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Spying in the Civil War

       Agents for the Blue and the Gray . . . In an era of hydrogen bombs, guided missiles, and germ warfare, the subject may have an Arcadian sound, the ring of a simpler, more romantic time. But in that respect, as in others, the conflict of North and South was a paradox, a combination of paradoxes.
        That war of over one hundred and thirty years ago produced the nation's first mass armies, and a brutality and mechanized slaughter that shocked the sensibilities of the day. It had aircraft-balloons that floated over the lines-submarines, ironclad warships, automatic guns, trenches, a military draft-and the first organized espionage that the country ever knew. On both sides the spying involved treachery, filching of official secrets, the skillful seduction of loyalty. This war between Americans probably saw more espionage, involving more people, than any in our history.
        It has been called the first of the modem conflicts; it was also the last of the romantic ones. In its spying, the generation that thrilled in admiration of Sir Walter Scott usually observed "rules" of knightly, or at least gentlemanly, conduct. Had that not been true, had Northern and Southern leaders not played Ivanhoe on endless occasions, scores of undercover agents would never have survived to tell their stories.
        It was a spy-conscious war, and sometimes it seemed that everybody was spying on everybody else and talking volubly on the subject, in newspapers, parlors, bars, and at street corners. Nevertheless, few officials did anything to stop the enemy's espionage. The present-day reader may be astonished at the ease with which agents made their way across the lines and through opposition territory. Repeatedly they presented themselves to civilian and military officials, pumped them of information, and rode off with a bright good-by.
        The nature of the war made espionage easy to carry on and difficult to stop. A Tennessean looked and acted much like a Pennsylvanian, a Texan like an Ohioan; if he simply paid attention to regional accents, an agent had little trouble. Repeatedly Southern and Northern commands turned apoplectic on discovering that the man whom they had escorted proudly over their fortifications was a spy for the other side. By that time he was usually well on his way to his home base.
        Yet by and large these agents for the Blue and Gray played an amateur's game. Espionage had not yet become a high art or achieved the status to which Continental masters soon elevated it. The American spies improvised, experimented, and what they lacked in finesse they made up in energy and determination. They broke rules usually because they had never heard of them. They were a mixed crew, gentle and flamboyant, earnest and brazen, ingenious or crafty. They ranged from shoe clerks to young plantation owners, lawyers to grandes dames, actresses to plump housewives.
        The ladies were terrific. In this war they made their American debut in espionage, and never since have the nation's women taken such an active part as spies. No matter how raging a partisan a man might be, his wife or sister was probably still more impassioned. They became the best recruiting sergeants; they were "not at home" to those who lagged in enlisting, and they sent such friends white feathers or boxes containing dresses. They connived endlessly, they took great risks, and they pushed through to success in ways impossible to simple males. They showed again that the female is not only the deadlier of the sexes, but also the livelier.
        In the eighteen-sixties the double standard prevailed in spying as in other matters, and to the ladies' benefit. Neither side did a great deal about it, even when the identities of women agents were well established. As the war grew slowly more bitter, men operatives were hanged, one by one. The women received threats, or perhaps a prison term, and then freedom to try again. That war saw no Ethel Rosenbergs, and no Edith Cavells. After all, a lady was a lady. . . . A gentleman could not bring himself to order her shot or swung from a gallows.
        In part this is a tale of two cities, Washington and Richmond, with scenes in Louisville and New Orleans, Nashville and St. Louis and Baltimore. By an accident of geography the capitals of North and South lay only a hundred miles apart. Their proximity made them obvious targets for rival armies and no less for rival spies.
        At the war's beginning neither Union nor Confederacy had a security organization nor a secret service; the nation had never known one. The general war effort started as an exercise of amateurs. Struggling to create a colossal military machine of a kind that the country had not previously visualized, each side floundered. In no field was the process of trial and error more pronounced than in espionage.
