Frederick Augusta Aiken, American Lawyer, Journalist, Soldier

Abe Lincoln sketch by Wendy Harty February 2021

He was there! Frederick Augusta Aiken was there! The box seats overlooking the stage in the theatre had better views and cost $10 each. Frederick was there celebrating, his lovely wife, Sarah, by his side with two friends from the civil war, They were celebrating the end of the war after four long years and much rejoicing was happening as they watched a live play “Our American Cousin”. Or so he was portrayed in the movie called The Conspirator. So, the question I had to ask myself was, “How did he come to defend the most hated woman in the United States of America by May of 1865?” which led to the next question, “Was Frederick, my third cousin a Union hero or a Confederate loving traitor?”

The theatre was owned by John T. Ford and he printed new handbills when he learned a high ranking government official would visit his theatre that evening. The box seats offered separation from the general audience but the officials were an additional drawing attraction for the general audience. There is much written about this night including that a walnut rocker was added to the box, along with a velvet covered sofa and cane chairs.

I will eventually get to who was in the theatre box but let’s explore Frederick Aiken.

Picture from findagrave.com Fredercik Augusta (Argyle) Aiken 1832-1878

Anyone following my blogs knows I wanted to write the novel ricocheting around my head about my fifth great grandmother, Keziah Atwood Gibbs. In one of my early blogs I imagined a young Keziah slipping out of bed, untangling her limbs from a baby sister, named Jerusha to watch her father write his will. Jerusha (Keziah’s sister) married John Aiken. Jerusha’s son Rev Solomon was the father to Solomon S. who was the father of Frederick Augustus Aiken.

Frederick was born September 20, 1832 in Lowell, Massachusetts. His grandfather Rev Solomon Aiken was a renowned clergyman in Dracut, Mass. who had also been a Revolutionary War soldier. Frederick and his parents Solomon Jr and mother Susan Rice Aikens left Massachusetts for Vermont and arrived there by 1845 where his sister, Frances Caroline was born in Hardwick, Vermont. Frederick helped on the farm and was educated. He attended Saint Johnsbury Academy and then graduated second in his class at Middlebury College in 1857. He married in an Episcopalian ceremony, the very well educated Sarah Olivia Weston daughter of Judge Edmund Weston, jurist and educator. In the Judge’s home, the center of scholarship and where the leading men of Vermont gathered and sought his influence, Frederick gained the daughter’s hand. Sarah was the second female to study and attend Harvard University and was acquainted with nine languages. The obituary for F.A. Aiken December 24, 1878 reads in part, “A protégé of John G. Saxe, who owned the Burlington Sentinel had unbounded confidences in his abilities.” (An aside: John Godfrey Saxe had written the Six Blind Men and the Elephant in the blog of the same name was also my relative) The young farmer from Vermont became a young inexperienced attorney but not before his wedding when he was made editor of the paper and his name replaced Saxe’s on the letterhead.

Saxe ran for Governor of Vermont two times and his friendship with Aiken probably influenced his non-interference policy on slavery. Also of influence was his grandfather, Solomon Aiken Sr. when he wrote in April 1861, “My grandfather, in youth a soldier of the Revolution – a warm friend of Jefferson and for a time, among the regular clergy of Massachusetts the only prominent defender of civil and religious liberty – the consistent political teachings of my father, together with my own political studies impregnably fortify my belief in pure democracy…” In July 1857 Frederick was Secretary to the Vermont Democratic Convention. He reported in his paper and expressed sentiments that the union was of more value and needed to unite; he believed in nonintervention in slavery and supported the Constitutions right to a vote on the issue.

Sarah joined her husband in his interests in writing. She was accomplished, publishing stories poems and reviews for Mr. Saxe. Sarah encouraged her husband in his political thirst. The Aikens were living in Washington, D.C. during the election of 1860 and Frederick served as Secretary of the National Democratic Executive Committee, stumping for Buchanan’s vice president John C. Breckinridge. This pro-slavery platform split the Democrats into two and Abraham Lincoln would win for the Republicans. Frederick spoke to a crowd of 1200 in Maryland and worked from morning to midnight day after day during the campaign. He made important alliances with powerful political and formed his reputation as a Copperhead. Copperheads also known as Peace Democrats opposed the American Civil War and wanted a peace settlement with the Confederates. Following the defeat of the Democrats, Frederick knew that inevitably the Confederate States would secede. The Aikens were convinced the Republicans were ruining the traditional world they loved. The Copperhead motto was “To maintain the Constitution as it is, and to restore the Union as it was.”

Frederick was offered a position of Secretary to the Interior by Buchanan and head of the Confederate Secret Service in Canada. He had to give the positions up when Lincoln was inaugurated. He wrote a letter offering to be a war correspondent for the south, stating he had no military knowledge suiting him to the army. Was this a rouge, as a spy? His friend Frederick Lander and three friends made a daring ride though hostile secessionists from Maryland to Washington. Lander escaped and completed the mission but Aiken “went south in the interest of the government, and was captured by angry Confederate authorities. Showing he was a staunch Democrat he was released. His friendship with Lander led to his most interesting early Civil War engagements, spying for the Lincoln Administration. Frederick was a natural fit for in order to be a successful undercover spy he needed to possess a southern-sympathizing reputation. When Lander recommended his friend he wrote: “Mr. Aiken is a fine correspondent, a collegiate graduate and excellent clerk. He is the ablest man I know in this service. He had a close chance for his neck, disposed to remain in Washington after deceiving the secessionists.” Frederick was issued passes around the city and sent letters enumerating the location and entrenchments of the enemy. He influenced important decisions and obtained for a democratic Governor Isaac Stevens of Washington Territory, a promotion by Lincoln by detailing his excellent military experience. Pinkerton took over the secret service and derailed Aiken’s career but he accepted a captain’s commission in Col. James B. Swain’s regiment of cavalry. In 1862 Frederick was tasked with protecting the capital city and recording the action of the division. He next found active duty as an aide to General William F. Smith during the fighting at Warwick Creek on April 16, 1862. He defended Smith against a charge of drunkenness. Aiken’s wrote his report detailing his activities during the Battle of Williamsburg. He “transmitted and delivered important orders and messages… redoubling the energies of my own horse by a vigorous spur I reached General Hancock with reports we had full possession of the field, the enemy’s dead are lying thickly on the ground in front of our lines” for which Hancock credited Frederick and others for the successes of the day. A story retold claimed he had two horses shot out from under him and Aiken would claim compensation for loss of horse and equipment.

Frederick’s military service ended and in 1863-64 with war still raging on, he turned back to journalism. December 6, 1864, he announced a partnership with his friend and Aiken and Clampitt, Attorneys and Counsellers at Law was formed. Aiken was poised to continue working with the Democrats, his new law firm and journalist pursuits. During the fall 1865 and winter of 1866 he defended petty larceny cases of stealing boots, flour, watches. Frederick was teamed with Reverdy Johnson as he was admitted to plead before the United States Supreme Court. Assisted by Aiken, Reverdy won the case which declared the law unconstitutional that lawyers be disbarred who did not take the “loyalty oath”. He wished for an appointment as Consul General at Londonderry, Ireland. Instead the notorious copperhead politician was appointed a clerkship in the Treasury.

So to answer my two preceding questions. How did Frederick come to defend the most hated woman in the United States of America by May of 1865?” The popular version of the story is found in the movie, The Conspirator! In the movie Aiken with his wife and friends watched in horror as an unconscious President Abe Lincoln was taken to a nearby house and died the next morning. They watched Booth jump from the box seat onto the stage, break an ankle bone and escape. The idealistic young man, a war hero for the Union, reluctantly defended the widow Mary Surratt, who was hanged for the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Abe Lincoln was attending the Ford Theater when John Wilkes Booth came behind him in the theatre box and shot him. One bullet killed the President but not one man. Six co-conspirators lived and met at Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse, including her son John Jr. who had been doing espionage and conspiracy, hand delivering clandestine messages for the Confederates. Dragged from her boardinghouse at midnight, her lawyer was Reverdy Johnson. Reverdy left the defense of Mary Surratt to Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt who had recently set up a law practice in Washington. Frederick stood between the anger of a nation wanting vengeance of a woman accused of a heinous crime. The nation that Aiken loved had rules of law that granted even presumed presidential assassins legal representation. which led to the next question, “Was Frederick, my third cousin a Union hero or a Confederate loving traitor?” Bullets on a war field do not know Democrat or Republican and Frederick Augusta Aiken stood up in defense of his beliefs, and never changed his political ideals. He fought in a war he didn’t believe in, fought for a President he didn’t vote for and could have died for the Union he so strongly believed in!

1868 politics did not take precedence in Frederick and Sarah Aiken’s lives. The couple in their quest for parenthood went to a very published trial with humiliation and hopes dashed. Aiken had taken the child at the request from Ellen McCall her mother and for three years had treated the child, Cora Herminia Aiken, a petite, blue-eyed darling, as their own. Ellen kidnapped the child back and the newspapers read, “The Contested Child Case.” Ellen’s testimony said she became acquainted with Aiken “at a house where gentlemen met ladies”, he came to her room and became intimate and the child was given.” Ellen had changed her mind and objected to the Aikens as guardians of her child, as Frederick was not the proper person, he being a visitor to houses of ill-fame. Her defense attorney countered that if she was unfit to be the mother of the child since she was a prostitute then neither was Aiken for being in the habit of visiting them. Neither won and the child was placed in the Catholic St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum.

1868 Frederick once again campaigned for the Democrats but Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency. He was in two more controversies one the Treaty of Washington that was made public early and the other a Grant administration scandal where he obtained early news in relation to the secret service and reported it in his paper. He and his wife Sarah pulled of an April 1st hoax about a funeral and cremation of a young Hindu princess from the East in a lengthy, detailed, imaginative and thoroughly believable article about a pagan ceremony. There were many who believed the affair had taken place.

The experienced newspaperman was editor for nine different newspapers the last being The Washington Post. Frederick Augusta Aiken established a reputation as a very clever writer with dramatic criticism over the twenty years he was in Washington. In part his obituary stated: Where the deceased was so esteemed and loved, where our subject so actively worked for the Democratic cause and was one of the gallant few that dared to lift his voice in behalf of justice and right at the imminent risk of his life nobly undertook the defense of Mrs. Marry Surratt. Gifted, brilliant, kind-hearted and benevolent, his presence cast sunshine wherever it went with a cheering smile for the erring, a kind word for the struggling, an open hand for the unfortunate and a big free heart for those he loved. His manly appearance remembered, he was famous for doing his duty well, promptly and faithfully… in death humanity has lost one of its noblest ornaments. (Obituary, Washington Post, December 24, 1878)

Frederick A Aiken was buried in an unmarked grave December 26, 1878 in Oak Hill Cemetery, Georgetown (Formerly Surrattsville), District of Columbia. His sister gave birth to a baby boy and named him Fred. Sarah his widow supported herself as a correspondent and clerk in the Treasury Department until she joined him May 25, 1900.

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