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Friday, December 9, 2016

Women and African American Spies in the Civil War

I love the Civil War. I love reading, watching, learning and everything else that goes along with it. It was a war that is so misunderstood today. It is a war that textbooks do not even touch the surface of. 

When I started preparing ideas for my capstones I had read a book that was called "Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War" It is written by Karen Abbott. It was fascinating to read about these women that risked their lives and their families. I find it fascinating how they were able to put on different hats and charm their way to top secret information. This part of my capstone gives some presentation and background into Spy activities during the Civil War. 

            The American Civil War is one of the most written about pieces of history. Some would call it the last old-fashioned war, and others would call it the first modern war. Brother against brother, father against son, families split down the Mason-Dixon Line. There has been a lot of literature that was written about the reasons and causes leading up to the war, the succession, the generals, the battles and the reconstruction era. It has been difficult to accurately describe the intelligence war between the North and the South.
The chronicling of Civil War intelligence activities challenges historians because of the lack of records, the lack of access to records, and the questionable truth of other records.”[1] The Confederate Secretary of state, Judah P. Benjamin had burned all the intelligence records before the federal troops entered Richmond. There was a lot of other personal papers that were destroyed. Some wrote memoirs and stretched their adventures. There are some identities that went to the grave.
The Confederates utilized the Confederacy’s Signal Corps. This was the group that would deal with communication and intercepts. They would also use drums, banners and trumpets to be able to communicate on the battlefield. A branch of the Signal Corps had a branch that was responsible for “espionage and counter-espionage operations in the North. Late in the war, the bureau set up a secret headquarters in Canada and sent out operatives on covert missions in Northern states.”[2]
The Confederate Signal Corps would be the ones that would set up the first covert intelligence operation that was known as the Secret Service Bureau. This is the department that would handle the passing of the coded messages from Richmond to the North.

The Union Army also utilized Signal Corps.  The Union’s Intelligence agency was ran by Allan Pinkerton. “Pinkerton later called himself “Chief of the United States Secret Service.”[3] Pinkerton would gather intelligence for General George B. McClellan, who was responsible for setting up the United States Secret Service. From this branch there were individuals that worked with a network of individuals that would reach out and collect, intercept, and report.
There has been a lot of literature that has been focused on spying during the Civil War. The valuable information can be found in memoirs, letters, and journals that have been left behind. After the Civil War, Pinkerton Detective agency founder, Allan Pinkerton wrote: The Spy of the Rebellion: A first-hand account of Civil War Espionage – told by the famous head of the Union Intelligence Service. In his work, he tells the stories of some of the information that was uncovered due to spying during the Civil War. He is able to give a true, accurate history of the spy system during the latter part of the Civil War. In this work I have been able to put pieces together and connect stories or people that have been mentioned in passing during some of the other research.

            Early on in the war Pinkerton would realize something: “Pinkerton, meanwhile, was developing a different view of espionage, pursuing what today would be called actionable intelligence. He realized that when the war began, the Confederacy had agents-in-place in Washington, while Northerners had few assets in Richmond. Pinkerton knew he had to establish a counterintelligence presence in Washington—and that he had to get agents into Richmond.”[4] One of the things that the North had to try and figure out was who had infiltrated. These people would have to cover their scent and tracks to be able throw off suspicion.
            Another obstacle that the Union Army would have to overcome is the rural landscaping they were marching through. The Confederates had this advantage. “They were a hardy outdoor breed, primarily rural, accustomed to horses, to firearms and to outdoor life. Federal Soldiers, largely town and city bred often had to be taught to shoot, stay on a horse, March, camp and live in the open.”[5] Since the Rebel Army was already familiar with the landscape, the area, the terrain, the Rebel spies were also going to be move around easily.
            “For Confederates planning espionage against the North, Washington looked like an ideal site: a city 60 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line, adjacent to slave-holding states, and full of Southern sympathizers. Many of them were in Congress or in the federal bureaucracy, and had access to valuable intelligence. All recruiters had to do was find among them the men and women who would have the courage and the skill to act as reliable agents.”[6] They would have to network with other sympathizers to be able to establish their networks. Washington was center to the Union Army’s operations. It would be an important place to be able to collect espionage. The earliest known recruiter for Confederate Espionage was Governor John Letcher of Virginia. He was able to lay the foundation to start the work in Washington.

Civil War Spies
Unlike the American Revolution there was no set spy rings. Many of those that were involved in espionage did so individually with a few others that were involve. While there are several spies that served their respective government during the war, the four that will be looked at are: Union Spies: Elizabeth Van Lew, Harriet Tubman and Mary Bowser, and Confederate Spies:  Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow.


[1] Allen, Thomas. Intelligence in the American Civil War. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2010. EBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed July 9, 2016). Pg. 1
[2] Ibid. Pg. 1
[3] Ibid. Pg. 21
[4] Ibid. Pg. 24
[5] Bakeless, John. Spies of the Confederacy. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970. Pg. 1

[6] Intelligence in the Civil War. Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 2005. Pg. 11

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