The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee [NOOK Book]

Overview


1865. The Civil War is over and the South lies in ruins. But for some, the former slaveholders have not been punished enough. A cabal of powerful men, led by Charles A. Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, plot to break the spirit of the South once and for all--by convicting General Robert E. Lee of treason and hanging him like a common criminal.
To this end, they have convened a secret military tribunal in Lee's former home in Arlington, ...
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The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee

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Overview


1865. The Civil War is over and the South lies in ruins. But for some, the former slaveholders have not been punished enough. A cabal of powerful men, led by Charles A. Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, plot to break the spirit of the South once and for all--by convicting General Robert E. Lee of treason and hanging him like a common criminal.
To this end, they have convened a secret military tribunal in Lee's former home in Arlington, Virginia.
Jeremiah O'Brien of The New York Tribune, a long-time protege of Dana's, is the only reporter allowed to attend the trial. His exclusive reports on this momentous event, and the book he intends to write, will surely make his fortune. Yet as the trial proceeds, pitting the general against his accusers, O'Brien finds himself torn between his loyalty to Dana, his love for a beautiful Confederate spy, and his growing respect and compassion for Lee himself. The young reporter is supposed to be only an observer, but, in the end, it is O'Brien who must evaluate the evidence . . . and determine the true meaning of honor.
Written by acclaimed author and historian Thomas Fleming, The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee brings to life a fascinating chapter in American history that might well have happened--and perhaps truly did.

At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Historian and bestselling author Fleming (The Officers' Wives; When This Cruel War Is Over) poses an intriguing question in his latest historical novel: what if the victorious Union had put Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on trial for treason? The American Civil War ignited passions on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, and there were those-especially among the Radical Republicans-who favored imposing a harsh peace upon the defeated South. Fleming imagines what might have happened if a cabal of Radicals led by assistant secretary of war Charles Dana had managed to arrange a secret trial of Lee-the very symbol of the South. The story is narrated by New York Tribune reporter Jeremiah O'Brien, a protege of Dana and the only journalist allowed at the trial, who is torn between his loyalty to Dana and his love for the beautiful Sophia Carroll, a former Confederate spy and a Lee family friend. The Civil War is familiar turf for Fleming, and his characters-both historical and fictional-ring true, as does the dialogue. Fans of counterfactual history and Civil War aficionados especially will enjoy this captivating account of what would have been the trial of the century. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Suppose, just suppose, the Radical Republicans decided that the amnesty Ulysses S. Grant offered to Johnny Reb didn't have a sufficiently punitive sting. What might have happened had they put Robert E. Lee-Saddam Hussein in gray-on trial for treason?Yeah, and what would have happened if Julius Caesar had had a machine gun? Hardhearted readers of Civil War history have little patience with counterfactuals, but such departures from the strict truth can be highly instructive-and besides, veteran historian Fleming (Washington's Secret War, 2005) knows how to spin a tale. As his latest opens, New York news mogul Charles Dana, well embedded inside the War Department, is hopping mad, bent on punishing the entire rebel South for its perfidy, and he expects his Irish flunky Jeremiah O'Brien to hop to the cause by whispering into a few well-placed Union ears, agitating for Confederate war hero Robert E. Lee's arrest and trial for treason-and a finale in which Lee swings at the end of a rope. O'Brien, himself embedded with a Louisiana fille de joi who has just a little more wartime experience than she lets on, balks. Dana barks. A kangaroo court is assembled; embittered abolitionists and anti-rebels such as Benjamin Butler and Ambrose Burnside fulminate; strict constructionists object; and much legalistic back and forth ensues even as the behind-the-scenes action takes on the dimensions of a Len Deighton plot. Even when Grant takes the stand and contradicts key Radical assertions, and even as other rebel-hating Yankee generals tear up when Lee speaks of honor, Fleming keeps things plausible-and, happily, takes pains that his dialogue not slide into anachronism. And whether intentional or not, it'sall quite timely, as latter-day politicos debate states' rights and the legality of the Dred Scott decision. A Caine Mutiny for the Reconstruction era. Well done, even if some fans of historical fiction will prefer their fiction a little more, well, historical.
From the Publisher
“This novel explores one of the most intriguing "What-ifs" in American history. Drawing on the acknowledged fact that many northerners thought Robert E. Lee should be tried for treason, Thomas Fleming has staged the courtroom confrontation with remarkable authenticity and mesmerizing drama. The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee will fascinate—and ocasionally infuriate—northerners and southerners. Once more this gifted writer has used fiction to add new profoundly human dimensions to American history.”—-Charles Bracelen Flood, author of Lee, The Last Years and Grant And Sherman, The Friendship That Won The Civil War

