The Confederate Secret Service

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South

Confederate cipher wheelUnlike the Union government, the Confederate government did not find it necessary to organize a large force of detectives and spies for other than purely military purposes. They organized the Confederate Secret Service and employed it for purposes they considered purely military.

Meanwhile, the Union government had a need to send out agents in pursuit of bounty jumpers, men who were fraudulently discharged, traders in contraband goods, and contract fraudsters. This use of capable individuals throughout the North prevented their use against the Confederacy.

The Southern government had no such need and employed spies primarily to discover the movement of Union troops and supplies. Generals depended largely on the information they brought, in planning attack and in accepting or avoiding battle. It is indeed a notable fact that a Confederate army was never surprised in an important engagement of the war. They may have been overmatched on many occasions but were never surprised.

The Confederates used a systems of couriers between Richmond and a number of northern cities, including Washington, Baltimore, New York and Boston. Agents in these cities would insert personal ads in the newspapers using cipher code. Once the papers inevitably reached Richmond the ciphers were decoded and the information was routed the proper location.

Part of the Confederacy’s advantage was that the war was primarily conducted on Southern soil. The Confederates were able to intercept a great many Union couriers who were carrying particularly sensitive information. On July 4, 1861 Confederate pickets captured a Union courier who had the complete returns (rosters) of General Irvin McDowell’s Army of Virginia.

“His statement of the strength and composition of that force,” relates General P.G.T. Beauregard, in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, “tallied so closely with that which had been acquired through my Washington agencies… that I could not doubt them… I was almost as well advised of the strength of the hostile army in my front as its commander.” 

Using this valuable information General Beauregard was able to position his troops accordingly and win the First Battle of Manassas. In the opening of the war, at least, the Confederate spy and scout system was far better developed than was the Federal.

As the war unfolded the use of spies, scouts and agents became more localized. Individual commanders used their own cadres of spies rather than receiving information the long way around from Richmond. This system was also used by the Union armies and was the most efficient use of military intelligence gathering.

In his Valley Campaign of 1862, General Stonewall Jackson achieved a brilliant series of victories. However, it is a known fact that although Jackson was a brilliant tactical commander the services of the scouts and spies under Colonel Turner Ashby played a key role in locating the Union forces. Meanwhile, the Union commanders had no such advantage.

As the war moved into 1864, the Confederate government felt the need to conduct secret operations in the North. Jefferson Davis called upon several prominent Southerners to conduct secret negotiations for peace with prominent Northerners, including Horace Greeley. However, their correspondence with Greeley became public and the negotiations failed.

The Confederate government attempted to use the Sons of Liberty, sometimes called the Copperheads, against the Union government. Led by Clement Vallandigham who had been exiled to the South in 1863, the Sons of Liberty were seen by the Confederate government as a counterweight to the Union central government.

The Sons of Liberty would detach the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio from the Union, if the Confederate authorities would, at the same time, move sufficient forces into Kentucky and Missouri to hold those lukewarm Federal States. These five states would then form the Northern Confederacy, compelling the Union government to stop the war.

The date for the general uprising was several times postponed, but finally settled for the 16th of August. Confederate officers were sent to various cities to direct the movement. Escaped Confederate prisoners were enlisted in the cause. Jacob Thompson, a Southern agent, furnished funds for perfecting county organizations. Arms were purchased in New York and secreted in Chicago.

The Confederate plot was revealed and many prominent members of the Sons of Liberty were arrested. The garrison at Camp Douglas, Chicago, was increased to seven thousand. The strength of the allies was deemed insufficient to contend with such a force, and the project was abandoned. The Confederates returned to Canada.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1864, the Confederate Secret Service conducted a series of operations in the North. St. Albans, Vermont is the last place one would expect to have a raid by Confederates during the latter part of the American Civil War. But on October 19, 1864, the quiet Vermont, border town was the site of a Confederate attempt to rob three town banks in the name of the Confederacy. It would end with the raiders being arrested by Canadian authorities and some of the stolen funds returned to the Vermont banks.

Then there was the attempted capture of the USS Michigan which was guarding Johnson’s Island and the release of the prisoners incarcerated there. It ended in failure with the execution of the Captain John Y. Beall of the Confederate navy for piracy and spying.

There was an attempt to fire the city of New York by Confederate agents and the Sons of Liberty on November 25, 1864. The incendiary “Greek Fire” that had been supplied to Confederate agents failed to ignite properly. The Confederates fled the city and returned to Canada. However, Robert Cobb Kennedy was captured and hanged on March 25, 1865.

Every Confederate plot in the North was fated to fail. The Federal secret service proved to be more than a match for the Sons of Liberty and the Confederates. The Confederate’s objectives included the cutting of telegraph wires, the seizure of banks, the burning of railroad stations, the appropriation of arms and ammunition and the freeing of thousands of Confederate prisoners from Camp Douglas in Chicago. Their operations were foiled by the Union secret service. Some 106 men were captured, tried and convicted of a variety of crimes.

The operations around Chicago were the last conducted in the North by the Confederate Secret Services. The agents either returned to Canada or made their way South where they arrived just in time for the surrender of the Confederacy and the end of the war.




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