0115 966 7955 Today's Opening Times 10:30 - 17:00 (BST)

Spies And Espionage Of The Civil War

Published: Last Edited:

Disclaimer: This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers. You can view samples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

The American Civil War was one of greatest tragedies ever to happen to our great nation. The highly underestimated war, lasting from 1861 to 1865, resulted in slightly over one million deaths, approximately 3% of the population nationwide. This bloodshed consisted of not only soldiers, but children, women, slaves, and families. Considered to be the bloodiest event ever to happen on American soil, the effects of the Civil War have continued to alter our nation. Some argue that it is the singular, most horrific occurrence in all of America's history due to the idea that it was "brother killing brother". The family of the United States was split down the middle, separating the "slavery" branch from the "freedom" branch. The blue Union soldiers fired at their grey Confederate counterparts on a monthly basis. Most modern Americans could never imagine this kind of violence in a "brotherly" setting like the soldiers of the war experienced. A much more relatable experience is the arguing and secrecy in a sibling relationship. The contemporary family dynamic is accustomed to brothers and sisters going behind each others' backs, manipulating their parents and trying to gain the "favorite child" award. In this aspect, today's American families can relate to some actions that took place in the Civil War. Secrecy and manipulation played a large, underrated role in the war through spies, covert missions and espionage. The undercover scene of spies in the Civil War changed the course of some significant battles, therefore changing the course of the entire war itself.

Both the Union and the Confederacy utilized the weapon of spy work. The North, armed with more men, more weapons, and more resources, didn't rely upon espionage as much as their Southern counterparts. In the Confederacy, the lack of a large army full of willing participants resulted in the need to "cheat" their way around such a disadvantage. At the start of the war, neither side was equipped with a formal military intelligence agency. In fact, a true surveillance organization (funded by the government) didn't appear until years after the conclusion of the Civil War with the creation of the U.S. Secret Service. Provided this absence of a spy association, before the start of the war many spies performed covert missions as "free-lancers", meaning they often went solo and without any back-up on missions. These free-lance spies performed their duties solely for the purpose of self-initiative; they had no orders from an authority to carry out a duty. Eventually, the South realized the necessity for a covert organization and capitalized on the spy industry, getting a head start on their Northern counterpart. Washington D.C., 60 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line, became the headquarters for the Confederacy's spy network. The split nation's federal capital, full over Southern sympathizers, was approached by Virginia governor John Letcher as he mapped the plan for a secret system of espionage. Through his vast knowledge of the city, Letcher set up a network for Confederate spies that stayed unknown to the Union for months. Titled the Confederate Signal Corps, this organization "operated the semaphore system used for communicating vital information between armies on the field" ("Spies"). Letcher recruited the best in the business to be involved in this institution during its infancy. West Point graduate, Thomas Jordan, and prominent Southern socialite and widow, Rose O'Neal Greenhow, were chosen to serve in the Signal Corps and perform some of its first covert communications. Greenhow would continue to go on and become one of the South's most effective spies, while Jordan became a general for the Confederate States Army. As the war progressed on, this Corps became more devoted to the underground messages needing to be transferred between the generals, politicians, and spies. Management of the border-crossing missions fell under the control of Baltimore lawyer William Norris and his newly-formed Confederate Secret Service Bureau. His operatives would travel into the North and over the Atlantic to capture information about Union tactics and armament plans and transport coded messages to other spies. Southern agents could easily assimilate in the crowded Northern cities, so they never feared being caught or even suspected. The bureau also handled the "Secret Line", which consisted of the Confederate couriers that relayed information between headquarters (Washington D.C.) and Richmond, Virginia. Messengers would cross the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers to deliver their reports to Southern officials stationed outside of the federal capital. The Confederate bureau also supervised the trans-Atlantic communications with Europe for weapons and agents. This initiative to establish an undercover spy society launched the South into a long-time relationship with espionage, while the North eventually played catch-up.

Though the Confederacy had a multiple month head start on them, the Union finally got into the spy game with the introduction of Allan Pinkerton. Originally a detective in Chicago, during the first few months of the war, Pinkerton began operating directly for Union General George B. McClellan, chief General of the Army of the Potomac. The bond between these two was displayed when Lincoln summoned McClellan to Washington D.C. the general placed Pinkerton as head of intelligence operations for the Army of the Potomac. In mid-1861, these operations became titled the U.S. Secret Service with Pinkerton at the command. The counterintelligence network also declared its headquarters at Washington D.C., while operatives spied on the Southern activities through undercover work in Richmond. The Union spies weren't as daring and adventurous as the Confederate spies, so most of them covertly stayed in Richmond and didn't dare go farther south. Unlike their Southern cohesive complement, the North remained very decentralized the entirety of the war. Many major generals and every President Abraham Lincoln had their personal detectives which reported directly to them. So even though Pinkerton's operation was called the "U.S" Secret Service, it really consisted of his reports and surveillances for McClellan. Other Union spies that worked with a specific general included Lafayette C. Baker with Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, William Alvin Lloyd with President Abraham Lincoln, and Colonel George H. Sharpe with Major General Joseph Hooker. Even with all these working operatives, they never decided to join forces for a combined, Union intelligence corporation.

