Gus Howell—Smarmy, Arrogant Blockade Runner and Murderer or Effective-Behind-the-Lines Confederate Operative?
Joseph E. “Rick” Smith III and William L. Richter
Ever since the 1988 publication of the landmark study of the Confederate Secret Service and its role in the Lincoln Assassination, Come Retribution,1 the topic of Civil War spies and their contributions to the War effort has become a topic of increased interest among buffs and historians of the War for Southern Independence. Building upon pioneer works by such historians and popular writers historians such as James D. Horan, John Bakeless, Harnett T. Kane, Albert Castel, Merriwether Stuart, and John W. Headley,2 more recent scholars including Alan Axelrod, E. C. Fishel, Jane Singer, Randall A. Haines, Edward Steers, Jr., Rick Stelnick, and William Tidwell,3 have probed the secretive, behind-the-lines activity of men and women on both sides–operatives Alan Pinkerton, Kate Warne, Walter W. Bowie, Rose Greenhow, Belle Boyd, John Yates Beall, Elizabeth Van Lew, Thomas W. Hines, Philip Henson, Sarah Slater, and George N. Sanders, to name but a few.
One of the hot-beds for spy activity was Southern Maryland, the region below Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, stretching to the Potomac River. A center for wartime pro-Confederate sympathy, just how many Confederate agents existed in Maryland is hard to fathom, as recent scholarship by David W. Gaddy demonstrates.4 But some Confederate operatives, while not invisible, usually went unnoticed by Yankee authorities as inconvenient gadflies, unless their activities demanded more attention. One such nuisance was Gus Howell.5
Born in Charles County at Bryantown in 1835, Howell was listed in the 1850 Manuscript Federal Census of Bryantown Election District as Gustavus, a farm laborer, age fifteen years. Ten years later in the Manuscript Federal Census of 1860, he was again listed, this time in the Aquasco Election District Eight as twenty-four year-old Gustavus Howell, hotel keeper residing in Woodville, with a forty-five year old woman, Martha Curtis, presumably a slave, and her two children, both female, ages eight and six, all black, listed as members of the household.6
Because of the Republican take-over of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1859 (made possible by the switch of Maryland representative Henry Winter Douglas from the Whig-American party to Republican party), and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the Lower South seceded in early 1861. The ensuing Republican majority in Senate of the United States, followed by the firing on Ft. Sumter and the secession of the Upper South, and Maryland’s forceful retention in the Union after the Baltimore Pratt Street Riot, caused the pro-Southern Howell to cross the Potomac in June 1861 and join a Confederate cavalry unit at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the twenty-fifth of that month.
With Howell’s enlistment in the Confederate army came a new issue—his name. All throughout the antebellum years, Howell seemed to be Gustavus Howell, or Gus. But his name as entered on his enlistment papers read: Augustus S. Howell. It was a low grade mystery that seemed of no account until he was compelled to testify at the military trial of the Lincoln assassination co-conspirators in 1865. But this mystery persisted during the war, too. When Mary Surratt introduced Howell to her nosy boarder, Louis Weichmann, she called him “Mr. Spencer.” Martha Murray, proprietress of the Herndon House, another Rebel boarding facility like Mary Surratt’s in the District of Columbia, knew him as either Howell or Spencer, depending upon the occasion. The Confederate army knew him a Pvt. A. S. Howell. The federals knew him by various names and initials throughout the war.
During the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial, the Yankees wanted the absolute truth as regarded his name. Howell, to the astonishment of the judge advocate, said he really did not know! He admitted that he gave to the court the name A. S. Howell, “I believe.” What did the Surratts call him? “My proper name, I suppose.” What did A. S. stand for? “Augustus Howell.” What was the S for? “Spencer.” Was Spencer your name? “It is one of my many names,” Howell retorted. “I was not particular in the name.” Then he admitted his friends called him “Spencer,” in the Southern manner of using middle names, rather than given ones. Well, the court wanted to know, what were you called in infancy, Augustus Spencer Howell? “I do not know,” came the reply. Do you know your own name? “That is my name.” Did you give that to the court? “I gave you the name of A. S. Howell,” but Howell admitted he wrote it “short, A.S. Howell.” Then he said he rarely used “Spencer.” But he also used “Gustavus” occasionally. Finally the exasperated judge advocate asked what name he used to run the blockade. “Howell, generally” came the reply. Gus Howell definitely knew how to obfuscate the keenest Yankee lawyers with consummate skill.7
Waiting for horses and reinforcements that seemed never to come, A. S. Howell’s company, led by Capt. R. Snowden Andrews, “seceded” from their parent unit and became the First Maryland Independent Battery of Artillery (CSA) or, as it was commonly known, the Baltimore Flying Artillery. There were four sections of two guns apiece (the unit had eight guns total, four Napoleon 12 pounders for close-in work and 4 3 inch rifled guns for long-range fire) and Howell served in section two as a private, which meant he passed ammunition and helped load one of the Napoleons for firing.
