Books: A Confederate hoax finally resolved

The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War by Duane Schultz Norton pounds 18.95
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The Independent Culture
In February 1864 the American Civil War had already lasted three years, and there was no end in sight. War-weariness in the North was beginning to affect Unionist morale, and the anti-war or "Copperhead" movement in the Democratic party posed a serious threat to Abraham Lincoln's chances of re-election to the presidency in November as the Republican candidate. If the Democrats won, they would patch up a compromise peace, and the secessionist Confederacy would survive. Meanwhile, Unionist prisoners languished in the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Lincoln's military advisers recommended a raid on Richmond to release these prisoners; the resulting triumphalism in the North would sweep aside the Copperheads and secure the election for Lincoln.

Lincoln authorised a surprise attack on Richmond, to be led by General Hugh Kilpatrick with 3,500 men. He was to assault the Confederate capital from the north with 3,000 of these troops while his second-in-command, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, the 21-year-old son of Lincoln's favourite admiral, was to cross the James River and make a diversionary attack from the south- west.

At first the plan worked well, but when Kilpatrick came under heavy fire from the Confederate militia just outside Richmond, he lost his nerve and retreated. Dahlgren was delayed by swollen rivers and arrived late at the rendezvous to find Kilpatrick gone. Dusk fell, and in the darkness half his regiment lost contact with the rest. Finally Dahlgren fell into an ambush and was shot dead; all the Unionist survivors were taken prisoner.

Dahlgren's raid became a sensation when Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, suddenly announced that papers had been found on Dahlgren's person, ordering him to torch Richmond and assassinate Davis and his entire cabinet. Hotheads in the Confederacy demanded the execution of all Union prisoners for such a threatened "atrocity". But Robert E Lee calmed passions and wrote to General Meade, the Unionist commander, to know if the Dahlgren letters represented Lincoln's official policy. Meade denied this and claimed that the letters were forgeries. The Dahlgren letters thus became a candidate to rank among great historical epistolary frauds, alongside Mary Queen of Scots's "Casket Letters" and the Zinoviev letter.

Duane Schultz, in a book which is at once a tour-de-force of scholarship and an exciting and vivid piece of writing, sets out to establish the truth of Confederate claim and Federal counter-claim. After exhaustive analysis, he concludes that the letters were indeed forgeries. His case for the defence is sixfold. First, any such genuine orders would certainly have been verbal, not written. Secondly, none of Dahlgren's men, when questioned, knew anything about such orders. Thirdly, even if he had received such notorious instructions, Dahlgren would certainly have destroyed them during his perilous retreat from Richmond. Fourthly, the Confederate officers who ambushed Dahlgren left no mention of any such letters in their reports. Fifthly, how, in any case, were Dahlgren and his men supposed to locate the houses of Jefferson Davis and his ministers in a city of whose topography they were ignorant? Finally, the alleged letters feature a misspelling of Dahlgren's name (if the documents were genuine, Dahlgren would surely have spelt his own name correctly) and handwriting experts have testified that the signature on the Dahlgren letters is certainly not Dahlgren's.

If the letters were forged by people at the highest decision-making levels in the South, what was the motive? Schultz explains that Jefferson Davis was excited over plans by a Southern spy, Thomas Hines, to conduct an arson and sabotage campaign in big northern cities, especially Chicago and New York, to coincide with a promised uprising by the military wing of the Copperheads. Davis hitherto had hesitated to wage war on civilians, as it would mean the South's abandoning the moral high ground, eliciting a backlash in international opinion - Davis still hoped that Britain and France would recognise the Confederacy - and inviting tit-for-tat attacks on Southern civilians by the North. The alleged "barbarism" of the North, as evinced by the Dahlgren letters, opening the floodgates to total, unrestricted warfare, gave Davis the excuse he needed.

Alas for Davis, he was chasing a chimera. The plans to set Northern cities alight ended in fiasco; all the conspirators were arrested or chased into Canada; the Copperhead firebrands turned out to be paper tigers, talkers but not men of action, and Lincoln was triumphantly elected. Thomas Hines's espionage mission to the North proved to be the last hurrah of the doomed Confederacy, but the victorious North remembered Davis's implacable hatred and, after Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomatox in April 1865, Davis was expressly excluded from the general policy of reconciliation.

Schultz's quite marvellous account of the dark side of the Confederacy contains a mass of riveting detail: on everyday life in Richmond during the war, on espionage by both sides and, above all, on Grant's masterspy in Richmond, a woman named Elizabeth van Lew, who operated right under the nose of Jefferson Davis by pretending to be a crackbrained spinster.

This is an excellent book which clears up an incident which has always divided historians of the "war between the States" and adds to Schulz's growing reputation as the leading Civil War historian of the 1990s.