There were always two dark horse threats in the espionage world of the Civil War - women and slaves. Both the Confederacy and the Union utilized many female spies in the process of collecting information and surveillance tips. These women would flirt and socialize with the other side's generals, wooing them until they revealed confidential plans. Plus, women were much underrated in Civil War society, so they weren't seen as a large threat. The Southern women, however, were much more notorious and daring in their deeds than the Northern women. For many years, female agents dominated the intelligence missions of the South and provided the majority of crucial military information. On the flipside, the Union's relied more on the word of escaped slaves than the word of their female operatives. On the quest for freedom, slaves in the South would flee to the North. Southern generals and politicians, viewing the blacks as inferior, never feared speaking openly about confidential information in the presence of slaves. With knowledge of Confederate plans, the slaves would make a break for the Union and relay their news to Northern officials. In fact, most of the significant military intelligence supplied to the Union officers throughout the war actually came from runaway slaves. The lesson to be learned here is never doubt the underdog.

"Little Rose" and Rose O'Neal GreenhowFemale Southern spies gained acknowledgement and fame through their daring exploits, never-ending persistence, and unbroken dedication. A prime example of this is renowned Confederate spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow, often called "Rebel Rose". Orphaned as a child, Greenhow went to live in her aunt's boarding house in Washington D.C., and thrived in the capital's social world. Ironically, the boarding house where she grew up was the Old Capitol, which was soon turned into a massive prison, and eventually she would return there as the Union's proudest captive. Beautiful, lively, and popular, she gained connections with politicians, generals, and other socialites throughout the city. In the 1830s, she met and eventually married Dr. Robert Greenhow. After the birth eight children, the passing of her husband, and the close friendship made with John C. Calhoun, Greenhow readily began her spy work for the Confederacy. As the few first weeks of the war passed, she transferred information along the Secret Line to Thomas Jordan in Richmond. Greenhow's shining moment came early when she supplied information to General Beauregard about the Northern advance on Manassas in mid-July, 1861 (Farquhar). She heard word from Union generals of the Federal army's movements and took action immediately. Sewing a ciphered message of ten words into a piece of silk wrapped around a package, Greenhow hid the letter in the hair of her courier Betty Duvall. Duvall was soon riding to relay the package to Beauregard. Once the message was received and the rout of the Northern army uncovered, the Confederates were able to prepare themselves for the Civil War's opening battle at Manassas. The South would go on the win that battle through a heavy wave of reinforcements from General Joseph E. Johnston and Colonel Thomas J. Jackson. Later on, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Beauregard "honored her [Greenhow] for her contribution to the rout of the Northern army in this opening conflict of the Civil War" (Farquhar). This attention from two powerful, Southern commanders attracted Union detective Allan Pinkerton. Still fully aware she was being watched, Greenhow continued on her covert missions definitely. She was soon arrested on August 23, 1861. Trapped within the confines of her house, Greenhow was under constant surveillance by sentinels and Union troops. A little more than a week later, more convicted Southern women transferred into "Fort Greenhow", so attention on Rebel Rose diminished. Always working, Greenhow managed to continue communicating with the outside world, including a letter about her in-home oppression to William H. Steward that eventually was published in a newspaper. In early 1862, Fort Greenhow closed and Rose was transferred with her 8-year old daughter "Little Rose" to Old Capitol. In that building, Greenhow defended herself against charges of espionage while in a hearing and successfully continued to inspire Southern efforts through her defiance. A full trial and additional hearing were deemed unnecessary, so in March of 1862 Greenhow walked out of the Old Capitol with Little Rose in tow, "draped in a Confederate flag" (Farquhar). Upon her return to Richmond, Greenhow was praised as a hero. Eventually, President Jefferson Davis got her back into espionage duties by sending her on a mission to Britain and France. There, she met with Napoleon III and Queen Victoria to raise vital assistance for the Confederacy. While here, Greenhow published her memoir My Imprisonment, and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington. After about a year, Greenhow boarded the Condor on her return home. She was carrying $2000 in gold. While nearing the North Carolinian coast, a Union gunboat pursued them onto a sandbar. Unwilling to surrender, Greenhow and two other passengers stole away on a rowboat, which eventually capsized. It is believed that she drowned from the weight of the gold around her neck. A day later, Greenhow's body was recovered onshore and she was buried with full, military honors by Confederate officials.Rose ONeal Greenhow

