There was one fact that became evident with startling emphasis to the American people the moment secession was established, and this was that it was not political ties alone that had held the Union together. Financial, commercial, and domestic bonds had, in seventy years, so stretched from North to South that to divide and disrupt the social organism was a much more difficult feat to accomplish than mere political separation upon a point of Constitutional interpretation. An unparalleled state of public confusion developed in the early months of 1861, which was all the worse because there was little or no uncertainty in the individual mind. Probably every citizen of the country capable of reason had reached conviction upon the points at issue.
Not only the Government at Washington but the whole world was astounded that the new Confederacy could bring at once into the field a military force superior in numbers to the standing army of the United States. Every department at the capital was disorganized by the defection of employees whose opinions and ties bound them to the cause of the South. Legislators in both houses, cabinet officers, and judges volunteered their services in the making of the new nation. Ministers and consuls hastened from foreign countries to enter its councils or fight for its existence. Army and Navy officers left their posts and resigned their commissions for commands under another standard. The Episcopal bishop of Louisiana exchanged the surplice for the uniform and rode at the head of an army corps.
Opinion was positive, but it did not separate along geographic lines. Thousands in the North believed sincerely in the justice of the Southern cause. Businessmen dealing largely with the South realized that hostilities would reduce them to poverty. Northern men established in Southern territory, solicitous for their fortunes and their families, found that an oath of allegiance would mean the confiscation of their property and the ruin of their hopes. Political combinations and secret societies in the most loyal parts of the Union were aiding the new Government to establish itself on a firm basis. Individuals, for reasons more or less advantageous to themselves, were supplying men, money, materials of war and supplies to the Confederacy.
This review of existing conditions is necessary to understand the full scope of the secret service, which was necessary in order that the Federal Government might comprehend and grapple with the situation. Congress had not anticipated the emergency and made no provisions for it, but the Constitution gives the President extraordinary powers to suppress insurrection, and these were employed at once and with energy. Most important was the organization of that branch of the military service whose function is to obtain information as to the adversary's resources and plans, and to prevent like news from reaching the opponents. But the work of fighting was only a portion of the task. All communication between the North and South was carefully watched. The statutes of the post-office were arbitrarily changed and its sacredness violated, in order to prevent its use as a means of conveying information. Passengers to and from foreign countries were subjected to new passport regulations. A trade blockade was instituted. The writ of habeas corpus was suspended in many places, and all persons who were believed to be aiding the South in any way were arrested by special civil and military agents and placed in military custody for examination. Most of this, it will be evident, had to be accomplished by means of detection known as "secret service".
The Federal Government was, in the beginning, lacking in any organized secret service. The Department of State, the department of War, and the Department of the Navy each took a hand in early attempts to define the line between loyalty and disloyalty to the Union cause, but upon that of State fell the greater share of the effort. Secretary Seward engaged a force of detectives, and sent them to Canada and frontier places to intercept all communication between the British dominion and the South. He assigned other secret agents to the specific task of stopping the sale of shoes for the Confederate army. The police chiefs of Northern cities were requested to trail and arrest suspected persons. No newspaper editorial that might be construed as containing sentiments disloyal to the Union appeared in print but some one sent a copy to Washington, and, if necessary, the offending journal was suppressed.
The police commissioners of Baltimore were arrested, as was also a portion of the Maryland legislature. So active was the multifarious work of the secret service that the prisoners at Fort Warren, Lafayette, and McHenry were soon overflowing with prisoners of state and war. Distracted wardens pleaded that there was no room for more, but it was not until the middle of February, 1862 that relief was afforded. By this time the Government felt that the extent of all forms of activity in the Southern cause within the existing Union were well understood and under control. The President was anxious to return to a more normal course of administration and issued an order for the release on parole of all political and state prisoners, except such detained as spies or otherwise inimicable to public safety. Henceforth, important arrests were made under the direction of the military authorities alone.
These, meanwhile, had not been idle, since detective work in regard to the plans and movements of the foe has always been one of the most important departments of warfare. The organization of the Federal military secret service involved no complicated machinery. In every military department the commander appointed a chief detective who gathered about him such a force of soldiers and civilians as he required to perform the work of espionage and investigation. These detectives were responsible to the heads of the military departments. Besides these the War Department employed special agents who reported directly to the secretary.
The imagination is apt to enwrap the character of the detective or spy in an atmosphere of mystery and excitement, against which these individuals are generally the first to protest. An aptitude for the work naturally implies an amount of fearlessness and daring which deadens the feeling of danger and affords real pleasure in situations involving great risk. We must picture the successful secret service agent as keen-witted, observant, resourceful, and possessing a small degree of fear, yet realizing the danger and consequences of detection.