The battery was stationed near Fredericksburg and helped the Confederates block free access up the Potomac until the Rebel army retreated to the Virginia Peninsula between the James and York rivers to defend Richmond, the new Confederate capital, against an invasion from Fortress Monroe by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s massive Army of the Potomac.
The First Maryland Battery fought briefly with the Texas Brigade at Williamsburg and under Maj. Gen. James Longstreet at Seven Pines on the Nine Mile Road, where the battery was credited with displaying “extraordinary military tactics and heroism,” a Civil War period euphemism for getting the living daylights knocked out of themselves by the enemy. These actions were the only battles in which Howell fought for Southern independence.8
As Howell and the Baltimore Flying Artillery joined Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill’s “Light Division” on the front line as big gun support for the infantry in General Robert E. Lee’s battles of the Seven Days, the Marylander became so sick with an attack of diarrhea that he was carried to the hospital on June 25, unable to move, much less fight. It was probably just as well. The Baltimore Flying Artillery was in the vanguard of the fighting and was shot to pieces, once again.
Meanwhile, Howell had physical problems of his own that would plague him the rest of his life and lead to a premature death. On April 26, 1862 he was admitted to the Episcopal Hospital at Williamsburg with chronic diarrhea, a symptom of typhoid fever or “camp fever” as the Civil War surgeons described it. Typhoid fever was caused by salmonella typically spread by flies that flew from latrines to open food that was served to troops and for those who succumbed to it, resulted in the sufferer experiencing an especially putrid, green form of diarrhea called “pea soup” and dangerous dehydration. As the Confederate army was retreating before McClellan’s offensive thrust toward Richmond, Howell seems to have rejoined his battery for the delaying action fought before the city on May 5 and then retreated with the rest of the army to the trench works around Richmond.
But in late June, just before Lee’s offensive attack that marked the beginning of the Seven Days fighting, a battalion doctor sent Howell back to one of the military hospitals at Richmond. Here he received a diagnosis, in addition to the recurrent typhoid fever, of erysipelas, a serious bacterial skin infection, and phthisis, a fancy name for tuberculosis, known more commonly in the nineteenth century as consumption. Howell remained in the hospital until July 16, when he was discharged from the Confederate service because of “general disability.” He received back pay of $129, less expenses.9
When Howell got back to Southern Maryland is not known, but he soon became involved in the popular pastime of funneling local Maryland recruits into the various companies, batteries, and regiments serving with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. One of those engaged in the same activity about this time was a George Malcolm Emack. Evidently Emack, a native of Locust Grove in upper Prince Georges County, was picked up in lower Maryland by a roving patrol of Federal provost marshals (a common occurrence in that part of the state). While in the process of being escorted to the Old Capitol Prison in the District of Columbia, Emack was held for a short time at the T.B. Hotel, where he pulled out a concealed knife and stabbed one of his guards and broke free. The event was blamed on the man whose name Emack gave to his captors when arrested—his fellow recruiter and blockade runner, Augustus Howell. It was an event which would erroneously plague Howell’s reputation to this present day.10
Howell’s fortunes worsened on October 24, 1862, when Federal naval personnel of the U.S. schooner, Matthew Vassar, arrested him and five others while they crossed the Potomac. Howell was accused of “transporting rebels from Maryland to join the rebel Army” and as a result was lodged in the Old Capitol Prison. He was released on parole and rearrested on January 29, 1863, at Upper Marlboro for parole violation— essentially meaning that he was doing more recruiting and blockade running. This time, in just a matter of weeks, Howell managed to get Col. Lafayette C. Baker, whose detectives had arrested him, to exchange him for a prisoner of equal value held by the Confederates.11
After his prison stint, Howell went back to what he knew best, running the blockade. Evidently he collected drafts (checks) from Maryland soldiers who wanted them sent home to wives and families. For a fee, Howell crossed the Potomac and deposited the checks of the designated parties to their bank accounts. The Confederate government took special note of Howell’s abilities as a trusted and effective blockade runner and assigned him to escort their premier female operative, Sarah Slater, as she carried dispatches between Richmond and Montreal, the Confederacy’s secret service headquarters in Canada.12
It was in this capacity that Howell is best known to modern Lincoln Assassination readers.13 Escorting Slater, he traveled with her to New York City and returned to the Surratt townhouse in Washington, D.C., to await her return from Canada and a summons to meet her in downtown Manhattan. While awaiting Slater’s summons, Howell stayed at Surratt’s and, while there, met the ubiquitous, nosy busybody, and self-confessed Confederate sympathizer, Louis Weichmann. While Howell and Weichmann traded lies with each other, Howell taught him a simple box code cipher used by both sides to codify messages of lesser importance. Weichmann claimed that he used it to code and decode poems with a fellow clerk at the War Department’s Office of Prisoner Exchange, where they were employed. Howell maintained that Weichmann used it to convey confidential messages concerning numbers and conditions of Confederate soldiers held in Northern prison camps.
