Today, the United States Secret Service is known primarily for protecting the President and other government officials but it wasn’t always the case. The original mission of the Secret Service was to apprehend counterfeiters. It still does that but in the avalanche of bad press about the Protective Division that mission has been obscured to the public.
But the Secret Service had it roots on both sides of the Civil War. On the Union side, General George C. McClellan employed Allan Pinkerton as the head of his intelligence operation in the Department of the Ohio. Pinkerton who styled himself as Major Allen naturally moved with McClellan to Washington when the latter was promoted to commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Employing a number of fellow spies Pinkerton’s main assignment was to seek out the Confederate Army’s location and estimate its strength. Unfortunately for the Union Army his estimates were always on the high side. Before the Battle of Antietam he reported that the Army of Northern Virginia was twice the size than it actually was in reality. This intelligence made McClellan extremely tentative in his movements before and during the battle.
After McClellan was removed from command by Lincoln, Pinkerton refused to continue in the military end of the service after the general’s removal in November, 1862. He remained, however, in Government service, investigating cotton claims in New Orleans, with other detective work, until the close of the war, when he returned to his agency in Chicago.
Following Pinkerton’s departure the Union intelligence effort fell into neglect. By the time General Joe Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac his knowledge of his Confederate adversary across the Rappahannock was almost non-existent. Hooker rectified the situation by appointing Colonel George H. Sharpe, of the 120th New York Infantry to command a special and separate bureau, known as Military Information. Sharpe was also appointed deputy provost-marshal-general.
From March 30, 1863, until the close of the war, the Bureau of Military Information, Army of the Potomac, had no other head. Gathering a staff of keen-witted men, chiefly from the ranks, Sharpe never let his commanding general suffer for lack of proper information as to the strength and movements of Lee’s army.
Meanwhile in the city of Washington a different type of bureau was taking shape. Spying had become endemic in Washington and the Union government found it necessary to create an organization to hunt down and apprehend Confederate spies while also spying in the Confederate capital of Richmond. For this job General Winfield Scott tapped Lafayette C. Baker.
Baker’s exploits are mainly known through his book A History of the Secret Service which he published in 1867 after his fall from grace. During the early months of the Civil War, he spied for Scott on Confederate forces in Virginia. Despite numerous scrapes, he returned to Washington, D.C., with information that Scott evidently thought valuable enough to raise him to the rank of captain.
As Provost Marshal of Washington, D.C. from September 12, 1862 to November 7, 1863, Baker took charge of the Union Intelligence Service from the Scottish-American detective Allan Pinkerton. He was appointed colonel of D.C. Cavalry, May 5, 1863. 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 bounty-jumpers.
After Scott’s retirement, Baker owed his continued appointment largely to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton However,he suspected the secretary of corruption and was eventually demoted for tapping his telegraph lines and packed off to New York.
Baker was recalled to Washington after the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865. Within two days of his arrival in Washington, Baker’s agents in Maryland had made four arrests and had the names of two more conspirators, including the actual presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. Before the month was out, Booth along with David Herold were found holed up in a barn and Booth was himself shot and killed by Sgt. Boston Corbett.
Baker received a generous share of the $100,000 reward offered to the person who apprehended the president’s killer.President Andrew Johnson nominated Baker for appointment to the grade of brigadier general of volunteers, April 26, 1865, but the United States Senate never confirmed the appointment.Baker was mustered out of the volunteers on January 15, 1866
During the Civil War, a number of secret Confederacy organizations emerged. Some of these organizations were under the direction of the Confederate government, others operated independently with government approval, while still others were either completely independent of the government or operated with only its tacit acknowledgment.
By 1864, the Confederate government was attempting to gain control over the various operations that had sprung up since the beginning of the war, but often with little success. Secret legislation was put before the Confederate Congress to create an official Special and Secret Bureau of the War Department. The legislation was not enacted until March 1865 and was never implemented; however, a number of groups and operations have historically been referred to as having been part of the Confederate Secret Service.
In April 1865, most of the official papers of the Secret Service were burned by Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin just before the Confederate government evacuated Richmond, although a few pages of a financial ledger remain. Thus, the full story of Confederate secret operations may never be known.
The Confederate armies used a number of spies and scouts who were most often paid by the army’s high command. Perhaps, the best known was General James Longstreet’s scout Henry Thomas Harrison who worked for Longstreet from November 1861 until after the Battle of Gettysburg. It was Harrison who fixed the position and strength of the Army of the Potomac and thereby triggered the events that led to the battle.
The Confederate government had spies and couriers up and down the Eastern Seaboard who relayed information from throughout the North back to their Department of State. There were even Confederate sympathizers within the Federal government who relayed key information to their masters in Richmond.
As the war went on information-gathering became more decentralized. Army commanders on both sides employed their own scouts, spies and counter-spies who kept the information flowing to them.
Perhaps, the most spectacular operations that was carried out by the Confederates were those that were planned by Confederate agent Jacob Thompson who was located in Canada. Among other operations, Thompson planned operations with Ohioan Clement Vallandigham who wanted to detach Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio from the Union. Their goal was that Confederate authorities would, at the same time, move sufficient forces into Kentucky and Missouri to hold those lukewarm Federal States. The five commonwealths would thereupon organize the Northwestern Confederacy upon the basis of State sovereignty.
The plot was aborted by Union spies that had infiltrated Vallandigham’s Sons of Liberty and the Confederates returned to Canada. Later in the year there was the attempted capture of the United States gunboat Michigan, which was guarding Johnson’s Island Prison Camp on Sandusky Bay of Lake Erie. This plot was also thwarted and a number of Confederates were captured.
Finally, there was the ill-fated St. Albans, Vermont raid on October 19, 1864. Shortly before 3 p.m. 21 Confederate soldiers staged simultaneous robberies of the city’s three banks. They identified themselves as Confederate soldiers and took a total of $208,000 (US$ 3,140,000 in 2014). During the robberies, eight or nine Confederates held the villagers at gun point on the village green, taking their horses to prevent pursuit. Several armed villagers tried to resist, and one was killed and another wounded.
Their leader, Bennett H. Young, ordered his men to burn the city, but the 4-US-fluid-ounce (120 ml) bottles of Greek fire they used failed to ignite, and only one shed was destroyed by fire. The raiders escaped to Canada, despite a delayed pursuit. In response to U.S. demands, the Canadian authorities arrested the raiders, recovering $88,000. However, a Canadian court ruled that because they were soldiers under military orders, officially neutral Canada could not extradite them. Canada freed the raiders, but returned to St. Albans the money they had found.