Five Best: Peter G. Tsouras on Military Intelligence in the Civil War
Edwin C. Fishel
1. In 1959
discovered, in the National Archives, the intelligence files of the Army of the Potomac still wrapped in the red ribbons they had been bound with at the end of the Civil War. A National Security Agency analyst, Fishel realized that all the histories of the Civil War had been written with little or no understanding of the role of intelligence. A key figure turned out to be Col.
George H. Sharpe,
who, by 1863, had created a fully functioning and potent intelligence operation—the Bureau of Military Information. Prior to the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, the bureau’s analysis had provided the Union’s
Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker
with an accurate estimate of
Gen. Robert E. Lee
’s strength, the location of every brigade-size unit, and a complete picture of the region’s roads and the enemy’s main supply-route railroad. Hooker’s battle plan (which failed for other reasons) was built around this information. Two months after the battle, the bureau’s efforts would prove critical to the Union victory at Gettysburg. There, Sharpe’s men transmitted one of the most important intelligence reports in the history of the U.S. Army—the information that told
Maj. Gen. George Meade
how thin Lee’s reserves were. Even by today’s high-tech standards, the operations of Sharpe’s agency stand as nothing less than brilliant.
Grant’s Secret Service
William B. Feis
2. “I do not expect to be still,”
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
wrote after his victory at Vicksburg in July 1863. He had been ably served in that battle by Brig.
Gen. Grenville Dodge,
but there had nonetheless been gaps in the intelligence that Dodge provided—a weakness for which Grant believed he could compensate with relentless offensive operations. This tactic proved successful until Grant moved to the eastern theater of the war, where his opponent was
Robert E. Lee.
Grant now began to rely increasingly on the intelligence provided by Col. Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information. At the Siege of Petersburg, Grant wrote that Lee “could not send off any large body of men without my knowing it.”
concludes that fighting Lee had taught Grant that his judgment was not infallible. The result was a more pronounced reliance on military intelligence. By the fall of 1864 Grant’s intuition, his initiative and Sharpe’s intelligence network had fused to create a potent weapon.
Southern Lady, Yankee Spy
Elizabeth R. Varon
Elizabeth Van Lew
was a member of the Richmond, Va., elite but also, remarkably, a diehard Union patriot and abolitionist. Determined to serve, she connected with Union intelligence sources. Employing a cover story that portrayed her as an eccentric who was not to be taken seriously, she operated a highly effective spy network for the Union and worked tirelessly to aid Union prisoners of war, helping to plan their escapes. When Richmond began to fall in early April 1865, this bold patriot displayed a huge U.S. flag on her roof while an angry mob threatened to burn down her house. After the war, as
recounts in her fine biography of Van Lew, President Grant made her postmaster of Richmond, but Grant’s successor,
Rutherford B. Hayes
—hoping to appease prominent former Confederates who never forgave Van Lew—refused to continue her appointment. Having beggared herself in service to the Union, she ended her days supported by the families of the Union prisoners she had helped escape to freedom.
James D. Horan
4. Copperheads were Northern Democrats so bitterly opposed to
’s war for the preservation of the Union that they were determined to destroy the federal government and take Illinois, Indiana and Ohio into the Confederacy. Their name came from the copper Indian Head penny they wore inside their lapel as a recognition symbol to the like-minded. Their plan—instigated by
the Confederate agent at the center of
’s investigative study—was to liberate and arm the tens of thousands of Confederate prisoners held in Midwest prisoner-of-war camps. The 1864 Democratic convention in Chicago was established as zero hour for the plan. Already prominent Democratic politicians sympathetic to the cause had gathered Confederate gold to finance the revolt, but it would never take place. Union intelligence had not been asleep, inserting its own agent as the Copperhead corresponding secretary. Before the convention began, the ringleaders were arrested, the conspiracy crushed.
David Hepburn Milton
5. “It would be superfluous of me to point out to your lordship that this is war.” Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, had delivered the warning to
Britain’s foreign secretary, on Sept. 5, 1863. The British, turning a blind eye to their own neutrality laws, had been building, in private shipyards, so-called commerce raiders—ships designed to raid merchant shipping—for the Confederacy. Among them, in Liverpool, were two armored warships of such power that, once completed, they could break the Union blockade of the South and ravage the Northern ports. The U.S. had been informed of this danger by the detailed intelligence provided by
the U.S. consul in Liverpool and the subject of “Lincoln’s Spymaster.” Dudley occupied a role equivalent to a CIA station chief today. For two years, he had been waging an espionage duel with Confederate agents. Upon receiving Adams’s warning, the British blinked, seized the ships and transferred them to the Royal Navy.
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