Lincoln’s Spies: Their Secret War to Save a Nation

During the Civil War both the Union and Confederate governments utilized a wide variety of intelligence gathering techniques. On both opposing sides of that bloody war, tactics such as the interception of communications, behind enemy lines scouting missions, surveillance, and outright spying were commonly used.

While Confederate operatives such as Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow have drawn a great deal of literary attention because of their more flamboyant espionage activities, it was the Union intelligence operatives who, on balance, achieved much more striking outcomes in terms of information gathering. As Douglas Waller outlines in this exhaustive history of Union efforts at tipping the scales of war in their favor through effective spycraft, the North simply had many more resources to apply to this aspect of the conflict.

The end result was that Union intelligence operations generally yielded a much greater return on the investment of time, treasure, and human resources than did their Confederate counterparts.

While Federal intelligence operations were not uniformly successful, and in the case of Alan Pinkerton, were sometimes contributing factors to Union defeat, they typically supported Federal success on the battlefield. In broadly telling the story of these Union intelligence acquisition efforts, Waller describes numerous individual Federal operatives but generally remains focused on four keynote figures.

These individuals are Alan Pinkerton, Lafayette Baker, George Sharpe, and Elizabeth Van Lew, each of whom left their own unique stamp on Union espionage initiatives.

Allan Pinkerton was a poor immigrant from Great Britain who settled in the Fox River town of Dundee, Illinois. Their, in the Prairie State, Pinkerton first became involved in hiring himself out as a form of private investigator. Pinkerton eventually moved to Chicago where he established a detective agency whose symbol was an unblinking, and ever observant eye.

This “all-seeing eye for hire” spawned the term “private eye” that is still commonly used. With the coming of the Civil War, Pinkerton became the chief intelligence operative for General McClellan, first during his campaign in western Virginia and then with the Army of the Potomac. In this role, the previously dogged and successful detective fell prey to gross overestimation and general alarmism in terms of evaluating the strength of McClellan’s opponents. Time and again, Pinkerton and his operatives vastly overestimated the strength of Confederate forces thereby reinforcing the lethargic and inactive tendencies of McClellan. This utter failure by Pinkerton left McClellan believing he was greatly outnumbered and utterly paralyzed him at a time when he might otherwise have smashed his way to Richmond or overwhelmed Lee at Antietam and brought about strategic success for the Union. Strangely, when investigating issues linked to malfeasance on the part of army operatives, disloyal conduct, or sabotage, Pinkerton’s operation was rather successful.

Unfortunately, these successes were totally overshadowed by his strategic miscalculation of Confederate troop strength which harmed the Federal cause, rendered his commander inert, prolonged the war, and led to Pinkerton’s dismissal upon the well deserved sacking of George Brinton McClellan after the Antietam Campaign.

Lafayette Baker was the living embodiment of the paradoxical nature of the old dictum, “The ends justify the means.”

The child of an impoverished family, Baker grew up with a keen understanding of the difficulties it took to survive in a society where there was no social safety net.

When the Civil War started, Baker presented himself to Secretary of War Edmund Stanton as an expert on intelligence gathering and spycraft. Stanton, who despised McClellan, the then General-in-Chief of the Union Armies, dispatched Baker to root out corruption and misconduct in the Union Army as well as keeping a close eye on its commander and his supporters in the general staff.

Baker was a blunt object in terms of technique, and one that had more than a little brutal corruption in his nature. T

he end result was an operation headed by Baker that combined merciless hounding of any alleged wrongdoers, taking credit for intelligence breakthroughs often accomplished by other people, and a ruthless pursuit of wealth. This combination of attributes led to the arrests of hundreds of people who had committed no crimes whatsoever but who were willing to pay anything to get out of the brutal hands of Baker and his minions.

A favorite technique of Baker was to discover ways in which corrupt practices were draining the Union war effort, and then tap into the profit-making mechanisms in operation while seeming to oppose the evil doers. In areas such as bounty fraud, fraudulent pardons, fiscal misappropriation, and rigged bidding, Baker’s operatives were successful in ferreting out malpractice.

However, all too often, instead of simply curtailing these practices via legal channels, Baker’s men, following their leader’s directions, wet their beaks by “taking a cut” while seeming to do their jobs.

