Jane Phillips column: The missing link in the Lincoln conspiracy had Kinston ties
A few years before the Civil War, teenager Sarah Antoinette Gilbert, called “Nettie” by her family, arrived in Kinston from Middleboro, Conn. She was accompanied by her father (a jeweler) and her brothers. Nettie's father and her brothers stayed at one of the town’s hotels while he found a place for Nettie at the Campbell House on Bright Street.
Nettie was a very pretty teenager and graced with a delightful personality. She spoke French fluently as her parents were of French descent. A year or so later, Mr. Gilbert found a place for Sarah to live in New Bern. It was there she met Rowan Slater, the local dance instructor. He operated the Dance Academy where he taught the dances of the period.
Nettie found him exciting, fell in love and they soon married. The Civil War started, and the Slaters found themselves in Goldsboro where Rowan worked as an agent selling supplies to the Confederate Army. It wasn’t long before he enlisted in the army and their marriage was destined to end.
As time passed, Nettie wanted to see her mother who was living in New York. She traveled to Richmond to get a pass to travel north. It was about this time she began using her given name of Sarah. While in Richmond, Sarah came to the attention of the Confederacy’s Secretary of War. He was intrigued by her beauty, intellect, spunky attitude and the fact she could speak French.
He determined that she would make an excellent courier for the Confederacy to travel as a French woman in and out of Montreal, Canada where the CSA maintained an office that interacted diplomatically with European countries carrying on clandestine affairs. She could use her linguistic skills to pass herself off as a French woman.
Sarah was about to embark on the adventure of her life.
For more than three months she was actively involved in her courier and spy activities. She was known to frequent the Mary Surratt Boarding House in Washington. Later on, people recalled seeing her in the company of John Wilkes Booth on occasions at that location.
Sarah made several trips to Montreal. By the beginning of April 1865, it was apparent Richmond was doomed to fall. The decision was made to remove all the money remaining in the Confederate coffers earmarked for clandestine operations out of Canada to the safety of England. Sarah was given the job of taking this message to Canada and arranging for the shipment. She left the Confederate capital in the company of John Surratt bound for New York and on to Canada.
General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, and the war, for the most part, was at an end. Less than a week later, on April 14, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Booth.
Booth was captured for the murder of Lincoln and an investigation ensued with much of it centering around the people that frequented the Surette’s Boarding House. During the trial of Mary Surette and others, the name of Sarah Gilbert Slater, also known as “the French Lady” kept coming up.
One of the most common theories is that Lincoln was the victim of a Confederate plot. This theory arose before Lincoln had even died, and it was supported by coded letters found in Booth's room which tied him to the Confederacy.
A shadowy figure lends credence to this theory. A young Confederate agent known as "Mrs. Slater" was implicated by several witnesses, and an effort was initiated to find her but she was never found to testify at the trial.
Sarah Antoinette “Nettie” Gilbert Slater, who once walked the streets of Kinston, became known as the “Missing Link in the Lincoln Conspiracy." No one seems to know what Sarah’s real role was, if any at all. Research has found that after the war Sarah spent many years of her life in New York with other family members. She married several more times.
The possessions mentioned in her will indicates she must have lived a comfortable life.
By the way, this writer has found no report of whatever became of the Confederate money and gold that Sarah Gilbert and John Surette went to Canada to save.
Sources for this piece include:
- 1860 Census of Lenoir County North Carolina
- "The Disappearance of Sarah Slater: Confederate Spy and Conspirator" by Rebecca Beatrice Brooks
- "The Travels of Sarah Slater" by Madeline Maurer on Prezi
- "The Conspiracy Between John Wilkes Booth and the Union Army to Assassinate" by Robert Arnold
- "Sarah Slater" by Tonia J. Smith
- “The Saga of Sarah Slater.” Reprinted in In Pursuit of: Continuing Research in the Field of the Lincoln Assassination (Surratt Society, 1990) By James O. Hall
- “A Mystery No Longer: The Lady in the Veil.” Surratt Courier, August 2011 and October 2011. By John F. Stanton
- Will and probate file for Sarah A. Spencer, Surrogate’s Court, Dutchess County, New York
- "Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles" by H. Donald Winkler
- "John Surratt: Rebel, Lincoln Conspirator, Fugitive" by Frederick Hatch
- "The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln" by Kate Clifford Larson