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The Secret War for the Union
The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War
By Edwin C. Fishel

Chapter One: Twenty Thousand Potential Spies

It would be difficult to imagine a nation entering a war more unprepared to obtain information about its enemy than the United States of 1861. In the almost ludicrously small U.S. Army there was no intelligence staff, no corps of spies, trained or otherwise. There was not so much as a concept on which a plan for these services could be based If, hidden away in some file of regulations, there was even one paragraph for the guidance of a commander with an intelligence problem to solve, it was for all practical purposes unknown in 1861, and its obscurity was preserved throughout the war.

There was not even an official name for such activities. The word intelligence meant new information on any subject. Its nearest equivalent in the military lexicon of the 1860s was "secret service"--without initial capitals. However, "secret service" referred not only to the work now known as intelligence but often to nonmilitary detective work as well. And though it denoted this group of activities, it did not refer to any organization that conducted them, for there was none; the national Secret Service that has often been mentioned and even depicted by Civil War historians did not exist, from the beginning of the war to its end.

Yet there were reasons why the nation might have had a strong "secret service." Espionage directed by George Washington--who used the term intelligence in its modern military sense--had made a definite contribution to the winning of the Revolutionary War. So there might well have been a tradition of activity and adeptness in intelligence work strong enough to last until the next great test of national strength eighty-five years later. But it was forgotten by the time of the second war with Britain in 1812; then there was a total lack of organized intelligence work, with results such as the loss of Detroit and Washington, when British deception persuaded the Americans that they were outnumbered. In the Mexican War army engineers were drawn into the intelligence business as investigators of terrain features and the enemy's manmade defenses; Captain Robert E. Lee and Second Lieutenant George B. McClellan, engineer officers and future commanders of opposing armies, distinguished themselves as providers of intelligence. For coverage outside the engineers' reach, their commander, General Winfield Scott, had a company of Mexican banditti. The association of engineers with intelligence work was becoming a tradition, but it was an activity without a name or an identity.

European military writers, whom American officers could quote from memory, had strongly, almost vehemently, urged the importance of having good information about the enemy. Hundreds of the nation's career officers knew the dictum of Frederick the Great: "It is pardonable to be defeated, but not to be taken by surprise." Equally familiar was Marshal Saxe's injunction that "too much attention cannot be given to spies and guides.... they are as necessary to a general as the eyes are to the head"; and Jomini's question, "How can any man decide what he should do himself if he is ignorant of what his enemy is about?"

Evidently the Europeans' urgings on the importance of intelligence were regarded as precepts to be taken into account only when the nation would go to war. But the neglect of the example set by General Washington is less easy to explain away. It is true that the records of his espionage service lay buried until the twentieth century, and that without history tradition has a hard existence. Yet the seeds of a strong intelligence organization had been planted in the nation's first army. That they withered away probably was due to the nation's isolation; a healthy wariness of foreign powers was lacking.

But the absence of intelligence organization or activity is no more strange than half a dozen other lacks that plagued the 1861 army. Although good weapons had been invented and were available, nearly all of those in use were badly antiquated. There was a dearth of officers trained in the higher arts of generalship; the septuagenarian Generals Winfield Scott and John E. Wool had commanded forces that were called armies in earlier wars but would not be large enough to merit the term in the 1860s. Younger officers' command experience was almost altogether limited to the companies, battalions, and regiments that had served on the western plains and the Pacific coast. The only way to acquaint these officers with the management of large forces was to send them to European armies as observers, and very few had that experience.

If some officers with ideas ahead of their time had set about to found an intelligence organization, the approaching division of the nation into warring halves would have stood in their way. Conducting, or even planning, espionage against foreign powers would have seemed a waste of money, when the only war likely to occur was an internal one. With all of the top positions in the army held by Southern officers, it would have been impossible to limit such preparations to officers certain to remain with the North when war came. And other factors discouraged intelligence planning. Overt sources of information--prisoners, deserters refugees, enemy pickets--required only the application of interrogating skills. Cavalry reconnaissance, certain to be a major source was already practiced against hostile Indians. Captured documents could be counted on as a source in any war that should develop, but how could a planning or training officer prepare for that? Enemy newspapers would be useful; they would be acquired as part of the contraband commerce that develops in a war.

Definite opportunities for intelligence planning were offered by two technological advances of recent times. Balloon reconnaissance was adopted early in the war, but only at the initiative of the balloonists. The other new technique was visual signaling by flag and torch; invented by Major Albert Myer, an army surgeon, in the late 1850s, it was the world's first successful system of alphabetic communication in forward areas. The inventor's assistants in his experiments were Southern officers; the certainty that the system would be adopted in the Confederate army at least meant that the Federals would have opportunities to intercept enemy signals. But on the Federal side the system was so poorly provided for in personnel and equipment that it was not available for battle when the war broke out. (The Confederates made decisive use of it at Bull Run while its inventor stood empty-handed on the same field.) The Federals, unable even to operate their own communication system, made no plans for the interception of the enemy's signals. Eventually intercept operations arose spontaneously when signal officers found enemy flag stations within view of their telescopes.

