Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln

Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln

by William A. Tidwell, David Winfred Gaddy, James O. Hall

See All Formats & Editions

Many Confederates believed that Abraham Lincoln himself was the sponsor of the Union army's heavy destruction of the South. With John Wilkes Booth as its agent, the Confederate Secret Service devised a plan of retribution--to seize President Lincoln, hold him hostage, and bring the war-weary North to capitulation. The code word for this stratagem was "Come


Many Confederates believed that Abraham Lincoln himself was the sponsor of the Union army's heavy destruction of the South. With John Wilkes Booth as its agent, the Confederate Secret Service devised a plan of retribution--to seize President Lincoln, hold him hostage, and bring the war-weary North to capitulation. The code word for this stratagem was "Come Retribution."

But when Booth was stymied, the Secret Service took another course. They conspired to bomb the White House during a conference of senior Union officials. But this plot also failed. Next, the Confederates devised for Confederate forces to abandon Richmond and Petersburg and to link up with General Joseph E. Johnston in the South before General Grant's forces were prepared to move. This plan was thwarted, however, when Grant took Richmond. By April 9, 1865, Lee was forced to surrender.

Yet the willful, ardent Booth, smarting from the South's loss of the war, took decisive action at Ford's Theater during that spring night in 1865.

Investigating the assassination from their perspective as career intelligence officers, William A. Tidwell and David Winfred Gaddy, joined by James O. Hall, one of the leading authorities on the assassination, find and follow the clues, interpret the clandestine evidence, and draw well-founded conclusions. They are the first to explore the Confederate Secret Service's link to the death of Lincoln. In Come Retribution, originally published in 1988 and now available again in a paperback edition, they offer startling insights and give a new direction to the well-known and often-told story of Lincoln and Booth.

"The facts presented and the inferences drawn are provocative," said Nathan Miller in The Baltimore Sun. "Every account of the Lincoln assassination published in the future will have to take account of the arguments presented in this book."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Was the assassination of Lincoln the result of a Confederate conspiracy? The authors (Tidwell and Gaddy are retired U.S. intelligence officers; Hall is a retired U.S. Department of Labor official) introduce sources that they say have never been consulted to reconstruct the covert operations of the Confederate Secret Service, including an elaborate plan to capture Lincoln in March 1865 that involved his eventual assassin John Wilkes Booth. Proposing that, contrary to the normative views of Civil War historians, the South was confident of its strength in 1864 and 1865, the authors speculate that the unexpected successes of Generals Grant and Sherman that forced Lee to surrender in April 1865 did not daunt Booth, who may have reasoned that ``all was not lost; there were still Confederate armies in the field. Some dramatic action might yet save the Confederacy, and he was the one to do it.'' Acting on his own initiative, the authors advance, Booth shot Lincoln, then escaped via the route that would have served in the abduction plot. The evidence is, as the authors admit, circumstantial, the argument highly conjectural, the writing frequently infelicitous (an agent ``went in to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson but his courage was not sufficiently screwed up''). Nevertheless, Civil War and military history buffs will be intrigued by the documentation amassed in this hefty book. Illustrations not seen by PW. (September)

Product Details

University Press of Mississippi
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.41(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Intelligence Problems of the Confederacy

    The Confederacy provides a unique opportunity to study the needs of a modern nation for intelligence and the institutions that can be developed to satisfy these needs. Involved in a war featuring mass armies and the large-scale application of technology and industrial production, the Confederacy made great strides in its four years of existence to develop institutions that provided a remarkable intelligence capability. Many Confederate records were destroyed or lost in the turmoil of 1865, and there was some selective destruction of documents that were believed to be especially sensitive. In spite of these detriments, a great deal of pertinent material has survived.

    A good source of easily accessible Confederate records is The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, the main body of which contains both Union and Confederate records of the land war but with a complementary series dealing with the Union and Confederate navies. There are also considerable quantities of additional manuscript materials in the U.S. National Archives, in the Library of Congress, in the possession of state governments, and in various university collections, historical societies, and museums. Some original material remains in the hands of individuals, collectors or the families of participants in the Civil War.

    The main challenge in studying the vast amount of historical material is to ask the right questions. If one isresearching a specific subject in the Confederate records, one will seldom find the material organized and indexed to provide a direct answer, especially if the question is asked in terms of today's thinking. The raw material is available, however, to provide some insight into almost any subject if the analytical approach is properly conceived and executed.

    The surviving Confederate records have another bias that scholars should keep in mind. Because the central Confederate government was intimately involved with the war in Virginia, more material survives on activities in the eastern theater than on the war in Tennessee, along the Mississippi, or the trans-Mississippi. Lack of information on those areas does not necessarily mean that large-scale clandestine activities took place there, but it raises the possibility that there were more than we know of.