"Thomas Fleming can be ranked with Herman Wouk and James Jones. He probes the heart of the American experience."—New York Times Book Review

"Thomas Fleming is one of my favorite writers because he combines powerful storytelling with the skills of a superb historian."—John Jakes

"Fleming's in-depth knowledge of period and culture, his ability to separate the myth from the reality, all help you discover the very essence of what it means to be an American."—Margaret Truman

author of Lee, The Last Years - Charles Bracelen Flood
Once more this gifted writer has used fiction to add new profoundly human dimensions to American history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429988445
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 9/17/2010
  • Series: Stapleton Novels
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • File size: 399 KB

Meet the Author


Thomas Fleming is a distinguished historian and the author of numerous critically acclaimed and bestselling novels. His masterpiece, The Officers' Wives was an international bestseller with more than two million copies sold. His other novels include Time and Tide, Liberty Tavern, Conquerors of the Sky, and When this Cruel War Is Over. His nonfiction book, Liberty! The American Revolution was the companion volume to the PBS six-part mini-series. He also writes frequently for American Heritage magazine and is a contributing editor for The Quarterly Journal of Military History. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt



One
A WISH IN THE DARK
“O’Brien,” said the resonant voice. “I’m glad to see you’re vertical. Have you finally drowned your sorrows? We have work to do.”
Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana stood on Pennsylvania Avenue, outside the entrance to the White House, where a new president sat in an alcoholic haze. Dusk was beginning to shroud the major features of the federal landscape. George Washington’s unfinished monument was a shapeless mass to the south. Eastward, the dome of the Capitol loomed against the darkening sky. Nearby on Fifteenth Street rose the immense edifice of the U.S. Treasury. Dana was a fitting human complement to these imposing structures.
He stood tall, well over six feet, with a full dark brown beard that gave him a vaguely Jehovah-like aura. His hair rested in a debonair wave on his noble brow. His black wool pants were stuffed into knee-high boots, and a black slouch hat was tilted somewhat rakishly on his large head. As usual, his dark blue eyes were aglow with the unique brightness given unto those who worship righteousness. All he needed was a flaming sword to make him look like a warrior angel. The title of assistant secretary of war was totally inadequate to his looming presence.
For a moment I felt unutterably weary. Dana’s animal magnetism was so overpowering, he sparked a sullen resistance in my grieving soul. I half understood why I no longer responded to the organ timbre of his mellow voice and the brilliance of that magisterial smile. Once I had followed this man with a strange blind confidence. Dana had a rare ability to inspire this kind of allegiance in men far older than my years. I was especially susceptible because I was so alone in this American world. When we met I was an orphan without a single relative, living by my wits on the streets of New York. I was prime material for conversion to a mystic faith in the omniscience of Charles A. Dana.
For a heady moment, I was back four years. We—mainly Dana with some scurrying aid from me—were presiding over the most influential newspaper in the country, the New York Tribune. The South was talking war and secession. Someone had to rescue the United States of America from catastrophe and moral squalor. Dana showed me how this miracle would be achieved one muggy afternoon in May, after most of the South had seceded, formed the Confederate States of America, and blasted the U.S. Army garrison out of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.
The new president, Abraham Lincoln, had called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to serve for ninety days to suppress the rebellion. (The ninety days are a forlorn commentary on Lincoln’s hopes for a brief, relatively bloodless war.) The South had responded by creating an army to defend their capital, Richmond. But no one seemed sure what to do next. There was an unspoken suspicion in many quarters that after a month or two of military posturing, both sides would agree that killing fellow Americans was unthinkable, as outgoing president James Buchanan had bathetically insisted, and in the great tradition of American politics, a compromise would be worked out that satisfied neither side, but averted calamity. The great republic would muddle along, half slave, half free, for another hundred years. Lincoln’s obvious reluctance to do anything decisive seemed a veritable guarantee of this relapse into moral mediocrity.