When the war began, Winfield Scott, weighted down with years and obesity, a victim of dropsy and vertigo, had been head of the army for two decades. The old hero, a Virginian, had surrounded himself mainly with Southern officers. When he saw war coming and set about to equip himself with a "secret service," its operations had to be kept secret from the officers closest to him. The sharp-bearded quartermaster general, Joseph E. Johnston, would soon cast his fortunes with the South. Army routine called for him to pay spies along with all other civilian employees; instead Scott handled the funds for espionage himself. Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, though a Northerner, was Southern in his sympathies and also would soon join the Confederacy; his office, normally the army's information center, had to be short-circuited by Scott. So intimate a subordinate as the general-in-chiefs military secretary was another who would soon go South. And the old general's son-in-law, Henry L. Scott, also an army officer, was believed in military circles to have been banished to Europe because of pro-Southern activities. Although the story qualifies as only an unproven rumor, it is an excellent example of the climate of suspicion that the country's troubles engendered. It was emphatically branded as a slander on Colonel Scott when General George McClellan denied having been the source of the report that the colonel had betrayed military documents to the enemy; he took occasion to label the story a slander. Even Attorney General Edwin M. Stanton, later Lincoln's secretary of war, had security problems; his office was so riddled with Southern sympathizers that he had to walk to its entryway to have a confidential conversation with a Republican senator. Stanton, a newcomer to President Buchanan's cabinet, considered his position a vantage point for keeping an eye on Southern influence in the administration.

At this stage of oncoming war the government was standing by like a fond father while the professional soldiers chose up sides in the manner of boys organizing a baseball game. Its leniency extended to members of the diplomatic service and to career civilians in the military departments. Some who went South helped themselves to military documents before leaving. And some obtained clerkships in Richmond. The situation offered the Federals an opening to plant their own men as spies in the Confederate bureaucracy, but this opportunity is not known to have been seized--though John B. Jones, writer of the well-known Rebel War Clerk's Diary, had "no doubt that there are many Federal spies in the departments. Too many clerks were imported from Washington."

The story of one of the "secession clerks" shows the seemingly hopeless problem of preserving military secrets at that time. His name was John F. Callan, and he held at different times two important clerkships, one in the adjutant general's office and the other on Capitol Hill, where he served the Military Committee of the Senate. He owed his committee position, which dated from 1852, to Jefferson Davis, then a United States senator from Mississippi. Davis, later secretary of war, had something to do with the other appointment as well. On February 21, 1861, three days after his inauguration as president of the Confederate States, Davis began a telegraphic campaign to bring Callan to Montgomery as chief clerk of his new War Department. Callan kept Davis on the string for two months--until after the war began--before declining on the ground of family illness. Neither the offer nor its final outcome need raise eyebrows, but the same cannot be said of the Confederate leaders' cheek in addressing their telegrams to Callan at the United States War Department. Equally conspicuous, or equally puzzling, is the generosity of Callan's Washington employers in retaining him in at least one if not both of his positions of high trust.

Since the telegraph wires were open to sedition, they were certain to be used by authorities of much greater puissance than John Callan. The capital harbored congressmen and even cabinet members who worked earnestly for the new nation forming in the South. By now the Confederate States of America had become a growing concern, and Southern elements in Washington had far less legitimacy in being there. One object that kept them hanging about was information on the doings of the Northern government; another was military recruitment. The channels of communication remained open regardless of how inimical to Northern interests was the content of what passed over them.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, on duty in Texas, was a special problem of divided loyalties. He was the favorite of both General Scott and the administration to take command of Northern armies in the field and eventually succeed Scott as general-in-chief. Such was the offer made to him in April, when he was home on leave at Arlington; he understood that it originated with the President. His answer was to resign his commission and offer his services to his beloved Virginia, which by now had joined the Confederacy. Before reaching this decision Lee had a three-hour talk with Scott in which the old generalissimo faced the problem of exercising persuasion on the younger man without confiding any "intelligence" secrets whose disclosure he would regret if Lee joined the Confederates. In this interview the awkwardness of handling military secrets in the situation of divided loyalties reached its peak.

When in the closing days of 1860 President Buchanan finally obtained the resignation of his secessionist secretary of war, John B. Floyd, and Postmaster General Joseph Holt, a Unionist, moved over to take charge of the War Department, affairs were in a state of crisis because of events in Charleston Harbor. Major Robert Anderson had moved the tiny garrison of the defenseless Fort Moultrie into Fort Sumter, which was unfinished but incomparably more secure. The secessionist reaction in Washington was about as violent as in Charleston itself. Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall on January 2 telegraphed the commander of the military forces of the now sovereign State of South Carolina: "Holt succeeds Floyd. It means war. Cut off supplies from Anderson and take Sumter soon as possible." Wigfall proceeded later on to telegraph word--not very accurate--of plans for the provisioning and reinforcement of Fort Sumter.

Only 300 or 400 Marines and a small company of army ordnance men stationed at the Washington Arsenal stood in the way of an armed coup by the Southern element. Unionist leaders in the cabinet and Congress--such men as Attorney General Stanton, Secretary of War Holt, Senator William H. Seward--strongly believed that such a coup was in the making. Situated between two slave states, Washington was a Southern city in most ways. Its mayor and chief of police were secessionists; the part-time general who headed its militia organization was a Virginian, and the political complexion of his troops was uncertain.

Clearly the protection of the government rested with the army, and its Virginia-born general-in-chief moved quietly but effectively. His first step was to take army headquarters back to Washington from New York, where it had been for some years; Winfield Scott, the personification of the U.S. Army, had preferred to live at some distance from Jefferson Davis, secretary of war at the time Scott made the move. Upon returning to the capital he found President Buchanan fearful of inflaming Southern sentiment if he brought in more uniformed men. But Scott, declaring that he could not guarantee the safety of the capital for more than five days, reached out and moved in eight companies from widely scattered posts. He also asked for the loan of as many Marines as their commandant could spare.

