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Civil War Essay: Spying in America

Spies become heroes of Hollywood movies so frequently that we begin to believe them to be unreal. We perceive them as superheroes with a special power of being cool. Yet, they’re actually real people. Spying is an ancient and time-tested method of information theft. The most powerful spies could change the course of history and prevent (or begin) a war. Spying becomes even more important during periods of crisis. The Civil War was a great opportunity for spies to use their skills. Learn more about real spies from our exciting Civil War essay.

Spying During the Civil War in America


At the beginning of Civil War, neither Union nor Confederation had a widespread network of undercover agents in the enemy’s rear. However, it soon surfaced that both parties are in necessity of secret service and bureau of intelligence. Under a patronage of a president and military ministry of the Confederation the Signal Corps, a military organization, responsible for military communications, was created. Its members conducted ciphered correspondence with the Confederation’s agents and managed couriers that were continually crossing the borders between Union and Confederation. The leader of the bureau was a Major William Norris, that coordinated the actions of numerous spies and counterintelligence agents, integrating the undercover activity deeply into North, all the way up to the border with Canada. At that time, Chicago detective Allan Pinkerton created a similar espionage organization in the North, that was under control of the State Department. Later, at the edge of the war, it abdicated the post in favor of military ministry. In both north and South, the members of the military department were actively engaged in reconnaissance activities.

The Role of Private Detectives

Intelligence has found its use before the war. At that time there were not any formal secret agencies established by the government. That is why they used private detectives to assist them. Colonel Charles Pomeroy Stone, a career United States Army officer and civil engineer, used a private detective to uncover the plan against Abraham Lincoln, a new president of the Union. This person was infiltrated into the enemy lines to later find out about the plot to storm the Treasury and take over Washington, the scenario that the National Rifles constructed. He also reported that the group of people comprising of 300 heads and calling themselves as National Volunteers were also conspiring against the Union. Several private detectives from the New York city have reported to the government about numerous assassination attempts on President Lincoln. Hearing of this moving, “Samuel Morse Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, had hired Pinkerton after hearing reports that rabid secessionists in Baltimore were planning to cut Baltimore off from Washington by burning bridges and sinking the Susquehanna River train ferry. Pinkerton went to Baltimore with five operatives, including a trusted assistant, Kate Warne, described by Pinkerton as America’s first woman detective. Pinkerton set up an office and posed as a stockbroker named John H. Hutchinson” (“The Federal Secret Service,” 2017). Nevertheless, President Lincoln in spite of his remonstrative mood was safely smuggled into the White House by Pinkerton and his agents. This event and all assassination attempts marked the beginning of the informal central intelligence networking system successfully established by the government.

Who Worked as Spies

Throughout the Civil War, the Union and Confederacy used different population strata, including men, women, and children to assist in spying for the government. In the South, many individuals on the patriotic ground felt the assistance to the state in maintaining their lifestyle as a deemed necessary. Southern Bell’s members used their appearance and resourcefulness to conceal vital information from military staff. Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Belle Boyd, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Sarah Emma Edmonds, Emeline Pigott, Nancy Hurt, Laura Ratcliffe, Lottie and Ginnie Moon, and Pauline Cushman, are several of the living legends among the spy ranks.

Real Historical Spies

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a renowned Confederate spy. Being a socialite in Washington, D.C. before the Civil war, she moved in highest political circles and elaborated relationships with senators, generals, presidents, and high-ranking military officers including John C. Calhoun and James Buchanan. She used her connections to transfer vital military information to the Confederacy at the beginning of the war. Ultimately, detective Allan Pinkerton suspected her of espionage and placed under surveillance. However, being under constant watch did not prevent her from maintaining daily contact with the South. Eventually, Pinkerton placed Rose under arrest, but this did not stop her either. She deceived the agents who were guarding her with an invisible ink she used to misdirect them from the coding she implemented in her letters. Later, the government moved Rose and her daughter into prison where she still contrived to send information to the South. After Union finally exiled her to the South, President Davis used her as an unofficial diplomat to deliver messages to Europe.

Ginnie and Lottie Moon played a crucial role in the history of the Confederate spies. These women did their best to get information from the Union soldiers. They used their appearance to become involved with them. It is indicated that Ginnie and Lottie Moon were engaged to over ten soldiers each. They both carried the messages on their way from the North to the South. Later one of the sisters, Lottie Moon, moved to New York to become a journalist. She then traveled to Europe as a military reporter. She eventually settled down in Hollywood where she became an actress (“Intelligence in the Civil War — Central Intelligence Agency”, 2017).

Another accomplished female secret agent was Elizabeth Van Lew. She had created and headed a successful spy agency in Richmond, Virginia. Being a beloved undercover agent of General Ulysses S. Grant, she helped Union prisoners to abscond from prison and skulk throughout Richmond. Elizabeth’s abolitionist attitude led her to support Union and aid it in liberating slaves. She used former slaves to help her deliver secret messages to the government hidden in their clothes and shoes. She eventually had a vast spy network throughout Richmond and even a trusted spy in the Whitehouse. After the war, she was appointed as a postmaster of Richmond (“Intelligence in the Civil War — Central Intelligence Agency,” 2017).

