Agents in Place
Because both sides were poorly prepared for the war, notwithstanding the many years of political buildup to the actual fighting, there apparently were few intelligence agents who had been specifically placed in the enemy’s institutions. In-place agents have the strategic advantage of providing the plans and intentions of an enemy rather than reporting on how and when they are carried out. Although the Confederacy did not create its civilian and military power structure until just before the war began, the Union did have several such agents in the Confederate capital by the first year of the war. Two were black Americans employed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis in his official residence.
William A. Jackson was a slave hired out by the year to President Davis as a coachman. His first documented report was on May 3, 1862, when he crossed into Union lines near Fredericksburg, Virginia. As a servant in the Davis household, he was able to observe and overhear the Confederate president’s discussions with his military leadership. While no record remains of the specific intelligence he produced, it apparently was valuable enough to cause General McDowell to telegraph it immediately to the War Department in Washington.
The second agent, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was part of a Union spy ring known as “The Richmond Underground”; Elizabeth Van Lew directed it. Her family was well respected and well connected socially in Richmond. While not hiding her Union loyalties, Van Lew affected behavior that made her appear harmless and eccentric to Confederate authorities. After the war, she traveled to Washington and obtained all the official records from the War Department related to her activities, and then destroyed them. Thus, details on Bowser’s specific activities are sparse.
Bowser had been a slave of the Van Lew family. Van Lew freed her and sent her north to be educated. When Van Lew decided to establish a spy ring in Richmond shortly before the fighting began, she asked Bowser to return and work with her for the Union. Van Lew obtained a position for Bowser as a servant in the Confederate “White House” through the recommendation of a “friend” who provided supplies to that household.
Bowser pretended to be uneducated but hardworking. After working part-time at several functions, she was hired as a regular employee. Her access provided her with opportunities to overhear valuable information. As a black servant, Bowser was almost certainly ignored by the president’s guests. Her reporting focused on conversations she had overheard among Confederate officials at the president’s residence and on documents she was able to read while working around the house. She and Van Lew, often dressed as a country farmwife, would meet at isolated locations on the outskirts of Richmond to exchange information.
Another Union spy, Thomas McNiven, noted that Bowser had a photographic memory. She could report every word of the documents she saw at the “White House.” In recognition of her intelligence contributions, Bowser was inducted into the U.S. Army Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on June 30, 1995.
A Signal Achievement
No discussion of intelligence activities by black Americans during the Civil War would be complete without mention of a popular story about a black couple who provided intelligence on Confederate troop movements to the Union during the fighting around Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1863. The original account evidently appeared in a newspaper or magazine article written by a Union officer who claimed to have been a witness to the events. No official records have been documented. The claims about the value of the intelligence produced are questionable. However, there is probably some factual basis for the tale.
The story involved a runaway slave named Dabney. He crossed into Union lines with his wife and found employment in General Hooker’s headquarters camp. It became apparent that Dabney knew the geography of the area very well. He quickly developed an interest in the Union flag-signal system. He learned all he could about it.
After several weeks, Dabney’s wife asked permission to return to Confederate lines as a personal servant to a southern woman returning to her home. A few days after his wife’s departure, Dabney began reporting Confederate movements to members of Hooker’s staff. His reports soon proved accurate. He was questioned as to the source of his intelligence.
Dabney explained that he and his wife had worked out a signaling system based on the laundry that she hung out to dry at her mistress’s house, which was observable from Hooker’s headquarters. As the wife observed Confederate troop movements, she would hang the laundry in a particular sequence to signal Dabney of the activity. For example, a white shirt represented General A.P. Hill, a pair of pants hung upside-down represented the direction west, and so forth. This system produced useful intelligence on Confederate movements until Hooker moved his headquarters.
While such a signaling system could produce simple messages such as “Hill-north-three regiments,” the value of the information would not be great. Union cavalry pickets and Signal Corps observers would have provided similar intelligence. However, the fact that this story is repeated in numerous articles and books makes it a part of the legend of intelligence activities during the war.
No one will ever know if the course of the Civil War would have been changed if General Lee had seized the better ground at Gettysburg or if the Virginia had broken the Union blockade at Hampton Roads. Even so, this does not diminish the courage, dedication, and personal commitment that these individuals demonstrated by their actions. Like successful spies throughout history, they did their jobs quietly and effectively—and then faded away.
1. How did the Union make use of slaves as in-place agents?
a. These agents gathered the enemy’s plans and objectives.
b. The Union leaders relied on these agents for tactical information.
c. These agents looked for traitors in the powerful families.
d. These agents were often used to plant false information.
2. William Jackson reported on information that had been collected
a. at Elizabeth Van Lew’s home.
b. from Mary Elizabeth Bowser’s spy ring.
c. at Confederate President Davis’s house.
d. while he was attending the general Confederate assemblies.
3. How did Elizabeth Van Lew aid the Union?
a. Van Lew was dedicated to helping the Confederate authorities.
b. She freed her family’s slaves and sent them North.
c. Van Lew created an organization that freed slaves in Richmond.
d. She organized spies and helped them gain access to important information.
4. How did Dabney’s wife pass information to him about the movements of the Confederate Army?
a. Dabney’s wife signaled him by the way she hung the laundry.
b. Using flares, Dabney signaled the Confederate troops.
c. Dabney’s wife was working in General Hooker’s headquarters camp.
d. none of the above
5. Many of the African Americans who worked for the Union during the Civil War put their own lives in grave danger. How do you think their bravery affected the opinions of those they worked with? Use examples from the text to support your reasoning.
6. Because so much information about intelligence activities on both sides was lost or destroyed after the war, it is difficult to accurately gauge the accomplishments of the African Americans who participated. State your opinion about whether or not—even though the facts may not be completely in order—it is important for everyone to know these stories. Do you think that these stories are true or false? Explain.