The President's expectations in regard to Southern feeling proved correct; on February 11 the House of Representatives passed a resolution asking him to explain "the reasons that had induced him to assemble so large a number of troops in this city, ... and whether he has any information of a conspiracy ... to seize upon the capital and prevent the inauguration of the President-elect." Secretary Holt responded with a report assuring Buchanan that he believed such a conspiracy had been "in process of formation, if not fully matured,. and that the presence of the troops caused it to be "suspended, if not altogether abandoned." But for this timely precaution, said Holt, the capital would have met the fate of the forts and arsenals in the South; it would be in the hands of "revolutionists, who have found this great Government weak only because in the exhaustless beneficence of its spirit, it has refused to strike, even in its own defense, lest it should be the aggressor." Buchanan did not forward this impassioned communication to the House; presumably he considered their resolutions an impertinence.

For the task of dealing with the possible disloyalty in the local militia, Scott chose Charles P. Stone, an ex-officer of the army in his late thirties. Stone, a native of Massachusetts, had been out of the service for four years engaging in business in Mexico and the West. Now in Washington, he had been studying the sentiment of its people; when he made a courtesy call on Scott, the general asked his opinion on that subject. The younger man replied, "Two-thirds of the fighting-stock of this population would sustain the Government in defending itself." Scott announced, "These people have no rallying-point. Make yourself that rallying-point!" The next day Stone found himself a colonel and the inspector general of the District of Columbia.

Stone's estimate that two-thirds of Washington's 61,000 white citizens were pro-Union was comforting; still it meant that the government would have to worry about policing 20,000 people who would be glad to send the Confederacy information they might acquire by such easy means as observing new troops detraining or construction crews working on fortifications--or by deliberate spying. The loyalty of the local militia was the most critical problem, but at least it was identifiable and fairly manageable. There were four old-line militia units; a new one was forming. The captain commanding one company had stated its mission thus: to "... help to keep the Yankees from coming down to coerce the South." Whether Stone knew of this declaration is not certain, but he did find enough evidence of disloyalty to place detectives in that company and one other. They uncovered unmistakable secessionist connections; Stone came to believe there was a plot that extended to "seizing the public departments at the proper moment and obtaining possession of the seals of the Government." Against some reluctance on the part of Buchanan he organized and armed sixteen new companies; without these, Stone was convinced, "Mr. Lincoln would never have been inaugurated."

It was in this atmosphere that Abraham Lincoln made his covert arrival at the capital. On his roundabout trip from Springfield he was scheduled to change trains in Baltimore, traveling a mile of downtown streets between the two railroad stations. Hearing rumors of assassination plots in Baltimore, Colonel Stone arranged for detectives to investigate; they confirmed the suspicion. Lincoln's friends also had employed detectives, who came to the same finding. Reluctantly Lincoln changed his rail route and timetable, passing through Baltimore incognito in the dead of night. He arrived at the Washington depot ahead of schedule, to be greeted only by one early-rising Illinois congressman. He regretted his furtive entry ever afterward, and scholars to this day disagree as to whether there was any real danger. But it is worth noting that the plot was reported by two different groups of detectives who were not only working independently but presumably were unaware of each other's presence in Baltimore. Even with allowance for an overly suspicious attitude on their part, the choice Lincoln made would have been immensely hard to reject

Lincoln's tiny escort on the trip across Maryland included Allan Pinkerton, the Chicago detective-agency chief who had headed one of the Baltimore investigations. This was Pinkerton's introduction to a year and a half of "secret service."

Public anxiety for the safety of the government focused not only on the approaching inauguration on March 4 but also on the Electoral College balloting on February 13. If the electors could be prevented from meeting, Lincoln's election would never become official. A visitor who voiced this fear to General Scott heard this choice bit of three-star rhetoric: "I have said that any man who attempted by force or unparliamentary disorder to obstruct or interfere with the lawful count of the electoral vote should be lashed to the muzzle of a twelve-pounder gun and fired out of a window of the Capitol. I would manure the hills of Arlington with fragments of his body, were he a Senator or a chief magistrate of my native state! It is my duty to suppress insurrection--my duty!" Scott would have been offended if his auditor had interpreted this hyperbole as an attempt at humor.

An investigation paralleling Scott's and Stone's, aimed at discovering subversion within the government and in the city, was launched by a House of Representatives committee at the urging of Attorney General Stanton. On the day the Electoral College met, Washington was under arms, with soldiers and Marines on duty not only at the Capitol but at the White House, Treasury, General Post Office, Patent Office, and all the bridges. The precautions were not in vain, for an unorganized crowd did gather, though harmlessly, from within the city and from Virginia and Maryland. "Under the frowning gaze of artillery" the election of Lincoln was announced by one of the men he had outpolled in November--Vice President John C. Breckinridge, a future Confederate general and secretary of war.

Next day the congressional investigating committee reported finding no direct evidence of any organized effort to overthrow the government. Security measures for the inauguration went forward anyway. In the inaugural parade the presidential carriage had an escort of District of Columbia cavalry and infantry, with a regular Sappers and Miners company marching in front. As protection against snipers, riflemen were stationed atop houses along the parade route and in windows of the Capitol. Regular cavalry guarded the intersections of the side streets with Pennsylvania Avenue, and the inauguration site at the east front of the Capitol was under the protection of District of Columbia riflemen and a battery of horse artillery. One of Stone's detectives reported a plot to blow up the inaugural platform at the moment Lincoln took the oath of office; so the structure was guarded by a whole battalion of militia. Policemen in plain clothes mixed with the crowd. General Scott, although too infirm to mount a horse, and himself under threat of assassination, watched over the proceedings from his carriage. Lincoln was inaugurated without incident.

