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Devil's Game

Devil's Game: The Civil War Intrigues of Charles A. Dunham

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Devil's Game
    Book Description:

    Devil's Game traces the amazing career of Charles A. Dunham, Civil War spy, forger, journalist, and master of dirty tricks. Writing for a variety of New York papers under alternate names, Dunham routinely faked stories, created new identities, and later boldly cast himself to play those roles. He achieved his greatest infamy when he was called to testify in Washington concerning Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Many parts of Dunham's career remain shadowy, but Cumming offers the first detailed tour of Dunham's convoluted, high-stakes, international deceits, including his effort to sell Lincoln on plans for a raid to capture Jefferson Davis. Exhaustively researched and unprecedented in depth, this carefully crafted assessment of Dunham's motives, personality, and the complex effects of his schemes changes assumptions about covert operations during the Civil War.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09092-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Chameleon
    (pp. 1-19)

    James Watson Wallace, Virginian officer recovering from war wounds, surfaced quietly in a remote corner of Canada East (Quebec) in the fall of 1864, at a time when the Civil War far to the south was coming to its bloody climax. At a time when Grant was squeezing in on Richmond, when Sheridan was scouring out the Shenandoah Valley, when Sherman was planning his savage march from Atlanta to the sea. At a time when Confederate leaders in Richmond were turning to desperate measures, among them a late effort to get at their enemies along the exposed northern frontier.


  6. CHAPTER 2 “Cheats and Forgeries”
    (pp. 20-34)

    Some picture of Charles Dunham’s early life would obviously help in the attempt to understand the man who made himself into the Civil War’s most remarkable Chameleon. Unfortunately, that early life emerges only in a few uncertain images, mostly from his frauds and shady political games. These fragments confirm the picture of a daring scoundrel, quick to resentful anger, ready to lie or cheat. If there were any redeeming qualities, they were his engaging personality, his adventurousness, and his quickness in fighting back against anyone who tried to tame him.

    As for shaping influences, almost nothing is known, but certainly...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Castle Thunder
    (pp. 35-55)

    Charles Dunham’s four months in the Confederacy from April to July 1863 are in many ways the most fascinating of his career, bringing into focus, but without finally answering, the crucial questions of whether he was loyal to either side. A good deal is now known about that adventure, material that shows up mainly in two collections of Joseph Holt’s papers, at the Library of Congress and at the Huntington Library in California. It covers much that was not generally known at the time of “Sandford Conover’s” prominence, or known by fairly modern Civil War historians. The material suggests strongly...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Reptile Journalist
    (pp. 56-80)

    If Dunham’s Southern adventure hints of a Washington connection, much stronger circumstantial evidence shows up in his year as a Northern “journalist” from the fall of 1863 to the fall of 1864, especially in hisNew York Tribunework as Sandford Conover. The range of his known fakes, not to mention suspected ones, is so great that Washington’s intelligence officers must have known of at least some of them. By this point in the war, both sides were making ample use of false information (fake news stories, documents, and letters, or planted defectors), but many of Dunham’s imaginative ploys stood...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Southern Life
    (pp. 81-94)

    Throughout the Civil War, Northerners were hungry to learn of conditions in the Confederacy, and Charles Dunham’s reports helped satisfy that desire. As William Hanchett would note much later, Dunham’s sketches of Southern life were vivid, ranging from the distress of Richmond’s old elites and the spread of prisons and brothels to the heroism of slaves who fought alongside officer-masters. The reports were also, of course, thoroughly unreliable, painting the South as divided and near disaster, its leaders heartless and brutal, its people starving, its soldiers despairing, and its factories full of saboteurs. Some of this was perhaps authentic, but...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Fire in the Rear
    (pp. 95-122)

    If Charles Dunham’s career in Canada was a riddle wrapped in an enigma, the enigma was the Confederates’ “fire in the rear” campaign, mounted in the summer and fall of 1864 to get at the Union along its vulnerable northern border. Both his employer (if he had one) and his motives are still unclear. But his considerable mischief in Canada makes sense only in the context of that campaign.

    In some ways, his intrigues matched the complexity of the rebel effort, an unholy blend of peace plans, election propaganda, sabotage, and cross-border raids. The best documented of Dunham’s games deal...

