No series on Civil War spies would be complete without a profile of that most famous of American detectives, Allan Pinkerton. He was the nation’s original detective who created and used many of the methods that modern-day detectives still use. These methods include “shadowing”, disguise and surveillance.
Pinkerton was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1819 and became a cooper by trade. In 1842, he immigrated with his family to Dundee, Illinois where he set up his barrel-making operation. He was regarded as a business owner of impeccable credentials. Pinkerton was also a staunch abolitionist whose home became a station on the Underground Railroad.
Seeing the need for additional policemen in the rough-and-ready city of Chicago, Pinkerton joined the force of 12 policeman. He had been a police officer and detective in his native country so police work was second nature for him. He soon became the top detective in the city.
With a growing family Pinkerton formed his own detective agency in 1850. He named it the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and he designed a logo featuring an eye, wide open, with the caption, We Never Sleep. The company still exists and the open eye is still used as a logo.
Many of these potential clients were the numerous railroads that crisscrossed Chicago. One of the railroads was the Rock Island and Illinois Central, whose president was George B. McClellan and the attorney a Springfield man named Abraham Lincoln.
Early in 1861 the Pinkerton agency was hired by the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad to protect the line from train robbers. In the course of the investigation, they discovered a plot to assassinate the new President, Abraham Lincoln, as he traveled through Baltimore to his inauguration. Pinkerton accompanied Lincoln and his personal bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, safely to Washington.
Lincoln wished to employ Pinkerton as the head of a secret service to root out spies in the Union capital but others in his administration had other candidates. While he was waiting for some resolution, Pinkerton came to the notice of General George McClellan who employed his and his agency’s services in and around Washington infiltrating the circles of southern sympathizers. Pinkerton’s team included Timothy Webster and Kate Warne.
Timothy Webster was tall, self-assured, aggressive, loyal and possessed intelligence, guts and skill. Webster would go to any length to accomplish a mission and return with information that no one else could have obtained. He became a key informant during the civil conflict.
Kate Warne, a young widow, with dark hair and a slight frame, convinced Pinkerton to hire her as an undercover detective in 1856. She had no experience in the field, but possessed a talent of ingratiating herself into a suspect’s trust. She was also, a master of disguise. Pictures may depict Kate Warne as a young Union cavalry trooper. Warne’s successful career convinced Pinkerton to hire other women agents and to promote Kate to Supervisor of Women Detectives.
Pinkerton himself assumed the role of Major E.J. Allen and for a time was attached to General McClellan’s staff. The team’s focus was to use assumed names, disguises and false southern sympathies to elicit vital military and clandestine motives from Confederate loyalists operating within the Union lines. In addition, the Pinkerton Detectives were to gather intelligence in the southern states of Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi.
Timothy Webster gained so much trust in southern sympathizer’s circles that he was able to travel to Richmond to verify his intelligence. It was here that he met the Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, who offered him a job as an informer. It was while he was in Richmond that his identity was unmasked by recently-released Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow. He and three associates were arrested, tried and hung as spies on April 29, 1862.
After the Battle of Antietam, General George McClellan was removed from the command of the Army of the Potomac. At the same time Pinkerton was also removed as the nation’s primary spy. Some members of the cabinet claimed that Pinkerton’s results, particularly on Confederate troop dispositions, were less than complete. The agency spent the rest of the war investigating war profiteers.
After the Civil War, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency continued to be the largest and most effective company of its kind in the United States. Pinkerton detectives were employed by a number of railroads to capture train robbers. Pinkerton chased Jesse James for years but was never able to capture him. The agency was also employed by corporations to protect them from labor unions.
Allan Pinkerton died in Chicago on July 1, 1884. At the time of his death, he was working on a system that would centralize all criminal identification records, a database now maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.