South Carolina's secession in December, together with the presence of a Federal garrison in Charleston Harbor, created a situation capable of exploding into open hostilities. But the Federal government appears to have made no effort to find out by clandestine means what the Southerners were planning to do. Once the Carolinians had trained batteries on Fort Sumter from points three-quarters of the way around the compass, the position of Major Robert Anderson's little company would be hopeless whenever the Southerners chose to make it so. Reinforcing or simply reprovisioning the fort was considered for many weeks, both before and after the change of administration. Finally Lincoln came to realize, from unofficial reports as well as those of emissaries he sent to Anderson, that feeling in Charleston was too hot for even a supply ship to reach Sumter without drawing a barrage that would start a war.

Lincoln's information was obtained by these open dealings, but the blow that the Confederates finally struck was the result of their inability to content themselves with information openly acquired. After permitting mail to go in and out of the fort for many weeks, General P. G. T. Beauregard and Governor Francis Pickens, chief of state of the "Palmetto Republic," decided to put an end to this generosity. On April 8 they informed Anderson of this decision, at the same time opening a letter from him to the War Department. They were rewarded by the sight of three long paragraphs referring to a relief expedition that Anderson evidently was still expecting. The proposed help was to consist only of supplies, but the letter did not make that fact evident, and the Southern leaders would not have believed such a statement if it had been expressly made. They knew that Anderson's food was almost gone, and he formally stated to them that he intended to evacuate the fort on April 15 if not resupplied. But they feared that the expedition would arrive while he parleyed with them. So, at 4:30 A.M. on the 12th, they opened fire.

Two days later the South had Fort Sumter and the North had a cause to fight for. In the long-drawn-out Sumter affair the Confederates held an "intelligence advantage," but the key piece of information, the intercepted letter, led them into a fateful miscalculation. For if Anderson had surrendered without firing a shot as he had planned, it would have had much less impact on Northern emotions than Beauregard's attack produced.

Fort Pickens in Florida, another bastion along the Southern coast that the Federals retained, was a different story. Although situated on Santa Rosa Island at a point that commanded the entrance to Pensacola Harbor and Navy Yard, it, unlike Fort Sumter, was not made a symbol of Federal "intrusion." Even the irresolute President Buchanan permitted its reinforcement--which, however, brought its strength only to two companies.

Florida authorities began putting pressure on the fort's commander, Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, even before the state seceded on January 10. He refused to surrender although he remained vulnerable to attack; the fort was anything but impregnable, and heavy Rebel forces glowered at him from across the bay. They never attacked, and Slemmer credited their failure to information supplied by a spy who was working for him on the mainland. His agent was Richard Wilcox, a watchman at the Navy Yard, who remained there after it was surrendered to the Confederates. Through Wilcox's reports, Slemmer wrote, he was "enabled to prevent the attacks on the fort designed by the rebels, and thus defeat their plans." Since the maneuverability of Slemmer's force was precisely zero, we may question how, even with perfect intelligence, he could have prevented an enemy attempt against his fort. But his statement, unelaborated as above, was accepted by so skeptical--and tight-fisted--an authority as Secretary of War Stanton when Wilcox sought $500 pay for his espionage services eighteen months later.

The defenders of Fort Pickens were also blessed, or afflicted, with the services of a free-lance spy named Joseph O. Kerbey, a Pennsylvania telegrapher. Kerbey, a short, gray-eyed blond youth of nineteen, was having himself an adventure in Secessia, traveling about eavesdropping on conversations of Southerners and mailing reports of them North, sometimes to newspapers and sometimes to Washington authorities. Hearing of the expected excitement at Pensacola, he boarded a steamer for that place. Disguised as a fisherman, he got himself over to Fort Pickens, bearing, according to his own story, valuable information on Confederate plans against the fort. A letter that he tore up and cast into a spittoon was pieced together and proved to contain secessionist sentiments. They probably were no more than a part of the espionage game Kerbey fancied he was playing. Nevertheless, at the first opportunity he was put aboard a navy sloop and sent North.

Kerbey was not to be put down by one defeat. He continued his unwanted spying service for another sixteen months at various places before a short tour of duty in Old Capitol Prison at Washington persuaded him of the error of his unorthodoxy. Fort Pickens, having survived the aid and succor provided by Kerbey, was amply reinforced in mid-April. Slemmer and his exhausted, underfed men were sent North, and the Union navy's blockading squadron took the fort under its wing. Eventually the Confederate forces abandoned the area. The fort that bore the same name as the head of the Palmetto Republic remained an island of Union might to the end of the war.

For a week toward the end of April Washington itself was scarcely more able than Fort Pickens to communicate with the outside world. While recruits answering Lincoln's call for 75,000 men overwhelmed the states' facilities for inducting and organizing them, the capital of the nation stood alone and almost naked, cut off from the populace that was rising to support it. The handful of militia and regulars who had sustained the administration began to look pathetic when matched against the forces collecting in northern Virginia, some of them annoyingly close to the banks of the Potomac.

And when Lincoln's 75,000 began arriving, their movement through Maryland increased the isolation of the capital by inflaming the secessionist element of Baltimore to the point of bloody riot. The first reinforcement of regimental strength, the 6th Massachusetts Infantry, was attacked by an armed mob while changing trains in Baltimore on April 19. Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler then avoided Baltimore by taking the rest of his command by ferryboat via Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, which had a rail connection with Washington, thus establishing the route used by other arriving regiments until arrangements were made for safe passage through Baltimore. The rail route from Ohio and the West passed south of Baltimore, but it was now blocked by Virginia troops occupying Harper's Ferry. Even though Maryland Governor Thomas H. Hicks was pro-Union, Lincoln had to exercise considerable cajolery to persuade him and the officialdom of Baltimore that Washington could not be defended unless Federal soldiers were allowed to transit their territory.