His work, difficult as it is to describe precisely, lay, in general, along three lines. In the first place, all suspected persons must be found, their sentiments investigated and ascertained. The members of the secret service obtained access to houses, clubs, and places of resort, sometimes in the guise of guests, sometimes as domestics, as the needs of the case seemed to warrant. As well-known and time-honored shadow detectives, they tracked footsteps and noted every action. Agents, by one means or another, gained membership in hostile secret societies and reported their meetings, by which means many plans of the Southern leaders were ascertained. The most dangerous service was naturally that of entering the Confederate ranks for information as to the nature and strength of defenses and numbers of troops. Constant vigilance was maintained for the detection of the Confederate spies, the interception of mail-carriers, and the discovery of contraband goods. All spies, "contrabands," deserters, refugees, and prisoners of war found in or brought into Federal territory were subjected to a searching examination and reports upon their testimony forwarded to the various authorities.
As the conflict progresses the activities of the baser elements of society placed further burdens upon the secret service. Smuggling, horse-stealing, and an illicit trade in liquor with the army were only the lesser of the many crimes that inevitably arise from a state of war. Government employees and contractors conspired to perpetrate frauds. The practice of bounty-jumping assumed alarming proportions. Soldier's discharges were forged and large sums collected upon them. Corrupt political organizations attempted to tamper with the soldiers' vote. The suppression of all this added to the already heavy labors of the secret agents.
There were, from the very beginning, several strongly concentrated centers of suspicion, and of these probably the most important and dangerous was located within the higher social circles of the city of Washington itself. In the spring of 1861, the capital was filled with people suspected of supplying information to the Confederate authorities. These Southern men and women did not forget the cause which their friends and families in the home-land were preparing valiantly to defend. Aristocratic people still opened their doors to those high in office, and who could tell what fatal secrets might be dropped by the guests, or inadvertently imparted, to be sent to the leaders in the South? Nor were the activities confined entirely to homes. At office doors in the department buildings the secret agents watched and waited to learn some scrap of information; military maps and plans were often missing after the exit of some visitor.
Such vital information as this was constantly sent across the Potomac: "In adat or two, twelve hundred cavalry supported by four batteries of artillery will cross the river above to get behind Manassas and cut off railroad and other communications with our army whilst anattack is made in front. For God's sake heed this. It is positive." And again: "Today I have it in my power to say that Kelley is to advance on Winchester. Stone and Banks are to cross and go to Leesburg. Burnside's fleet is to engage the batteries on the Potomac, and McClellan and Company will move on Centreville and Manassas next week. This information comes from on of McClellan's aides."
In the secret service work at Washington the famous name of Allan Pinkerton is conspicuous, but it is not on the records, as during his entire connection with the war he was known as E. J. Allen, and some years elapsed before his identity was revealed. Pinkerton, a Scotchman by birth, had emmigrated to the United States about twenty years before, and had met with considerable success in the conduct of a detective agency in Chicago. He was summoned to grapple with the difficult situation in Washington as early as April, 1861. He was willing to lay aside his important business and put his services at the disposal of the Government. But just here he found his efforts hampered by department routine, and he soon left to become chief detective to General McClellan, then in charge of the Department of the Ohio.
When this secret service was well established, Pinkerton went to Washington, shortly after the first battle of Bull Run. He immediately pressed his entire staff of both sexes into the work, but even that was insufficient for the demands upon it. Applications came in on all sides and not the least of the problems was the selection of new members.
Pinkerton was in daily contact with and made reports to the President, Secretary of War, the provost-marshal-general and the general-in-chief of the armies. But his connection with the military concerns of the Government was brief. In November, 1862, McClellan, to whom Pinkerton was sincerely attached, was removed. Indignant at this treatment, the detective refused to continue longer at Washington. He was, however, afterward employed in claim investigations, and at the close of the war returned to Chicago.
Later on, when Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac, Colonel George H. Sharpe was placed at the head of the Bureau of Military Information and supervised all its secret service work until the close of the war. He brought the bureau to a state of great efficiency. Lieutenant H. B. Smith was chief detective of the Middle Department, which comprised Maryland, Delaware, and part of Virginia. His headquarters was at Baltimore, one of the most fertile fields for the work of the secret service. This city, of all that remained within the Union, was probably the most occupied in aiding and abetting the cause of the South.
Smith gathered about him a staff of about forty soldiers and civilians, and an immense amount of significant information as to the plans and movements of the citizens, some of them of great prominence, began to pour into the provost-marshal's office. Many schemes were frustrated and the offenders arrested. The numerous coves and bays of the Chesapeake offered secure harbors and secluded landing-places for contraband vessels. On one occasion, Smith and two of his assistants came upon a fleet of a dozen schooners riding at anchor in an isolated spot. The crews were unarmed and the three agents succeeded in capturing the entire lot of blockade-runners with their rich cargoes.
