In Defense of Dark UnionHistorians/History
Ignoring the diatribe in the Steers-Chaconas “review essay” I offer the following in the interests of truth and common sense. The magazine identifies Edward Steers as an “acknowledged expert” on the Lincoln assassination, a subject on which he has written three books. Prior to his active interest in Lincoln's murder Steers was occupied in the field of biomedical research. Joan Chaconas specializes in the history of Washington, DC.
The Neff-Guttridge Collection of documents and photographs employed for Dark Union is housed in the Cunningham Memorial Library, Indiana State University, Terre Haute. Late last year Steers and Chaconas visited Terre Haute to examine the material, and according to onlookers were dumbfounded by its size and complexity. They stayed four hours and as of this writing have not returned.
The first four paragraphs of their article are a succinct account of what occurred some forty years ago prominently involving Civil War Times and its then editor, Robert H. Fowler. Steers and Chaconas then introduce Otto Eisenschiml, as if that long-dead researcher had not been savaged enough by William Hanchett, professor emeritus, University of San Diego. Dark Union has no connection with Eisenschiml's Why Was Lincoln Murdered? Steers-Chaconas state that “several historians [have] presented evidence that ‘Stanton did it claims' [i.e., killed Lincoln] were based on poor research . . . .” Nowhere does Dark Union charge that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton “did it.”
Steers-Chaconas footnote just one of the “several historians” -- William C. Davis, former editor of Civil War Times -- citing three articles written between 1977 and 1981 for his own magazine (later, Civil War Times Illustrated ). When William Hanchett, in his The Lincoln Conspiracies (1983) was not attacking Eisenschiml he drew heavily from those Davis pieces. “With that,” Steers-Chaconas proclaim, “the Lincoln community settled back satisfied.”
The pair continue saying that “if there is a hero in Dark Union it is an individual by the name Andrew Giles Potter.” This misconception is intended to prepare the reader for disclosure that the “individual” never existed. The proprietor of the Baker Funeral Home in Manassas, some thirty years ago, recalled in writing the arrival of Potter's body from Colorado, where he had died in an automobile accident. “I remember the body being picked up at the Manassas railroad depot. The funeral was at the U.B. [United Brethren] church in Aden, then we went to [the plot near] Potter's Store where the burial was.” In view of such evidence that Andrew Potter died, it is safe to presume that he had lived.
The Steers-Chaconas article is vulnerable on numerous points but on few more curious than its stumbling over the name of William A. Browning. Its Browning family photo is also in the Neff-Guttridge Collection, accompanied by a letter I received in October 1973 from Peregrine Browning's great grandson who identifies the man in question as William Arthur Browning. He also names a small boy in the photo as Ringgold, in adulthood a Confederate scout and sometime member of Colonel John Mosby's unit during the Civil War.
The Neff-Guttridge Collection includes another picture of the Brownings in which William A., his wife Priscilla and Ringgold are identified. And a prominent gravestone in the Browning family plot in the Congressional Cemetery, Washington, DC, is clearly engraved “William A. Browning.” Contrary to what Steers-Chaconas assert, the Brownings did live in Maryland. Superintendent Almarin C. Richards of the Washington Metropolitan Police, asked the War Department for a horse shortly after Lincoln's murder, so that he could ride out and arrest Ringgold Browning “staying with his family in Bladensburg.”
None of the above comes from Andrew Potter, it is traceable through the Turner-Baker Papers, Unfiled Confederate Papers (Microcopy 247) and LAS Files, all in National Archives, not to mention the Andrew Johnson Papers in the Library of Congress, whose many William A. Browning letters reflect in part his successful efforts to spring his brother Ringgold from the Old Capitol Prison. Are Steers-Chaconas ignorant of all this? But then, with respect to names, we have to contend with Steers's mispelling of Louis J. Weichmann's name throughout his Blood on the Moon (2001). If his spelling is correct then all other writers on Lincoln's murder, including Floyd E. Risvold, who edited Weichmann's letters, and Louis J. Weichmann himself have been misspelling the young man's name.
Admittedly, Dark Union relocates Booth's meeting with Confederate soldiers to some 300 yards across the Rappahannock River. And he met Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlen in August 1864, not September. And Sergeant Silas Cobb is not placed in the correct military outfit. But Steers-Chaconas are themselves in error when they deny that Jacob Thompson and Clement C. Clay were in Montreal. The two rebel commissioners were in that city's Donygana Hotel for at least part of October 1864. As William C. Davis said when a mistake was found in one of his books, “Errors - everyone makes them, no matter how hard you try not to.”
