Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
As one who shared something of William A. Tidwell's professional experience and who has spent countless hours arguing the interpretation of facts with him, may I express disappointment with Thomas R. Turner's review of Tidwell's April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War (Kent, Ohio, and London, 1995), in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 103 (1995): 480-81. When a medical doctor, for example, turns to a historical personage or event and applies his professional knowledge and experience, historians often see new light shed on a perplexing subject (e.g., the "medical team" called upon by James I. Robertson, Jr., in his highly satisfactory explanation of the behavior of A. P. Hill in General A. P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior [New York, 1987]). But when a professional intelligence officer has the temerity to apply his knowledge and experience, it can be so easily dismissed as selective and subjective by an academically trained historian who lacks that peculiar background. As a result, he has difficulty following "the logic trail" that guides the professional intelligence officer. This produces an inherent skepticism that can blind one to "the facts of the matter." I believe such is the case with Turner and his review: Being "troubled" with Tidwell's thesis, as he construes it, Turner seems predisposed to dismiss it as preposterous, in the category of "conspiracy theorists."
Unlike the lawyer, the professional intelligence officer does not have to "prove it in court." Unlike the professional historian, he does not have to have incontrovertible (usually meaning documentary) evidence for all aspects of his conclusions. His work (usually sensitive to timeliness and impatient "consumers") requires him to be alert to patterns, to be able to detect the mosaic without all of its pieces (or, like the archaeologist, to reconstruct the pot without all of the shards). To me, this is the strengthand, yes, the weakness-of what Tidwell is doing. He aids history by saying, "Based upon my professional background and experience, I detect" so-and-so. Given the unique contribution of his research and perspective (and the absence of comparable study of the opposing chief executive), Tidwell's "thesis" deserves more careful consideration than it has received in some circles, especially those who think that Tidwell is projecting backward on innocent statesmen and soldiers ideas that are strictly modern. Ironically, this Texan from Virginia roots is tending to "prove" what Union authorities at the time (e.g., Edwin Stanton and Joseph Holt) believed but could not readily prove under the pressures of the moment. Let me illustrate from Turner's review:
1. Tidwell never suggests, as Turner writes, that "the object of the 1864 Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid on Richmond was to murder Jefferson Davis" (p. 480). At best, he would say "an" object. Freeing (and unleashing on Richmond) pent-up prisoners of war was certainly a prime objective.
This does not rest simply on the Dahlgren papers but is substantiated by evidence of an earlier, abortive (and, I suspect, overlooked) Wistar raid, sanctioned by Lincoln and Stanton. (See Joseph George, Jr., "`Black Flag Warfare': Lincoln and the Raids Against Richmond and Jefferson Davis," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 115 : 291-318, cited by Tidwell in April '65, p. 224 n. 13.)
2. The discovery, first noted in Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln (Jackson and London, 1988), of the American way of handling covert funding at the level of chief executive is substantiated in the recent publication of volume 8 of The Papers of Jefferson Davis by a note written by Mr. Davis himself to a State Department official: "The President cannot . . . draw warrants for money, except in the case of secret service as it is called and then he is bound to the strictest attention as the payments are made on his sole authority" (Haskell M. Monroe et al., eds., The Papers of Jefferson Davis [8 vols. to date; Baton Rouge, 1971- ], 8:175). In my own "Reflections on Come Retribution" (International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 3 [Winter 1989]: 567-73), I suggested that, given the background of Mr. Davis, perhaps he was following the model used by the United States. Substantiation of that possibility was subsequently provided by historian and Lincoln assassination specialist James 0. Hall (a coauthor of Come Retribution), who called to my attention a directive by President Lincoln to his secretary of state to disburse secret service funds-the very form followed by President Davis with his secretary of state (see Roy P. Basler et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln [9 vols.; New Brunswick, N.J., 1953-55], 4:320). Tidwell is, I believe, the first to point to disbursement of secret service funds as indicators of covert action (and to suggest to others that they might well study Mr. Lincoln's actions in that regard).
3. Turner is confused in his chronology and thus mistaken in his statements concerning Confederate demolition expert Thomas Harney and John Wilkes Booth. Booth was not sent in the place of Harney "to bring about the same result" (p. 481); rather, Tidwell asserts that Harney was dispatched after the failure of Booth to accomplish his mission, namely, the capture of the opposing commander in chief. The "slippery slope" of covert action had moved up a notch, due to mounting pressure on Richmond. The new objective, Tidwell suggests, was to "get 'em all" (not unlike Dahlgren), to decapitate the enemy's "national command authority," as we might call it today. The explanation that Turner failed to grasp, the "why," is that confusion, unprecedented chaos (today's term would be "disrupting the enemy command and control system"), was the objective-not simply the death of Lincoln (which probably could have been accomplished by a sharpshooter, as Turner suggests), but a collective target that, under the Constitution as then written, would have staggered the Union. (Turner's comparison to the peaceful deaths in office of two earlier presidents is specious and demonstrates his failure to comprehend Tidwell's reasoning.) In substantiation of his admittedly startling conclusion concerning Harney and his mission, Tidwell draws on the recently discovered "confession" by Booth's co-conspirator, George Atzerodt. Interestingly, Atzerodt quotes Booth as saying that "they" planned the demolition effort (an early case of "state-sanctioned terror bombing"?). This could be construed that, given his failure to capture Lincoln, Booth knew that "the A-Team" was being sent in with a harsher imperative, which he understood. Given the failure of that mission, through the capture of the demolition expert, it becomes more understandable why and how Booth acted-he decided on the spur-of-themoment to try and carry out what he understood to have been Richmond's new objective, mass confusion, giving the Confederacy a chance to regroup (and to redeem himself from his earlier failure).
