Editor's note: John C. Fazio is a past
president of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable and the author of
numerous articles on the
Lincoln assassination as well as the book, Decapitating the Union: Jefferson Davis, Judah Benjamin and the Plot to Assassinate Lincoln,
published in 2015 by McFarland.
Truth, like a bastard, comes
into the world, never without ill-fame to him who gives her birth.
– Thomas Hardy
All great truths begin as
– George Bernard Shaw
Shall truth be first or second with
us? "Us" is we historians, real or fancied, amateur or professional.
Lincoln said that history isn't history unless it is the truth. I
agree with that, to which I would add only "or some reasonable
facsimile thereof arrived at conscientiously and with due
diligence". Therefore, if truth is to be second with us, second,
that is, to convenience, aka political correctness or some other
approximation of comfort, then I suggest that we are in the wrong
business and that we should find some other vocation or avocation,
one that doesn't tax our character so meanly.
Abraham Lincoln, William Seward,
Edwin Stanton, Jefferson Davis, Judah Benjamin and James Seddon were
human beings not sacred cows. Like all human beings, they were
capable of good and evil and at some time in their lives surely
manifested both. Therefore, if we want to stay in this business, and
if we want to honor it, we owe it to ourselves and to each other to
unhesitatingly and unsparingly criticize these men when the facts
and circumstances, as we see them, warrant it, on any score.
Further, we fail, as historians, if we allow ourselves to be
deterred by reverence for anyone open to criticism, from whatever
Case in point: The Surratt
Courier, May, 2015, p. 9:
"...no reliable historian has
ever connected the Confederate President with the (assassination
Really? Whose standard of
"reliable" are we using? I suggest that by anyone's standard,
anyone, that is, who knows anything about this business, William A.
Tidwell, James O. Hall and Winfred Gaddy must surely be deemed
"reliable" historians, indeed, very likely the most reliable in the
last half century, at least as far as the assassination is
concerned. It was they, recall, whose seminal work, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, a product of two lifetimes of intelligence service and
years of meticulous research, concluded that:
...it can be shown that the
Confederates had the knowledge and technical skill to mount an
operation against President Lincoln; that they engaged in a number
of activities in 1864 and 1865 that could have been related to
planning such an operation; that John Wilkes Booth was in contact
with known Confederate agents; and that the course of the war
developed in such a way that an attack on Lincoln was a logical
amendment to the original plan to capture him.
Many of the suppositions in this
logic trail may never be proven, but there is much firm evidence
that supports it. Of all of the theories about the assassination,
this one does appear to be the one that can be most strongly
Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy also
explained why Davis and other Confederate leaders dropped off the
The trial strategy was flawed by
questionable testimony on key points, which allowed the Confederates
and their Copperhead allies to launch an effective disinformation
campaign after the war. It would have read as follows: "John Wilkes
Booth? Not one of ours, certainly. An actor fellow wasn't he?
Obviously a madman. Everybody knows that the death of Lincoln was
the worst thing that could have happened to a defeated South. And
look at the trial testimony of Sandford Conover [Charles A. Dunham],
Godfrey Hyams, Dr. James B. Merritt, and Richard Montgomery.
Perjury, rank perjury."
Repeated ad infinitum this became
truth... Thus an old political ploy became useful: cover one
transgression by denying a different one.
April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War, his sequel to Come Retribution, Tidwell continued in the same vein:
...Dunham [began] a long-term
campaign to provide invaluable assistance to the memory of the
Confederacy. Nearly everything that Dunham did...helped to destroy
the case that the Federal prosecutors were developing against
Jefferson Davis and key persons in the Confederate Secret
Service... The effect of this campaign was overwhelming. The
federal government did not abandon its positions, but Dunham was
tried and convicted of perjury and the country at large has
accepted the Sanders version of history: the Confederates had
nothing to do with Booth and his associates. Sanders "feeding"
Dunham and Merritt to the Union authorities would have been very
much in keeping with his reputation. He kept himself informed on
the most important political activity of the moment—the trial. He
was not going to let the trial take place without trying to
influence it, and he was successful in shaping the way the country
thought about the assassination—even to this day.