  11. CHAPTER 7 A Message from Richmond
    (pp. 123-144)

    If Abraham Lincoln’s assassination provides a textbook case of a nation in trauma, Dunham’s performance is a model of cynical exploitation. Literally, the death transformed his life. Left as flotsam on the edge of a receding war, he now found himself a center of attention. Wild inventions he had written months before became evidential gems. A worthless collection of invention about rebels in Canada became treasure.

    The change showed first in the way theNew York Tribunesuddenly saw Dunham’s prophetic genius. While still not naming its Montreal writer, it repolished the myth of how he had worked in the...

  12. CHAPTER 8 “Private Business”
    (pp. 145-159)

    The point when Charles Dunham’s many identities began to melt together can be set precisely: at just after 2 p.m. on June 8, 1865, in the William Ennis saloon in Montreal, at the corner of Great St. James and McGill Streets. On that day, “Wallace” and “Moseby” were meeting with smuggler John (Dick) Cameron, when two angry rebels, Gen. William Henry Carroll and a man known only as O’Donnell, tracked them down, demanding to know whether James Watson Wallace was also the traitor Sandford Conover.

    The tangled day that followed would became the best documented of Dunham’s life—and also...

  13. CHAPTER 9 School for Perjury
    (pp. 160-180)

    In the summer of 1865, Dunham launched his most intricate (and best-documented) game, still exploiting Holt’s lust to hang Jefferson Davis. On July 26, nineteen days after the Washington executions, at a time when he was being widely attacked, he sent Holt a tantalizing offer:

    Dear Sir: Believing that I can procure witnesses and documentary evidence sufficient to convict Jeff. Davis and C. C. Clay, of complicity in the assassination of the President, and that I can also find and secure John H. Surratt, I beg leave to tender the Government, through you, my services for these purposes.

    Since my...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Plots “Shrewd and Devilish”
    (pp. 181-198)

    The six-month period between Dunham’s exposure in May 1866 and his arrest in November are as Byzantine as anything in his career. It appears that during this time he did an astounding turnaround and conspired with a group of leading ex-Confederates, and also with James Gordon Bennett of theNew York Herald, to bring down Joseph Holt and free Jefferson Davis—by faking evidence to imply thatHolthad faked evidence against the Confederate leader.

    That interpretation is not certain. It is possible, but not likely, that Bennett was a victim, tricked into helping Dunham and the Confederates. It is...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Scorpions in a Bottle
    (pp. 199-212)

    Charles Dunham’s prosecution for perjury, when it finally came, was begun reluctantly, was limited in scope, and was marked by a series of bizarre and unexplained happenings. At one point in the process, the prosecution actually blocked testimony from a key Dunham friend who could have greatly widened the revelations. At another, one of Dunham’s high-priced lawyers blurted out (and quickly abandoned) a claim that his client was a friend of Jefferson Davis who had set out to help him by collecting false testimony that he could later discredit. Throughout the trial and appeals, charges flew of strange delays and...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Impeachment
    (pp. 213-237)

    Dunham’s part in the Radical Republican attempt to bring down President Andrew Johnson was his last big play, and one of the most astonishing of an astonishing life. It is also, like so much in his record, still open to interpretation. Either he or his Radical allies (or both) told outrageous lies about their dealings. Given Dunham’s record, it is likely he was doing most of the lying. But it is hard to feel sorry for his victims. By this point, they should have known that anyone supping with the devil needed a long spoon. And the deal Dunham offered...

  17. CHAPTER 13 “Protean Maneuvers”
    (pp. 238-246)

    Five days after the White House released Dunham’s packet of documents betraying the Radical Republicans, his victims struck back by publishing, on August 15, 1867, the four depositions on his alleged plot the summer before with friends of Jefferson Davis. While these documents showed the full range of the Chameleon’s loyalty swings, they were published with no hint of how they had been obtained and leaked. They were thus a considerable mystery at the time—and remain so. They give the appearance of serious investigation, with detailed affidavits sworn before authentic officials, but with no hint of what agency did...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Letters from Albany
    (pp. 247-262)

    Dunham’s letters from prison at Albany serve as a last resource of material revealing his views and actions. Among other things, they show that in the penitentiary he kept on plotting and scheming over fakes such as the Booth-Johnson correspondence, at one point subtly threatening to write memoirs that would feature these embarrassing documents. As in his journalism, though, nothing in Dunham’s letters can be taken at face value: the most one can do is try to define what myths he was trying to sell, to whom, and why. In the end, their main value may lie in showing the...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 263-290)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 291-296)
  21. Index
    (pp. 297-306)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 307-308)