Espionage in the Civil War
by Mark C. Hageman
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. B. 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, 2nd Lieut. 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.
As one of the most effective military intelligence establishments
of the war (the other being the Union Bureau of Military Information BMI under George H. Sharpe), Norris's bureau directed 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 (*), 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
|Colonel John S. Mosby|
"The Gray Ghost"
Confederate spies in uniform (known as "scouts" when wearing
their own army's 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
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
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.
The ID of Harrison as James was the work of Col. Bakeless ("Spies of the Confederacy"), but disproved by Dr. Meriwether Stuart. Then James O. Hall conclusively proved that the correct person was Henry.
When "Killer Angels" ("Gettysburg") was written, the Bakeless ID was still being accepted. By the time the movie came out, the Hall correction was known--so the movie was caught between being faithful to the novel or the fact that subsequently emerged, and they compromised--accepted the ID but retained the novel's character! That produced a slightly effeminate (to my eye) character, whereas the real Harrison was a seasoned warrior, an infantry officer from Mississippi, wrapped up in a deadly dangerous game. We can only guess what he was up to in the last year of the war.
-- Dave Gaddy
James Harrison was not the spy who warned Longstreet and Lee of fedral troop movements. It was actually Henry Thomas Harrison. He also was not an actor like James Harrison but a spy for the CSA Secretary of War.
I found in my research for my 1st person impression of Harrison.
During the early morning hours of June 28, 1863, Union General George Gordon Meade was appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac while at his headquarters near Frederick, Md.
Later that same night, a spy brought this surprising news to Chambersburg, Pa, a distance of fifty miles, where CSA General James Longstreet's headquarters was located.
Henry Thomas Harrison, a Confederate spy, supplied Generals Longstreet and Lee with details about the advancing Union army. Based solely on that information, Lee ordered his dispersed army to move immediately towards a small crossroads town in south-central Pennsylvania. Thus was the beginning of the historic three-day battle known as Gettysburg.
Many historians attribute the battle’s location to H. T. Harrison.
Read the Citizens' Companion December 2005 Edition Article on the use of the Cipher Wheel and reference to this article
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