Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review; April '65

April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War by William Tidwell (Kent State University Press, 1995), paperback, 264 pages

In the late 1980s, three authors, two historians and a longtime American intelligence officer, offered a compelling new theory o the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  Published in 1988, Come Retribution used lots of circumstantial evidence to show Confederate government involvement in the planning of the ultimately fatal attack against Lincoln, first conceived as a kidnapping, by the Confederate Secret Service.

William Tidwell, the intelligence officer among the group, follows up that substantial work with more evidence in April '65: Confederate Covert Action and the American Civil War.  In this case, he has dramatic evidence that suggests Confederate President Jefferson Davis was aware of the kidnapping plot and approved it.

Here, the case is again circumstantial.  There are few new bits of evidence about the Lincoln kidnapping/assassination plot itself, but there is new evidence regarding other covert operations which tantalizingly suggest parallels to the Lincoln plot.  Tidwell gives an overall mapping of covert operations in the Confederacy, considering how they were funded and how they were supervised and assessed.  The evidence suggests that there were no "lone wolves" among the Confederate operatives, implicitly and preemptively rejecting an argument that although Booth might have been an operate, in the case of the Lincoln plot he was acting of his own volition.

Much evidence points to the use of Confederate gold funding some of the kidnapping plot, including the possible payment of gold to John Wilkes Booth.  In this book, Tidwell documents the use of gold to fund all sorts of covert operations, and offers evidence that all such uses of Confederate gold required Davis' signature. This implies that Davis knew of, and approved of, some version of a plot against Lincoln in order to have issued a directive to the treasury to release some gold to involved operatives in Canada.  (This inference is not ironclad, however, given that the funding for the Secret Service in Canada was made in large payments designed to cover multiple operations.)

Tidwell is always careful to never overstate his conclusions, leaving them implied most often.  This is most obvious in the final chapter in which he details circumstantial evidence of the involvement of Mosby's raiders in the kidnapping plot.  Using parole information of certain of Mosby's companies, he discovers that several of them surrendered after others along a line related to Booth's escape route, shortly after Booth's death at the hands of pursuing US troops.  Alongside a few other extant orders, he traces the movements of many of Mosby's troops around Washington DC during the period of Lee's daring escape toward, and ultimate surrender at, Appomattox Court House.  Tidwell posits that these soldiers were detached to facilitate Booth's escape after either kidnapping or killing Lincoln.

Although not as shocking as Come Retribution, this book furthers and supports the central thesis of that book that there was a larger Confederate operation behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.  As with any circumstantial argument, the theory cannot be proven beyond doubt, butt the weight of the evidence makes the theory highly credible.  If I doubt a few of Tidwell's conclusions, I find his overall assessment compelling, particularly in light of the known details of Booth's escape from Washington using a network of Confederate agents.  Edward Steers, whose Blood on the Moon remains the best single volume on the assassination, also finds value in this research, incorporating some of it into his narrative.

In short, this book is a worthwhile addition to the large number of books on the Lincoln assassination.  Unlike other books that posit wild conspiracy theories, this one rarely argues beyond the evidence or stretches the evidence -- and credulity -- to make its claims.  At times a little dry (though less so than Come Retribution), it is always reasonable and coherent.  For the student of Lincoln's assassination, it is an important new argument.