One of the precautions the Maryland authorities took was to burn the bridges on the two railroads leading into Baltimore from the North. For reasons hard to perceive they also severed on April 21 the telegraph lines to the North, which carried all of Washington's telegraph traffic except purely local messages. Washington's line to Richmond, in enemy territory, was in working order but carrying no telegrams, while for a full week northbound traffic could travel only as far as Baltimore.

The War Department had installed a censor in the Washington telegraph office on April 19, fearing that the rioting in Baltimore was part of a plot. The censor inspected all incoming and outgoing telegrams and prohibited the operators from replying to conversational questions asked by their brethren in Richmond. He was not intelligence-minded enough to exploit the chattiness of telegraph operators to find out what was going on in Richmond. The Washington-Richmond wire was not severed until May 21 or 22, and then the action was taken not by the government but by the American Telegraph Company, whose officers held a conference on the Long Bridge leading from Washington into Virginia.

On April 22, the first full day of the telegraphic outage, J. Henry Puleston, a reporter for the Philadelphia North American, was sent north from Washington with an accumulation of General Scott's unsent dispatches. Beyond Baltimore he had to go by carriage, paying fifty dollars to travel the forty-five miles to York, Pennsylvania. Among others who served Scott as couriers this time were D. F. Williams and Charles Leib; they also performed secret-service work at the points they visited. A system of couriers was also worked out by the Washington correspondents of distant newspapers.

The telegraphic hiatus was perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the government's weakness. It prevented Washington from exercising control over the meager forces that represented the national authority at distant points. The most seriously threatened of these was St. Louis, where another tiny detachment of regular troops, manning a United States arsenal, was surrounded by a small army of insurgent militiamen and hamstrung by a secession-minded United States Army general and an actively hostile state government. The Unionist element, led by Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr., brother of Lincoln's postmaster general, set up a telegraph office across the Mississippi in East St. Louis because of the suspected disloyalty of operators in the St. Louis office. From their improvised telegraph station on the morning of April 21, Blair sent a warning that the insurgents were threatening to seize the arsenal and that General William S. Harney was refusing to allow Union volunteer regiments to receive arms or even to occupy the arsenal grounds.

The telegraph could not get this alarming news to Washington; it was held up at Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Into the breach stepped a regular-army officer, Major Fitz John Porter, who had just arrived at Harrisburg to hurry the mustering of volunteers and assist Pennsylvania authorities in protecting the railroads. Porter carried authority to use the names of Scott and Secretary of War Simon Cameron in these matters, but he was to be held responsible for his acts. Certainly his instructions did not contemplate his dealing with matters that did not directly concern Pennsylvania. But when Governor Andrew Curtin handed him the urgent message from Blair, Porter at once telegraphed orders in the name of General Scott instructing General Harney that Captain Nathaniel Lyon, a loyal officer in command of the arsenal, was to muster in and arm the 3500 Unionist volunteers and "use them for the protection of public property." Messages with the same import went from Porter to Lyon, Blair, and Harney's adjutant. The telegrams showed Harrisburg rather than Washington as their point of origin, but if that raised doubts as to Porter's authority, they did not prevent execution of the orders he gave. As for General Harney, he may never have learned that his pro-secession policy had been undercut by a major whose real authority, put to a legal test, would have been found to consist of the possession of a pen and a pad of telegram blanks.

Porter, whose boldness had achieved this bloodless rescue, became a general and months later himself fell under suspicion of disloyalty, not to his flag but to his commanding officer. A similar and even more lamentable fate met another officer with a record of bold action in the secession crisis--Colonel Stone. Their stories, which form two of the grimmest chapters in the history of the war, belong to later parts of this narrative.

St. Louis was the locale of probably the most elaborate and successful intelligence activity that the Union forces were able to set up outside Washington in those early weeks. The account of a one-man feat by Captain Lyon has hitherto dominated the history of this espionage. He is supposed to have toured the camps of the hostile militia disguised as a farm woman and wearing a veil, driving a horse and wagon and selling eggs. The story is implausible; such a mission by the commanding officer--Harney was removed and Captain Lyon became a brigadier general in one jump--was not very necessary anyway, for there is on record the performance of an unidentified spy who was covering a wide range of insurgent activities in and about the city. This man's secessionist contacts were as good as his literacy was poor. But lack of education was scarcely a handicap to the spy who could report:

I have been a consderabel nomber of Riffels at the [city] pollice offis standing in the back or rear of the large room they are new I cannot tell wether they ar U.S. or not one of the men told me that that was not all but that 700 more ware in the house there is a brass Cannon in the Cellar the Pollice are drill at loading and firing at least I saw them at it this morning.... 918 men all told at Camp Jackson, Davis of the [St. Louis] Democrat maid them 895.... they have applied to the oald man [General Harney?] to fill hand grenauds for them

This agent uncovered several other secret armament projects about the city, pinpointed a huge shipment of powder to New Orleans, and identified Rebel spies who were moving among the Union camps. He was working for the Committee of Safety, a small group of Union men that included Congressman Blair. Approaching Federal authorities through Attorney General Edward Bates, a Missourian, the committee soon was receiving financial aid from the War Department despite its unofficial character.