By war’s end Baker, who puffed up his wartime accomplishments to no end, was widely viewed as a corrupt man whose brutality at a time of national catastrophe may have been periodically necessary but was ultimately beyond the pale of common decency.

George Sharpe was a decent man who loved his wife and went off to fight in the war because he believed in the cause of supporting the Union. As a regimental officer with the 120th NY Volunteer Infantry, Sharpe saw combat and fully realized what pain war can inflict on those who participate in it. Sharpe caught the eye of his superiors for his uniquely thoughtful way of gathering information that would help his men better understand their opponents. With the rise of Joe Hooker as a corps and then army commander, Sharpe was elevated to be a leading intelligence operative for the Army of the Potomac. Operating out of the provost marshal’s office, Sharpe became the intelligence chief for Hooker, Meade, and eventually Grant. In this role Sharpe applied his great skills at training, outfitting, and supporting the men and women who he included in a large-scale web of operations. Sharpe embraced a multi-faceted approach to intelligence gathering.

The use of mail intercepts, spying, armed scouts who often wore civilian or Confederate clothing, misdirection in the form of false communications or the planting of deserters, interrogation of prisoners, and the harvesting of information from unionists and African-Americans combined to create perhaps the most effective intelligence operation of the entire war. Time and again, Sharpe’s operation as able to assess Confederate troop strength, realize where Lee’s units were, clearly map out terrain, and grasp the state of Confederate intentions at critical times. By war’s end George Sharpe was viewed as so important to Grant that he included him at Lee’s surrender and actually charged him with finalizing the written paroles of Lee and his closest lieutenants.

In telling the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, Douglas does some of his finest writing in this comprehensive look back at Union espionage work. A wealthy heiress living in Richmond, Elizabeth Van Lew should have been an ardent secessionist. However, that was not the case as Van Lew was not only an abolitionist and unionist but also one of the most effective Federal spies in the entire Confederacy.

Throughout the war Elizabeth Van Lew made no secret of her support of the Union cause. While this viewpoint stigmatized Van Lew and left her under constant suspicion via Confederate officials, it did not keep her from carrying out a wide range of espionage and underground activities. Van Lew was part of a network that helped escaped Union prisoners make their way back to friendly forces, gathered critical intelligence about Confederate tactics and troop movements, assisted in slowing down Confederate railway efficiency, and even recovered the body of Union cavalry commander and raider Ulrich Dahlgren who had been consigned to an unmarked grave. Under the indirect supervision of George Sharpe, Elizabeth Van Lew was brought before a Confederate military tribunal under suspicion of committing treason due to alleged espionage.

But, due to Van Lew’s amazingly careful way of operating and the absence of any definable proof of her spying, she was found to be a misguided female who was not a traitor but rather an annoyance to the equilibrium of Richmond’s upper crust. By war’s end, Van Lew was viewed by Sharpe and General Grant, as one of the mainstay contributors to the success of Union intelligence gathering in Virginia.

By telling the stories of these four divergent personalities Douglas Waller delves into a part of Civil War history that is often minimized. A longtime journalist who wrote about U.S. intelligence agencies and military intelligence operations for major magazines, Waller has published noteworthy books about the CIA, OSS, and military intelligence operations.

The author’s expertise in this sector is obvious in the way he presents and analyses the efforts made by his four featured operatives as well as a number of their affiliates and subordinates. The end result is a study in comparisons contrasts.

On the one hand there are figures such as Pinkerton and Baker who were less than successful due to issues of technique or character. Baker was an immoral man who died in financial ruin while being viewed by many as a thuggish criminal. Pinkerton failed during the Civil War but was vastly successful, albeit ruthless, in establishing a security business that continues to thrive up to the present day.

Sharpe and Van Lew were enormouslyly more successful in their efforts during the Civil War but followed diametrically opposed pathways in post-war life. Sharpe held positions of trust for the remainder of is long life and died a beloved figure.

Van Lew was a social pariah who was shunted aside by post-Grant Republican politicians and left with a slim income, decaying social relationships, and a near complete rejection by her neighbors up to her lonely death.

By fleshing out the humanity of these Civil War espionage agents, while also carefully recounting how they operated at a time of national crisis, Douglas Waller creates a fascinating book and one that students of the Civil War will greatly appreciate.

Title: Lincoln’s Spies: Their Secret War to Save a Nation

Author: Douglas Waller

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Pages: 570

Price: $35.00

Hard Cover