Dana’s answer to this retrograde lurch was a front page on which the Tribune shouted: MR. PRESIDENT, WHEN SHALL THE BAYONETS FLASH TO THE ‘FORWARD’? ON TO RICHMOND IS THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE! AGAIN, WE REPEAT, ON TO RICHMOND! Day after day, we ran this and similar exhortations. Horace Greeley, the putative owner-editor of the paper, sent us frantic protests from Peoria, Paducah, and other stops on his lecture tour, warning us against starting a war. Dana ignored Greeley and everyone else who reproached him. He was serenely confident that he alone knew the answer to the crisis and would have no difficulty changing Greeley’s erratic mind when and if he returned to regain the Tribune’s helm.
Never had my faith in Charles A. Dana been more immaculate, more ecstatic. It was multiplied by the way the slogan was picked up by newspapers in Boston and Chicago, two cities where war fever was already festering. We were giving guidance and courage to that elongated incompetent oddity from Kentucky-via-Illinois that the people in their unwisdom had elected president of the United States. We were infusing the “Brainless Bob-O-Link of the Prairies,” as Lincoln was called in New York and New Jersey, and the inert amoral mass of the commercial republic with a vision of the higher good.
My sense of participation in a noble destiny doubled and redoubled as we watched Lincoln crumple under the relentless repetition of “On to Richmond!” Finally, the harried president thrust aside the advice of his generals and ordered a hefty portion of his still-untrained volunteers into Virginia for the first of many marches on the Confederate capital. Posted to Washington as a Tribune correspondent, I rode out with the chortling Republican congressmen and senators to watch the virtuous men of the North send the effete immoral slave owners scrambling for the horizon. Ten hours later, your reporter and the discomfited legislators became part of a fleeing mob of fugitives in blue uniforms. Behind us on a battlefield called Bull Run lay the first but by no means the last carpet of corpses on the loamy soil of northern Virginia.
The following four years of the most horrendous civil war in the memory of the civilized world had slowly eroded my faith in Charles A. Dana. The coup de grâce to my tottering religion was the murder of the man I had begun to think might save America from another century of ruinous hatred. Lincoln’s assassination had sent me spiraling to the bar of the Willard Hotel, where I had sought oblivion for most of the last miserable month.
“I thought our work was over,” I said sullenly.
“You’re wrong as usual, O’Brien,” Dana said. “You Irish are a strange tribe. You let your feelings tell you what to think. It makes you good writers—as long as there’s an editor around to add the intellectual ingredients.”
I wondered if I should grovel in the dust at Dana’s feet to acknowledge his immense superiority. For a moment I was almost ready to do it, so he could lift me up, pat me on the head, and assure me that I had a place in this war-ravaged American world after all.
“Lincoln’s death leaves a void,” Dana said. “You see it as a tragedy. I see it as an opportunity. So, I begin to think, does Stanton.”
Edwin Stanton was the secretary of war. I had long since concluded that this abrupt, disagreeable lawyer seldom saw anything that Dana did not see first. In the early days of the war I thought this was rather marvelous. Not many people could handle Stanton. John Hay, Lincoln’s genial private secretary, once told me that rather than ask Stanton for another favor on the president’s behalf, he would gladly spend several weeks in a smallpox hospital.
At the moment, with President Bourbonbrain in the White House wondering what day it was, Edwin Stanton was the most powerful man in America. That meant what he thought, thanks to Dana, could be more than a little important. My all but extinguished reporter’s instincts stirred somewhere in my sodden soul.
As Dana and I stood there, exchanging pregnant stares, a regiment from the Army of the Potomac advanced down Pennsylvania Avenue toward us like a gigantic blue centipede. Every bayoneted rifle was at precisely the same angle. Every kepi was firmly set on every brow without a millimeter of difference between rim and nose. Every crisp sleeve swung simultaneously at the exact same distance from the hip, as if they were all pendulums on some inhuman machine. Even in the dusk the shine of their shoes was enough to make a man believe in revelations.
On the sidewalk not far from us, we heard a chorus of guffaws. We turned to discover about two dozen members of the Union Army of the Tennessee lounging against the White House fence. Crispness was not exactly a characteristic of their uniforms. There was not a pressed sleeve in sight. In fact, more often than not, there was only a dirty shirt and a pair of tattered pants, held up by a rope. Shoes were also conspicuously absent. Bare feet seemed to be part of the uniform of the day in the Army of the Tennessee.
“Jesus,” howled one of them, “you ever see anything like them tin soldiers? No wonder they only won a battle once in four years.”
Dana frowned. For a moment something close to anxiety clouded those glowing eyes. These soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee were the men who had marched through Georgia and South Carolina and North Carolina, tearing out the guts and the heart of the Southern rebellion. They were from the West, a region that loomed in the mind of even the most omniscient Easterner (who else but Dana?) as a terra incognita that had already produced that most exotic of political plants, Abrahamensis Lincolnia.
Now seventy thousand of these weedy unpredictables were camped across the river in Virginia in a very ugly mood. Secretary of War Stanton, at Dana’s urging, had insulted their Ohio-born general, William Tecumseh Sherman, for giving overgenerous terms to the last Rebel army worth mentioning when they surrendered to his irresistible host a few weeks ago in North Carolina. Stanton aka Dana had repudiated the terms in the newspapers, publicly humiliating Sherman. Not a few members of the Army of the Tennessee were now talking about repudiating Stanton and perhaps the entire government of the United States, as currently personified by President Bourbonbrain nearby us in his splendid white house.
Like the rest of Washington, the executive mansion was festooned with black bunting in mourning for the murdered Lincoln. Perhaps that gesture toward their fellow son of the West had restrained them from reaching for their guns. So far, their angry talk had not led to any revolutionary action.
“What sort of work have we got to do?” I asked.
“The sort that will make you the most famous newspaperman in the country and possibly the world,” Dana said.
“How are you going to manage that?” I said, intrigued in spite of my sadness. After all, I was only twenty-five years old. I did not expect to stay sad for the rest of my life—and I had to make a living somehow. Why not as a reporter? Even though I was convinced that all the news in this divided and subdivided country would be depressing for the next twenty years.
“In three days,” Dana said, “the armies of the Union are going to parade down this avenue. The Army of the Potomac will come first, then Sherman’s wild men. It will be the greatest display of armed might in the history of the world.”
That put Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon in the shade. Dana had a fondness for hyperbole. “So?” I said. “What happens after that?”
“The country—the entire world—will be awed. Intimidated would be a more exact word. Especially our beaten, bedraggled Rebels south of us. That will give us the opportunity to put on trial and execute for treason the one man that could reignite this rebellion if he so chose, a half-dozen years hence.”
“Jeff Davis?” I said. “Is that what you’re going to do with the pathetic old buzzard?” On a tip from Dana, I had dragged my besotted bones to Fortress Monroe, on the shore of Hampton Roads, Virginia, a week ago to see the ex-president of the Confederacy marched from a ship to a dungeon in that huge pile of stone. It was hardly worth the trip. Davis looked like a bewildered scarecrow. The only color in my story was supplied by the fort’s second in command, one of those potbellied regular-army types who had arranged to spend the war avoiding any and all Rebel gunfire. He loudly proclaimed that Davis would live on bread and water, just like any other criminal.
“Not Davis,” Dana said, exhibiting an impatience with my stupidity that usually reduced me to obsequious silence. “He’s a mere failed politician, without a shred of glory left to his name. I’m talking about Robert E. Lee.”
For a moment I was too stunned to speak. “How can you do it?” I finally said. “Grant paroled him when he surrendered at Appomattox.”
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was currently the commander in chief of the U.S. Army, the leader of a half million men. That made him more powerful in fact if not in law than Stanton, Dana, and the entire Congress of the United States, plus President Bourbonbrain.
“I can handle Grant,” Dana said. “Don’t give him a thought.”
I had no reason to doubt Dana’s confidence on this point. Without Dana, Lieutenant General Grant at this very moment would have been puking into the mud of a St. Louis, Missouri, gutter—one of the many drunken slobs who infest that hard-drinking Western metropolis—instead of presiding as the commander in chief of our invincible, soon-to-be-paraded host, the Grand Army of the Republic.
