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Shady journalist manipulated the 'truth'

January 29, 2005 1:08 am


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.

Dunham spent time in Richmond's Castle Thunder in early 1863, and subsequently invented alternative identities for himself as Confederate secret agent Col. Margrave and as intrepid journalist Sandford Conover, to name but two. As Conover, he reported on the activities of Confederate Col. Dunham, a turncoat who fought with Lt. Gen. Jubal Early's forces in the Shenandoah Valley. As James Watson Wallace, he served as an agent provocateur among the Confederates in Canada, trying to lure them into situations where they could be arrested by federal authorities.

After President Lincoln's assassination, Dunham, as Conover, embroidered testimony for Secretary of War Stanton and Judge Advocate Gen. Joseph Holt that helped convict some of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, including Mary Surratt. Knowing that Stanton and Holt desperately wanted to link Confederate President Jefferson Davis to Lincoln's murder, Dunham claimed to have been privy to relevant conversations among the Confederates in Canada, and offered to procure other witnesses who would corroborate his story.

Dunham's "school of perjury" fell apart when one of his "witnesses" broke down and admitted that he had been coached as to what he should say. Dunham was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for perjury.

Amazingly, the man then attempted to sell the Radical Republicans fake letters linking President Andrew Johnson to assassin John Wilkes Booth. When that scheme fell apart, Dunham conned the prison warden and his wife into giving him favored treatment while inducing Holt and Stanton to recommend that President Johnson issue him a pardon. An implied threat that he would write a book about his relationship with Johnson may have earned him that pardon, which came through in February 1869. Obscurity followed.

Cumming has meticulously researched and pulled together all the known facts about Dunham's career. If his book has any fault, it lies in not setting forth exactly what Dunham was trying to accomplish at the various stages in his career. Clearly, important men valued his services, but why they did so remains obscure. Indeed, that may have been Dunham's main contribution to history: By obscuring the facts, he made it possible for those who made postwar government policy to put aside their inclination to punish former Confederate leaders and concentrate instead on reconstructing the country in less confrontational ways.

"Devil's Game" is a fascinating look at the depths to which those who ran the federal government in the immediate post-Civil War era were willing to descend to preserve their domination of the political scene.

DANE HARTGROVE is a freelance writer living in Stafford County.

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