Also in his sequel, Tidwell
affirmed the conclusion that he, Hall and Gaddy had arrived at in
the earlier work:
What has been established, however,
is a network of documented facts that logically coincide with the
information that would have had to exist if Davis did decide to
attack the leaders of the Federal government. One can refute the
logic only by a bizarre distortion of reason. The probability that
all of these facts were true and that Davis did not make the
critical decision is very slight indeed.
Another "reliable" historian,
William Hanchett, wrote that Come Retribution,
"...is based upon far more substantial and imaginative research than
any previous work on the assassination."
He also wrote that
April '65 "...powerfully
supplemented Come Retribution."
Further, Richard N. Currrent, a
prominent Lincoln scholar, wrote, in his review of Come Retribution,
that the authors' conclusion is made "with justification".
Further, Stephen W. Sears, another
leading Civil War historian, wrote, in his review, that "it is hard
to put this book down without acknowledging that this is the way it
must have happened.
Still further, H. Donald Winkler
joined Hanchett, Current and Sears in their support of Tidwell, Hall
and Gaddy when he wrote that:
...Sanders went on to expose
Dunham/Conover, Merritt and Montgomery as liars, thereby
discrediting the efforts of Stanton, Holt and Johnson to blame the
Confederacy for the assassination...Sanders's propaganda effort
paid off. By exposing the chief Union witnesses as liars, the
government's case collapsed, even though credible witnesses had
indeed submitted untainted affidavits implicating the Southern
President and the Confederates in Canada... Since Dunham/Conover,
Merritt and Montgomery were all disgraced as witnesses,
Finnegass's testimony and that of other reliable witnesses was not
taken seriously. The credibility of all the government witnesses
was marred by the fabrications of the three... For his [Davis's]
freedom, he owed a tremendous thank you to the covert operations
of George N. Sanders and Charles Dunham... Thanks to the work of
these two men, Clement C. Clay was also released from prison [in
April 1866] and returned to his home in Alabama.
And still further, there is the
Report of the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of
Representatives (the Boutwell Report). Making use of only testimony
of witnesses against whom no imputation of perjury was made, the
Report concluded that there was "probable cause to believe that
(Jefferson Davis) was privy to the measures which led to the
commission of the deed (assassination)".
And, finally, an author of modest credentials, in a recent work on
the assassination, alluded to the following (and much more) in
support of Tidwell, Hall, Gaddy, Hanchett, Current, Sears and
- The dozen or so attempts to
assassinate Lincoln both before and after the Wistar and
Dahlgren-Kilpatrick Raids against Richmond;
- The perceived license granted by
the Wistar and Dahlgren-Kilpatrick Raids;
- The attempt by Dr. Luke Blackburn to assassinate Lincoln by
sending him shirts "infected" with yellow fever, part of
Blackburn's yellow fever scheme, which scheme was known to Davis;
- The fact that in the
conversations between Confederate operatives in Canada, as
testified to in the trial of the conspirators, there are dozens of
references to assassination;
- The fact that the Confederate
government was at all times aware of Booth and his action team and
their conspiracy and did nothing to stop him;
- Thomas F. Harney's mission to assassinate Northern leaders by
blowing up the White House;
- Lewis Powell's statements to
Thomas Eckert that government prosecutors did "not have the
one-half of them" (i.e. conspirators) and that it was his
impression that arrangements had been made with others for the
same disposition as he was to make of Seward;
- The April 10, 1865, letter to
Booth from "T.I.O.S.", which states that "If the four are
assassinated our wrongs are avenged" and that "there is one man to
every one in the Cabinet."
