“Black dispatches” was a common term used among Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by African Americans. This source of information represented the most productive category of intelligence obtained and acted on by Union forces throughout the Civil War. In 1862, Frederick Douglass wrote:
The true history of this war will show that the loyal army found no friends at the South so faithful, active, and daring in their efforts to sustain the government as the Negroes. Negroes have repeatedly threaded their way through the lines of the rebels exposing themselves to bullets to convey important information to the loyal army of the Potomac.
Black dispatches resulted from frontline tactical debriefings of slaves—either runaways or those having just come under Union control. Black Americans also contributed, however, to tactical and strategic Union intelligence through behind-the-lines missions and agent-in-place operations. Two such Union agents worked for Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s “White House” staff in Richmond, Virginia.
The value of the information that could be obtained, both passively and actively, by black Americans behind Confederate lines was clearly understood by most Union generals early in the war. Popular recognition of this was also apparent through a stream of articles and stories in the Northern press during the war. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was equally aware, and in May 1863 he said, “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes.” Because of the culture of slavery in the South, blacks involved in menial activities could move about without suspicion. Also, officials and officers tended to ignore their presence as personal servants when discussing war-related matters.
After the war, however, the intelligence contributions of black Americans became obscure. While racial prejudice played a part in this, as it did regarding the military contributions of black American Union military units, several other factors added to this lack of recognition. Historically, most successful spies do not want their identities made public. Even individuals who may have provided one-time pieces of useful intelligence usually prefer anonymity. This was particularly true in the emotional period after the Civil War, when many of these black Americans lived near people still loyal to the South.
Lack of official records of intelligence activities on both sides was another factor. Many of these records were purposely destroyed to protect those involved and still living at the time. One of the last acts of the Confederate secretary of war before fleeing Richmond in 1865 was to destroy all intelligence files, including counterintelligence records regarding Union spies.
In Washington, the War Department turned over portions of its intelligence files to many of the participants involved. Most of these records were subsequently destroyed or lost. Thus, accounts by individuals of their parts in the war or official papers focusing on larger subjects, such as military official correspondence, have become important sources of information on intelligence activities.
One of the first large-scale Civil War battles resulted from information provided by George Scott, a runaway slave. He furnished intelligence on Confederate fortifications and troop movements to General Benjamin F. Butler. Butler was the commander of Fort Monroe, located at the mouth of the James River on the tip of the Virginia peninsula. Shortly after the start of the war, Butler had issued orders that all “contraband” arriving in Union lines be brought to his headquarters for debriefing.
Scott had escaped from a plantation near Yorktown. While making his way toward Fort Monroe, he observed that Confederate forces had thrown up two fortifications between Yorktown and the fortress. Butler’s officers were impressed with Scott’s information but wanted to confirm it. Scott agreed to accompany a Union officer on several scouting trips behind Confederate lines to obtain more specific intelligence. On one of these missions, Scott barely missed being wounded by a Confederate picket. The bullet went through his jacket.
Based on the intelligence gained from these missions, Butler determined that Confederate forces were planning an attack on Newport News. Its capture would isolate Fort Monroe from Union re- supply. He ordered a preemptive attack on the Confederate position. However, the military operation was poorly conducted. It ended in a Union defeat. Although the intelligence was solid, the military tactics were not.
1. What was a “black dispatch”?
a. a group of Union spies
b. a code name for a secret mission trying to infiltrate Union lines
c. a black Confederate soldier
d. intelligence provided to the Union by African Americans
2. Which of the following was not true about black dispatches?
a. They provided the Union with information about Confederate troop movements.
b. General Robert E. Lee who led the Confederate army did not know about them.
c. They sometimes resulted from what was learned by quizzing slaves on the front lines of battle.
d. Double agents were the sources of some black dispatches.
3. Why did many of the black spies remain unknown after the war?
a. The Confederate government captured the intelligence files.
b. Many of the files had been lost or destroyed.
c. Confederates silenced those who had fought for the Union.
d. The codes used during that time are unintelligible today.
4. How did George Scott help the Union during the Civil War?
a. He brought intelligence information to the Union.
b. He was a soldier who fought against the Confederacy.
c. He destroyed Confederate communication lines.
d. He worked as an aide to General Butler.
5. Even though George Scott had been helpful, what happened during General Benjamin Butler’s attack?
a. Butler disregarded Scott’s information and then lost the battle.b.Butler was operating with misinformation about the Confederate defenses.c. Butler’s attack was badly directed and the Union forces were defeated.d.Butler’s plans were foiled by a leak from within the Union.
6. The period after the Civil War was especially difficult for spies because
a. they feared retribution from Confederate sympathizers.b.they wanted acknowledgement for their brave deeds.c. they were uncertain of who had control over their files.d.official intelligence records of both sides were widely published.
7. Which of the following about George Scott is true?
a. A slaveholder himself, he brought a fugitive slave to General Benjamin Butler.
b. Scott provided poor information about what he had observed to the Confederate officer in charge at Yorktown.
c. He was a Union soldier from Fort Monroe.
d. A runaway slave, Scott noticed new Confederate defenses between two Union positions.
8. Why do you think that the Confederate Army underestimated the blacks? Do you think that this was detrimental to the outcome of the war for them? Why or why not?