Letters to the Editor

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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 [1991]: 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. …