Blair felt a responsibility for the security of more than his city and state. With the approval of Secretary Cameron he employed a professional detective, Charles Noyes, and sent him to Utah "to watch the movements of United States officers in command" in that region. On Noyes's return from his expedition he remained in the secret service. Although old plainsmen who had scouted for the army in past years were available for such duty in the territories, they do not seem to have been used until later in the year. And when local talent was put to use the result was not always favorable. A company of twenty-four spies and guides was organized in New Mexico in August; six months later its captain, John G. Phillips, turned up as commanding officer of Confederate forces at Santa Fe. Indian scouts, available in profusion, were employed, among them Captain Fall Leaf, Ocque McMund, Flat Foot, General Jackson, Medicine Armstrong, and Charles Youmeycake. They generally did their scouting in company with their sons, brothers, and cousins, with wives and daughters tagging close behind. Since their families found a home in the army, they were as much a headache to the quartermasters as a boon to the information service.

Compensation for spies was a major difficulty. The military forces gathering in Missouri found a successful agent in one J. L. Herzinger but could not pay him, so he was allowed to set up a mercantile sideline, selling sutler's goods and soft drinks to the troops. But Herzinger, the "Cherry Bounce Man," was soon indicted by civil authorities for selling without a license and was lost to the secret service.

On April 18 Colonel Joseph K. F. Mansfield, a regular officer with nearly forty years' service behind him, assumed command of the newly organized Department of Washington, and with it much of the burden of directing espionage at the capital. Mansfield, soon made a brigadier general, put the secret-service business in the hands of William C. Par sons, a lawyer who had served in one of the local militia companies and was, like Mansfield, a native of Connecticut. From his law office Parsons directed a group of agents, all unpaid informers except one. Lawyerlike, he required them to put their reports in writing. He also employed a topographer and a varying number of clerks. Even the country about the capital was indifferently mapped; considerable effort was expended be fore the author of a published map was identified and his supply tapped.

For a few weeks the enemy forces to be reported on were close at hand: at Chain Bridge, which crossed the Potomac three miles above the city, and at Alexandria, eight miles downstream. Nevertheless, most of the work that came Parsons's way had to do with local security and counterespionage rather than information on the nearby enemy. His agents chased down arms concealed by secessionists in the vicinity of the capital. They investigated reports of "secession telegraphing by means of signal lights at night"--a communication system of improbable work ability. Parsons himself was required to certify to the trustworthiness of anyone allowed to pass into Virginia. When he fell seriously ill in August his little group was disbanded; Allan Pinkerton was already setting up shop as the head of the principal secret-service activity in the capital. Parsons's connection with intelligence ceased, and he was paid off in November. Mansfield deducted a substantial amount from his bill, informing the War Department that Parsons "works for the cause & I doubt not will receive the amount I award without a word." But the authorities, displaying an uncommon generosity, gave him the full amount he claimed.

Only the informal nature and very short life of Parsons's group denies it the acclaim bestowed on Pinkerton's unit as the nation's first organized intelligence bureau. Later successes of intelligence chiefs drawn from the legal profession, as recently as the Second World War, and the shortcomings of one with a detective background, that is, Pinkerton, tempt speculation as to how the course of the Civil War might have been affected if Parsons's little organization had survived beyond the embryonic stage.

Mansfield also employed as a spy another Washingtonian, Abel Huntingdon Lee. Lee was active in uncovering routes of communication used by the insurgents between Washington and Virginia via the Potomac and the lower counties of Maryland. His employment antedated that of Parsons; he may have been the unnamed paid agent in Parsons's organization. Late in July he went to work at the Navy Yard as a painter. This may have been a cover for his secret-service activities, but more probably he took the job because of the chronic shortage of funds for paying secret agents. In any case Lee continued his visits to the lower Potomac region and suffered the unusual experience of being arrested by the Confederates in Maryland--Union territory. They took him across the river to Virginia and jailed him for sixteen months. "After returning home," Lee's wife informed the War Department, "he met with an injury which his shattered constitution could not sustain," and he died.

Lower Maryland was also under the observation of an agent in the pay of Governor Hicks. He was George W. Howard, Jr., who according to Hicks was "the only man I have been able to engage that I had confidence in." Months later, when the governor's funds ran out, he recommended Howard to Secretary Cameron: "Mr. H. is perfectly reliable, and being a Democrat originally, now a good and loyal Union man, tho passing as a secessionist mixes with the Rebels' freely without suspicion being a native of St. Marys [County]. He was an officer to the present miserable House of Delegates for Maryland."

Howard's position in the House had been abolished because the members did not like his Unionist politics. It is a mystery how he could have circulated freely among secessionists in much of Maryland while his Union sympathies were well known in Annapolis. Nevertheless Howard, who had begun spying in March, was credited by General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding at Frederick, with having rendered "services that were of great value in breaking up the traffic with Virginia ... and in detecting the passage of armed men to Va." He continued active through the early months of the Pinkerton period, entering the Rebel lines at Fredericksburg for General McClellan, Pinkerton's chief. Although he was more exposed to capture than the unfortunate Abel Lee, Howard escaped, but narrowly. When Stonewall Jackson drove Banks out of Winchester in May 1862 he captured a trunk belonging to Banks that contained his correspondence with Howard. Word that the Confederates knew of Howard's activities leaked back to Baltimore, where it was picked up by Federal detectives in time to save him from capture. But his career as a spy was over.

The upper Potomac presented a different sort of problem from the region where Lee and Howard were working. The river, relatively narrow there and fordable in many places, was no great barrier to organized bodies of troops. Spies who covered it would be looking for military activity as well as for contraband traffic and disloyal citizens. A large force of Virginia state troops began gathering at Harper's Ferry late in April. In May and June a New Yorker named Kirk R. Mason, acting under General Mansfield's orders, made three trips to investigate affairs at the Ferry. On his first attempt, about May 9, he entered the town with no difficulty but found himself hard put to get back out. The Confederates suspected his purpose and jailed him for several days; they failed, however, to obtain either a confession from him or evidence against him. Released, he departed on foot and boarded a Washington-bound train several miles away. The Confederates, having thought better of their leniency, boarded the same train in Maryland--another invasion of Union territory--and searched it. Mason wrote that "By a change of appearance, caused by shaving off my whiskers &c, which I had prudently adopted, I fortunately escaped identification and arrest."

Mason's is the earliest known purely military espionage mission in what was already becoming the main theater of the war in the East. The importance that was attached to his findings at the time is indicated by the fact that he delivered them personally to Secretary Cameron and the President. But the only report of his service that has come to light, written in December 1861 to support a claim for reimbursement, does not permit us to assess the accuracy of his findings. It states that he reported:

(1st) The Evidences of Treason I discovered at Frederick, Maryland: (2) The number and position of the batteries established by the Enemy, both on the Maryland and Virginia side of the Potomac at and near Harper's Ferry,--and the range and strength (number and Calibre of the guns) of the said Batteries: (3) The Efforts making by the Enemy to obstruct the Rail Road & the passage of troops, on the Maryland side ...(4) the Number of Cavalry under the command of Capt. Ashby: (5) The Extent of the Rebel pickets as then Established: (6) The Number and position of the Infantry and horse Artillery of the Rebels, and the States from which the different Regiments came: (7) The Preparations made by the Rebels to blow-up and destroy the R. R. Bridge across the Potomac at Harper's Ferry: (8) The state of the Fortifications on the Maryland heights [across the river from the Ferry], and the Number of Troops stationed there,--also the number and size of the cannon, &c &c

After a time spent touring the enemy positions at Arlington Heights and Alexandria and mounting counterespionage efforts about the capital, Mason was ordered back to Harper's Ferry. This visit he made prudently brief, starting back at midnight the same night he arrived. Coming suddenly upon two Confederate horsemen, he drew on the time-worn ruse of asking them for their countersign. His boldness paid well, for they gave it without asking for one in return. He had occasion to use it upon encountering more pickets farther on. On a third trip he did not even venture into Harper's Ferry, stationing himself at Knoxville, very near the Ferry but safely on the Maryland side of the Potomac.

Again only Mason's December statement of his findings is available. In this document he said that on his second trip to Harper's Ferry he discovered and reported that the Confederates were falling back to Winchester. They did not make that move until June 15, more than three weeks after the time given by Mason, so his discovery of it probably came on his later trip, to Knoxville. As this statement was made under oath and addressed to officials who had the means of knowing the facts, it is probable that this was an innocent error.

In thus being absolved of lying, however, Mason falls under a different charge, and one that suggests that he was a mediocre spy: evidently he had a poor memory, being unable at the time of his December statement to distinguish between his three trips, on the last of which he made a major finding. And his subsequent history indicates that his performance may have been considered deficient, for he seems to have been given little to do for a few weeks and then to have been dropped. Like many agents of the period, when he ended his service the government was deeply in his debt, and he received a settlement only after protracted efforts. In presenting his claim, he wrote, "I entered upon and performed these services, more from considerations of patriotism, and a desire to serve the Government & Country, than from any Expectation of reward,--I knowing the risques which I must run, and the pall of oblivion that would shroud my name and memory, if it became my lot to fall in the service." Mason's superiors took him at his word and paid him only his expenses, some $300, although he broadly hinted that his services were worth far more.

The service of these agents during the chaotic weeks when an army was being assembled at Washington and the existence of William Parsons's group of agents have hitherto been unknown. However, one agent who went into action in this period has been far from obscure. This was Lafayette C. Baker, a red-bearded, lean man of thirty-four years, a native of upstate New York, lately a San Francisco vigilante. Baker was to become famous, and infamous, as the government's chief detective. He entered the service in February, possibly as one of Colonel Stone's detectives; in July he performed one of his very few ventures in military espionage. This took place after the Confederates had pulled back from Washington's Potomac front and Union forces had occupied Arlington Heights and Alexandria. With newspapers conducting an "On to Richmond!" campaign and the same sentiments being thundered daily on Capitol Hill, the administration was under irresistible pressure to mount an offensive. A week before the army marched for Bull Run, Baker was sent South, not by Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, who was to command the field army, but by General Scott.

In the book in which Baker recounts, and grossly inflates, his Civil War activities, he says he left Washington in the character of an itinerant photographer--a pretense that a Confederate picket or provost marshal could easily have penetrated, for his camera box was empty and he had none of the photographer's usual cumbersome equipment. After losing a day through being arrested by the Federal commander at Alexandria (so his story goes), he reached Manassas, the Confederate field headquarters, there to be arrested again and questioned at length by the enemy commander, Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, and forwarded to Richmond, by now the Confederate capital.

Again at Richmond, according to Baker, his presence commanded the attention of the highest authority, and President Davis himself was even more generous with his time than General Beauregard had been, giving Baker three extended interviews without penetrating his deception.

"In the mean time," Baker writes, "I had obtained information of military movements and plans, learned where the enemy had stationed troops, or were building fortifications, and what they were doing at the Tredegar [munitions] works." As Baker by his own account had been continuously confined or under guard since before his arrival at Manassas, such discoveries would have been a considerable feat.

Exploits of this degree of probability and believability appear repeatedly in the published reminiscences of Civil War spies. And Baker's book, one of the earliest of these, set the fashion in other ways. For example, he tells of being arrested immediately upon entering Confederate territory and of happening upon a "beer-house" (in a wooded and sparsely settled rural section) where his captors soon "were stupidly under the influence of the potations," whereupon Baker slipped away. Another alleged adventure of Baker's that became a cliche in the spies' memoirs was his manner of escape across the Potomac. He says that he obtained in Richmond a pass to Fredericksburg, halfway to Washington; that he hiked the ten miles from there to the Potomac by eluding a succession of pursuers and guards, and that he finally reached the Maryland shore by stealing a fisherman's boat and rowing across the wide river through a hail of bullets from the Virginia side.

But the tallest of Baker's tales concerns his meeting with a beautiful Southern girl in the stockade at Manassas. She was distributing religious tracts, and she employed her wiles with great skill in an attempt--which he easily saw through--to betray him into an admission of his Northern allegiance. She was no ordinary Southern girl; according to Baker this was none other than Belle Boyd, later the celebrated Confederate spy whose brushes with Federal authority involved Baker. Even Belle's fondest admirers have not credited her with the religious and patriotic services that Baker claimed.

Although this saga stretches credulity at every point, it cannot be entirely written off, for Baker did make a trip to Manassas and Richmond at about the time he claims. The record that supports his claim is sketchy but authoritative. It consists of his bill for $105 in expenses, naming Manassas and Richmond as the points visited, citing General Scott's orders as authority for the mission, and bearing endorsements by Secretary of State Seward and a disbursing officer of the War Department. These were the officials who customarily passed on expenditures for "secret service" at this period, and, as has already been noted, they were cautious about paying even the most obviously legitimate claims. That Baker was able to convince his chiefs that he had been to Manassas and Richmond is enough to compel acceptance of that much of his claim. Happily this can be done without also accepting either the thesis that the Confederate president personally questioned suspected spies at great length, or Baker's assertion that he brought back a substantial amount of intelligence. The other details of his story, even where they are circumstantially believable, come into question because of the general character of his book. What actually befell him on his trip to Richmond can only be guessed; the likeliest possibility is that while at Manassas and Richmond and en route between them he was under arrest as he claims, and that he did have interviews with Confederate officials of some importance, though not of the magnitude of General Beauregard and President Davis.

On a later trip to Richmond, in September, Baker obtained a pass signed by Confederate Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker; again, his actual contacts probably were at a lower level. His memoir does not mention this second Richmond trip; this omission is one more indication of the book's value as history, and there are other serious omissions in the Baker record, such as the lack of an official report on either of his Richmond visits.

In the case of the July mission, Baker's spying in the Confederacy would have been of more value if he had not made it to Richmond at all. Manassas, much handier to Washington, was where the Rebels had assembled an army to protect a railroad junction. That army was the Federals' chief intelligence target, and it was probably the target Scott had assigned to Baker, not the officialdom in Richmond, high or low. But field armies were much harder for spies to penetrate than cities; and, as has been seen, the commander of the field army at Manassas evidently did not care much for visitors. If Baker had been lucky enough to go from Manassas to Washington instead of to Richmond, he might have brought back some information that would have helped the Federals avoid their defeat and rout at Bull Run. The Richmond detour delayed his return to Washington until that battle was long over. Baker's account says that Richmond was his goal from the outset, and that he stopped at Manassas only because he stumbled into a patrol belonging to one of Beauregard's outposts. It is a reasonable guess that this is just one more of Baker's fabrications.

Baker had his work cut out for him, and it was not spying out military secrets in the Confederacy. With the loyalty of the Washington city police doubtful and an efficient military police system yet to be developed, the capital was an inviting intelligence target for the Confederates. Baker was to become chief of the longer-lasting of two organizations (the other was Pinkerton's) charged with limiting the damage that the friends of secession could do in and around the capital city. He formed a bureau that had as many as thirty employees during the war and a somewhat larger number during the investigation of the assassination of Lincoln. His wartime name for it, National Detective Police, probably lacked legal authorization; with the publication of his book in 1867 he became "Chief of the United States Secret Service," an even more imaginative concoction, which historians have eagerly accepted. Although his National Detective Police organization was much more local in character than national, Baker did have regular liaison with the New York City police, he sometimes had agents in Canada, and he had occasional dealings with headquarters of field armies and regional departments of the army, where there was usually a provost marshal general (a title Baker did not have) who outranked him.

At first Baker was a civilian employee, then a colonel, finally a brigadier general. Though working initially for General Scott, he was nominally subordinate to Secretary of State Seward. When Stanton became secretary of war he brought Baker into the War Department, where his status was first that of "Special Agent" and then "Special Provost-Marshal." He reported to the "Special Judge Advocate," Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Levi C. Turner, a lawyer associate of Stanton's who did not allow his inferior rank to soften the orders he gave Colonel (or General) Baker.

From his arrests of Copperheads and other pro-Confederate activists, Baker has acquired a reputation as a perpetrator of police-state tactics. His little detective bureau has even been imaginatively portrayed as "Lincoln's secret police." However, the standard treatment of even its most unmistakably guilty victims was release upon taking the oath of allegiance to the Union. More deserving of disrepute is his official lying and his spying on President Andrew Johnson, two parts of his history that lie outside the period under examination here. Civil War history has been content to leave Baker his bad name without making a close examination of his operations, especially his counterespionage activities, which appear to have been generally successful. He appears again in these pages on a few occasions when his policing of Washington and vicinity brought him into contact with provost marshals of the Federal armies, especially forces stationed in lower Maryland, a region known to have been traversed by Confederate couriers, whose traffic was one of Baker's principal concerns.

© 1996 Edwin C. Fishel

Houghton Mifflin

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