The beauty herself - Belle BoydRebel Rose was not alone in the dedicated effort to supply the Confederacy with information. "Another famous southern belle-turned-Confederate spy", Belle Boyd went down as one of the most infamous Confederate agents. From a young age, Boyd was under watch by many Union surveillance operatives. At age 17, she shot and killed a Union officer that drunkenly entered her family's home, in Martinsburg near Harpers Ferry, to tear down Confederate flags. Though she was immediately arrested, Boyd was soon acquitted of all charges and set free. In a continuation of assisting the South, she wrote messages to Confederates about the nearby Federal troops, whose movements she could readily observe. Information in these messages also came from the Federal officers themselves, whom Boyd charmed into spilling confidential plans. However, youth and beauty comes with stupidity. Boyd "made no attempt to use a code or cipher or even to disguise her handwriting" (Boyd) and was eventually re-arrested and set free again. Just like the previous occasion involving arrest, she continued her surveillance work and remained active by carrying messages between important Confederate figures. At this point, wary Union officials forced her to move to Front Royal, Virginia with family. While here, Boyd's shining moment came during "Stonewall" Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign. On May 23, 1862, Jackson's army was fast approaching her home of Front Royal. Through eavesdropping on Union General James Shields army's meeting and flirtations with other Union generals, Boyd had all the information Jackson needed to secure a Confederate victory. She knew the movements of the Federal armies, the strength of each army in the Shenandoah Valley, and the retreat plan for those in Front Royal was to flee to Winchester and burn bridges along the way, eventually joining with General Banks's force. As the firing began, Boyd ran to the Confederate line to deliver the message. Yes, she ran under fire from both sides to Jackson's army, narrowly getting hit by rifle balls as they zipped past her. Once arriving at the line, her information was transferred from an officer to General Stonewall himself, and soon the Confederates secured a victory. Though the depot building was burnt to the ground, they caught up to the escaping Union army and saved the bridges from a similar fiery death. For her extreme bravery and dedication to the Confederate cause, Boyd received the Southern Cross of Honor and personal props from Stonewall Jackson. Her daring exploit earned her much attention from the Union War Department, and on July 29, 1862 she was arrested by a detective from the United States Secret Service (Boyd). By the next day, Boyd's new home was the Old Capitol Prison in Washington D.C. Though she was only there for a month, Boyd made an immediate impact on the current prisoners there. During an interview with chief of detectives Lafayette C. Baker, she publically retorted "'if it is a crime to love the South, its cause, and its President, then I am a criminal… I would rather lie down in this prison and die, than leave it owing allegiance to such a government as yours'" (Boyd). Throughout the rest of her stay at the Old Capitol, Boyd was showered with applause and gifts from her fellow inmates. She was released to Fort Monroe in Virginia, but was arrested once more after being discovered behind federal lines. Imprisoned once again, Boyd was released after three months and continued her spy work. While attempting to smuggle Confederate papers into England in 1864, she was arrested again. Before returning to prison, Boyd made her escape to England to hide out from Federal detectives. After a period of time, Boyd made an attempt to return to the states on a blockade-runner; it was captured by a Union naval vessel. A naval officer by the name Samuel W. Hardinge, one of her capturers, and Boyd eventually got married in England until Hardinge returned briefly to the United States. In the fleeting time he was in America, Hardinge was arrested for suspicious activity and assisting Boyd in her escape. Shortly after his release, he died. All the while, Boyd was in England making a career off acting on stage and publishing her book Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. Beautiful Belle Boyd eventually died in 1900 in Wisconsin, where her grave lies today.Belle Boyd

David Owen Dodd: "Boy Martyr of the Confederacy"Not all Confederate spy stories are as lengthy and riveting as the stories of Rebel Rose and Belle Boyd. One of the most short-lived and saddening stories of the Confederacy's espionage world is that of David Owen Dodd, a 17-year-old that was hanged as a Confederate spy illegally in Northern territory. Dodd, born November 10, 1846, lived his childhood in Lavaca County, Texas, until the family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas to be close to his sister's school. Dodd soon had to drop out of school due to malaria, but took a job at the local telegraph office and learned Morse code. Dodd grew up in a pro-South household, so when the Union occupied Little Rock, the Dodd family retreated behind Confederate lines ("David"). Soon, Dodd's father sent his son back to Little Rock for business matters, which required Dodd to obtain a pass from Confederate General James F. Fagan. While Dodd stayed in Little Rock with his aunt, Susan Dodd, many of the teenage girls grew fond of him, especially Mary Dodge. The Union troops took attention to the obvious relationship building between Dodd and Dodge; they were wary of Dodd's Confederate affiliations and Dodge's pro-South opinion. On December 29, 1846, Dodd left Little Rock to spend the night at his uncle's house. Union guards of the city took his pass, expecting Dodd not to return. Little did they know that Dodd planned to come back the following morning, so when Dodd was questioned by Union patrols the next day, he was without a pass. Dodd's form of identification was his birth certificate, which was bound in a small leather notebook and informed that he was a minor. They discovered "a page with dots and dashes", which one of the Union officials easily deciphered as "exact information about Union troop strength in Little Rock" ("David"). Dodd was immediately suspected as a Confederate spy and arrested. In Little Rock Arsenal, the prison where he was incarcerated, Dodd was asked multiple times by Union General Frederick Steele to reveal the name of the Union traitor that supplied the information of the army's strength. Though offered freedom for the name, Dodd would not talk. Therefore, on January 8, 1864, David Owen Dodd, still seventeen, was hung at St. Johns', his former school. He was charged with being a Confederate spy and betraying the Union government. Whether it was his height, weight, or issues with the rope, onlookers witnessed not an immediate death, but the slow strangulation of a good-looking, popular youth for over five minutes. It was recorded that many Union troops and witnesses became sick. Soon after his killing, General Steele sent Mary Dodge and her father back to their original homestead of Vermont. It remains unknown whether Dodd was actually a Confederate spy with a Morse coded message for undercover rebels, or if he was just a poor soul in the wrong place at the wrong time. No matter the answer, Dodd's tragic execution inspired many in the South and gained much sympathy from those who straddled the Union vs. Confederacy line. David Owen Dodd was rightfully titled the "Boy Martyr of the Confederacy".http://emergingcivilwardotcom.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/david-dodd.jpg

