24 August 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 10 comments

With his express permission, here is the pertinent portion of the letter from Dave Gaddy:

By e-mail I also wrote of the composition of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren columns, seeing evidence of “task-organization” that seemed so modern to me. For example, the assignment of men from the BMI, headed by Capt. McEntee, one of the (if not the) top men of Sharpe’s organization; the assignment of two signal officers (which should have entailed a small team of accompanying signal specialists each); engineers, pioneers, commissaries, quartermasters, etc., plus “specialized equipment” for raiders, such as oakum, turpentine, and torpedoes/mines—placed under control of signal officers. I do appreciate your desire not to be drawn into a detailed examination of the raid itself. But, for example, Ed Fishel’s acolyte, Feis [Grant’s Secret Service] (304 n38) identifies “at least” eight BMI “employees” as accompanying the raiders—Capt McEntee plus two with Kilpatrick and five with Dahlgren. The latter include Hogan (Lt., 1st Ind Cav) and Swisher, whom you refer to as Dahlgren’s guides [Chapter 11, pp. 28, which I’ll ref here as 11-28, and 35, more or less], but their relationship with BMI may reveal another dimension to the origin and composition of the raid.

What I’m pressing is the level of “who knew what,” who sketched the concept, who authorized it, who allowed (or directed) Dahlgren’s involvement, etc., which are treated in 11-4, 5 and elsewhere. In a commentary (“Reflections on Come Retribution”) published in the Winter 1989 issue (Vol. III, No. 4) of The International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, 567-573, I stressed our discovery of the covert executive-level authorization and funding of secret service activities in the CSA and suggested that it perhaps followed a familiar USA model, namely, that Congress appropriated (starting with Geo. Washington) a “privy purse” to be disbursed at the direction of the President, by his executive agent, the Secretary of State, to the mission agent (say, Secretary of War, for further relay down the line). This provided “executive deniability” for the President and offered two or more cabinet level officials who could “take the fall” if something went wrong. After the publication of CR, James O. Hall directed my attention to proof that the US did follow that model, namely, a Lincoln authorization to Seward to advance “secret service” funds to Meigs for a mission to Pensacola. (This continued until the creation of CIA in 1947 and the deniability aspect disappeared when Eisenhower “’fessed up” to U2 overflights of the Soviet Union.) Sorry for the long-winded digression. My point is that too much behind the story of the raid (talk about foreshadowing the Son Tay Raid in Viet Nam!) smacks of White House secrecy and drew me later to the George/Wistar argument, perhaps stemming from Lincoln’s interview with senior escapees from Richmond. I find it difficult to stop (or start) with Stanton. Wily Mr. Lincoln and his SecWar were as adept at covering their tracks as were Davis and Benjamin. Ditto Butler. (I confess that the psychological complexity of Stanton gives me fits.) There seem to be traces of prior PYA thinking (e.g., Kilpatrick’s acceptance and possible setting-up of Dahlgren as fall guy or sponsored hero), ex post facto cover-up (e.g., the disappearance of the Dahlgren papers originals), and promulgation of the heroic patriot “take.” (That there was genuine concern for the plight of brave men in prison I do not doubt, and I cannot read Adm Dahlgren’s grief-stricken writing unmoved.) I write this for your information: I think you have done an excellent job of finding your trail through the mine-field. This may or may not strengthen your conviction here and there.

Here’s what I find intriguing about his analysis. First, and foremost, there seems little reason to have sent so many BMI guys–including the very best of them–unless there was something more to this than meets the eye. I was not aware that Hogan and Swisher were BMI guys–I understood that Martin Hogan, a lieutenant in the 1st Indiana Cavalry, was simply Dahlgren’s favorite scout, with whom he had worked previously. I must admit that this does cause me to reassess some of my thinking on this issue.

I also find some of his analysis–specifically that part which addresses the conspiracy aspects of this–somewhat persuasive, although I tend not to be much of a believer in conspiracy theories. In point of fact, I normally don’t buy into conspiracy theories.