    The Confederacy was faced with a wide range of military, economic, and political decisions. Because of its success in developing information-gathering institutions, the Confederacy was able to use intelligence as a force multiplier. This is a modern term that describes the Confederates' ability to use information to make their limited forces more effective. With good intelligence, the moves of the Union could be anticipated and the Confederate armed forces could be positioned where they would be most effective.

    The Confederates were also able to use clandestine operations, an extension of their intelligence capability, to immobilize large numbers of federal troops that would otherwise have aided the Union in the field of battle. These clandestine operations were not always successful, and part of this book is devoted to a description of the largest and most important of them, which was almost a catastrophe for the Confederacy. Intent on capturing President Lincoln for use as a hostage, the Confederates at last were able only to capture his reputation as a martyr who would have understood the South and treated it more fairly and humanely than was done by the living politicians of Washington.

    In the beginning, the leaders of the Confederacy had almost the same sources of information as the leaders of the Union. Before secession many who would become leaders of the Confederacy lived in Washington, where they and their Union antagonists read the same newspapers and books and had access to the same government reports and statistics. With the formation of the Confederacy, some of the access in Washington was lost, but there were other sources to draw upon. The prewar cotton trade to the North and Europe had created a network of people in the North and abroad with whom southerners conducted business and sometimes personal relations.

    In addition, the secession movement tended to develop a network for the exchange of information. A great deal of prosecession activity took place in Washington, where the representatives of the various states could meet face to face, but there was also a voluminous correspondence by mail and by travel between representatives in Washington and the state governors and key political leaders at home. The inflammatory nature of the secession movement meant that much of this intellectual and political intercourse had to be kept secret. Because of the quasi-conspiratorial nature of the secession movement, many of the attitudes and practices that are desirable in any clandestine operation were adopted at that time.

    Many of the states thought of themselves as truly sovereign and felt a responsibility to keep themselves fully informed on activities that might be injurious. As a result, some states developed their own sources of information in Washington and elsewhere in the North. Some of the contacts and sources developed just before the war were taken over or used by the Confederacy, but many contacts and sources of exchanges of information between North and South were never fully organized. They represented an uncontrolled resource that might produce an information gem at some unpredictable moment.

    In addition to the contacts that produced useful information, the South had another asset that is often overlooked: its upper- and middle-class citizens. A sample of tax records in some counties in the South suggests that these classes formed a larger proportion of the total population than in the North or in Europe. Perhaps it was one of the results of slavery that in the economy of the South, a larger proportion of people with a modicum of managerial talent could rise in status. In any case, the South had many talented men, many educated in Ivy League schools, who had traveled and dealt on a broader horizon than their immediate surroundings. These people were available to provide intelligent leadership and manpower for the Confederate officer corps and for the technical jobs that were generated by the demands of war. This pool of talent was also available to be drawn upon for service in intelligence work.

    Aside from the educated manpower and the relationships developed by the political and economic leaders, each state had militia or state military forces that provided organized bodies of men with some training or experience in hunting, scouting, or other activities that could be useful in intelligence work. The large cities had their police forces, the counties their sheriffs and deputy sheriffs, and some areas also had bounty-hunters or chasers of runaway slaves whose talents could be adapted to intelligence work.

    At the outbreak of the Civil War, many army officers on both sides who had served in the Mexican War knew that adequate provision must be made for intelligence about the enemy. The United States had entered the Mexican War without any institutions to provide intelligence, and cultural and language problems had inhibited the growth of an adequate clandestine information-gathering system. In 1861, no such barrier would prevent penetration of the enemy society. With some fumbling, each side moved quickly to correct its deficiencies in the collection of information about the other.

    Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate, had been a successful troop commander in the Mexican War and shared the determination of many of his former colleagues not to be found deficient through ignorance of the enemy. He was also a successful politician and knew the value of information in that arena as well. At the outbreak of the war, he believed that his future role was to be that of a general officer commanding troops. His election as president of the Confederacy was a surprise to him, but it was an apt choice. He probably had the best combination of skills and technical knowledge of any wartime national leader in the nineteenth century. He knew politics, military affairs, and the value of information about the enemy. Even more significant, he had a good idea of the importance of security and the harm that could be caused by careless talk. Modern game theory and its emphasis on the importance of learning about one's opponent and denying him information about oneself would have come as no surprise to Jefferson Davis. One tries to deny an opponent the knowledge of how one collects information about him and how successful one is at doing so. That makes it difficult for him to counter or manipulate one's information gathering as a means of deception.

    Intelligence organizations are created, trained, and operated to make it difficult for an outsider to learn about them and understand their operations. In time of war they tend to reflect the grimness instilled by the death penalty traditionally awarded to spies who are caught. In wartime, intelligence operations are often deadly, serious matters of winning and living or of losing and dying.