Sarah Emma Edmonds as a man

Sarah Emma Edmonds as a womanThough not as numerous within the Union network of espionage, female spies did exist in the North. One of the most infamous of these few females was Sarah Emma Edmonds, the woman known mainly for her crazy transformation to obtain information in Confederate camps. Born in Canada, Edmonds lived in the far West. Once word traveled west that war had erupted, however, Edmonds packed up everything and went east to volunteer as a field nurse for the Union. She experienced First Manassas and McClellan's Peninsular Campaign first hand, which shocked her into the reality of war. Later, at the Battle of Yorktown, witnessing the burial service of her childhood love inspired Edmonds to abandon nursing. With sorrow in her heart and anger in her mind, Edmonds volunteered to serve as a Union spy. After getting her life-threatening mission approved by Union General Chaplain, the transformation into an African American man began. Donning contraband clothing, a thick layer of silver nitrate to dye her skin black, a black wig, and a heavy accent, Edmonds started her journey to the rebel pickets in Yorktown, Virginia. After being picked up by a band of slaves carrying provisions to the nearby camps, she soon assimilated herself into the black community in the rebel picket. With the freedom to roam around the fortification at night after tirelessly working the first day in the camp, Edmonds was able to sketch all the mounted artillery on a piece of paper she hid in her shoe. On the second day, she heard that Confederate General Lee was to arrive in Yorktown to inspect the Yankee fortification and that a combined force of Lee and Johnston presented an army of 150,000 strong in and around Yorktown (Edmonds). While supplying some officers water that second night, Edmonds overheard a man perfectly describing the nearby Federal picket and all of McClellan's position to some Confederate generals. She recognized the man as a newspaper dealer who stayed around the Federal camp about once a week. Shocked and worried, Edmonds made sure to alert Chaplain of this undercover South operative once she returned to the safety of the Union. Even in her shock, Edmonds comprehended that the rebel sharpshooters were to target and kill a certain "Lieutenant V" on his visit to the picket line (Edmonds). With this information, Edmonds was content to leave and supply her newfound knowledge back to her commanders. The next night, she luckily was forced to replace one of the black guards on the night shift of the post. Equipped with a rifle, Edmonds was left alone at the post. She eventually slipped into the forest under the cover of darkness and made her way back to Union lines. The next morning, she delivered her report to General Chaplain and General McClellan and successfully concluded one of the riskiest operations in espionage history.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e6/Sarah_Edmonds_lg_sepia.jpg/200px-Sarah_Edmonds_lg_sepia.jpghttp://gaggingonsexism.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/images-32.jpeg

Policeman turned spy, Timothy WebsterAs if to one-up their Confederate counterparts, more and more Union operatives began to undertake ridiculously dangerous missions. America's first double agent, Timothy Webster, moved from his homeland of Britain to Princeton, New Jersey. After maintaining a job as a policeman for a few years, Webster was introduced to Allan Pinkerton, and the two immediately became close friends. It was Pinkerton that suggested Webster to go into the detective business. Convinced that espionage was his calling, Webster traveled to Richmond undercover as a secession advocate. Pretending to be a courier for the Confederate's Secret Line, he gained the trust of Judah P. Benjamin, then the Confederate Secretary of War ("Spies"). Benjamin entrusted Webster, a "pro-secession" kind of guy, with a series of documents for the secessionists in Baltimore. Taking a detour, Webster reviewed the papers with Pinkerton and his associates before heading to Baltimore. Still unsuspicious upon his arrival, Webster heard snippets of some pro-South radicals, properly called the Sons of Liberty, planning to assassinate President Lincoln while he switched trains in Baltimore on his way to the inauguration in 1861. He reported this information to Pinkerton, who successfully rerouted Lincoln, therefore probably saving his life. The following year, Webster became ill with rheumatism on a mission to Richmond. Worried and wanting information, Pinkerton dispatched agents Lewis Pryce and John Scully to locate Webster behind Confederate lines in Richmond. While in the search, the two operatives were captured and eventually spilled the beans about Webster's double identity. Providing this information, Pryce and Scully were released while Webster was hanged. On April 29, 1862, the first double agent in America also became the first person to be executed on espionage charges in the Civil War ("Timothy").http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b6/TimothyWebster.JPG/220px-TimothyWebster.JPG

