As Union forces grew, Major General George B. McClellan was given command of the Army of the Potomac defending Washington. He brought with him his chief of intelligence, Allan Pinkerton. Pinkerton had gained some fame running a Chicago detective agency. He had responsibilities for collecting intelligence on the enemy and for counterintelligence activities against enemy agents. Most of the intelligence he collected resulted from an extensive and well-organized debriefing program of people crossing over from Confederate lines. These informants included merchants with business ties on both sides, deserters from the Confederate Army, prisoners of war, civilians traveling to escape the fighting or for other personal business, and former slaves. While each group provided valuable information, Pinkerton soon discovered that the former slaves were the most willing to cooperate and often had the best knowledge of Confederate fortifications, camps, and supply points.
From these black Americans, Pinkerton recruited a small number for intelligence collection missions behind Confederate lines. The best known of these Pinkerton agents was John Scobell, recruited in the fall of 1861. Scobell had been a slave in Mississippi but had been well educated by his owner, a Scotsman who subsequently freed him. He was quick-witted and an accomplished role player. This permitted him to function in several different identities on various missions, including food vendor, cook, and laborer. He often worked with other Pinkerton agents, sometimes playing the role of their servant while in the South. He worked with Timothy Webster, perhaps Pinkerton’s best agent, on missions into Virginia. He also worked with Mrs. Carrie Lawton, Pinkerton’s best female operative.
Scobell is credited with providing valuable intelligence on the Confederate order of battle, status of supplies, and troop morale and movements. Frequently, while the white Pinkerton agents elicited information from Confederate officials and officers, Scobell would seek out leaders in the black community and collect their information on local conditions, fortifications, and troop dispositions.
Scobell often used his membership in the “Legal League,” a clandestine Negro organization in the South supporting freedom for slaves, to acquire local information. League members sometimes supported Scobell’s collection activities by acting as couriers to carry his information to Union lines. On at least one occasion, as described by Pinkerton, Scobell protected the escape of Mrs. Lawton from pursuing Confederate agents. He worked for Pinkerton from late 1861 until the intelligence chief closed down his operations in November 1862.
A Riverboat Spy
While Scobell was roaming behind enemy lines between Washington and Richmond, another black American, W.H. Ringgold, was working on a riverboat on the York River in Virginia. He had been coerced into service as a result of having been in Fredericksburg at the time when Virginia seceded from the Union. Ringgold spent six months on the river, helping move troops and supplies on the Delmarva Peninsula. When his ship was damaged by a storm, he and the other crewmen were permitted to travel back North by way of Maryland’s eastern shore. When Ringgold reached Baltimore, he sought out Union officials, who immediately sent him to Pinkerton in Washington.
In December 1861, Ringgold provided Pinkerton with detailed intelligence on Confederate defenses on the Delmarva Peninsula. This included locations of fortifications and artillery batteries, troop concentrations, and defenses on the York River. His information was the best that McClellan had received before the start of his Peninsula Campaign in March 1862. It was also the basis for much of McClellan’s strategic planning for the opening of that campaign.
Equally valuable intelligence was provided to the Union Navy by black Americans. Two examples of strategic importance occurred during the late 1861 and early 1862 period. Mary Touvestre, a freed slave, worked in Norfolk as a housekeeper for an engineer who was involved in the refitting and transformation of the USS Merrimac into the Virginia, the first Confederate ironclad warship. Overhearing the engineer talking about the importance of his project, she recognized the danger that this new type of ship represented to the Union navy blockading Norfolk. She stole a set of plans for the ship that the engineer had brought home to work on and fled north. After a dangerous trip, she arrived in Washington and arranged a meeting with officials at the Department of the Navy.
The stolen plans and Touvestre’s verbal report of the status of the ship’s construction convinced the officials of the need to speed up construction of the Union’s own ironclad, the Monitor. The Virginia was able to destroy two Union frigates, the Congress and the Cumberland, and run another, the Minnesota, to ground before the Union ironclad’s arrival. If the intelligence from Touvestre had not been obtained, the Virginia could have had several more unchallenged weeks to destroy Union ships blockading Hampton Roads and quite possibly have opened the port of Norfolk to urgently needed supplies from Europe for the Confederacy.
Robert Smalls’s Achievements
A second piece of important naval intelligence concerned the strategic Confederate port of Charleston, South Carolina. It was one of the few ports in the South with railroad lines capable of speedy transportation of supplies to Richmond and other key Confederate manufacturing and supply centers. According to an annual report from the Secretary of the Navy to President Lincoln, Robert Smalls, a contraband ship pilot who had recently escaped from Charleston, supplied a sufficient amount of important military operational intelligence to generate “a turning of the forces in the Charleston harbor.” Smalls supplied Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont with the necessary intelligence to seize Stono Inlet. Du Pont occupied Stono with several gunboats. He then secured an important base for military operations.
Bureau of Military Information and Charlie Wright
When General Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac on January 27, 1863, he immediately saw the need for an effective centralized intelligence system. On February 11th, Colonel George H. Sharpe, an attorney and an officer of New York state volunteers, accepted the post of head of the Army’s intelligence service. Under Sharpe, with direction from Hooker, the Bureau of Military Information (BMI) was created. Its sole focus was collection of intelligence on the enemy. It had no counterintelligence responsibilities. It soon developed into the first “all-source intelligence” organization in U.S. history.