In late March, Howell was at the Surratt Tavern a dozen miles below the District while waiting for Slater to return. The Confederates had been worried that Howell was being watched by Federal detectives and in danger of being arrested along with Slater. So in Howell’s place, John H. Surratt, Jr., was sent to New York City to pick up and escort Slater to the tavern. Then Howell would take her the rest of the way to Richmond. To help Surratt identify her (she was exceedingly beautiful, and Surratt’s heart throbbed with the very thought of being close to her, as did most men’s) she stood in front of A. T. Stewart’s Department Store (one of the first and finest in the country and patronized by the likes of Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln), carrying a horsehair switch which she held intertwined though alternate fingers.14
But when Surratt and Slater got to the tavern below Washington, his mother announced that Gus Howell had been arrested at the tavern on March 25, the evening before, and taken to the Old Capitol Prison once again. This circumstance forced Surratt to escort her all the way to Richmond, much to his prurient pleasure (“I have women on the brain,” he confessed to livery stable owner Brooks Stabler, when he sent his rented team and buggy back by another person). But the trip proved to be too much for the former seminary student as he found Slater to be as tough as any Confederate soldier and a born killer.15
Meanwhile, refusing to take an oath of future loyalty to the union, Howell rotted in the Old Capitol until July 8, when he finally yielded to the facts of the Confederacy’s demise and the recent execution of the Lincoln co-conspirators and swore to be a good Yankee citizen.16 He was released the next day. But this was after he was called into face the military commission trying the accused assassins to attest to Mary Surratt’s myopia. On the stand, Howell proved to be as slippery as the proverbial eel. He admitted to nothing beyond Mary Surratt’s poor eyesight. He did not know his name, or how he got it; was vague about his activities during the war, beyond carrying money to Maryland families of Confederate soldiers a couple of times; and seemed to be incapable of remembering anything else. While completely exasperating the prosecuting and defense attorneys, he probably did Mary Surratt little good as he was arrested at her tavern and was an admitted, although disabled, former Confederate soldier. But behind the scenes he did his best to implicate the turncoat Weichmann, now testifying against his former landlady.17
After his release from the Old Capitol Prison, Howell faded into the shadows once again. It is not known how he occupied himself for the few brief years which remained to his life, or where exactly that he resided. It is known that he had relatives living near the Navy Yard and it is possible that he may have spent time with them, but this is not known for certain. This lack of information is certainly in keeping with Howell’s elusive and mysterious wartime career and is indicative of his efficiency and effectiveness in his capacity as an agent of the Confederacy. Far from “smarmy” and “arrogant,” as characterized by a recent historian, or a murderer as falsely accused by contemporaries, surely “secretive, elusive and effective” were the characteristics of Howell and most men and women like him who served between and behind the lines during the war.18
In 1869, Augustus Howell would suffer a final bout of typhoid fever to which he would succumb. Howell’s death notice, or obituary, which appeared in the December 24,1869, edition of The Prince Georgian, in column 2 of page 2, reads as follows: “Died, in Washington, on Friday, the 10th instant, Augustus Howell, formerly of Charles, but for the last ten years a citizen of this county.” He was interred at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. on December 12, 1869. The cause of death cited on his burial certificate was “bilious typhus,” his old wartime ailment.19
1. William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David W. Gaddy, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1988).
2. James D. Horan, Confederate Agent: A Discovery in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1954); John Bakeless, Spies of the Confederacy (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970); Harnett T. Kane, Spies for the Blue and Gray (Garden City, N. Y.: Hanover House, 1954); Albert Castel, “Samuel Ruth: Union Spy,” Civil War Times Illustrated, 14 (February 1976), 36-45, and Meriwether Stuart, “Samuel Ruth and General R. R. Lee: Disloyalty and the Line of Supply to Fredericksburg,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 71 (January 1963), 35-109; Rick Stelnick, Dixie Reckoning (forthcoming); John W. Headley, Confederate Operations in Canada and New York (New York: Time-Life Books, 1984).