Claiming that the Confederate Captain James W. Boyd's middle name was Waters, as Steers-Chaconas do, may to the reader seem a very small error. But this one has special significance. Most of the confusion springs from garbled family records. There was neither space nor necessity in Dark Union for the story of more than one James W. Boyd. It can be summarized here. First, James William Boyd of the 6th Tennessee Infantry, Confederate States Army, in February 1865 as a prisoner of war cut a deal with Secretary Stanton for permission to go home to Jackson, Tennessee, to take care of his seven motherless children. Steers-Chaconas are remiss in failing to mention that not only did Boyd refer to Caroline Boyd as deceased in his February 14, 1865 appeal to Stanton for a private interview, in December 1864, writing to William P. Wood, chief of the Old Capitol Prison, he makes clear that his wife had died. The proof is easily found in War Department records at the National Archives. Within twenty-four hours of his request for a personal interview with Stanton, Boyd was released. There his official record ends.
The other James W. Boyd? His middle name was Waters and he was born in Ireland in 1807. He became sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee, in the 1830s. He fought a two-hours bare-knuckles fight in a horse pasture outside Purdy with a Joel Rowark whom he had wrongfully arrested for horse-stealing and the Rowarks swore vengeance. Their chance came during the Civil War when Boyd, accompanied by two Chickasaw Indians named Ollie and Ossie Feather, rode with the Union colonel, Fielding Hurst, and acquired a reputation for killing and torturing Confederate prisoners of war.
A rebel military posse ambushed Boyd near Sweet Lips Creek and hanged his Indians. Boyd escaped. On January 1, 1866, he was at the Jackson railroad depot awaiting the train for Nashville where he expected to sign on as a deputy federal marshal. There Joel Rowark's son killed him with a shotgun. Self-defense, the local sheriff decided and rewarded Billy with $500.
Certain “assassination experts” hoped that discovery of Captain James W. Boyd's grave in Tennessee would bolster their claim that he couldn't have been the man killed at Richard H. Garrett's farm in Virginia eight months earlier. They reportedly searched, and found nothing. We searched and, led by a descendant of Colonel Fielding Hurst, found James W. Boyd's grave, the stone half sunken but plainly bearing his name. And the date 1807-1866. This obviously was not Captain Boyd's grave, who was born in 1822. Moreover, nearby we saw and photographed stones that marked where the Feather brothers were buried, side by side.
What set the “experts” on a course of error? Robert Cartmell, a local farmer who periodically entered Jackson and picked up items of gossip, kept a journal. He learned of the shooting at the railroad depot but identified the victim as James W. Boyd, “who was a Lieut. in 6th Regmt of Tennessee Vol.” A Nashville newspaper reference to the shooting of James W. Boyd in Jackson on New Year's Day names his killer Rowark, but gives the victim no military title.
According to Steers-Chaconas, Dark Union dates Caroline Boyd's death as January 5, 1866. It does nothing of the sort. This shouldn't be overlooked because the sources Steers-Chaconas rely upon give that date for the death of James Waters Boyd's wife, not the Confederate captain's.
Steers-Chaconas base statements on “George Boyd's journal.” An undated entry reads, “Father was murdered by a horse-thief whose name was Bill Rowark . . . he was killed in the front door of the old Fred Young grocery.” Not the railroad depot? But more to the point, George Hampton Boyd, to give his full name, was a son of Captain James William Boyd. George's son Harry (born 1885) sought a federal pension in the 1930s for what he claimed were his grandfather's Civil War services to the Union. In March 1972 Ray Neff conducted an interview with David Boyd of Finger, Tennessee, a grandson of James Waters Boyd. He told Neff that George Boyd's journal was actually “put together by Harry, who was trying to get proof that his grandfather had rid [sic] with Colonel Fielding Hurst. He had it figured out wrong. Harry's grandfather's name was James William Boyd. He was a rebel captain.” Further interviews with members of both Boyd families revealed that some of the captain's descendants were outraged by Harry's efforts to “make out that he was a Yankee . . .the family raised hell with Harry.”
Harry's efforts failed to convince the War Department which informed him in a letter signed by the adjutant-general, dated April 13, 1931, that detailed his grandfather's military record, not as a Union scout but as a Confederate officer. So we know how the pre-war McNairy County sheriff, ruthless scout for Fielding Hurst in wartime, met his end. He was shot by Billy Rowark at the Jackson, Tennessee, railroad depot on New Year's Day, 1866, and is buried near Purdy in that state. (In Selmer, McNairy County, is a monument bearing names of the area's early notables. They include that of James Waters Boyd.)
And Captain James William Boyd? Following his release upon Stanton's orders, he wrote to his son James, that he would soon be heading for Mexico, well-funded. Young James was to meet him at Brownsville, Texas, but his father did not appear nor did the family ever see him again. Could he have been the “Mr. Boyd” as the Garretts knew him, killed at their home? The possibility isn't easily dismissed because the evidence that it was John Wilkes Booth is far from closed to questions. The “identification” on the ironclad Montauk? It was far from the public inquest some “assassination experts” absurdly preach. The justly respected researcher James O. Hall was right when he told me in a letter that “Washington was full of people who knew Booth well. Yet the identification was for the most part by people who knew him casually. If the case rested on that identification done on the Montauk it would be weak indeed . . . shaky.” (For the only account of the Garretts' farm episode and the Montauk ritual, citing exclusively official and other easily accessible sources, see “The Identification and Autopsy of John Wilkes Booth: Re-Examining the Evidence” by Leonard F. Guttridge, Navy Medicine, January-February 1993.)