To clarify one thing he mentions: the “George/Wistar” reference is to an extremely interesting article by Joseph George, Jr., “‘Black Flag Warfare’: Lincoln and the Raids Against Richmond and Jefferson Davis.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 115, No. 3 (July 1991): 291-318. The article by George was the one that first tipped me off to the Wistar expedition.

I am still not persuaded by Dave, although I’m looking at his theory a bit more closely than I did previously. I am going to include this same discussion (cleaned up just a bit) in one of the endnotes to the manuscript because I consider it to be well-reasoned and worthy of inclusion. I remain convinced that Lincoln himself had no knowledge but that the order may well have come from Stanton.

And, as reader Bill Bergen pointed out in a comment to last night’s post, it remains entirely possible–and perhaps even probable–that Kilpatrick and/or Dahlgren were cowboying here, and that nobody beside them knew.

What’s clear is that we will never know the answer to this mystery. It remains a fascinating and terribly perplexing question that will probably continue to tantalize me for the rest of my life.

Scridb filter


  1. David
    Fri 25th Aug 2006 at 6:55 am

    I have always been somewhat hesitant to accept the underlying thesis of COME RETRIBUTION for the following reason: it is highly speculative and its interpretation tends to reflect a modern conception of intelligence/covert action that I do not believe existed at the time. The 18th and 19th (even early 20th century) conception of secret service is vastly different than what has developed during the late 20th century.

    You also need to take into consideration Lincoln’s character, or what we know of it, and you correctly note that authorizing such an activity would be out of character.

    Adding something to the notes of your book will help readers navigate this minefield, but aside from my earlier suggestion, I would not change what you have written.

  2. Bill Bergen
    Fri 25th Aug 2006 at 7:30 am


    Gaddy’s points are thought-provoking. I am no expert on the Army of Potomac’s BMI, but my impression is that Kilpatrick arrived back in Culpepper from his trip to Washington with orders that he be given the resources for the raid. Meade dutifully carried out those orders almost certainly without knowledge of any directive involving the murder of Davis and high military officials. One sees in Meade’s correspondence an almost willful desire not to know any details of the raid, and skepticism of Kilpatrick’s after-action alibis.

    But while Gaddy provides fascinating details, it does not necessarily change the conclusion. We knew already that Kilpatrick was handed the authority to call on Meade for everything he needed for the raid. The intelligence component could be explained by simple prudence alone, or could be related to nothing more than Kilpatrick thinking he needed specialized help with freeing the captives.

    In the end, I return to three of my own biases when thinking about history. One, my reading of human nature is that people tend to act in the same patterns over and over, and I can find nothing in Lincoln’s behavior or language which would support such a wild, risky, and blood-thirsty scheme as that found in Dahlgren’s papers. My study of Stanton’s life and actions have brought me to the unexpected conclusion that authorizing such a scheme would, at a minimum, be out of character. (I very much agree, however, with Gaddy’s comment about Stanton’s psychological complexity as I am finding that understanding his mindset is even more difficult than understanding Lincoln’s.)

    Two, my reading of history is that conspiracies are hard to keep secret forever, and to believe that a conspiracy existed without any hard collaborating evidence is to disregard the very human motivation of, well, disclosing one’s secret knowledge. The fact that BMI personnel were on the raid and, to our knowledge, never contributed anything useful to understanding the controversy suggest to me that they did not know of any scheme involving murder of high Confederate officials.

    Three, while it is always fun to speculate—and in this fascinating instance, speculation is warranted because the mysteries are so deep—in the end one must rely on the most concrete of evidence. The most tangible piece of information we have is Dahlgren’s papers, and it is impossible to read those and conclude that flamboyant and aggressive language (“hateful” and “exhorting” and “traitorous crew”) were taken from orders issued from above. And while it is possible to explain that away with an explanation of conspiracy, that way leads to unsupported rationale on top of unsupported rationale. That can be interesting, but it is not history as I know it.