3. Alan C. Axelrod, War between the Spies: A History of Espionage during the Civil War (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992); Fishel, E. C., The Secret War for The Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co, 1996); Jane Singer, The Confederate Dirty War: Arson, Bombings, Assassination and Plots for Chemical and Germ Attacks on the Union (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2005); Randall A. Haines, “The Notorious George N. Sanders: His Career and Role in the Lincoln Assassination” (Unpublished manuscript, in the James O. Hall Library, Surratt House Museum, Clinton, Md., hereinafter cited as JOH); Edward Steers, Jr., “Terrorism–1860’s Style,” North & South, 5 (May 2002): 14 ff; William A. Tidwell, April ’65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1995); James O. Hall, “Veiled Lady: The Sage of Sarah Slater,” North & South, III (August 2000), 34-44.
4. See Gaddy’s series of articles, “The Surratt Tavern–A Confederate ‘Safe House’?” Kauffman (ed.), In Pursuit of . . . , 129-30; “Gray Cloak and Dagger,” Civil War Times Illustrated, 14 (July 1975), 20-27; “William Norris and the Confederate Signal and Secret Service,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 70 (Summer 1975), 167-88; and “John Williamson Palmer: Confederate Agent,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 83 (Summer 1988), 98-110. Most illustrative as to how secret such activity could be is in his “Confederate Spy Unmasked: An Afterward,” Manuscripts, 30 (Spring 1978), 94. See also, Daniel L. Sutherland, “’Altamont’ of the Tribune: John Williamson Palmer in the Civil War,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 78 (Spring 1983), 54-66. For the familial ties of Howell and other Confederate agents in Maryland, see the excellent study by John Stewart, Confederate Spies at Large: The Lives of Lincoln Conspirator Thomas Harbin and Charlie Russell (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2007), passim, especially 101-102.
5. Howell’s habit of “flying under the radar” is evident in the standard, meager sketch of him in Edward Steers, The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia (New York: Perennial, 2010), 286-87.
6. The census leaves the question of miscegenation technically unanswered, but weighted in the negative, so far as census enumerator Thomas H. Harbin was concerned, or he would have listed the children as mulatto, the adopted convention in the South. See Federal Manuscript Census for 1850 (Maryland, Prince Georges County, Bryantown Election District, Federal Manuscript Census for 1860 (Maryland, Prince Georges County, Aquasco Election District #8), as excerpted by ancestry.com. Howell’s Hotel is shown on the map of Woodville in Simon J. Martinet, Martinet’s Map of Prince Georges County, Maryland 1861 (Philadelphia: T. S. Wagner, 1861), 18. The picture of Howell’s Hotel shown in his file in the William A. Tidwell papers, drawer 8, JOH, is incorrect—it actually portrays Harbin’s Hotel in Piscataway.
7. Manuscript of the Testimony of Augustus S. Howell, 215-19, with Howell enclosures at ancestry.com
9. Copies of Howell’s medical and discharge papers are located in William A. Tidwell papers, drawer 8, JOH. The description of the diseases comes from Dr. Robert L. Smith, M.D., of Mills River, N.C. to Joseph E “Rick” Smith III, email sent July 24, 2011, in possession of the authors. For a period piece on the conditions facing Civil War soldiers like Howell, see Joseph K. Barnes and John Moore (comps.), The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (3 pts., 6 vols., Washington: Government Printing Office, 1870-1888), especially Pt. 2, Vol.1 (Medical History, Diarrhea and Dysentery), Pt. 3, Vol. 1 (Medical History, Camp Fevers, etc.).
10. Emack’s life story is revealed in the in Federal Manuscript Census for 1850 (Maryland, Prince Georges County, Bladensburg District), 1860 (Maryland, Prince Georges County, First [Beltsville] District), and 1880 (Kentucky, Woodford County, Versailles District), as excerpted by ancestry.com. A good biography of Emack, a much decorated officer in the First Maryland cavalry and a feared provost marshal at Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond, is at findagrave,com. Present-day correspondence and further information on Emack can be found at Lincoln-Assassination.com, Discussions, All Things Lincoln Assassination, topic: Augustus Howell and Emack.
11. James O. Hall, “The Saga of Sara Slater [orig., “Lady in the Veil,” Maryland Independent (Waldorf), June 25, July 2, 1975],” in Michael W. Kauffman (ed.), In Pursuit of . . . (Clinton, Md: The Surratt Society, 1990), 69-88 at 78. See the letters from U.S. Provost Marshal, Seventh District of Maryland, Phelby Clark, January 24, 30, 1863, to Col. Lafayette C. Baker, concerning expenses needed to pay witnesses against Howell, drawer # 8, Tidwell papers, JOH.
12. See ibid., 66-88, and Hall, “Veiled Lady: The Sage of Sarah Slater,” 34-44; and Tonia Smith, “[Sara Slater],” (August 17, 1997), at users.nbn.net/tj1. The newest and most intriguing interpretation of Sarah Slater is John F. Stanton, “Some Thoughts on Sarah Slater,” Surratt Courier, 32 (February 2007), 3-6. Stanton has at last located and clarified Slater’s later life. See Lincoln-Assassination.com, Discussions, All Things Lincoln Assassination, topics: Slater/Surratt Relationship; the Lady in the Veil.
13. See, e.g., Tidwell, Hall, and Gaddy, Come Retribution, 213, 415; Lloyd Lewis, The Assassination of Lincoln: History and Myth (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 200; Charles Higham, Murdering Mr. Lincoln: A New Detection of the 19th Century’s Most Famous Crime (Beverly Hills: New Millennium Press, 2004), 194, 200-201; Michael Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2004), 168, 192, 209; Kate Clifford Larson, The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 56, 57, 58, 59, 72, 73, 126, 154, 212; William L. Richter, The Last Confederate Heroes: The Final Struggle for Southern Independence & The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (2 vols., Laurel: Burgundy, 2008), I, 286-88, 341, 345-48; II, 10, 20, 37-38, 102-103, 235, 360, 365.
14. The running of drafts for Maryland soldiers is mentioned in Helen Jones Campbell, The Case for Mrs. Surratt (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943), 68, and detailed in full in Howell’s manuscript testimony before the military commission trying the Lincoln conspirators, 234-39, included with Howell’s records, ancestry.com. In general, see Elizabeth Stegner Trindall, Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy (Gretna: Pelican Publishing Co., 1996) 92, 96-98, Campbell, Case for Mrs. Surratt, 74; Louis J Weichmann, A True Story of Abraham Lincoln and of the Conspiracy of 1865 (Edited by Floyd E. Risvold. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), 85-86, 120-22; George S. Bryan, The Great American Myth: The True Story of Lincoln’s Murder (Chicago: Americana House, 1990), 237-38, 245.
15.The arrest is detailed in various document copies from Microfilm M-374, Reel 194, National Archives and Records Administration, Unfiled Papers and Slips Belonging in Compiled Confederate Service Records, in Augustus Howell file, James O. Hall papers, JOH. For Surratt’s eye opener on Slater, see William L. Richter, Confederate Freedom Fighter: The Story of John H. Surratt & the Plots against Lincoln (Laurel, Md.: Burgundy, 2007), 146 (women on the brain), 147-52.
16. Tidwell papers, drawer # 8, JOH.
17. Howell’s manuscript testimony before the military commission trying the Lincoln conspirators, passim, included with Howell’s records, ancestry.com. See also, Larson, Assassin’s Accomplice, 164-67; Kauffman, American Brutus, 357-58, 361-62, for Howell’s testimony probably harming Mrs. Surratt than helping her. On Howell’s attempt to implicate Weichmann, see H. Donald Winkler’s, Lincoln and Booth: More Light on the Conspiracy (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2003), 223. Also of interest, Thomas R. Turner, “Did Weichmann Turn State’s Evidence to Save Himself?” Lincoln Herald, 81 (Winter 1979), 265-67; and Joseph George Jr., “Nature’s First Law: Louis J. Weichmann and Mrs. Surratt,” Civil War History, 28 (1982), 101-27, especially 111-12. Weichmann, who got out of his predicament by singing like a controlled songbird, as the Federals demanded, has had his statements against Howell preserved in William C. Edwards and Edward Steers, Jr., The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence [a print version of the Lincoln Assassination Suspects file on Microfilm M-599, 12 Rolls, National Archives and Records Administration] (Urbanna: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 1318, 1324, 1327, 1329. See also Larson, Assassin’s Accomplice, 186.
18. Larson, Assassin’s Accomplice, 58 (smarmy and arrogant); discussion at Lincoln-Assassination.com, Discussions, All Things Lincoln Assassination, topic: Augustus Howell and Emack (accused murderer); and Gaddy, “Confederate Spy Unmasked: An Afterward,” 94 (secret, elusive, and effective).
19. See death notice and burial in Congressional Cemetery, with documents in ancestry.com. See also, communication of James O. Hall to Custodian, Congressional Cemetery, January 10, 1869, listing plot number, drawer #8, Tidwell papers, JOH.