Secret Unionist, Elizabeth Van LewIf pretending to be a secessionist for a couple months and making some Confederate sounds difficult, try being a Northern sympathizer and advocate in the middle of Richmond, Virginia. A pro-North woman by the name Elizabeth Van Lew thrived and survived in General Lee's backyard. Born in Richmond, Van Lew was educated at a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, reinforcing her family's abolitionist ideals. On her return to her hometown, she strongly opposed slavery and secession, opposing the population of Richmond's mind-set. Her friends, neighbors, and associates celebrated the early Confederate families as Van Lew secretly cringed. Throughout the span of the war, she relayed information to Union officers, supplied food and to the Federal prisoners of war, helped the prisoners in escaping back to the North, and conducted a spy network from her house. After the First Manassas in July of 1861, Van Lew and her mother took the opportunity to begin caring for the prisoners of war. Locked away in the infamous Libby Prison, the terrible conditions and lack of sanitation caused despair and hopelessness among the men. With her high social status, Van Lew and her mother were permitted to bring food, medicine and books to the imprisoned men. This brought much negative attention, causing the Richmond upper class to shy away from them. Angered and inspired, Van Lew began passing information to and communicating with the prisoners, getting some of them transferred to hospitals for interviews and medical help. She also hid some of these prisoners while they planned an escape route home. One of the escapees informed Union General Benjamin Butler of Van Lew's efforts. Impressed, Butler asked her to become an official Union spy, and Van Lew soon became the "chief source of information about Richmond" (Lineberry). She began sending reports to Butler on January 30, 1864, when she informed him of the transfer of prisoners from Richmond to Andersonville Prison in Georgia. The raid on that shipment was unsuccessful due to a Northern traitor warning the Confederates of the raid. Van Lew's second dispatch was much more successful than her first. The freeing of the prisoners came from within the prison itself; they had dug a tunnel under the street. On February 14, 1864, about 100 Union officers escaped Libby Prison through the tunnel - they recaptured less than half of the escapees. Federal operatives were waiting outside Richmond to assist the recently escaped officers back home due to Van Lew's warning. Later, on March 1st, a raid was sent to Richmond to set the rest of the prisoners free. The mission, let by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren and General Judson Kilpatrick, was highly unsuccessful. Most of the men in the skirmish were captured, while Dahlgren was killed. Initially buried in a grave, Dahlgren's body was soon uncovered and mutilated for the public to see once it was proven the raid was on a continued mission to assassinate President Jefferson Davis. With her connections and trusty agents, Van Lew discovered Dahlgren's new grave, recovered the body and returned it to his family. By June of 1864, five stations in and around Richmond relayed information through twelve undercover agents, handpicked by Van Lew, to the Union. Later on, Union General Ulysses S. Grant declared Van Lew as his most reliable resource in Richmond throughout the war (Lineberry). Though she got personal gratitude and money from many Union generals after Grant captured Richmond in April 1865, Van Lew was an iconoclast in Richmond's society. She was without any money and any friends. Things got better once Grant became president in 1869; she was appointed to postmaster of Richmond and held the position for eight years. Eventually, Van Lew was replaced and lived off donations from wealthy families in Boston whom she helped in the war. Until her death in 1900, the once prosperous and popular Elizabeth Van Lew lived off the money of others in the city that hated her.http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-e-qqPq4sKJU/UJEydh8fgvI/AAAAAAAACUQ/Nn1ky_N5y2Q/s1600/van+lew.jpg

Though each and every spy, undercover agent, and operative had their own personalized style of sending information and surveillance, the general idea about transferring secret messages remained the same: keep them secret. A popular method to this was the usage of a cipher or code. A cipher is a written system of code in which letters are replaced with other letters according to a key word. Throughout the Civil War, the cipher that appeared most was Morse Code. Contrary to belief and the actual title, Morse "Code" wasn't a code, but a cipher. In codes, single, meaningless words replace words or entire phrases from the original message. Ciphers contain an exchange of individual symbols for every letter, so there are many more characters to encipher than there are to encode. Anyways, advancements were made on the Morse Code in just years after its first debut in 1837, when it transmitted a message over 1,700 feet of wire. Just seven years later, in 1844, a message was made from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, approximately 40 miles. An epic switch came to America's coding society with the publication of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Gold-Bug", a short story that explained "how any simple substitution cipher can be solved by using the frequency of letter occurrence as a means for revealing the hidden message" (Stern). Poe's pamphlet unleashed a wave of cryptography in America, inspiring many young soldiers on both sides of the Civil War to utilize ciphers and codes. People began developing their own ciphers to deliver confidential information across border lines without the fear of outside forces discovering their plans. Many of these new methods were adaptations of older, code languages, such as Vigenére, or Vicksburg Code to Confederate spies. The Confederacy favored this Vigenére for its military dispatches, and came up with a giant array of key words for elaborate combination ciphers. Others were completely original ciphers, such as the Major Albert J. Myer's "little figures of men" in his groundbreaking book Manual of Signals.