Spies and mail-carriers were constantly apprehended and their activities interrupted. Deserters were pursued and brought to justice. In March, 1865, one Lewis Payne was arrested in Baltimore on a criminal charge. Smith believed the man to be a spy, but searching examination failed to procure any definite evidence. The cautious detective, however, made him take the oath of allegiance, and recommended his release on condition that he would go to some point north of Philadelphia and remain there until the close of the war. A month later Payne committed the attack on William H. Seward and others at the secretary's Washington home.
During the presidential campaign of 1864, certain party powers at Albany were striving for the election. They sent their political agents to various voting-agencies of the New York troops with instructions to forge the officer's affidavits that accompanied the votes and turn in illegal ballots for their candidate. The keen eye of Smith detected an unknown abbreviation of the word "Cavalry" on one of the signatures, and this led to the exposure of the plot and the arrest of three of the corrupt agents. The detective also did much work in western Maryland and West Virginia in observing and locating the homes of Mosby's famous raiders who were a source of great trouble to the Federal army.
Other missions often took Smith outside the boundaries of his department. In the guise of a New York merchant he took custody in Washington a Confederate agent who was endeavoring to dispose of bonds and scrip. Many visits to New York and Philadelphia were made in connection with bounty-jumping and other frauds, and he once arrested in New York an agent of the Confederacy who was assisting in the smuggling of a valuable consignment of tobacco. All this was combined with various and hazardous trips south of the Potomac, when necessary, in search of information concerning the strength and position of Confederate defenses and troops. It all denotes a life of ceaseless activity, but it is very typical of the secret agents' work during the Civil War.
In addition to the various detective forces in the field, the War department had its special agents directly under the control of the President and the Secretary of War. These, too, were employed in the multiform duties previously outlined. One of the most noted of the special agents, Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, was a New Yorker by birth who had removed to California, but was in the East when the conflict opened. He hastened to put his services at the command of the Union, and on account of his work on the Vigilance Committee in the stormy days of 1856, he was engaged as a detective in the Department of the State.
The authorities at Washington were most anxious to obtain information as to the Confederate force at Manassas. Five men had been sent to Richmond; of these two had been killed, and the others were thought to be prisoners. In July, 1861, Baker started for the Confederate capital. He was promptly arrested but managed to convince both General Beauregard and president Davis that he belonged in Tennessee. So cleverly was the part played that he was sent North as a Confederate agent, and before the end of three weeks was able to give General Scott a vast amount of valuable information regarding Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Richmond, together with the plans of the Confederate leaders, and the scheme for blockage-running on the Potomac. After that he reported on suspected persons in Baltimore, and was sent to Niagara Falls, New York to watch and arrest the Southern agents there.
When in February, 1862, the secret service came directly under the control of the War Department, Baker was employed as a special agent. He was given a commission as colonel and organized the First District of Columbia Cavalry, a regiment chiefly employed in the defense and regulation of the National capital, although it saw some service in the field.
Baker's concerns were chiefly with matters that had little to do with active conduct of the war. He took charge of all abandoned Confederate property; he investigated the fraudulent practices of contractors; he assisted the Treasury Department in unearthing counterfeiters; he was the terror of the bounty-jumper, and probably did more than anyone else to suppress the activities of that vicious citizen. His last notable achievement in the secret service was the pursuit and capture of the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.
Another valuable agent in the War Department was William P. Wood, superintendent of the Old Capital Prison, at Washington. In pursuit of his duties Me. Wood was in daily contact with the most important military prisoners who fell into the clutches of the Federal Government. He lost no opportunity of gaining any sort of information in regard to the workings of the Confederacy and the plans of its armies, and his reports to the Secretary were looked upon as among the most helpful that reached the department.
The maintenance of the secret service was a large item in the conduct of the war. The expenses of the provost-marshal's office at Washington alone, covering a period of nearly three years, were nearly $175,000.00 for detective services and incidental expense. This, of course, was only a small portion of the total outlay.
In dealing with the secret service the words "spies" and "scouts" are constantly used. A clear and definite distinction between the two is indeed difficult to make. By far the greater number of persons described as spies in an account of the war would be classed as scouts by a miliatry man. To such a one the word "spy" would most often mean a person who was located permanently within the lines or territory of the opponent and applied himself to the collection of all information that would be valuable to his military chief. The latter communicated with his spies by means of his scouts, who took messages to and fro. The real spies seldom came out. Scouts were organized under a chief who directed their movements. Their duties were various ~bearing despatches, locating the foe, and getting precise information about roads, bridges and fords that would facilitate the march of the army. Thus many opportunities for genuine spy work came to the scout and hence the confusion in the use of the terms, which is increased by the fact that an arrested scout is usually referred to as a spy.
The use and number of Federal spies were greatly increased as the war went on and in the last year the system reached a high degree of efficiency, with spies constantly at work in all the Confederate armies and in all the cities of the South. In the very anonymity of these men lay a large part of their usefulness. The names of a few, who occupied high places or met with tragic ends, have been rescued from obscurity. Those of the remainder are not to be found on any rolls of honor. They remain among the unknown heroes of history.
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