Espionage and Spies

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Espionage occurs in societies at peace and at war. Nations at peace use spies to gather information on a country's military preparations and plans for war. During war espionage is used to gather information about opposing armies and to mislead opponents through counterintelligence. Those engaged in spying risk imprisonment and death if convicted of treason. Although vital to ensure American security in war and peace, spying—part of intelligence gathering—raises important issues such as the extent civil liberties may be reduced to allow the government to catch spies. The American Civil War marked the beginning of extensive civil and military espionage. The intelligence operations during the Civil War were pre-modern, amateurish, and even eccentric by twenty-first century standards, but elements of this odd secret war foreshadowed the later modernization of America's novice intelligence services.

Although spies could be useful to resourceful commanders, in general commanders employed more traditional battlefield means of acquiring intelligence. Two key methods were cavalry reconnaissance, a skill at which the Confederates tended to be superior, and the systematic interrogation of prisoners and deserters. Such methods were supplemented by dispatching spies to cross enemy lines to discover "what is on the other side of the hill." In attempting this, Civil War spies had certain advantages. The two sides had a common language and culture. And in border states, such as Missouri and Maryland, loyalty to either cause was ambiguous and the recruitment of spies relatively easy. In addition, Union spies assumed convenient cover occupations in Confederate territory, which was experiencing shortages in manpower and military goods. The infiltrators found cover as smugglers or deserters.

The fledgling intelligence services were novelties and did not survive the four-year conflict. The federal organizations, despite their limited jurisdiction and scope, were more effective than the Confederates' service, the so-called Secret Service Bureau. The principal federal services were Allan Pinkerton's Detective Bureau of General McClellan's Army of the Potomac (1861–1862) and General Hooker's Bureau of Military Information (1863–1865), managed by Colonel George Sharpe, 120th New York Regiment. Although both organizations functioned only as part of one army, Hooker's Bureau of Military Information was an improvement on Pinkerton's organization, which was limited to only two functions: spying and interrogation of prisoners of war. Sharpe improved these activities and added more, including the key interception of flag signaling. A Scottish-born master detective, Pinkerton was effective in counterespionage and security. In early 1861 Pinkerton's service helped save the life of President-elect Abraham Lincoln as he traveled through Baltimore to the nation's capital. Pinkerton was talented in penetrating conspiracies but his military intelligence work for the Army of the Potomac and his field estimates of Confederate military strength were inaccurate.

Several Confederate spies long ago entered the realm of myth, in part because of the exaggerations and fabrications of their published memoirs. Secret agent Rose Greenhow, a prominent socialite and Confederate sympathizer in Washington, D.C., produced useful intelligence for General Pierre Beauregard early in the war, but Pinkerton's counterspies were easily her match, and she was arrested and jailed. As was the case with a number of female spies, however, she was released and then escaped to England to pursue a propaganda war against the Union. Another celebrated Confederate female spy was Belle Boyd, who created her own legend as an agent. She was lauded in literature as La Belle Boyd and the Cleopatra of the Confederacy, despite her modest contributions to Confederate intelligence. Her postwar published memoirs promoted her legend, enhanced by her later performances on the stage. On Belle Boyd's tombstone was inscribed "Confederate Spy." But by far the most effective Confederate spy, who never became a celebrity, was thirty-one-year-old Mississippian, Henry T. Harrison, who spied for General James Longstreet and provided accurate reports on federal army movements before the Battle of Gettysburg.

The most successful secret agent of all, however, was Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, a federal spy in Richmond, Virginia, who co-headed a Union spy ring from 1864 to 1865. Using an effective cover personality as an eccentric, even deranged, lonely spinster, she deceived observers and provided vital intelligence to a number of Federal generals. Enhancing her cover personality was her open expression of pro-Union sympathies and her providing federal prisoners in Richmond with food and clothing. After the war Van Lew, known as Crazy Bet as part of her myth, was rewarded with a position in the Federal Postal Service.

By the time of the battle of Chancellorsville in early May 1863, General Hooker's Bureau of Military Information's performance in field intelligence had greatly improved. This service was now more effective in discovering three key intelligence elements about the enemy: the location of its forces, the strength and composition of those forces, and commanders' intentions. Sharpe's spies assisted in Hooker's superb coup of placing a large federal army in the rear of the Confederates, undetected by Lee. Good intelligence helped Hooker's plan, though he lost the battle of Chancellorsville to Lee. It was at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, only weeks later, that federal intelligence truly came into its own. By this time federal intelligence officers had compiled the most complete order-of-battle chart of Lee's army. During this campaign three elements provided vital information to General George Meade: federal soldier-spies behind Confederate lines; organized groups of citizen-scouts in south-central Pennsylvania who observed Confederate movements; and effective cavalry scouting, which detected the enemy's approach to Gettysburg. Meade's use of this intelligence, backed by military strength, was an important factor in the Confederates' defeat at Gettysburg.

The Civil War proved to be a turning point for the government's role in intelligence gathering. First, the North's victory over the South was partly the result of the North's superiority in both tactical and strategic means for observing enemy troops. The North used the interception and deciphering of Southern telegrams and flag signals to its advantage, just as the Allies' breaking of Japanese and German codes in World War II contributed to victory. After the Civil War, in 1885, military intelligence was reorganized to incorporate new technology. Second, despite some objections, Americans accepted the necessity of reducing temporarily some civil liberties during time of war to aid in the detection and capture of spies. In the twenty-first century's War on Terror, Americans face an even greater challenge in balancing individual privacy and civil liberties with security.


Bakeless, John. Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1959.

Fishel, Edwin C. "Myths that Never Die." International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 2, no. 1 (spring 1988): 27–58.

Fishel, Edwin C. The Secret War for the Union. The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

O'Toole, G. J. A. The Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage. New York: Facts on File, 1988.

O'Toole, G. J. A. Honorable Treachery: A History of U.S. Intelligence, Espionage and Covert Action from the American Revolution to the CIA. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991.

Varon, Elizabeth R. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Douglas L. Wheeler