe haven in Baltimore with Branson, would seem to support the idea that Powell felt some s
ort of compulsion to fight. While he originally wished to rejoin his Florida regiment, Powell settled with Colonel Mosby’s Virginia cavalry unit, suggesting it was the fight Powell was after not a gallant notion of brotherhood. Furthermore, it was after an embarrassing loss against Union forces that Powell decided to desert and take the oath of allegiance under the assumed name of Payne, further distancing himself from the dishonor of the loss. Moreover, the alias Powell used while assisting Booth was likely meant to be his safety net. Should their plans succeed he could reveal his true self and bask in the glory of being a savior of the South, should they fail he could used the alias to hide his shame from his family. Thus, Powell likely joined with Booth for the very basic human reason of self interest.
Fortenbaugh, Robert. “The College During the War.” In The history of Gettysburg College, 1832-1932 by Samuel Hefelbower, 178-229. York, Pa.: Gettysburg College, 1932.
Holzer, Harold, and Edward Steers. The Lincoln assassination conspirators their confinement and execution, as recorded in the letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009.
Oldroyd, Osborn H.. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln; flight, pursuit, capture, and punishment of the conspirators,. Washington, D.C.: O.H. Oldroyd, 1901.
Prior, Leon. “Lewis Payne, Pawn of John Wilkes Booth.” The Flordia Historical Quartly 43, no. 1 (1964): 1-20.
Steers, Edward. The trial: the assassination of President Lincoln and the trial of the conspirators. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
Steers, Edward. The Lincoln assassination encyclopedia. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010