Confederate Spies: Henry Thomas Harrison

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South

Henry Thomas HarrisonPerhaps, the best known Confederate field spy was Henry Thomas Harrison. Due to the book The Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg, based on that book, Harrison has become known throughout the land as General James Longstreet’s field spy. However, he preferred to be called a scout. Many historians credit him with giving Longstreet the information that convinced Lee to converge on Gettysburg.

Henry Thomas Harrison was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1832. He was an actor who did not get many important parts because of small stature. At the start of the war he joined the 12th Mississippi Infantry at Corinth as a private.

By September, Harrison had become a scout/spy for General Earl Van Dorn near Manassas, Virginia. On April 30, 1862 Harrison was back in Corinth where he requested equipment for service there from a General Gordon (probably George Washington Gordon). In January 1863, Harrison was sending reports from Holly Springs, Mississippi to Maj. Gen. William W. Loring about the movements of Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee.

On February 20, 1863 Harrison reported to Secretary of War, James Seddon, for service as a secret agent. On March 7th, he was assigned to General Longstreet, he is dispatched to spy for General D. H. Hill in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

Almost immediately Harrison was arrested by Union troops near New Bern, North Carolina and accused of spying. He was jailed for about a month until Harrison convinced them that he was an innocent civilian who was only trying to avoid conscription.

Released from jail, he immediately reported to General Longstreet who was in Franklin, Virginia. Longstreet sent Harrison to Washington in order to track the movements of the Army of the Potomac. This was to begin the most impactful phase of Harrison’s service.

Tracking the Union Army progress in their pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia, Harrison was able to gather information on the size and routes of the enemy army. On June 28th, Harrison made his report to Longstreet at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. By then the large Union Army was around Frederick, Maryland and marching North. He also reported that Joe Hooker had been replaced by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade.

Harrison’s information was plausible enough for Lee to halt his entire army. Harrison reported that the Union had left Frederick, Maryland, and was moving northward, which was true. Longstreet’s chief of staff, Moxley Sorrel, said that Harrison “always brought true information.”

As a result of Harrison’s information, Lee told all of his troops to concentrate in the vicinity of Cashtown, PA, eight miles from Gettysburg, thereby triggering the events that led to the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee even said after hearing the news from Harrison, “A battle thus became, in a measure, unavoidable.”

Harrison’s service to the Confederacy after Gettysburg never matched the importance of his reports before the famous battle. He operated mostly in the North, gathering intelligence in Washington and New York. In September 1863, Harrison married Laura Broders in Washington.

After the war Harrison moved to Mexico with his wife and their daughter but after some marital problems he moved to Montana alone, prospecting for gold. Between 1867 and 1892, his exact whereabouts are unknown. His wife believing that he was dead, remarried in 1893.

In 1893, Harrison moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1901, Harrison got a job in Cincinnati as a detective for the Municipal Reform League. In 1912, he moved to Covington, Kentucky and applied for a Confederate pension. On October 28, 1923, Harrison died in Covington at the age of 91. He is buried at Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.

Henry Thomas Harrison never attempted to capitalize on his Confederate service. In his pension application there was no mention of his service as General Longstreet’s field spy/scout. He simply referred to himself as a Confederate veteran soldier.

Sorrel knew nothing about Harrison’s identity and no one on Longstreet’s staff even knew his first name.  Longstreet must have known because he obtained a photograph of Harrison for his published memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox. But Longstreet continued to maintain his secrecy in this matter.

As a tribute to Harrison’s espionage, Longstreet wrote in an 1887 article for Century Magazine that Harrison provided him “with information more accurate than a force of cavalry could have secured.”


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