Civil War Profiles — Jefferson Davis’ role in the Lincoln assassination

Date Published: 
Aug. 11, 2017.

In 1988, two members of the U.S. intelligence community, William A. Tidwell and David Winfred Gaddy, along with James O. Hall, an expert on the Lincoln assassination, published “Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln.” This book implicated the Confederate government in an attempt to abduct and hold President Abraham Lincoln hostage, develop strategies to gain victories on the battlefield, and thereby be able to negotiate the South’s independence.


The plan to capture the president went awry, however, and morphed into John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865.

“Come Retribution” in the book’s title is a code word in the Confederate cipher system, and implied retaliation for an alleged plan on the part of Northern officials in the winter of 1864 to assassinate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet — a story told in “The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War” by Duane Shultz.

In “Come Retribution,” Tidwell, Gaddy and Hall weave a tale of intrigue on the part of Confederate intelligence operatives working within the framework of the “Signal Corps and Secret Service,” an official organization that conducted overt and covert operations on the battlefield, in the North, in Canada, and also countries in Europe — especially England and France — that supported the Confederacy by providing ships, armaments and many other items that were scarce in the South.

For example, domestically, the Confederate intelligence service operated the so-called “secret line” that essentially ran between Washington and Richmond. Agents traveled back and forth along this route through Southern Maryland and across the Potomac River into Virginia, bringing newspapers, contraband and people who cooperated with the Richmond government.

The secret line, however, extended all the way to Canada, where Confederate agents were headquartered in Montreal. An alternate route ran through Delaware, Maryland and Virginia on the Eastern Shore, before crossing the Chesapeake Bay to the western shore of Virginia.

Additional commentary about Jefferson Davis’ role in clandestine operations targeting Lincoln is found in a more recent book titled “Decapitating the Union: Jefferson Davis, Judah Benjamin and the Plot to Assassinate Lincoln.” The author, John C. Fazio, argues that Booth worked with the complicity of the highest levels of the Confederate government and its Secret Service Bureau, and the objective was to gain retribution and obtain independence from a weakened federal government.

Col. John S. Mosby and his partisan rangers, 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry, engaged in guerilla operations throughout the war, and figured prominently in the planning to abduct and hold Lincoln hostage. Mosby’s role — a key to the success of planned transportation of Lincoln from Washington south into Virginia — is the subject of a forthcoming book, “Ever the Gray Ghost: Colonel John Singleton Mosby and the Lincoln Conspiracies” by Dave Goetz.

Goetz, who operates “Mosby’s Confederacy Tours” in Virginia, devotes his efforts in this book to an in-depth examination of the role of Mosby and his rangers in what he labels the conspiracy to capture or kill President Abraham Lincoln. He believes there is still more to learn about this issue, and hopes his work will inspire even further research into “the tragic murder of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865.”

Not exactly light summer reading, yet those who sit down with one or more of these titles at home or on the beach will not be disappointed. What stands out is that behind-the-scenes governmental intelligence operations were as mystifying and as fascinating during the Civil War era as they are to this day.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books. His latest book, “Eleven Fateful Days in July 1863: Meade Tracks Lee’s Escape after Gettysburg,” is due out in 2018. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.