    And so while I concede everything in the realm of speculation, i.e., that it is possible that Lincoln ordered a raid that would result in the murder of Davis and his cabinet, the evidence is simply not there to support such reasoning and–from what we know– the odds are against keeping such an order secret forever. To my reading, what evidence we have points way further down the chain of command.

    I agree with David: Gaddy provides more insight, but nothing that suggests to me your conclusion should change.


  3. Fri 25th Aug 2006 at 9:16 am

    David and Bill,

    We’re all on the same page here. As I said, I’m going to include most of what Dave wrote in a note, but my basic conclusions remain unchanged. I simply don’t see Lincoln ordering such a thing. I’ve said it before, and David Woodbury repeats it–this sort of thing was far, far from consistent with Lincoln’s known character, and I simply cannot make that leap of faith.

    It IS a fascinating issue though, isn’t it?


  4. Jim Epperson
    Fri 25th Aug 2006 at 10:51 am

    I think we have to distinguish between Lincoln ordering a “decapitation” raid and giving orders to “burn the hateful city” and murder Davis et al.
    The former I can believe as coming from Lincoln, but I think the latter was added by Dahlgren.


  5. Valerie Protopapas
    Fri 25th Aug 2006 at 12:32 pm

    In a comment on the earlier ‘post’, someone asked for ‘proof’ for my assertion that Lincoln WAS involved. Also, it was stated that my conclusion was based on ‘circumstantial’ evidence.

    However, no one seems to be able to offer any ‘proof’ – other than the usual ‘Lincoln wouldn’t have done something like that’ – that the President was NOT involved – OR knowledgeable. And as well, Mr. Wittenberg admits that ALL the evidence is ‘circumstantial’. Even the ‘eyewitnesses’ – Kilpatrick, Wistar et al. – are long dead and may have had their own agendas vis a vie the matter and so their ‘evidence’ may be considered ‘circumstantial’ as well’. The fact is that I doubt very much that any ‘smoking gun’ is going to come to light which will neatly solve the problem. Indeed, even if one did, I doubt very much that it would be accepted by those for whom the resultant conclusion would be simply unacceptable.

    I still say – and no one has in any way been able to reasonably refute at least to my satisfaction – that the makeup of the raid including the papers carried by Dahlgren which DISAPPEARED (had they been forgeries, why not make them public and therefore expose the forgery?) clearly indicates involvement at the very highest levels of government; that is, the President.

    Furthermore, the information forthcoming from Mr. Gaddy – especially that involving the inclusion in the raid of persons whose expertise and the nature of the materials that they carried with them – strongly indicate a well planned and determined assault not only on the prisons holding Union captives, but on the Confederate government and the city of Richmond as well. If it is accepted by most historians that Harney intended to blow up the White House when he and his Ranger escort were captured attempting to enter Washington by virtue of the fact that he was an explosives expert and carried the requisite explosives, then how can one simply ‘dismiss’ the presence of similar ‘experts’ and materials in the Dahlgren raid as not being sufficient to prove intent?

    I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, but I have been asked to ‘prove’ my contention that Lincoln was involved in the raid, albeit I have made no claim that he was its instigator. I now ask that those who so strongly disagree, to DISprove this thesis with something other than the above noted claim that Lincoln wouldn’t have been a party to such an action. I think that he most certainly would if he believed it would bring a quick end to the war and assure his re-election.

    Furthermore, I believe that my point has been if not totally validated, at least strongly supported by the facts that continue to arise in the investigation of the matter. Certainly, it could be very fairly said that given what we have learned so far, the facts are far more supportive of my contention than the alternative.