“And Sherman? What are you going to do with him?”
“Cashier him, if he says another defiant word against Stanton. That’s been passed to him, sotto voce, already.”
I had no doubt that Dana had done this—nor much doubt that Sherman would swallow it. Soldiers are acutely sensitive to power. With Grant behind him, Stanton (aka Dana) was invincible.
“Where do I come into this drama?”
“You’ll be the only newspaperman admitted to the trial. You’ll have the exclusive story of Robert E. Lee’s conviction as a traitor—and his execution.”
Another regiment of the Army of the Potomac came down Pennsylvania Avenue with the same machinelike perfection. This one differed from the previous automatons in one very important aspect. Every man in the ranks had an ebony face. There were thirty or forty thousand Negroes in the Army of the Potomac. The loungers from the Army of the Tennessee gave them a very different reception from the one they had proferred the white regiment.
At first there was stunned silence. There were no black regiments in their army. Then one of them shouted: “I hope none of you niggers is thinkin’ of settlin’ in Indiana!”
Similar shouts from other members of their group made it clear that these colored men would be equally unwelcome in Illinois and Ohio. “Halt!” shouted Dana. The regiment came to an abrupt stop. The bulky white colonel in command rushed from the front of the column with fiery eyes.
“Who said halt?” he roared. His voice had a Yankee twang.
“I did,” Dana replied. “I’m Charles Dana, the assistant secretary of war. I want you to put these men under arrest.” He pointed to the Westerners, who were retreating into a surly clump.
“What’s the charge?”
“Didn’t you hear them insulting your soldiers?” Dana said. “This won’t be tolerated in our newly united country. Every citizen will be required to treat every other citizen with respect, no matter what their color.”
“Major Bigelow!” bellowed the colonel. A lanky, somewhat effete-looking officer hurried to his side. The colonel pointed to the Westerners. “Arrest these fellows and put them in the Navy Yard prison. Charges will be preferred by Mr. Dana here, the assistant secretary of war.”
“Yes, sir.”
Bigelow summoned a white captain—all the officers were white—and he quickly detached a platoon from the black ranks. “You ain’t gonna get away with this!” one of the Westerners shouted. “Uncle Billy Sherman will hang you from a sour apple tree.”
“We’ll see about that,” Dana said.
Suddenly I was in another dimension, another life, those halcyon prewar years when I was Dana’s adopted son, meeting men such as the eloquent champion of Negro freedom, the escaped slave Frederick Douglass; the world-famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; the fiery founder of the abolition movement, William Lloyd Garrison. Thanks to Dana I became acquainted with the great idealists of America and was soon convinced by the homage they paid my mentor that he was the greatest of them. My admiration for Dana was boundless; my joy in being chosen by this extraordinary man almost compensated for the loss of my parents on our immigrant ship. Dana was my spiritual guide, urging on Jeremiah O’Brien’s cynical Irish soul the value, the power, the beauty, of ideals.
I wanted to regain that relationship now. I wanted to be reborn again, after four years in an approximation of hell. Perhaps this daring idea, to put Robert E. Lee on trial, would restore my corrupted faith.
I waited until the arrested Westerners and the black regiment had receded into the dusk. “What’s our goal, Dana?” I asked.
“To break the spirit of the South, once and for all,” Dana said. “We’ve broken their armies. But we haven’t broken their spirit. This will do it. Lee dangling from a federal gibbet will do it.”
“I wonder,” I said.
“That’s not part of your job, O’Brien. I’m in charge of the wonder.”
The godlike Dana smiled at me with implacable, irreducible righteousness. I wanted to succumb. I wanted to embrace him and his plan with my old awe and new fervor. But some unnamed inner force or power stopped me. Was it because dusk was shrouding that triumphant smile, darkening those invincible eyes? Or was it because too many brave men had died in the name of that righteousness—or in defiance of it?
Dana’s wisdom had been my guide, Dana’s orders had been my regimen for too many years. I could not escape him. “I’m at your service, Mr. Assistant Secretary,” I said, with a mock bow.
Excerpted from The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee by Thomas Fleming.
Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Fleming.
Published in October 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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First Chapter

