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Conspiracy of Knaves by Dee Brown (Holt: $17.95; 392 pp.)

January 25, 1987| John Calvin Batchelor | Batchelor's novels include "The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica" (Penguin) and most recently a story of the Civil War, "American Falls" (Washington Square Press).

Dee Brown, famous for his historical work, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," as well as a large corpus of novels and narratives of the American West, has turned away from the saga of the frontier to address a covert and historical sideshow of the Civil War in his 10th novel, "Conspiracy of Knaves." This is not a sweeping story of West Point generals and bludgeoning armies, nor a surgical examination of the horror of slavery and the bone-rattling tragedy of America bleeding to death to enforce the Constitution; rather, it is a soft-focused version of a genuine plot by Confederates and other hangers-on who, in the last days of the war, fancied themselves above law and beyond reason.

It was called the Northwest Conspiracy, and now, 12 decades later, it might appear something as fantastical as a romance by Scott or Dumas; importantly, in 1864, it was real and, for a scary moment to Lincoln and the Union War Department, it looked credible. Besieged and desperate at Richmond, Jefferson Davis tried to drag out the war to a negotiated armistice by subterfuge. He sent master agents to Canada in the spring of 1864 to help fund the anti-war and pro-Southern elements in the Union who were decried as Copperheads, for the poisonous snake. The Copperhead strongholds were in New York City and in the American Northwest (now Midwest), especially among the 100,000 citizens of Chicago. The conspirators' plan was to arm and ignite the Copperheads for a coordinated uprising that would take upwards of 10 loyal states out of the Union to form a Northwest Confederacy.

Brown fashions his colloquial retelling of such a grand illusion with an easy-tongued narrator, Belle Rutledge; she is also a hard-luck actress whose career has staggered from Shakespeare's Rosalind to raunchy peek-a-boos in tights and finally to recruitment by the United States Secret Service. Her mission is to infiltrate the Confederate Secret Service in Richmond, and soon enough, she is a double agent enthralled by an arch rebel agent named Charles Heywood.

Heywood is based loosely upon the exploits of the historically notorious Confederate agent Thomas B. Hines (who later became the Chief Justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court). Heywood is both a homicidal spendthrift and a pious Southern cavalier, and it is impossible to follow his adventures without picturing Col. Oliver North in a broad-brimmed hat and cavalry boots.

Indeed, it is equally difficult to ignore the eerie shades of the Iran- contra affair while listening to Belle's accounts. For while the Confederate ambitions might have been as arguably possible as desperate--including the rescue of thousands of prisoners of war in a Chicago camp--the pursuit of their goal by dirty-dealing produced only dirt.

And what outrageous vanity! Heywood and Belle steam to a river rendezvous with Confederate bank robbers and horse thieves. Heywood entrains for Canada to scheme with drifters and deserters who have volunteered to raid the United States. Belle entrains for Chicago where she alternately masquerades as a man, a missionary and a wealthy courtesan. Here are lies, fanatics, high-living at Chicago's plush Tremont House, bargaining with arms dealers like Richard Jordan Gatling (gun) and chemists producing the incendiary Greek Fire, and all this during a hot summer of presidential electioneering and those hard-minded Union campaigners Grant, Farragut, Sherman and Sheridan. One can find gun-runners just like Eugene Hasenfus; one can hear the whispers of Republican Party when it actually considered dumping Lincoln; and one can watch the Democratic Party collapse when its Peace faction undercuts its War faction and destroys George McClellan's fair chance against Lincoln.

And what of Belle? She is in love with her Col. North and can excuse his thievery, murder, cold-heartedness and infidelity. Even after all plots collapse and the South surrenders, Belle can silently accept arrest as a Rebel agent rather than explain how she was ticketed by her lover. In the end, Belle demonstrates the slipshod way folk persuade themselves that certain men are more worthy than law, that some inarticulate higher purpose can excuse black operations and black hearts.

Brown might have told a sharper-minded story, helping Belle avoid an error such as naming Allan Pinkerton, and not the infamous Lafayette Baker, as chief of the United States Secret Service, giving Belle to comprehend how the Northwest Conspiracy suited Jefferson Davis' larger desire to stalemate and exhaust Lincoln and his Cabinet; and he might have controlled the stagy, Wilkie Collins-like tone in Belle's voice, "Oh, how my body and soul did ache for a sight of Charley, oh, how I wanted to cleave to him with all my might." Then again, Brown aims to entertain, and the happiest aspect of this breezy tall tale might be that if America is doomed to repeat its follies, the author has awakened some sublime words for the Iranamok days ahead: palavering, folderol, gimcrackery, cockadoodledoos, skedaddle, bushwhackers and rapscallions.

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