Espionage in the Civil War
By the outbreak of the war, neither the Union nor the Confederacy had established a full-scale espionage system or a military intelligence network. The South, however, was already operating an embryonic spy ring out of Washington, D.C., set up late in 1860 or early in 1861 by Thomas Jordan. A former U.S. Army officer, now a Confederate colonel, Jordan foresaw the benefits of placing intelligence agents in the North's military and political nerve center.
By summer 1861, Jordan had turned the ring over to his most trusted operative, Rose O'Neal Greenhow, a local widow of Southern birth. Mrs. Greenhows high station in Washington society enabled her to secure intelligence of great value to the Confederacy. Much of it reportedly came from an infatuated Suitor, Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee. Through a ring of couriers that included a woman named Bettie Duval, Greenhow smuggled information about the southward-marching army under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell to Confederate troops in the vicinity of Virginias Manassas Junction. There it was received by Colonel Jordan, now chief of staff to the local commander, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. The intelligence helped turn First Bull Run into a Confederate victory.
Two other intelligence networks in the Federal capital, both of later vintage, were supervised by cavalrymen turned spies, Capt. Thomas N. Conrad and Pvt. J. Franklin Stringfellow. These amazingly resourceful operatives were connected with the Confederacy's first organized secret-service bureau, formed in 1862 as a part of the CSA Signal Corps. The head of the bureau, Maj. William Norris, eventually coordinated the activities of dozens of espionage and counterespionage agents who operated along the "Secret Line," an underground link between Richmond and the Washington-Baltimore region. In time, Norris and his assistant, Capt. Charles Cawood, sought to extend this network of intelligence outlets well above the Mason-Dixon line--as far north as that great base of Confederate espionage operations, Canada. Arguably the most effective military intelligence establishment of the war, Norris's bureau directed all espionage activity along the Potomac River, supervised the passage of agents to and from enemy lines, and forwarded dispatches from the Confederate War and State departments to contacts abroad.
A second Confederate secret-service unit was organized early in 1864. A prototype commando outfit, it was attached to the Torpedo Bureau of Brig. Gen. Gabriel J. Rains, but was neither as large nor as well administered as Norris agency.
The Confederacy was also served by countless private operatives. Probably the most celebrated civilian spy was Belle Boyd, who risked her life to bring intelligence to Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson during his Shendoah Valley Campaign of 1862. Less heralded was James Harrison, an itinerant Richmond actor who late in lone 1863 rode to Gen. Robert E. Lees Pennsylvania headquarters with word that the Army of the Potomac was about to enter the Keystone State in hot pursuit. The unexpected news permitted Lee to mass his scattered army prior to Gettysburg.
Confederate spies in uniform (known as "scouts" when wearing their own armys attire, and liable to summary execution if captured in enemy garb included the cavalry raiders of the "Gray Ghost, "John S. Mosby. Others served the equally daring Turner Ashby and the Marylander Harry Gilmor. Among other soldier-spies were the young Kentuckian Jerome Clarke and Sam Davis, the Tennessee farm boy who died a hero's death after refusing to reveal to his Union captors the identity of his raiding leader.
Despite the triumphs of individual spies, most large-scale Confederate espionage efforts failed. Carefully planned but ultimately unsuccessful projects included the Oct. 1864 raid on St. Albans, Vt.; the attempt the following month to burn large sections of New York City; and the Northwest Conspiracy.
The Union waited till the shooting started to take steps toward creating an espionage establishment. Its first secret-service bureau was set up in mid-1861 by Allan Pinkerton, founder of the famous Chicago detective agency. While serving Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan in the Department of the Ohio during the wars first summer, Pinkerton, acting alone, penetrated the Confederacy as far as Jackson, Miss., before returning north with information on Southern war preparations. Following McClellan to Washington, Pinkerton almost single handedly broke up Greenhow's spy ring. As military intelligence experts, however, Pinkerton and his band of agents were out of their depth. In 1862, as secret-service chief for McClellan's Army of the Potomac, Pinkerton sent his employer outlandish estimates of enemy strength and dispositions, hindering rather than facilitating McClellan's operations.
The wars first double agent, Timothy Webster, regularly penetrated Southern lines, gathering intelligence in such diverse locales as Baltimore, Louisville, and Memphis, and infiltrating the militant Baltimore society of Confederate sympathizers known as the Knights of Liberty. Webster's services ended in Apr. 1862, however, when a combination of events led to his arrest and execution in Richmond.
One Union spy who made notable contributions throughout the war was Elizabeth Van Lew, a longtime resident of the Confederate capital. "Crazy Bett," as the eccentric Unionist was known to her neighbors, ran the largest and most successful spy ring concentrated in any city. Her team of operatives included a freed slave whom she placed as a servant in the Confederate White House to eavesdrop on Pres. Jefferson Davis and his visitors.
An equally infamous Union espionage leader was Brig. Gen. Lafayette C. Baker, chief of War Department detectives. As the bullyboy of Sec. of War Edwin M. Stanton, he shadowed, apprehended, interrogated, and imprisoned a multitude of Washingtonians, many on the merest suspicion of disloyalty. Though personally brave, Baker was a ruthless, unsavory character whose high-handed methods and unassailable power made him feared even by associates.
Union espionage work was advanced by dozens of lesser-known Northerners, in and out of uniform. Civilian spies and counterspies included, as in the South, numerous women--~ whose sex usually spared them the harsher consequences of their actions, if apprehended. One of the most resourceful was Sarah Emma Edmonds, who gained entrance to Confederate camps near Yorktown, Va., disguised as a black slave. Much less enterprising and successful was the actress Pauline Cushman, whose double-agent activities won her undeserved fame as the "Spy of the Cumberland." Male civilians who spied for the North included William A. Lloyd and his business associate, Thomas Boyd, who, as Southern transportation agents of long standing, were able to roam, more or less freely, to Richmond, Savannah, Chattanooga, and New Orleans--Lloyd all the while carrying his espionage contract, signed by Abraham Lincoln.
Union spies in uniform were more numerous. Probably the most noted was Maj. Henry Young of Rhode Island, whose 58-man band of scouts served Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan during the wars final year. In the Appomattox Campaign, the scouts tapped enemy telegraph wires and misdirected supply trains critically needed by Lees army. Another effective operative in uniform was Col. George H. Sharpe, who in 1864--65 ran the highly efficient military information bureau attached to Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters. One of the most publicized espionage operations was conducted by civilian agent James J. Andrews in an ambitious but failed attempt to sabotage Confederate rail lines.
Source: "Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War" Edited by Patricia L. Faust, Article by Edward G. Longacre.
This Page last updated 12/15/02
RETURN TO CIVIL WAR POTPOURRI PAGE