The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee


By Thomas Fleming

Forge Books

Copyright © 2010 Thomas Fleming
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780765352071

One
A WISH IN THE DARK
“O’Brien,” said the resonant voice. “I’m glad to see you’re vertical. Have you finally drowned your sorrows? We have work to do.”
Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana stood on Pennsylvania Avenue, outside the entrance to the White House, where a new president sat in an alcoholic haze. Dusk was beginning to shroud the major features of the federal landscape. George Washington’s unfinished monument was a shapeless mass to the south. Eastward, the dome of the Capitol loomed against the darkening sky. Nearby on Fifteenth Street rose the immense edifice of the U.S. Treasury. Dana was a fitting human complement to these imposing structures.
He stood tall, well over six feet, with a full dark brown beard that gave him a vaguely Jehovah-like aura. His hair rested in a debonair wave on his noble brow. His black wool pants were stuffed into knee-high boots, and a black slouch hat was tilted somewhat rakishly on his large head. As usual, his dark blue eyes were aglow with the unique brightness given unto those who worship righteousness. All he needed was a flaming sword to make him look like a warrior angel. The title of assistant secretary of war was totally inadequate to his looming presence.
For a moment I felt unutterably weary. Dana’s animal magnetism was so overpowering, he sparked a sullen resistance in my grieving soul. I half understood why I no longer responded to the organ timbre of his mellow voice and the brilliance of that magisterial smile. Once I had followed this man with a strange blind confidence. Dana had a rare ability to inspire this kind of allegiance in men far older than my years. I was especially susceptible because I was so alone in this American world. When we met I was an orphan without a single relative, living by my wits on the streets of New York. I was prime material for conversion to a mystic faith in the omniscience of Charles A. Dana.
For a heady moment, I was back four years. We—mainly Dana with some scurrying aid from me—were presiding over the most influential newspaper in the country, the New York Tribune. The South was talking war and secession. Someone had to rescue the United States of America from catastrophe and moral squalor. Dana showed me how this miracle would be achieved one muggy afternoon in May, after most of the South had seceded, formed the Confederate States of America, and blasted the U.S. Army garrison out of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.
The new president, Abraham Lincoln, had called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to serve for ninety days to suppress the rebellion. (The ninety days are a forlorn commentary on Lincoln’s hopes for a brief, relatively bloodless war.) The South had responded by creating an army to defend their capital, Richmond. But no one seemed sure what to do next. There was an unspoken suspicion in many quarters that after a month or two of military posturing, both sides would agree that killing fellow Americans was unthinkable, as outgoing president James Buchanan had bathetically insisted, and in the great tradition of American politics, a compromise would be worked out that satisfied neither side, but averted calamity. The great republic would muddle along, half slave, half free, for another hundred years. Lincoln’s obvious reluctance to do anything decisive seemed a veritable guarantee of this relapse into moral mediocrity.
Dana’s answer to this retrograde lurch was a front page on which the Tribune shouted: MR. PRESIDENT, WHEN SHALL THE BAYONETS FLASH TO THE ‘FORWARD’? ON TO RICHMOND IS THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE! AGAIN, WE REPEAT, ON TO RICHMOND! Day after day, we ran this and similar exhortations. Horace Greeley, the putative owner-editor of the paper, sent us frantic protests from Peoria, Paducah, and other stops on his lecture tour, warning us against starting a war. Dana ignored Greeley and everyone else who reproached him. He was serenely confident that he alone knew the answer to the crisis and would have no difficulty changing Greeley’s erratic mind when and if he returned to regain the Tribune’s helm.
Never had my faith in Charles A. Dana been more immaculate, more ecstatic. It was multiplied by the way the slogan was picked up by newspapers in Boston and Chicago, two cities where war fever was already festering. We were giving guidance and courage to that elongated incompetent oddity from Kentucky-via-Illinois that the people in their unwisdom had elected president of the United States. We were infusing the “Brainless Bob-O-Link of the Prairies,” as Lincoln was called in New York and New Jersey, and the inert amoral mass of the commercial republic with a vision of the higher good.
My sense of participation in a noble destiny doubled and redoubled as we watched Lincoln crumple under the relentless repetition of “On to Richmond!” Finally, the harried president thrust aside the advice of his generals and ordered a hefty portion of his still-untrained volunteers into Virginia for the first of many marches on the Confederate capital. Posted to Washington as a Tribune correspondent, I rode out with the chortling Republican congressmen and senators to watch the virtuous men of the North send the effete immoral slave owners scrambling for the horizon. Ten hours later, your reporter and the discomfited legislators became part of a fleeing mob of fugitives in blue uniforms. Behind us on a battlefield called Bull Run lay the first but by no means the last carpet of corpses on the loamy soil of northern Virginia.
The following four years of the most horrendous civil war in the memory of the civilized world had slowly eroded my faith in Charles A. Dana. The coup de grâce to my tottering religion was the murder of the man I had begun to think might save America from another century of ruinous hatred. Lincoln’s assassination had sent me spiraling to the bar of the Willard Hotel, where I had sought oblivion for most of the last miserable month.