Other operatives strayed completely away from the entire coding world. Elizabeth Van Lew communicated her dispatches to General Butler and General Grant through using a special ink that appeared when soaked with milk. Initially clear, chemicals within the ink would react when placed in contact with milk, so the inked message would go from transparent to black. Rose O'Neal Greenhow used the tactic of innocence and concealment when she sent her female courier, Betty Duvall, with a coded, ten-word message to General Beauregard hidden in her hair. Another example of a hidden, secret message is the Special Order 191 found by one of Union General McClellan's scouts in early September of 1862. A box of cigars was discovered containing all of Confederate General Lee's plans in his Maryland campaign, which consisted of the epic but tragic Battle and Antietam. Lee's battle plans and movements were written in plain old English, making that box the luckiest find of McClellan's life. If the message was coded and they couldn't decipher the message, the Army of the Potomac couldn't have been as prepared as they were. That's why it was important for secret messages to be coded - so they stay secret! On the occasions that a report couldn't be ciphered due to time constraints, some would resort to just writing the words backwards. Later in the war, a Union telegrapher came up with the ingenious idea to not only send a backwards message, but also in "garbled phonetic spelling" (Stern). If you couldn't get a message out in time by direct delivery, another medium to exchange secret information was the want-ad columns and news stories in newspapers. Advertisements in certain places and at a certain price could mean that a certain amount of money was being transferred from point A to point B. The whole key to understanding this form of communication was for the writer and the reader to know the key to unlock the secret message.

The Vigenére TableauDictionaries and tables were necessary to decipher some of these messages, especially if you intercepted a message from the enemy. With his publication "The Gold-Bug", Poe mentions there are ways to create cipher disks, grilles and book/dictionary codes so one could decipher a message quickly (Stern). In fact, with a general knowledge of the principles of a keyed cipher, one could solve one without even bothering to try to find a key. Most people in a form of the Signal Corps had already memorized the Vigenére Tableau, which provided some assistance when needing to interpret a ciphered message. Though all of the Union Signal Corps knew how to utilize and decipher Vigenére, they were often faced with the challenge of trying to translate an intercepted Confederate message without knowing the key word. Those who were persistent enough eventually broke the cipher by guessing the key word or phrase. Knowing the key word or phrase in any cipher means you can unlock what's hidden within the message.http://www.braingle.com/brainteasers/codes/images/vigenere.gif

Some of the most important messages were those sent to the foreign powers across the Atlantic. Union and Confederate operatives often underwent trans-Atlantic missions to gain support from the European powers, mainly France and Britain. Other countries that got involved were Germany and Austria, who primarily supplied just artillery. Equipped with 16.5 million less people than the North, one fourth of the nation's money, and only ten percent of the nation's industry, the Confederacy was in dire need for troops, capital and artillery the entire span of the war. President Jefferson Davis sent his operatives, like Rose O'Neal Greenhow, overseas all the time in search for some backing from Europe. Her mission to France and Britain was an obvious failure since her death was the mission's outcome. The Union, however, didn't rely upon assistance from these foreign powers as much. Their attempts at gaining supporters were generally in the "failing" category. Europe seemed more willing to assist the South and their ambitions early on in the war. Most believe the European plan was to help the South overthrow the Union, then capture the American south for themselves at the conclusion of the war. Plus, Britain's economy depended on "King Cotton", so to save their economy was to save the South. Even with these two factors leaning Europe to the Confederate side, there were still transactions between the North and the European powers. Union operatives were able to offer more money than Confederate operatives, which attracted the money-hungry factory owners all around Europe. Eventually, the overseas powers decided to back out of assisting in the Civil War. Britain and France released their ties with the Confederacy due to the immorality of slavery and the negative denotations that came with the Southern institution. By the end of the war, the American Civil War was exclusively American only.

The conclusion of the Civil War brought the end of many of these operatives' careers in espionage. Slim to none of them continued on in the spy business, though some stayed within the military intelligence, working on keeping the peace and transferring message between America and its allies. Many of these ex-spies moved on with their lives, such as Belle Boyd with the acting industry and Elizabeth Van Lew with a regular life. Though their lives of secrecy and missions were over, their legacies continued on, lasting still today. Civil War spies could look back upon their careers with pride, knowing the deeds they performed served a purpose bigger than themselves.