    In addition to direct threats to individual life and welfare, there are threats to the most private and most vulnerable aspects of the individual ego. The image a person wishes to present to the world may be threatened by the actions he may be involved in during a wartime career in intelligence. The intelligence officer, secret agent, or spy often has to play false roles or carry out acts for which he does not wish to be held personally responsible. It is a dangerous business and one that is filled with emotional traps for people who are sincere in their commitment to a cause. Intelligence work requires people who are patriotic and sincere, and it is exactly these people who can accumulate the most emotional scars in pursuing it.

    The Confederacy's main initial requirement was for rapid knowledge of the Union's intentions toward the fledgling nation. That caused a focus on political and military espionage in Washington. This phase was followed by the organization and evolution of the full range of intelligence activities that the Confederacy needed to maintain itself in a deadly combat of some duration. In the first stage, speed was vital. The chosen strategy seemed to be to exploit the sympathy for the South exhibited by the population of Washington and to engage in widespread information gathering. Because of the lack of time or capabilities for training, much of this activity was amateurish, but it was good enough to give the Confederacy the warning it needed. In the second stage, the Confederacy was operating on the basis of some experience and recognized that its intelligence capability had to be built to last for the duration of the war. The intelligence needs recognized by the Confederacy in this stage parallel those of any reasonably modern nation engaged in a war with a powerful enemy.

    The first and most obvious need was to collect the information that was openly available, primarily from newspapers and journals. Jefferson Davis, however, could not subscribe to the Washington National Intelligencer and expect to have it delivered to his office each day. To get information that was freely available, therefore, it was necessary to set up an elaborate clandestine organization. Arrangements had to be made for people to buy or subscribe to papers from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. No one person could get them all because it might attract attention and generate suspicion. Furthermore, it was probably wise for two or three people to obtain each publication to ensure against accidental losses or the arrest of individual subscribers. Probably ten to twenty people bought newspapers whose destination was Richmond.

    Once the subscribers had been organized, routes had to be determined by which each subscriber could get his papers into the hands of a courier system that could move them quickly and safely across the lines into Confederate territory. The arrangements would differ with the circumstances and location of the subscribers. One might use relays of boys or slaves to carry the papers to an entry point into the courier system. Another might wrap his newspapers in a package and mail it quickly to a safe address in southern Maryland where it could be turned over to Confederate couriers. All of this arranging took time and careful organization. Successful operation of the system took dedicated work and closed mouths on the part of a great many people.

    In addition to publications, much valuable information was available by word of mouth. Its collection, however, required people who knew what would be of interest to the Confederacy living where they could hear it. Once known to a sympathetic observer, the information could be sent as a simple personal letter to a safe address within the courier system, but the hard part was to recruit the observer and train him or her on what to listen for.

    The personal observer system could be useful in foreign countries as well as in the North. In the absence of diplomatic recognition, agents had to be sent abroad who could organize and maintain a flow of information that would eventually find its way into the Confederacy or support specific Confederate operations abroad. Much of this information, like the newspapers, would be overt, that is, nonsecret. What made it sensitive was its value to the Confederacy, the channels by which it got there, and its ultimate use.

    Information of value to the Confederacy could also be collected by visual observation. Such information could be collected openly by trained military personnel who were generally employed as scouts and worked out of the tactical forces. Ideally, these men should have had specialized training, but it was the sort of work that also benefited from natural aptitude and on-the-job experience.

    Engineers with the tactical forces might collect information of value such as news on rainfall and its effects on roads. Signal personnel might also provide information through their own observations in addition to their primary function of transmitting messages for others.

    One of the fastest and most authoritative ways of finding out about an enemy is to capture one of his soldiers and get the soldier to tell you the information. Obviously, many prisoners would not cooperate, and some would be ignorant of the information desired, but the procedure should work often enough and well enough for it to be considered as a standard source of information. The Confederates took substantial numbers of prisoners, and that source was available to them throughout the war. To get the most from this source, a prisoner had to be interrogated as soon as possible after his capture to acquire any information of immediate tactical value and identify a prisoner who should receive special treatment, either because of what he knew or because of his willingness or unwillingness to cooperate.

    It was important to search prisoners thoroughly for letters or documents that contained useful information. The contents of a prisoner's pockets—letters from home, receipts, ticket stubs, coins, pay records, and the like—could be used when equipping an agent with a new identity. Some prisoners were more cooperative than others, and it was important to segregate the willing from the hard-liners to prevent the latter from exerting influence over the more pliable. Some prisoners might even be willing to switch sides and enlist in the Confederate forces, and they needed to be protected from attack by their former comrades. Some cooperative prisoners might even be willing to return to the Union and act as agents for the Confederacy. These people, especially, needed protection from their fellow prisoners. They would need to be trained for their new mission, which could not be done while they were in a conventional prison for captives. In addition to the subtle features of the requirements outlined above, the need to feed, shelter, and guard large numbers of soldiers who did not want to be prisoners meant that their successful exploitation for intelligence purposes proved a tremendous challenge for the Confederacy.