Sharpe obtained, collated, analyzed, and provided reports based on scouting, spying behind enemy lines, interrogations, cavalry reconnaissance, balloon observation, Signal Corps observation, flag signal and telegraph intercepts, captured Confederate documents and mail, southern newspapers, and intelligence reporting from subordinate military units. This structured approach, which ended with the Confederate surrender, was not re-institutionalized until 1947, when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created.
Sharpe’s BMI was well established when Charlie Wright, a young black man, arrived at Union lines from Culpeper, Virginia, in June 1863. While being debriefed, his extensive knowledge of units in Lee’s army became apparent. He had an excellent memory for details. On June 12th, Captain John McEntee, an officer from the BMI who had deployed with Union cavalry forces just after the battle of Brandy Station, telegraphed Sharpe the following:
A contraband captured last Tuesday states that he had been living at Culpeper C.H. for some time past. Saw Ewells Corps passing through that place destined for the Valley and Maryland. That Ewells Corps has passed the day previous to the fight and that Longstreet was them [sic] coming up.
Shortly thereafter, McEntee also reported that Wright was well acquainted with these two corps and that he believed Wright’s information was reliable. Wright identified more than a dozen separate Confederate regiments from both Ewell’s Corps and Longstreet’s Corps. The key intelligence Wright provided was that these troops had passed through Culpeper bound for Maryland.
Thanks to the bureau’s records and all-source information, Sharpe was able to confirm Wright’s descriptions of the various Confederate units. This confirmation convinced General Hooker of Wright’s assertion that Lee’s army was moving into Maryland. Hooker ordered his army to shadow the Confederate forces’ movements while traveling on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains out of view of Lee’s troops.
This movement by the Union Army shielded Washington from Lee’s forces and eventually forced the battle at Gettysburg. For several decades after the war, Union cavalry reconnaissance was given credit for identifying Lee’s movement in the valley toward Maryland. However, historical records now make it clear that Wright’s intelligence was the key factor in convincing Hooker to move his forces.
1. Why was Allen Pinkerton a particularly good intelligence officer?
a. He was impartial and willing to employ blacks.
b. He was able to use most of the information that he came across.
c. He was well known for running the Chicago detective agency.
d. all of the above
2. Which of the following best explains why John Scobell was an effective intelligence officer?
a. Scobell had been recruited by Pinkerton in the middle of the Civil War.
b. He had no background as a slave and knew little about that life.
c. Wherever he was, Scobell used his role-playing skills to blend in.
d. He was dull and unable to use his wits to win over Confederates.
3. Which of the following is closest in meaning to the word debrief?
a. obscure the meaning in order to confuse others
b. pay a substantial fee in return for certain facts
c. examine closely in order to make an accurate map
d. question in order to obtain useful information
4. What was the “Legal League”?
a. a group of black slaves who fought against their owners
b. a secret group of blacks in the South who were against slavery
c. a league of spies who gathered information for the Union
d. a clandestine group from the North who fought for the South
5. Which of the following was not true about W.H. Ringgold?
a. Ringgold had been in Fredericksburg when Virginia seceded from the Union.
b. He wanted to aid the Union, so he worked as a spy.
c. Ringgold’s loyalties were with the Confederacy.
d. He provided useful and important information to Pinkerton.
6. Mary Touvestre, a housekeeper, provided intelligence about ________ to the Union.
a. an ironclad Confederate warship
b. the USS Monitor
c. locations of fortifications and artillery batteries
d. the Delmarva Peninsula
7. How did Admiral Samuel Du Pont use the intelligence provided by Robert Smalls during the war?
a. Du Pont was able to take control of the Virginia and destroy the Confederate gunboats.
b. He used Union ships to blockade Hampton Roads and open the ports at Norfolk.
c. Du Pont took control of Stono Inlet and used it as a base for military maneuvers.
d. He left Virginia and focused his attention on South Carolina.
8. What was the purpose of the BMI under Colonel George Sharpe?
a. working on counterintelligence data
b. collecting intelligence on the enemy
c. securing areas by using secret forces
d. providing for the material needs of agents
9 How did Charlie Wright come to be so knowledgeable about Lee’s army?
a. Wright was a Confederate soldier.
b. He had worked for the businesses that supplied Confederate regiments.
c. Wright had lived in Culpeper, Virginia, for some time.
d. He was secretly spying for the BMI.
10. What did Charlie Wright state about the Confederate army that was important for the Union leaders to know?
a. Regiments from both Ewell’s Corps and Longstreet’s Corps had moved south.
b. Many regiments of Confederate troops had moved through Culpeper on their way to Maryland.
c. Confederate troops had traveled along the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
d. The Confederate units were preparing for a battle at Washington, D.C.
11. Which of the following is true?
a. General Hooker told Wright to shadow the Confederate Army and report their movements.
b. General Lee shielded Washington from the Confederate army.
c. The Confederate Army shadowed the Union forces until they reached Virginia.
d. General Hooker surreptitiously moved his troops alongside the enemy.
12. How did Allan Pinkerton use former slaves? Do you think that this was a good idea? Why or why not?