“I thought our work was over,” I said sullenly.
“You’re wrong as usual, O’Brien,” Dana said. “You Irish are a strange tribe. You let your feelings tell you what to think. It makes you good writers—as long as there’s an editor around to add the intellectual ingredients.”
I wondered if I should grovel in the dust at Dana’s feet to acknowledge his immense superiority. For a moment I was almost ready to do it, so he could lift me up, pat me on the head, and assure me that I had a place in this war-ravaged American world after all.
“Lincoln’s death leaves a void,” Dana said. “You see it as a tragedy. I see it as an opportunity. So, I begin to think, does Stanton.”
Edwin Stanton was the secretary of war. I had long since concluded that this abrupt, disagreeable lawyer seldom saw anything that Dana did not see first. In the early days of the war I thought this was rather marvelous. Not many people could handle Stanton. John Hay, Lincoln’s genial private secretary, once told me that rather than ask Stanton for another favor on the president’s behalf, he would gladly spend several weeks in a smallpox hospital.
At the moment, with President Bourbonbrain in the White House wondering what day it was, Edwin Stanton was the most powerful man in America. That meant what he thought, thanks to Dana, could be more than a little important. My all but extinguished reporter’s instincts stirred somewhere in my sodden soul.
As Dana and I stood there, exchanging pregnant stares, a regiment from the Army of the Potomac advanced down Pennsylvania Avenue toward us like a gigantic blue centipede. Every bayoneted rifle was at precisely the same angle. Every kepi was firmly set on every brow without a millimeter of difference between rim and nose. Every crisp sleeve swung simultaneously at the exact same distance from the hip, as if they were all pendulums on some inhuman machine. Even in the dusk the shine of their shoes was enough to make a man believe in revelations.
On the sidewalk not far from us, we heard a chorus of guffaws. We turned to discover about two dozen members of the Union Army of the Tennessee lounging against the White House fence. Crispness was not exactly a characteristic of their uniforms. There was not a pressed sleeve in sight. In fact, more often than not, there was only a dirty shirt and a pair of tattered pants, held up by a rope. Shoes were also conspicuously absent. Bare feet seemed to be part of the uniform of the day in the Army of the Tennessee.
“Jesus,” howled one of them, “you ever see anything like them tin soldiers? No wonder they only won a battle once in four years.”
Dana frowned. For a moment something close to anxiety clouded those glowing eyes. These soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee were the men who had marched through Georgia and South Carolina and North Carolina, tearing out the guts and the heart of the Southern rebellion. They were from the West, a region that loomed in the mind of even the most omniscient Easterner (who else but Dana?) as a terra incognita that had already produced that most exotic of political plants, Abrahamensis Lincolnia.
Now seventy thousand of these weedy unpredictables were camped across the river in Virginia in a very ugly mood. Secretary of War Stanton, at Dana’s urging, had insulted their Ohio-born general, William Tecumseh Sherman, for giving overgenerous terms to the last Rebel army worth mentioning when they surrendered to his irresistible host a few weeks ago in North Carolina. Stanton aka Dana had repudiated the terms in the newspapers, publicly humiliating Sherman. Not a few members of the Army of the Tennessee were now talking about repudiating Stanton and perhaps the entire government of the United States, as currently personified by President Bourbonbrain nearby us in his splendid white house.
Like the rest of Washington, the executive mansion was festooned with black bunting in mourning for the murdered Lincoln. Perhaps that gesture toward their fellow son of the West had restrained them from reaching for their guns. So far, their angry talk had not led to any revolutionary action.
“What sort of work have we got to do?” I asked.
“The sort that will make you the most famous newspaperman in the country and possibly the world,” Dana said.
“How are you going to manage that?” I said, intrigued in spite of my sadness. After all, I was only twenty-five years old. I did not expect to stay sad for the rest of my life—and I had to make a living somehow. Why not as a reporter? Even though I was convinced that all the news in this divided and subdivided country would be depressing for the next twenty years.
“In three days,” Dana said, “the armies of the Union are going to parade down this avenue. The Army of the Potomac will come first, then Sherman’s wild men. It will be the greatest display of armed might in the history of the world.”
That put Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon in the shade. Dana had a fondness for hyperbole. “So?” I said. “What happens after that?”
“The country—the entire world—will be awed. Intimidated would be a more exact word. Especially our beaten, bedraggled Rebels south of us. That will give us the opportunity to put on trial and execute for treason the one man that could reignite this rebellion if he so chose, a half-dozen years hence.”
“Jeff Davis?” I said. “Is that what you’re going to do with the pathetic old buzzard?” On a tip from Dana, I had dragged my besotted bones to Fortress Monroe, on the shore of Hampton Roads, Virginia, a week ago to see the ex-president of the Confederacy marched from a ship to a dungeon in that huge pile of stone. It was hardly worth the trip. Davis looked like a bewildered scarecrow. The only color in my story was supplied by the fort’s second in command, one of those potbellied regular-army types who had arranged to spend the war avoiding any and all Rebel gunfire. He loudly proclaimed that Davis would live on bread and water, just like any other criminal.