        In Richmond and Washington roughly organized intelligence units gradually emerged. Inconspicuously located in the Richmond War Department was an office halfway between that of Jefferson Davis and the War Secretary's. Most Richmonders considered the Signal Bureau only the headquarters of that newfangled branch of operations which used "flagfloppers." Confederates teased the dapper young men who carried blue and scarlet cloths: "Mister, is the flies a-botherin' of you?"
        The Signal Bureau, however, had special functions. Its offices carried on an unending correspondence in cipher with Confederate agents in Washington, Baltimore, and other key points in Union territory. Early in the war the North tried to establish "land blockades" to cut off communication as well as thousands of items not available in the nonmanufacturing South. But representatives of the Confederate Signal Bureau managed to run courier lines in all directions over land and water.
        Several offices beside the Signal Bureau involved themselves in Southern espionage-that of Jefferson Davis, the successive War Secretaries, the provost marshal. So many had a part, in fact, that the effort suffered; responsibilities were scattered, confused, and Union spies appeared to slip in and out of the Confederacy like fish through a wide-meshed net.
        The North stumbled on in its own way. Arriving for his inauguration, in the face of threats against his life, Abraham Lincoln lacked even an official bodyguard. In the early months of the war Southern agents had a field day, working almost without hindrance. The first Federal defeat brought an awakening, a shake-up, and the North's first secret service bureau.
        Authority over the new service was transient. The State Department supervised intelligence matters in the beginning; then they went over to the War office, and as in Richmond the provost marshal and other officials had a finger in the pie. Sometimes Washington spies seemed to be spying on other spies. But then, if only because of the war's course, which brightened steadily for the North, the Union system became more expert than the Confederacy's, boasting some rare feats of espionage.
        Early and late, spies for both sides had a superb asset-the almost unbelievable carelessness of officialdom and citizenry alike. Little or no effort was made to check clacking tongues, and casual gossip told all an enemy needed to know about an impending advance or a strategic installation. A man had an "open face," so he must be on our side, you understand.
        Another aid to spying lay in the newspaper situation. In Dixie as in the North the press blandly printed vital information. Preparing for the Battle of Chickamauga in Tennessee, Confederate General Braxton Bragg received a New York Times clipping which explained precisely how the Unionists would fool him into a shift of position. Bragg stayed put. Near Vicksburg a Northern spy brought his superior a newspaper story in which a correspondent described in full the Federal plans for a "secret canal" behind the Mississippi. The project had to be dropped.
        More than perhaps any other Southern general, Robert E. Lee used secret agents to supply him with every available Northern newspaper. The Virginian studied them by the hour, noting, comparing, questioning. A Southern spy with a copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer provided information of a withdrawal by McClellan; as a result, Lee shifted thousands of troops. The Southerner's military shrewdness kept him from accepting false stories planted for his benefit, and Lee himself once inserted a fake in Confederate papers.
        The complete story of American espionage of 1861-65 will, of course, never be known. Much of it was never committed to paper; countless incidents were understood by only three or four people, who never gave out the facts. Innumerable agents died obscure deaths, shot down on a dark road or succumbing to exposure.
        When Richmond fell, one of the last acts of Judah Benjamin was reportedly the burning of most of the South's secret service papers. Years later Jefferson Davis discouraged attempts to give out details of Confederate spying. On the Union side General Grenville Dodge similarly opposed efforts to reveal names and activities. Too many people might be hurt.
        Nevertheless, a great deal of data is available from a variety of sources. In the Official Records of both armies were recorded thousands of pages of correspondence, orders of inquiry and arrest, some of them carrying evidence of all too human rage and puzzlement over the episodes.
        These episodes chiefly concern civilian spies, though related work of military scouts is involved at some points. The story is at times bizarre, almost unbelievable. A plotmaker concerned with credibility would hesitate to let his characters do some of the things these spies did in real life.
Source: "Spies for the Blue and Gray" by Harnett T. Kane

This Page last updated 10/02/07

Confederate Operations in Canada  A nice little article about what the Confederates were doing  north of the border


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