  6. Chuck
    Fri 25th Aug 2006 at 2:06 pm

    I agree with David and Bill.
    Just a couple other points on Mr. Gaddy’s e-mail:

    First, Mr. Gaddy seems to try to make BMI into some 19th century sinister organization, which it was not. BMI was organized to provide the Army with intelligence to conduct military operations. Sending BMI soldiers (and they were soldiers, not ’employees’) with Kilpatrick’s Raiders makes sense when one considers that the spring campaign would need intelligence on the area.

    Second, BMI was not a hit squad organization, so their presence in and of itself proves nothing on the subject of killing politicians.

    Third, If the actual intent was to murder, it would have been far easier to send a small group of infiltrators to Richmond then a massive cavalry raid with unknowing regiments and an inexperienced Colonel.

    Lastly, there seems to be an illusion to “specialized equipment” of Oakum, terpintine and torpedoes. What is so special about that? Oakum, terpintine and torpedoes were used to fire and destroy Railroad bridges and facilities!

    Mr. Gaddy’s references to all sorts of 20th century covert ops simply confirms my previous e-mails that the approach of this theory is 20th century, not 19th century.

  7. Bill Bergen
    Fri 25th Aug 2006 at 9:31 pm


    We have had a long colloquy about this issue, and I have made serious efforts to not only understand your position, but to consider it in light of the evidence. I have concluded that we look at many of the same evidence and come to different conclusions. I have no problem with that.

    I do have a problem with the insinuation that if a smoking gun appeared that indicated that Lincoln knew of a scheme to murder Davis and his cabinet that would not change my conclusions. That is just plain wrong, and a disservice to all who try to examine the issues judiciously and honestly in this forum.

    Moreover, I wonder if you are prone to the same huge leaps of reasoning that you attribute to those of us who come to the opposite conclusion. For example, you state the circumstantial evidence “clearly indicates involvement at the very highest levels of government; that is, the President.“ Exactly how does it do that? What evidence can you present that shows, say, Stanton did not act alone without the approval of the president (as we know he was capable of doing)? What evidence can you present that disproves a thesis to the effect that Lincoln and Stanton thought they gave approval for a raidthat would free the prisoners—thus authorizing extraordinary resources– but that Kilpatrick and Dahlgren came up with the rest on their own? The evidence is, as we all agree, circumstantial, and that suggests it is, by its very nature, unclear.

    In response to my repeated invitations for anyone to come up with a parallel instance of Lincoln being involved in something this dastardly, or even saying something aggressive that would suggest he could have approved of a murderous scheme, you have resorted to unsupported assertions such as Lincoln “most certainly would [have approved of a plan to kill Davis and his cabinet] if he believed it would bring a quick end to the war and assure his re-election.” Exactly how is that certain? And if that were so, if he was that desperate, would he have not immediately launched similar raids or backed similar schemes?

    The point is not that you are right and I am wrong or vice versa. The point is that you have little basis for impugning the intellectual honesty of those of us who continue to research this issue but come to conclusions different from yours. Nor do you have any basis for claiming that your position is “strongly supported by the facts.” I make no such claim because the facts are ambiguous and too much remains unknown.


  8. Teej Smith
    Fri 25th Aug 2006 at 10:56 pm

    I’ve been lurking for awhile and have enjoyed this discussion. Couple of observations here. Unless Wistar was referring to an expedition other than the one ordered by Butler in early February 1864, wasn’t Isaac being, as a friend of mine puts it, “economical with the truth” when he told Mosby that he had “absolutely refused to go” on a similar mission? If Wistar was referring to the early February raid, according to Stephen Starr, it didn’t fail to come off because of a sudden case of morality on Wistar’s part, but because they had been betrayed to the Richmond authorities by an escape Union prisoner, Pvt. William J. Boyle, 1st N.Y. Mounted Rifles. who was under a sentence of death for murdering his lieutenant.

