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Shady journalist manipulated the 'truth'
"Devil's Game," by Carman Cumming, tells the story of Charles A. Dunham's schemes during the Civil War. By Dane Hartgrove

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Date published: 1/29/2005

DEVIL'S GAME: THE CIVIL WAR INTRIGUES OF CHARLES A. DUNHAM, by Carman Cumming. University of Illinois Press. 305 pages. Illustrations, endnotes, bibliography, index. $35.

PUBLIC OPINION polls consis- tently rate journalists among the lowest-ranking professionals in terms of truthfulness and reliability. I have always assumed that newspapermen earned such lowly status during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, with perhaps a nod to the yellow journalism of the 1890s and succeeding decades, but I may be mistaken. It appears that today's journalists are paragons of virtue when compared to their Civil War-era predecessors.

The stories that appeared in Civil War newspapers were generally slanted to reflect the editor's or the publisher's opinions on the war and the political situation. It apparently was not uncommon for reporters to file copy that cited sources that did not exist to support statements that were made up out of whole cloth. When such stories were written with the specific intention of influencing public opinion, they constituted what was called reptile journalism.

The undisputed champion among reptile journalists was Charles A. Dunham, a New Yorker who had practiced law before the war, but gradually drifted into running scams and practicing blackmail. He and his cohorts tried to bilk the government out of funds associated with raising a volunteer regiment in 1861, but the scheme collapsed before Dunham could secure a big payoff. Afterward, he maintained a shadowy relationship with the federal government that may indicate he served as an undercover agent for Lafayette Baker's secret service, or perhaps undertook secret endeavors on behalf of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, with whom he had been associated in a prewar court case.

Carman Cumming's "Devil's Game" attempts to trace Dunham's career from 1861 through 1868, the years in which his machinations had their greatest impact on public affairs. Cumming is greatly handicapped in this endeavor by the paucity of sources and by the difficulty of determining what Dunham was trying to accomplish at each stage in his career. Cumming rightly refers to Dunham as the Chameleon, because he invariably attempted to adapt his interpretation of documents he himself had forged to place himself in the best possible light.

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