Behind The Lines: Spies In The Civil War

Behind The Lines: Spies In The Civil War

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Behind the Lines:
Spies in the Civil War

     The Civil War was the bloodiest, most devestating war that has ever been fought on American soil. It began on April 12, 1861, at 4:30 in the morning. The main reason that the war was fought was because Southern states believed that they should have the right to use African-Americans as slaves, and the Northern States opposed that belief.
     Millions of American men and women fought against each other in this war, and more than half a million died. Yes, that is a fact. The men were usually soldiers. Women tended to be nurses, aides, or doctors, although some of them posed as men in order to be able to fight in the war. Some of these men and women, though, were spies. Instead of fighting with guns and ammunition, these people fought through secrets and sabotage. These tactics turned out to be essential. Battle could be won or lost depending on information aquired from spies.
     Back then, spying was hardly the same as it is today, with all of our high-tech gadgets and well-organised secret agent groups. However, most of the things that spies do today were done in the nineteenth century just as effectively. On thing that spies did was send messages, which were usually about the enemy's plans and movements, their troop size, their supplies, and the placement or strength of their forts. Many used coded messages with words that stood for different words. Some had different symbols for letters and numbers. Some spies even used inivisible ink. The spies also had ways of concealing the messages that they had to deliver. Messages were often hidden in articles of clothing. People had to write on silk, that was then sewn into clothing, and spies could also hide information in large metal buttons. Women's clothing was ideal for hiding things in. Sometimes, they would even hide people under their hoop skirts!
     Two other things that spies did often were interceptin gmilitary dispatches and sending supplies. Supplies were often hidden in the same places that messages were hidden. It was also common practice for Confederate spies to hide morphine in the heads of dolls to smuggle it in from the North, as morphine was a painkiller that was desperately needed in Confederate hospitals.
     If a spy was caught, they were usually treated just like common criminals. The penalty for being a spy was most often death by a public hanging, although many spies begged to be shot to death, which was considered to be a more honorable way to go.

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Young boys that were spies were hanged as well, but there is no record of a femal spy ever being hanged. Although there was one sentenced once, she got away.
     There are many famous spies that worked for the Confederacy. Among them are Rose O'Neal Greenhow, "Mrs. M," William Norris, Thomas Nelson Conrad, and Colonel Thomas Jordan. William Norris And Thomas Jordan weren't really spies, but they were well involved with the spying community. William Norris was the chief spymaster of the Confederacy. Thomas Jordan (who often worked with Rose O'Neal Greenhow) organised his own spy ring in Washington, and created his own secret code. "Mrs. M" is most known for an incident in which she wrapped a report around the body of her dog, and then sewed him a new fur coat which was placed around the report on the dog's body. When she reached her camp, she obtained a knife from an officer, and pretended to cut her dog open, when she was really just getting the report. Thomas Nelson Conrad was known for dressing as a minister in order to be able to move freely among Union troops. Before he was a spy, he was actually an ordained Methodist minister. Another interesting thing about him is that he used to hold spy meetings in the Interior Department Building, right under the noses of the Union. He figured that the Union people would never expect spies to meet in their own building. He was right.
     Rose O'Neal Greenhow was one of the Confederacy's best and most renowned spies, and she deserves her own paragraph. Rose was a widow, and a mother of four kids. She was also a powerful figure in Washington at the time, because she was close friends with former President, James Buchanan. She was also close friends with many senators, representatives, diplomats, judges, and military figures. Allan Pinkerton, a man whom I shall talk more about later, described her as having "an almost irresistable seductive power." 1 Col. Erasmus Keyes called her "the most persuasive woman that was ever known to Washington." 2 Although she was a Confederate spy, she lived in the North. She had a mind for details, which made her the great spy that she was. In fact, when she turned in reports about the amount of supplies that an army had, she could even remember to report of there was a shortage of blankets in the camp. Rose also had many good war-ish ideas, which she often suggested to her war-ish superiors. They say that it's because of Rose that the Confederacy won the infamous Battle of Bull Run. "I employed every capacity with which God endowed me," 3 is something that she has said about herself. This was true, even up to the last minute. The moment she was arrested, she swallowed the message that she had been just about to deliver. She continued to spy under the guards' noses while she was in prison. And, when she was in jail, people would pay ten dollars just to look at her.
     The Union also had many good and famous spies. Three of the very best were Allan Pinkerton, Sarah Edmonds, and Lafayette C. Baker. Sarah Edmonds has an especially interesting story. She was a white girl, but she enlisted in the Union disguised as a white man. She called herself Franklin Thompson. When Sarah spied for the Union, she dressed up as if she was a black girl slave, so it was very easy for her to blend in behind the Confederate lines. Lafayette C. Baker was one of the first spies ever in the Union. He was assigned to the Secret Service by Gen. Walbridge. Lafayette's phoney name was Samuel Munson. He was caught within the Confederate lines, and accused of spying, so he go arrested. Even while he was supposed to be in prison, he bribed the guards into letting him walk around teh area, which gave him lots of information about prison security, among other things. Eventually, he was released for a lack of evidence.
     Allan Pinkerton is the Union guy that gets to have his own paragraph. Before the Civil War had even started, he ran the Pinkerton Detective Agency. During the war, he was hired to track down and arrest the aforementioned Rose O'Neal Greenhow. He found her out by going to her house one day, and concealing some of his men around it. They waited there until nightfall, when Rose returned with a Union soldier. Allan took off his shoes, and stood on the shoulders of two of his men, so that he would be able to see into the window. In an account of this incident, Allan said: "As the visitor entered the parlor and seated himself -- awaiting the appearance of the lady of the house -- I immediately recognised him as an officer of the regular army . . . I noticed that there was a troubled, restless look on his face; he appeared ill at ease and shifted nervously upon his chair, as though impatient for the entrance of his hostess. In a few moments Mrs. Greenhow entered and cordially greeted her visitor . . . he took from an inner pocket of his coat a map . . . a plan of the fortifications in and around Washington, and which also designated a contemplated plan of attack." 4 After the man left Rose's house, Allan followed him, to question him, but instead the man had Allan arrested. Allan spent the night in jail, but got out on bail the next morning, in time to have Rose thrown in jail. If not for Allan Pinkerton, the Confederacy wouldn't have lost its most valuable spy, and the Union might not have won the Civil War.
     Two of the major secret agent unions that existed during the Civil War were The Secret Sevice Bureau, which was the official name of the Confederate's espionage bureau, and the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the Union's main detective agency, founded Allan Pinkerton. After the Confederacy lost the Civil War, The Secret Service Bureau diminshed, and it's not around anymore. However, the Pinkerton Detective Agency thrived. It's still around today, and it's doing very well.
     Throughout time spies have gone unpraised. Their efforts are considered "dirty" warfare, and the names of spies are hardly ever publicly released. For example, the names of the spies of the Civil War were made unavailable to the public well into the 1930's. The government seemed to have something against documents having to do with disloyalty, treason, courtmartials, and espionage. Many people didn't want the names released because they felt that it might give a bad reputation to the spy's family name, or something. These days, though, the names of these brave individuals who risked their lives and their dignity in underground projects have been made public, and they have been given the recognition that they deserve.

Colman, Penny. Spies! Women in the Civil War. Cincinnati, OH:      Betterway Books, 1996

Lang, J. Stephen. The Complete Book of Confederate Trivia. Shippensburg,      PA: Beidel Printing House, Inc., 1996

Stern, Philip Van Doren. Secret Missions of the Civil War. Avenel, NJ:      Random House Publishing, 1990
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