Black People as Spies

In the south, black people, both freed and enslaved also worked for the government as spies. One of the most incredible and talented black spies was Mary Browser. She was working as a maid in the Confederate Whitehouse. Her eidetic memory allowed her to deliver exposing information to Union agents while working closely with President Johnson. Because Mary was a black woman, President and his allies, fortunately, took her as a person not unacquainted with literacy and left all essential information in plain sight. After the war, there is little or nothing known about Mary. However, some reports indicate her teaching free black people to read and giving several speeches of her account under the guise of different people(“Intelligence in the Civil War — Central Intelligence Agency,” 2017).

Despite the accomplishment of the black people, loyalist did not use them actively because of mistrust or lack of intelligence to provide accurate information. However, Jordan reports that black people of Virginia allied and shared information with Union army they overheard or found in Confederate camps (Jordan, 1999). The significant benefit from this alliances was the assistance of black people they provide to Union army in traveling the land, mainly because of their familiarity with the area. They also revealed individuals and secret organizations that opposed the Union. They organized secret societies known as the loyal leagues (Jordan, 1999).

Confederate Sides

On the Union and Confederate sides, boys of all ages felt obliged to assist their government with anything they could provide. One of the heroes of the Confederacy is Sam Davis, a young boy who joined Confederate scout forces in the early Civil War. In 1861, he volunteered in the First Tennessee Volunteer Infantry which marched off to war first. His regiment went through the battles at Cheat Mountain, Shenandoah Valley, Shiloh, and Perryville, where he was severely wounded. After the recovery, he took on service as a courier for Coleman’s Scouts. He was captured within the Union occupation lines around Nashville during his hazardous duty. He had in possession a miscellany of intelligence sources at the time of his capture. These sources included detailed schematics of Union fortifications at Nashville and other major cities in Middle Tennessee. He was hung up after several days of imprisonment.

Another renown Union spy was Timothy Webster. He became a secret agent under the aegis of Allan Pinkerton. Webster is known for preventing the Sons of Liberty from assassinating of President Lincoln. He had also protected the president before the inauguration. During his undercover work in the south, he had developed an excellent reputation there. That is why the Confederate government offered him a position of a courier at the Confederate Secretary of War, where he worked as a double agent. Unfortunately, Webster had been taken ill, and Pinkerton sent two agents to check on him. As a result, one of the agents exposed Webster, and he was executed. Timothy Webster, in turn, became the first spy killed during the war.

James C. Muschett of Prince William County was a Confederate sympathizer and fully supported the army and was later arrested for his efforts. Indignant with this he filed a $7,000 damage claim against the government. A group of pro-confederate free black and slaves spied for the Confederacy under the guidance of Belle Boyd and Colonel John Singleton Mosby. By 1862 the black spies of the Union worked so diligently that the Union complained about far too often in their correspondence. In Virginia scouts, guides, and safe house caretakers acted as secret agents.

Few government reconnaissance agencies existed during the civil war. President Jefferson Davis the Signal Corps organization with a primary aim to conduct and direct espionage tactics against the Union. While in the North Union created a Bureau of Military Information that worked not for the military ministry, but for an individual general. Later, Confederate Signal Corps served as a department of the Secret Service Bureau that was headed by William Norris. The agency facilitated a courier system that transcripted information from Washington to Richmond.


The urge of intelligence during the Civil war created conditions for inventing and implementing the new technologies. The government used them with success. Both Union and Confederacy used photography as a spying device. In the North, a spy under the employment of Allan Pinkerton’s agency was the manager of a photography before the war. He used his experience and access to material to help the North. The photographer would take photos of the various Union units, and the Generals were able to pick out the Confederate spies who did not belong. A.D. Lyte was a photographer for the Confederacy. He used his skills to photograph the supplies of the Union troops and report them back. During this time it was easy for a photographer to get picks of individuals because it was a new medium and people were eager to see how it worked and had their picture taken. Cryptography also was a medium used by undercover agents during the war. The telegraph now provided a rapid way of communication. Great Britain substantially used this form of coded communication. Unfortunately, this kind of intelligence was not sufficient because it took up to 12 hours to translate the given information (Markle, 1995).

Regardless of the type all of the spies added the allied sides in some way. They were able to provide regional resources and vital information. Male spies like those of the Pinkerton Detective agency were extraordinarily efficient and life-saving. The women proved to be the most talented and capable spies of all information from women on both side added in battles won and lost. Many black people keeping to their loyalty and traditional way of being worked to aid the Confederacy during the war. These people felt that they were genuinely fighting for their lives and used their skills and talents to do just that.

Works Cited

Intelligence in the Civil War — Central Intelligence Agency. (2017). Cia.gov. Retrieved 7 October 2017, from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/intelligence-history/civil-war
Jordan, E. (1999). Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia.
Markle, D. (1995). Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War. New York: Barnes & Noble.
The Federal Secret Service. (2017). Civilwarsignals.org. Retrieved 7 October 2017, from http://www.civilwarsignals.org/pages/spy/fedsecret/fedsecret.html

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