- Atzerodt's May 1, 1865,
confession in which he alludes to the "New York crowd" getting the
President certain and getting him quick, as well as a plan to
assassinate many other Northern leaders by luring them into the
White House prior to blowing it up;
- The Union agent's May 10, 1865,
letter from Paris wherein he refers to the Confederate agent
"Johnston's" note in which he said that he was in Washington on
April 14, 1865, that within half an hour he knew an "attack" would
be made that night, and that had it been carried out as was
previously arranged, some 15 Yankee leaders would be dead;
- The fact that all the letters
that came into the possession of the Bureau of Military Justice,
which relate to Confederate Secret Service work, speak only of
- The affidavit of Henri Beaumont
de Ste. Marie, in which he swore that Surratt admitted to him his
and Booth's complicity in the assassination, but would not tell
him whether or not Davis was complicit.
When we stop to think about it, it
is really very simple. What happened in our Civil War is what
happens in virtually all wars: The Black Flag is raised early and
there is soon a vicious cycle of atrocities and retaliation and
therefore a lot of dead and in some cases mutilated bodies all over
the landscape. Everyone is fair game. The assassination attempts
against Lincoln, both before and after Wistar-Dahlgren-Kilpatrick
have already been mentioned, and we may be sure that Lincoln and
Stanton authorized both raids and that one or both of them, probably
with the assassination attempts in mind, authored the odious orders
to their commanders to capture and kill Davis and his cabinet
members. The Confederacy's back was to the wall. The catastrophe
that they had fought four years to prevent was upon them—the loss of
their political independence, the loss of their wealth and property,
the "nightmare" of integrating 4 million suddenly free blacks into a
society of 5.5 million whites, the "mongrelization" of their race,
and the loss of their lifestyle and culture. Their armies were
melting away. In these circumstances, it was perfectly
predictable—and Seward, in fact, did predict it—that Southern
leaders would resort to the most extreme measures if such measures
offered the tiniest hope of averting the catastrophe. Had the shoe
been on the other foot, it is all but certain that Northern leaders
would have done the same. They had already shown what they were
capable of in the rape of the Shenandoah, the burning of Atlanta and
Columbia and the plunder and spoliation of Georgia.
Let us stop playing patty-cake. Let
us manfully face and accept the truth, with all its grit, grime and
gore. A painful truth is better than a soothing lie any day. The
truth is that we are all the same animal and have the same nature,
which means that we are all capable of good and evil, Davis and
Lincoln no less than the rest of us. The truth, further, is that the
likelihood of recourse to evil is directly proportional to the
degree to which we feel that our survival is threatened. Davis
proved both truths by approving a policy of summary execution of
black prisoners of war, by authorizing, with Benjamin, a year of
"dirty war", i.e. terror against the North from April, 1864, through
April, 1865, and by ordering his Secret Service to play his last
card, namely decapitation of the United States government by
multiple assassinations. Lincoln proved the truths by ignoring the
Constitution when it suited him, suspending the writ of habeas
corpus without authority, closing newspapers, abrogating free
speech, incarcerating or exiling his political enemies, including
entire legislative bodies, without trial, and, with Stanton,
ordering the capture or killing of Davis and his cabinet by raiders
against the Confederate capital. Now let us move on.
Tidwell, William A., James O. Hall
and Winfred Gaddy, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, Jackson, University Press of
Mississippi, 1988, pp. 28,29.
Ibid, p. 329.
Tidwell, William A.,
April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War, Kent, OH: The
Kent State University Press, 1995, pp. 153,154.
Ibid, p. 164.
Hanchett, William, "The Lincoln
Assassination Revisited", North & South, Vol. 3, No.7, Sept. 2000,
Ibid, p. 34.
Current, Richard N., Illinois
Historical Journal, Vol. LXXXII, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), p. 271.
Sears, Stephen W., Washington Post,
December 19, 1988, p. D3.
Winkler, H. Donald, Lincoln and Booth: More Light on the Conspiracy, Nashville, TN: Cumberland
House, 2003, p. 255-257,260,261.
House Report 104, Thirty-Ninth
Congress, First Session (1866), pp. 1-29.
Burkhart, George S., Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath: No Quarter in the Civil War, Carbondale,
Southern Illinois University Press, 2007, pp. 40,41,46,47.
Singer, Jane, The Confederate Dirty War: Arson, Bombings, Assassination and Plots for Chemical and Germ Attacks on the Union, Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 2005.