Significance of Spies & Espionage in the Civil War

The vast influence the generals, the civilians, the politicians, and the troops had in the Civil War did determine the victor and the loser. The dark horses many people constantly forget, however, are the spies. Their undercover operations and surveillance information determined the outcome of some of the biggest battles of the Civil War. Without the information provided by Rose O'Neal Greenhow at First Manassas, Confederate General Beauregard and his reinforcements may not have succeeded. Infamous Belle Boyd supplied the South throughout the war with priceless information about the Northern movements, especially in the Shenandoah Valley during Stonewall Jackson's campaign. On the Union side, General Ulysses S. Grant and General Benjamin Butler complimented Elizabeth Van Lew for providing a never-ending supply of information about Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy's capital during the war. These three examples, and all spies for that matter, proudly represented their beliefs and loyalties in any situation. Infiltrating enemy encampments and sneaking behind enemy lines, these spies risked life and limb to obtain confidential information and serve their country.

Not only did these agents undermine enemy plans and uncover battle tactics, but they also were a major factor in extending the war from a few weeks to a few years. The Confederate spies that traveled Trans-Atlantic, asking for assistance from Britain and Europe, returned with artillery and capital for the South. Rebel Rose's death provides an example of the effect Southern spies had upon the royalties of Britain and Europe. After speaking with Queen Victoria and Napoleon III on a mission to the Europe, Greenhow returned home with over $2000 in gold. Sadly, her efforts were never delivered to the Confederate cause, as she drowned with the treasure in an attempt to escape Union hands. Still, with the help of its overseas friends and its spies, the Confederacy was able to last longer than anyone ever predicted.

After the conclusion of the war, many of the operations created by spies lived on to become official military intelligence corporations. The individual agents and their military correspondents in the Union united as one to create a whole new, federal network stationed out of Washington D.C. Allan Pinkerton's U.S. Secret Service, once limited to supplying information to only General McClellan, eventually morphed with these other Union surveillance agencies to create our modern idea of the Secret Service. The role of this newborn Secret Service transformed from primarily the intelligence agency to the protection of the Executive Chief. On the flipside, the Confederate Signal Corps was discarded, though some of its operatives transferred into the Federal military intelligence branch. Continuing their work for the government, these spies and intelligence officers created many of the agencies we know and love to abbreviate nowadays, like the C.I.A. and F.B.I.

What If? #1

One of the biggest turning points in the war occurred during Confederate General Lee's Northern Campaign into Maryland and northern Virginia. Riding off a series of Confederate victories in some major past battles, Lee was confident in his aggressive strategy and movements. Lee also knew another Confederate victory would sway Britain and France into a complete allegiance with the South. However, on September 13, 1862, possibly the unluckiest day in Confederate history, a Union scout discovered an envelope containing three cigars and a letter (in Lee's handwriting), titled Special Order 191. The secret note described military routes for the Confederate armies and revealed Lee was splitting his army apart, sending Stonewall Jackson and a large force to capture Harper's Ferry. The message had supposedly fallen off a courier's horse while in transit to one of Lee's subordinate generals. With this knowledge, Union General McClellan was able to halt Lee's campaign at the bloody Battle of Antietam, causing the Confederates to retreat with the Union to win. If that lucky Union scout hadn't found Special Order 191 or the Confederate courier never dropped it in the first place, the history of America would be significantly different.

Without the knowledge of Lee's movement, the slow-acting McClellan would have been crushed during the Confederate's Northern Campaign. The strategy to split the Southern army to divide and conquer would have proved successful, capturing more land for the Confederacy. As the victories began to pile up, Britain and France would be persuaded and convinced into supporting the Southern cause. Plus, British economy depended upon the South to continue harvesting cotton. With more artillery and money, the under budgeted and ill-armed Confederate army would transform into an unstoppable force under the command of the Civil War's greatest military mind, General Robert E. Lee. Prior to the invasion of the North, citizens in the Union already feared the chance of losing another major battle. The doubt in their minds infiltrated all of Northern society, so being defeated during the Northern Campaign would effectively crush all hope in the Union's people. In the absence of spirit and hope for the Northern cause, the Union would be forced to surrender, therefore creating a split America. The Confederate States of America and United States of America would live side by side instead of together as one. Separated from each other, these two Americas would never amount to any achievement even comparable to the achievements made by our idea of America. Plus, the fate of the American West would be argued and bickered about, probably launching American Civil War Part II.

Through sheer luck for the North and a grave jinx on the South, General McClellan effectively stopped General Lee's force, and determined the rest of momentum in the Civil War. The unlikely discovery of Special Order 191 allowed the Union to react to their enemy's movements. Fate blessed that Union scout on the morning of September 13, which changed not only the history of America, but the history of the world.

What If? #2

Early in the war, Confederate spies traveled to Europe constantly in search of assistance, artillery, and funds. From 1861 to 1862, Britain and France made hefty contributions to the Southern cause, which propelled the Confederacy into a much more successful track record over the span of the Civil War. Britain definitely wished to stay united with their economic provider, "King Cotton". Without the initial help provided by their European companions, the South's efforts would have expired quickly. Luckily, their overseas friends didn't abandon their campaign against the Union too hastily. If the Southern spies were unsuccessful in convincing Europe in supporting the Confederacy, the process of the Civil War may have been drastically altered.

The armaments and capital supplied by the European powers supported many of the necessities within the Confederate army. From food to guns to clothing, some regiments in the South were mainly funded by foreign money. Without these supplies, the Confederate troops would lack many of war's essentials. The absence of adequate nourishment and protection would result in an absence of spirit and determination throughout the Southern ranks and camps. Sooner or later, the troops would abandon their regiment due to the severe conditions. Now lacking soldiers, the Confederate cause would slowly deteriorate until surrender was inevitable. The time America spent fighting itself would have shortened dramatically, meaning less deaths altogether and less tension between Unionists and Confederates. A reduction in war time resulted in a reduction in the buildup of hostilities, so acceptance would have been quite a bit easier in the reconciliation process.

Confederate spies established and developed the relationships between the South and its European allies. After these alliances were tested and tried, Europe soon withdrew from helping either side of America. Shortly after this withdrawal of assistance, the South fell in a downwards spiral and never recovered. Without their dedication to form these alliances, the Confederacy would have been unprepared for war from the very beginning, never having a chance to make a statement for their cause.


Let's be honest, spies are super cool. Modern society possesses a deep fascination with the mysterious and audacious life of an undercover operative, made obvious with the success of movies depicting the lives of men like Jason Bourne and James Bond. Though I am not a spy fanatic and do not want to pursue a career in the CIA or FBI, the ideal of having multiple identities, undertaking dangerous missions, and being kicka** in every single way captivates me. I'm also very intrigued by the dynamics of the Civil War and had a gut feeling there was a vast amount of information to uncover about this topic. Plus, my addiction to History Channel has presented me with multiple opportunities to watch documentaries about some of the spies I researched, such as Belle Boyd and Allan Pinkerton. With the conclusion of this semester event quickly approaching, I pleasantly proved myself correct, as I thoroughly enjoyed researching the spies of the Civil War.

In addition to the information I already possessed about spies, the knowledge I've acquired on this topic has opened my eyes to the complexity of the Civil War and the lives of spies. Nevertheless, my belief on undercover agents remains the same. In my mind, espionage will forever be one of the most fascinating occupations. The information I've gained while researching has only heightened my interest in spy work and secret missions. Though I never imagine myself performing a feat that even parallels the accomplishments of the Civil War spies, I can always dream.

Book Review

Secret Missions of the Civil War by Philip Van Doren Stern was a book that kept me up at night, teetering on the edge of my seat and eager to read more. This book is a collection of excerpts from published pieces written by tons of spies in the war, both from the Confederacy and Union. It provided many personal experiences and insights into the lives of the past's operatives. What really pleased me was the equal amount of stories from each side, so the information was relatively equal throughout the whole book. It included some of the biggest and most controversial missions of the Civil War, so most of the online information I found was already introduced to me in the book. My favorite characteristic about this publication is that it isn't a 308 page editorial from a person that is living today, but an anthology of personal experiences that reveal the trials and tribulations of Civil War operatives. In addition to the excerpts, the back of this book provides a section about ciphers and codes that is incredibly interesting. It teaches readers how to utilize the Vigenére Tableau and how to code messages. This is definitely a book that a future APUSH'er should read if ever undertaking this topic for a semester event. Not only will the first-hand stories captivate you, but they will supply you with tons of knowledge so writing the semester even will be enjoyable.

Works Cited

Boyd, Belle. "Belle Boyd Starts Her Work as a Spy." Secret Missions of the Civil War. By Philip Van Doren Stern. New York: Outlet Book Company, 1987. 96-107. Print.

"David Owen Dodd (1846 - 1864)." The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. Ed. Nancy Hendricks. Arkansas State University, 12 Jan. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=2536>.

Edmonds, S. Emma E. "A Female Spy Changes Her Color." Secret Missions of the Civil War. By Philip Van Doren Stern. New York: Outlook Book Company, 1987. 121-29. Print.

Farquhar, Michael. "'Rebel Rose,' A Spy of Grande Dame Proportions." Washington Post. N.p., 18 Sept. 2000. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPcap/2000-09/18/057r-091800-idx.html>.

Lineberry, Cate. "Elizabeth Van Lew: An Unlikely Union Spy." Smithsonian.com. N.p., 5 May 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Elizabeth-Van-Lew-An-Unlikely-Union-Spy.html>.

"Spies in the Civil War." The History Channel Website. N.p., 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://www.history.com/topics/civil-war-spies.>.

Stern, Philip Van Doren. Secret Missions of the Civil War. New York: Outlet Book Company, 1987. Print.

"Timothy Webster Becomes First Spy Executed in the Civil War." History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education & Research. U of Richmond, 2009. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/5345>.

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Request Removal

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have the essay published on the UK Essays website then please click on the link below to request removal:

More from UK Essays

We can help with your essay
Find out more