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Book Reviews

The Dark Intrigue

December 2, 2020

Frank van der Linden. The Dark Intrigue: The True Story of a Civil War Conspiracy. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO, 2007, 308p., $35.

“Amid all his troubles in the depressing days of early 1863, President Lincoln most dreaded ‘the fire in the rear. ‘ Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, after a visit with him, wrote to Professor Francis Lieber: ‘These are dark hours … The President tells me he now fears ‘the fire in the rear’ – meaning the Democracy, especially at the Northwest – more than our military chances .. . Republican Governor Morton warned the Lincoln administration, in a frantic letter to Secretary Stanton, February 9: ‘The Democratic scheme may be briefly stated thus: End the war by any means whatever at the earliest possible moment. This, of course, lets the Rebel states go, and acknowledges the Southern Confederacy They will then propose to the Rebels a reunion and reconstruction, upon condition of leaving out the New England states. This they believe the Southern states will accept, and so do I It would withdraw twelve votes from the Senate, and leave the slave states in a permanent majority … Seymour and the leading Democratic politicians of New York and Pennsylvania are in the scheme.'”

The years of the Civil War were years of mistrust and vituperation. In 1860, the Democratic Party split over the issue of slavery. After secession and the outbreak of hostilities, they became a distinct minority in Congress with poor prospects for a return to power. The Northern states rallied behind President Lincoln in his decision to use force against the states in rebellion, yet many had reservations. As long as the war was fought to restore the Union, they remained passive in their opposition. Battlefield reverses, incompetence and corruption in the military and federal administration and the decision to adopt emancipation as a key policy unleashed widespread opposition. The government had to contend with the rebel army, unstable border states ravaged by marauding militias, the threat of foreign intervention and recognition of the Confederacy, and “disloyal” politicians and journalists whose harsh rhetoric was undermining the War effort. The severity of the crisis prompted Lincoln to assume unprecedented executive powers, including suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, temporary closures of opposition newspapers, and arrests of politicians sharply critical of the War and those charged in its conduct. The Civil War marked the origins of the U. S. Secret Service, with a proliferation of spies and government informers. Military commanders in the field were given much leeway in ordering arrests and conducting military tribunals when or, even if, they chose to. Election fraud was suspected on both sides, but the Federal government was in a position to use soldiers to patrol polling places, preventing disloyal and nonresident voters from exercising the franchise and likely intimidating many would-be voters in the process. The army was also able to furlough soldiers prior to key elections, so that votes could be registered for administration candidates. Conversely, they had the power to withhold furloughs from those who might vote for the opposition. These excesses, real or imagined, limited in scope or far-flung, did much to energize the anti-Lincoln peace movement.

In addition, this was a period of secret societies with political agendas. The progenitor of these was the Know Nothing Party, or Native Americans. They spawned the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Sons of Liberty, and the Order of American Knights. Then there were the Copperheads and the Butternuts who opposed the War. The newspapers of the period were highly partisan, intentionally so, which fostered readership. Speakers at political rallies were expected to throw caution and reticence to the wind, lambasting their opponents unmercifully. Suspicion and rumor were part-and-parcel of such oratory.

It is within this context that author Frank van der Linden tells his tale of efforts to overthrow the Lincoln administration and/or end, rather than win, the War. Mr. van der Linden is currently a Civil War historian, but spent nearly fifty years as a Washington newspaper correspondent covering Congress and the White House. He began this career in 1945, interviewing President Truman at a poker party and closed it during the tenure George H. W. Bush. He was a frequent panelist on “Meet the Press.” He has written six books, including a biography of Ronald Reagan and one on Lincoln: The Road to War.

The subject matter of this book are two related historical occurrences. The first deals with the effort by Rebel agents residing in Montreal to foment unrest in the North and promote secession by Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. This combination states, with Democratic politicians in control, would align themselves with the Southern Confederacy, thereby isolating the New England States and insuring preeminence of the slave-holding states in national affairs. Supplied with vast amounts of capital by Jefferson Davis, the Canadian agents were able to purchase guns for the Sons of Liberty who, they wrongly anticipated, would fight alongside Confederate partisans. They also financed an operation to liberate Confederate P.O.w.’s from camps in the three states mentioned, neutralize state militias in those areas by arresting or killing the Republican governors, and open up a “second front” in the Northeast. After accomplishing this mission, they planned to reinforce Southern troops in the border states Tennessee and Kentucky and bring those states back into the Rebel fold. The second subject deals with efforts to prevent the reelection of President Lincoln. The agents financed the election campaigns of Democratic politicians (notably James Robinson, defeated by Richard Oglesby for Illinois governor) and met with Democrats in Montreal where they wrote the key planks of the Chicago Platform. The Confederate agents promoted a “cessation of hostilities” and a “convention of the states” as a means to achieve a success that eluded them on the battlefield and were aided in that goal by Vallandigham and like-minded “peace” Democrats. A plan to incite an 1864 Election Day riot in Chicago and burn down the city was but one of many plots that failed.

The book is exhaustively researched and is replete with primary source material, including letters, newspaper editorials, reminiscences, statistical data from post-war references, diary entries, speeches, reports of mass meetings and rallies, etc. Vander Linden certainly has a reporter’s eye and sensibility. Many the descriptions of the “characters” are rather colorful and flavored with the idiom of the period. The book starts out with what seems like criticism of Lincoln’s abuse of constitutional liberties and rights. Yet, in the end, the story is what takes center stage. There is no effort, occult or overt, to glorify Lincoln or defend his actions. If any point-of-view exists, it relates to the effort by Northern Democrats to simply end the War by whatever means necessary, unconcerned with winning the conflict. The forty chapters that comprise the work are uniformly brief and succinct. The situation or subject is enunciated and “fleshed out” with the details from primary source material. With few exceptions, the author does not quote other scholars or “stand on the shoulders” of their research which should constitute an exemplar, in our mind.

The writing is straightforward and direct. We can generally find no fault with the facts or conclusions of the book. We would debate his contention that Lincoln was duped by the Confederate agents in the Greeley-Niagara Falls “peace conference.” In chapter 33, he reprints an interview with captured Rebel soldiers that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1864 that is patently a work of fiction, or highly embellished. Overall, we consider this a terrific work and one of the best Lincoln books we have read in a long time. It includes many quotes and facts unfamiliar to us, such as the Democratic Convention in 1864 being held at the same Wigwam Building that the Republicans used in 1860 and that Vallandigham was promised the post of Secretary of War had McClellan been elected (how about that great piece of 1863 election doggerel: “0 , won’t Old Abe be furious and won’t Burnside look blue, when they find out we’ve elected Vallandigham and Pugh.”) I was unaware that August Belmont, chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1864, was an Austrian Jew and was subjected to a great deal of anti-semitism in the campaign. People interested in the politicians and wartime history of Illinois, Ohio and Indiana should definitely buy this volume. The story of Indiana Governor Oliver Morton is especially compelling. In order to prevent the Democratic legislature from taking control of the state militia from him, the Republican lawmakers absented themselves from the Statehouse, preventing a quorum. Accordingly, no budget was passé and Morton had to run the state for two years on the $250,000 given to him as a loan by the Lincoln administration. You’ll find stories like this throughout the book. Read and enjoy!