As for the Steers-Chaconas assumption that David Herold was fully identified along the trail to Garrett's as Booth's companion, study of the statements in the Conspiracy Trial transcripts and LAS Files shows otherwise. Sergeant Cobb, when confronted with the prisoner Herold and asked whether he was the man who crossed the Navy Yard Bridge just after Booth, replied, “He is very near that size, though I can't be sure.” In the T. B. Peterson & Brothers (Philadelphia) version of the trial, Cobb adds, “I should not think he was the man.” Doctor Samuel A. Mudd's statement as published for the first time in its entirety in the Georgetown Medical Bulletin, Volume 29, No.4, May 1976, includes “I have seen a photograph of Herold but I do not recognize it as that of this young man [with Booth]. He gave his name as Henston . . .” Neither could the planter Samuel Cox, questioned about the man with Booth at his door, positively identify him as Herold. John Lloyd? By his own admission this tavern-keeper was drunk the night of April 14, 1865, contradicted himself in two separate hearings (the Conspiracy Trial and the Surratt Trial) and pleaded that “whisky makes me forget a great many things.”
That picture of Herold on the reward poster! A post-assassination souvenir, according to Steers-Chaconas, who base this chiefly on two sources, one an article by Steers in the Lincoln Herald, Vol.100, No. 4 (Winter 1998) and the other an article by James L. Swanson,”Reward & Other Broadsides of the Lincoln Assassination,” Antique Trader Weekly (April 11, 1990). Nothing at all is found in either article to prove Steers-Chaconas's point.
What is going on here? There seems something a bit too artful in the Steers-Chaconas approach to the argument about Indiana Congressman George Julian's journal. Note the choice of words in two consecutive sentences, “. . . excerpts from Julian's diary appeared in 1915 in the Indiana Magazine of History. And fortunately, the entry for April 24 is among those published.” Fortunately? In one breath Steers-Chaconas say correctly that only portions of the diary were made public, in the next they purport to know a complete day's entry. When they wrote that second sentence, had they forgotten or presumed that their readers had forgotten, the wording of the first sentence? Since when did “extracts” become totality?
Booth's diary. At least one member of Richard Garrett's family saw “Mr. Boyd” writing in a little black book. And what was he writing on April 25, as there is nothing in Booth's diary dated beyond April 21? Those alleged last words, his mother, his country, all brushed away by Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty's denial that Booth said any word other than “useless.”
There is much in the Steers-Chaconas article open to contest or correction. The pity of all this is the writers' apparent refusal or inability to explore that period in Lincoln's career as chief executive when he struggled with a dilemma relatively few history books even mention. By that high-tension election year of 1864 the fate of the Union, as Lincoln saw it, depended markedly on restoration of the transatlantic cotton trade. To achieve this he was prepared to satisfy and “be thankful for pecuniary greed” -- his own words, as are those expressing contempt for Wall Street gold gamblers, his wish that “every one of them had his devilish head shot off.”
Dark Union is largely devoted to this drama and based almost entirely on public archival sources, to many of which Andrew Potter's transcribed investigations served as valuable and trustworthy guideposts.
The Steers-Chaconas article doesn't pretend to be a review of the entire book, it is more concerned with themes or theories about John Wilkes Booth than the dozens of cotton passes Lincoln quietly signed and which were afterwards deliberately altered to enrich the profiteers. Booth placed himself in the story when he signed in at the St. Lawrence Hall, Montreal. Much of his role thereafter is peripheral until, flamboyant actor, he proved of little use to Lincoln's would-be kidnappers, a point made in James V. Barnes's letter to R. D. Watson six weeks before Lincoln's murder. This original letter is in the Neff-Guttridge Collection. Barnes's name was found in Booth's hotel room within forty-eight hours of Lincoln's murder. Watson is clearly identified in the Turner-Baker Papers. Where have the Lincoln assassination experts been?
Steers-Chaconas are careful enough to avoid calling their jeremiad a review. Assuming that they have read Dark Union from beginning to end we may infer that its revelations concerning money-hungry speculators and power-seeking politicians are quite new to them. They can find nothing to cavil about in the chapters that tell how men intrigued for gain while boys in blue and gray bled in thousands on the battlefields.
Professor James M. McPherson calls Steers's Blood on the Moon “a solid study of the assassination,” but he must have noticed that it seldom strays far from conventional accounts. I am reminded of cautionary words from the late, superb Yale historian, Robin W. Winks, whose encouragement was a valuable element in the genesis of Dark Union . “There are,” he told me, “persons who have a vested interest” in keeping the perpetuated story of the Lincoln murder case unchanged. I would like to hope that Ed Steers, Joan Chaconas, William C. Davis, William Hanchett and, yes, Professor McPherson, are not among them.