4. Stanton may not have been excluded from Booth's "fall-back plan" as Turner thinks. Citing the work of Frank Abial Flower, Edwin McMasters Stanton: The Autocrat of Rebellion, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Akron, 1905), p. 279, Tidwell suggests that Stanton might well have been a target, along with the secretary of state, the vice-president, and the president (April '65, p. 175), thereby replicating what a planner might have hoped to find assembled in a White House meeting. The enormity of the objective shows why comparisons to assassination of an individual leader, even Lincoln, are irrelevant. Failure to grasp the difference is a fatal flaw in Turner's appreciation of Tidwell's thesis.
DAVID WINFRED GADDY Tappahannock, Virginia
Professor Turner responds: In his letter criticizing my review of April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War, David Gaddy claims that as an academically trained historian, I lack the ability to understand the special insights that an intelligence officer can bring to solving the events of the Lincoln assassination. While he is obviously not aware of it, I spent twenty-eight months on active duty with the United States Army, and although I was not commissioned in the intelligence branch, I served as executive officer with an Army Security Agency unit in Korea. I also had an additional twentyeight-year career in the Army Reserve, where I held major staff positions in both logistics and operations at a medical brigade headquarters and commanded a general hospital, which mobilized approximately seventy soldiers for Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. I retired as a full colonel in July 1995. I am hardly the neophyte in intelligence operations that Gaddy portrays me to be, and I was amused by his attempt to dismiss me in such a cavalier manner.
While Gaddy accuses me of misunderstanding Tidwell, the second paragraph of his letter reveals that he misunderstands my review. Gaddy writes that, unlike the lawyer, the intelligence officer does not have to "prove it in court," and unlike the professional historian, he does not "have to have incontrovertible (usually meaning documentary) evidence." This was exactly the point I was attempting to make, that Tidwell and Gaddy want the leeway to write history from the intelligence perspective, which they admit is a much looser standard, and then demand that historians accept their circumstantial case as proven. When anyone has the audacity to ask for more substantial evidence, they are surprised and offended.
Gaddy also claims a high degree of infallibility for the methods of intelligence. I would hardly be so arrogant as to make a similar claim for the historical method. Historians are constantly gathering new data and reinterpreting old data and changing their minds based on new documentation. That is what the historical method and historical research are all about. I would not deny that intelligence agents may sometimes have brilliant insights, but just like the historian they can be totally right, partially right, or totally wrong. The Battle of the Bulge, the Bay of Pigs, and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait come to mind as rather spectacular modern intelligence failures. Simply possessing intelligence insight is no guarantee of arriving at the truth, and I would contend that if you start with the assumption that the assassination is an intelligence problem, as Tidwell admits he does, then you are not as apt to be looking for material that might contradict your thesis.
As to the specific points that Gaddy makes, I would reply as follows. Gaddy resorts to semantics in saying that the murder of Davis was "an" object and not "the" object of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid. Tidwell clearly makes the point that the threat of physical harm to Davis, not just the freeing of prisoners, caused the Confederate president to wish to retaliate against Lincoln. I am also not confused about Tidwell's chronology. I understand that he argues that Booth was allegedly used by the Confederates in a kidnapping plot, followed by Harney and his explosives to blow up the White House, and then Booth's murder of Lincoln. I do admit that I used the word "sent" in regards to Booth's killing Lincoln, and Gaddy wants to take me to task for that, saying that is not what Tidwell claims. While he definitely does not state it directly, if an author wants to rely on insights and circumstantial evidence, then he should not be entirely surprised if the reader also has to resort to some speculation to read between the lines. When it suits the purposes of the argument, Booth is a superagent who consorts with Confederates in Canada, including George Sanders, who fills him with notions of the moral necessity of eliminating tyrants. However, in the end Booth simply acts on his own, although mirroring what the Confederate high command had in mind with Harney.
I find myself somewhat incredulous about this scenario, particularly since after the murder Booth is still portrayed as attempting to link up with Confederate forces and Sanders is involved in a dissimulation campaign to use agents at the conspiracy trial to deflect suspicion from the Confederate government. If Booth simply acted on his own at that point, why was Sanders almost hysterical to cover Confederate tracks in a kidnapping plot, which, after all, was never successful? Gaddy indicates that Booth was aware of the Harney plot, the "A-Team," as he phrases it. Yet, when it does not fit the scenario, superagent Booth now initiates his own plan.
Gaddy's final point, about a mysterious stranger outside Stanton's home, based on Frank Flower's biography, reveals his lack of knowledge about the chaotic conditions after the assassination. There were similar shadowy figures reported outside the homes of many prominent individuals in the same manner that Booth was reported to have been seen in numerous locations throughout the country. In fact, authorities seized and searched a city block in Washington long after Booth had fled on a tip that he was still hiding there.
In conclusion, despite my disagreements with his interpretations, I give Tidwell a great deal of credit for broadening our understanding of the Confederate secret service. When he applies his intelligence background to data that can be verified, and not to speculation, I believe that Tidwell makes a solid contribution. Gaddy gives no indication that my review contains a positive word.
However, that does not surprise me. I am afraid that for Gaddy the bottom line is, "We have solved this case, and you must be obtuse if you can't understand it." If Gaddy is familiar with the nonsense that passes for history concerning many American assassinations, and particularly that of John F. Kennedy, he should not wonder why it is wise to demand only the highest standard of proof in such controversial cases. Gaddy implies that I want a "smoking gun," and I readily admit that I do. THOMAS R. TURNER
Bridgewater State College Editor's note: Letters to the editor are printed verbatim.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Letters to the Editor. Contributors: Not available. Journal title: The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Volume: 104. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 1996. Page number: 416+. © Virginia Historical Society Summer 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.