“Not Davis,” Dana said, exhibiting an impatience with my stupidity that usually reduced me to obsequious silence. “He’s a mere failed politician, without a shred of glory left to his name. I’m talking about Robert E. Lee.”
For a moment I was too stunned to speak. “How can you do it?” I finally said. “Grant paroled him when he surrendered at Appomattox.”
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was currently the commander in chief of the U.S. Army, the leader of a half million men. That made him more powerful in fact if not in law than Stanton, Dana, and the entire Congress of the United States, plus President Bourbonbrain.
“I can handle Grant,” Dana said. “Don’t give him a thought.”
I had no reason to doubt Dana’s confidence on this point. Without Dana, Lieutenant General Grant at this very moment would have been puking into the mud of a St. Louis, Missouri, gutter—one of the many drunken slobs who infest that hard-drinking Western metropolis—instead of presiding as the commander in chief of our invincible, soon-to-be-paraded host, the Grand Army of the Republic.
“And Sherman? What are you going to do with him?”
“Cashier him, if he says another defiant word against Stanton. That’s been passed to him, sotto voce, already.”
I had no doubt that Dana had done this—nor much doubt that Sherman would swallow it. Soldiers are acutely sensitive to power. With Grant behind him, Stanton (aka Dana) was invincible.
“Where do I come into this drama?”
“You’ll be the only newspaperman admitted to the trial. You’ll have the exclusive story of Robert E. Lee’s conviction as a traitor—and his execution.”
Another regiment of the Army of the Potomac came down Pennsylvania Avenue with the same machinelike perfection. This one differed from the previous automatons in one very important aspect. Every man in the ranks had an ebony face. There were thirty or forty thousand Negroes in the Army of the Potomac. The loungers from the Army of the Tennessee gave them a very different reception from the one they had proferred the white regiment.
At first there was stunned silence. There were no black regiments in their army. Then one of them shouted: “I hope none of you niggers is thinkin’ of settlin’ in Indiana!”
Similar shouts from other members of their group made it clear that these colored men would be equally unwelcome in Illinois and Ohio. “Halt!” shouted Dana. The regiment came to an abrupt stop. The bulky white colonel in command rushed from the front of the column with fiery eyes.
“Who said halt?” he roared. His voice had a Yankee twang.
“I did,” Dana replied. “I’m Charles Dana, the assistant secretary of war. I want you to put these men under arrest.” He pointed to the Westerners, who were retreating into a surly clump.
“What’s the charge?”
“Didn’t you hear them insulting your soldiers?” Dana said. “This won’t be tolerated in our newly united country. Every citizen will be required to treat every other citizen with respect, no matter what their color.”
“Major Bigelow!” bellowed the colonel. A lanky, somewhat effete-looking officer hurried to his side. The colonel pointed to the Westerners. “Arrest these fellows and put them in the Navy Yard prison. Charges will be preferred by Mr. Dana here, the assistant secretary of war.”
“Yes, sir.”
Bigelow summoned a white captain—all the officers were white—and he quickly detached a platoon from the black ranks. “You ain’t gonna get away with this!” one of the Westerners shouted. “Uncle Billy Sherman will hang you from a sour apple tree.”
“We’ll see about that,” Dana said.
Suddenly I was in another dimension, another life, those halcyon prewar years when I was Dana’s adopted son, meeting men such as the eloquent champion of Negro freedom, the escaped slave Frederick Douglass; the world-famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; the fiery founder of the abolition movement, William Lloyd Garrison. Thanks to Dana I became acquainted with the great idealists of America and was soon convinced by the homage they paid my mentor that he was the greatest of them. My admiration for Dana was boundless; my joy in being chosen by this extraordinary man almost compensated for the loss of my parents on our immigrant ship. Dana was my spiritual guide, urging on Jeremiah O’Brien’s cynical Irish soul the value, the power, the beauty, of ideals.
I wanted to regain that relationship now. I wanted to be reborn again, after four years in an approximation of hell. Perhaps this daring idea, to put Robert E. Lee on trial, would restore my corrupted faith.
I waited until the arrested Westerners and the black regiment had receded into the dusk. “What’s our goal, Dana?” I asked.
“To break the spirit of the South, once and for all,” Dana said. “We’ve broken their armies. But we haven’t broken their spirit. This will do it. Lee dangling from a federal gibbet will do it.”
“I wonder,” I said.
“That’s not part of your job, O’Brien. I’m in charge of the wonder.”
The godlike Dana smiled at me with implacable, irreducible righteousness. I wanted to succumb. I wanted to embrace him and his plan with my old awe and new fervor. But some unnamed inner force or power stopped me. Was it because dusk was shrouding that triumphant smile, darkening those invincible eyes? Or was it because too many brave men had died in the name of that righteousness—or in defiance of it?
Dana’s wisdom had been my guide, Dana’s orders had been my regimen for too many years. I could not escape him. “I’m at your service, Mr. Assistant Secretary,” I said, with a mock bow.
Excerpted from The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee by Thomas Fleming.
Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Fleming.
Published in October 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.


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Excerpted from The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee by Thomas Fleming Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Fleming. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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