    As for the disappearance of the Dahlgren papers, as others have pointed out, it is unlikely that we’ll ever know what became of them but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there were sinister motives behind their disappearance. Stanton, for all of his warts and he had plenty, he could be notoriously generous to those he liked or admired. If he were behind the disappearance, rather than an effort to cover up any misdeed on his part, is it possible that he made them “go away” as a favor to the Dahlgren family? All conjecture here, but perhaps Stanton felt the Dahlgren family had suffered enough, and that since Ulric had already paid the ultimate price for his part in the “plot,” it would serve no purpose to continue to blacken the young man’s reputation for generations to come. Back to lurking….

    Regards, Teej

  9. Valerie Protopapas
    Sat 26th Aug 2006 at 9:22 am

    I am not impugning anyone’s ‘intellectual honesty’. I do know, however, from some 65 years of experience, that we all hold cherished beliefs that we are not really all that willing to abandon unless the evidence is so overwhelming as to make our adherence to same pure nonsense.

    Throughout this discussion, I have tried very carefully to point out those facts and circumstances which lead me to believe in the involvement of Lincoln and his Administration in the affair – which, by the way, I have done without any moral judgments at all. I have pointed out the political and military situation known to all here and how that would mitigate against the belief that Lincoln was a ‘know nothing’ President whose underlings were in the habit of taking on serious military and political adventures absent his knowledge or consent. I have also pointed to the information being presented either by Mr. Wittenberg or those sources to whom he has/had access, among which were:

    [1] Dahlgren’s acknowledged intimate connection to the White House which would have reasonably precluded his use in any ‘adventure’ of which the President would have disapproved and therefore have been kept ignorant by those plotting same;

    [2] the nature of the raid itself which we have now learned included not only considerable troops, but ‘specialists’ in explosives and the materials necessary for them to do their job;

    [3] the testimony of contemporary persons that earlier expeditions had been planned and then abandoned for whatever reason (simply because Wistar may have lied about WHY he didn’t go on a planned raid does not mean that the raid was never planned!);

    [4] the political situation extant before Lincoln’s second term which clearly demanded that something be done sufficient to insure the man’s re-election;

    [5] Lincoln’s own acknowledged and expressed support for the tactics of Sheridan and Sherman which clearly demonstrates that he was not above causing death and destruction among the civilian population of the South;

    There were others, but they need not be reiterated here. My problem is that throughout all, the only answer that I have gotten to these points is none at all or a mere dismissal of them as either ‘speculative’ or ‘unimportant’. Yet, in some posts, Mr. Wittenberg himself has made these same points which at that time at least, seemed to be taken somewhat (a lot?) more seriously by those involved in the discussion.

    Furthermore, when I asked for either a refutation of those points which indicate Lincoln’s involvement or, in the alternative, the presentation of points which would indicate otherwise, all I seem to find (albeit I may have missed something) is the tired old saw that it would have been contrary to the man’s nature. How do we know that? Lincoln had a very dark side. He suffered from depression, his home life was awful, he lost his first love and his career was hardly one of constant success. Who knows what he might have done to insure his re-election and, in his own mind at least, the future of the Union? Again, it seems to me, we are dealing with the mythology that has grown up around the man since his assassination rather than a clear, objective view of the politician and the man who was actually alive at the time and making decisions.

    I do not mean to impugn anyone as I have said, but it is quite frustrating to be ignored or passed over as if I had suggested something altogether without any possible basis in reality. Frankly, from the information that has been – and continues to be – forthcoming since this matter has been broached, it would appear that my point of view is receiving considerable vindication. Will there be a ‘smoking gun’? I doubt it, but I still have to wonder if there would be as much contention in the matter if the person at its core were not Abraham Lincoln.

  10. Sat 26th Aug 2006 at 11:31 am


    This discussion is over. No more. It’s becoming personal, and that is neither appropriate nor acceptable.

    One more, and comments get disabled.

    Never in a million years did I think I would have to moderate my own blog. Guess what kids–it ain’t happening. The minute I have to do that, the problem will be eliminated, and the way that it will be eliminated is that there will be no more comments.

    I trust that my position on this has been made abundantly clear.


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