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Powell was a Confederate soldier wounded at Gettysburg. He later served in Mosby's Rangers before working with the Confederate Secret Service in Maryland. He met Booth and was recruited into an unsuccessful plot to kidnap Lincoln. On April 14, 1865, Booth resolved to assassinate Lincoln, Seward, and Vice President Andrew Johnson.
Powell was given the task of killing Seward. He was assisted by David Herold, who guided Powell to Seward's home and kept horses ready for the escape. Powell severely injured Seward, and Herold fled before Powell could exit the Seward home. Powell lost his way in the city, and three days later arrived at a boarding house run by Mary Surratt, mother of co-conspirator John Surratt. By chance, the police were searching the house at that moment, and arrested Powell. Powell and three others, including Mary Surratt, were sentenced to death by a military tribunal and were executed at the Washington Arsenal.
Abraham Lincoln stated,
"So many plots have already been made against my life, that it is a real miracle that they have all failed, when we consider that the great majority of them were in the hands of the skillful Roman Catholic murderers, evidently trained by Jesuits. But can we expect that God will make a perpetual miracle to save my life? I believe not.
The Jesuits are so expert in those deeds of blood that Henry IV said it was impossible to escape them, and he became their victim, though he did all that could be done to protect himself. My escape from their hands, since the letter of the Pope to Jeff Davis has sharpened the million of daggers to pierce my breast, would be more than a miracle.
But just as the Lord heard no murmur from the lips of Moses when He told him that he had to die, before crossing the Jordan, for the sins of his people; so I hope and pray that He will hear no murmur from me when I fall for my nation’s sake.
The only two favors I ask of the Lord are, first that I may die for the sacred cause in which I am engaged, and that I am the standard bearer of the rights and liberties of my country.
The second favor I ask of God is, that my dear son, Robert, when I am gone, will be one of those who lift up that flag of liberty which will cover my tomb, and will carry it with honor and fidelity, to the end of his life, as his father did, surrounded by the millions who will be called with him to fight and die for the defense and honor of our country."