    There is no indication that the Confederates thought of information gathering as a systematic staff function to be carried out by what would today be called intelligence officers. The logic of function exerted an inevitable influence, however, and as time went by, many tactical organizations at the division and corps level began to develop staff officers who specialized in the work that modern intelligence officers do. Sometimes these officers were aides-decamp, sometimes they were assistant adjutants general, sometimes even chaplains. Particularly in the early part of the war, they might have been volunteer aides-de-camp—civilians who were friends of the commander and served without commissions. This latter group was allowed the status and pay of first lieutenants.

    An enemy's communications are always a useful target for intelligence collection. Mail may be intercepted intentionally or accidentally, messengers may be captured or subverted, or electronic transmission may be intercepted. During the Civil War, the fluidity of maneuver frequently gave the Union and Confederacy access to the same telegraph lines. Obviously, useful information might be obtained from the opponent's messages.

    These threats to the security of communication made it necessary for the Confederacy to develop a system for enciphering its important communications, which would incorporate more than one code or cipher method. There was a need for privacy within the Confederate government. It would not do for many functionaries to have access to some messages. The more people who could read some messages, the greater the risk to security. As a result, several cipher methods were used by different bureaus and departments.

    The personnel who enciphered and deciphered the messages had to be trained, and a procedure had to be developed to keep them apprised of changes in the cipher systems. One of the most common items that was changed was the key word or phrase used in the principal Confederate cipher systems. These key words might be compromised if enemies who attempted cryptanalysis succeeded in deciphering them. Key words might also be compromised by the capture and successful interrogation of one of the persons who enciphered or deciphered messages. Because of these dangers, it was common practice to change the key words from time to time. To maintain security, these changes had to be transmitted by special courier.

    In addition to the creation and management of a cipher system, there had to be an organized method for carrying messages from point to point. In some cases, the normal mails or commercial telegraph could be used, but in many areas only couriers could provide the necessary service. The most difficult part of the courier service to organize was that part that led across enemy lines. The people engaged in that section of the system had to be recruited carefully to ensure that they were loyal to the Confederacy. They had to be instructed, the type and amount of training depending on the nature of the person's specific job in the courier system. The system also needed to be managed. Performance had to be checked, sick people replaced, and enemy penetrations avoided.

    The Confederacy was something of a pioneer in the use of communication on the battlefield. Following the invention of the telegraph in the 1830s, a sizable number of people knew how to use the main-telegraphic codes of the time. Messages could be sent visually using a similar code by the use of signal flags or torches. The signal system made it possible to send messages over considerable distances, over obstacles, or over enemy units. The personnel to operate this tactical communications system had to be trained in code and in the use of the signal devices. The signal system also required some administration on the battlefield, which meant that a commander's staff must include someone who understood the technology involved and who could take responsibility for technical management of the system.

    A specialized application of tactical signal capability was supplying blockade-running ships with information, advice, and guidance concerning the Union blockading forces, the location of reefs, mines, and obstacles, and other factors that would help them make a safe entry into port. Special signal arrangements had to be made because weather conditions sometimes made it impossible to use the torch system employed by the Confederate army at night.

    In addition to the tactical signal system, army telegraphers needed to know telegraphic code. Some trained telegraph operators could be obtained from the civilian telegraph companies, but the needs of the army were too great to be satisfied from that source alone. New operators needed to be trained, perhaps by the telegraph companies, and made available to support Confederate operations in the field.

    The technique of determining the organization of enemy forces and keeping track of individual units is commonly called order of battle. The Confederates, like any modern nation facing a large and powerful enemy, would be better able to understand that enemy and the significance of specific maneuvers if they understood the composition and the history of the enemy units involved. For example, it might be important to know that the 139th New York Volunteers were part of Henry's brigade. The order-of-battle files might show that this brigade frequently operated on special assignments. If the 139th regiment was reported to be in a particular area, it might mean that the rest of the brigade was nearby. Such hints could be of immense value in combat. By the end of the war, the Union had developed an outstanding order-of-battle effort. The system used by the Confederacy is less well known and seems to have differed in some respects, but the Confederates were well aware of the Union effort and had a good understanding of the techniques.

    Maps are essential to the conduct of modern war, and though the engineers could provide the technical expertise, the production of maps was inescapably an intelligence concern. Maps summarize and display terrain and cultural information that a commander may need to plan and carry out military operations. Maps are not raw data; they are the product of considerable analysis and refinement of large amounts of other information.


Excerpted from COME RETRIBUTION by William A. Tidwell with James O. Hall and David Winfred Gaddy. Copyright © 1988 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews