Union Spies: Lafayette C. Baker

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South
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Lafayette Curry BakerMuch of the Union intelligence gathering was decentralized with the principal commanders employing their own network of agents. It has been said that Ulysses S. Grant had at least 100 spies throughout the Western Theater. Other commanders had their own networks. The President even had a spy, William Alvin Lloyd, to report directly to him.

One of the Union’s most daring spies was Lafayette Curry Baker who was rough-and-ready character who was not afraid of some violent work. Born in upstate New York in 1826, he moved to Michigan in his teens. In 1849, Baker joined the thousands who trekked to California after the discovery of gold.

Baker didn’t find gold but he found adventure. In San Francisco, he became a member of the Vigilance Committee, patrolling the fog-bound streets of the Barbary Coast at night in search of desperate criminals, or so Baker later advertised that adventurous episode of his life. In reality, he was a bouncer at a saloon and a police informer.

At the start of the war, Baker returned to the East where he endeavored to get an appointment as an officer. Unsuccessful in New York, he journeyed to Washington and sought an appointment with the General-in-Chief Winfield Scott in 1862. Pestering Scott’s aides, he finally got an appointment and dazzled the general with his plans for spying on the Confederates in Richmond.

Scott explained to Baker that his going to Richmond would not serve the Union Army’s needs. He needed detailed reports from the fields, how many men were in the Confederate Army of General P.G.T. Beauregard, where were they positioned, and where were they headed? How many pieces of field artillery did Beauregard have and how much rolling stock? All of this important data could not be found in the tearooms of Richmond, but in the field.

Baker assumed the identity of Sam Munson, a photographer, to infiltrate the Confederate lines. He was detained by Union troops who thought that he was a Confederate spy. Scott had him released and he crossed into Virginia where he was arrested by the Confederates as a spy.

He managed to get a note to General Beauregard and when he met in person he convinced him that he was a photographer. To make his story more believable, Baker gave Beauregard detailed information of Union troop movements, positions of heavy gun emplacements, and locations where ammunition and goods were stored.

After further interviews with Jefferson Davis and Vice-President Alexander Stephens, Baker was released on Davis’ orders and given a pass that allowed to photograph any of the southern military commanders, their troops, and camp sites, as he saw fit. However, he had no glass plates for photographs and that fact almost sent him to the hangman.

He was in Fredericksburg when he met several Confederate officers who he had photographed earlier. They were angry because they had not gotten their pictures. Growing suspicious, they had him arrested as a spy and when a real photographer revealed his camera to be useless, Baker realized that he could be executed. Using a penknife, he managed to loosen the bars and escape the prison and return to Union lines.

General Scott was so impressed that he made Baker a captain on the spot and put him in charge of his Intelligence Service. However, the truth was more mundane. He was, indeed, captured, and taken before Jefferson Davis who did not give him a pass to photograph the whole of the Confederacy but listened for some minutes to Baker’s inept lies and then pronounced him a spy and ordered him held for trial.

Baker did escape from the Richmond jail, then wandered for weeks through Virginia, living in shacks and the woods, stealing food where he could find it, as he desperately tried to regain the Union lines. He was picked up in Fredericksburg as a vagrant and later held as a spy, but he again escaped, this time with the help of local prostitute whom he had been staying with, and finally managed to return to Scott’s headquarters.

The information regarding Confederate forces he later relayed to Scott he had learned from a Union officer he had met in the Richmond prison and all of this information was outdated by the time Baker passed it on to Scott.

It was through his service for General Scott that Baker met Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton, who took Baker under his own wing. He became the Secretary’s personal secret agent, conducting close surveillance of those Stanton distrusted most, other members in Lincoln’s cabinet, and high-ranking officers who were Lincoln’s appointments.

Stanton also wanted Allan Pinkerton out of the way as head of the Union Intelligence Service. Pinkerton answered only to Lincoln, and Stanton resented that. He, Edwin Stanton, should be in complete charge of the war, not this well meaning but uninformed Lincoln.

Stanton, through Baker’s intrigues, discredited Pinkerton, and, equally, General George McClellan, who had taken over the army, brilliantly organized and trained it to a peak fighting machine but proved indecisive in battle. Baker spent much of this time discovering McClellan’s mistakes and having reports of his blunders brought before Lincoln, or leaked to the Union press.

Pinkerton was relieved of duty after the Battle of Antietam for a supposed inability to learn of the true strengths and positions of Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee. Stanton proposed that Baker be promoted to command the Intelligence Service with rank of full colonel.

Apparently, Baker’s techniques were identical to those he had practiced in San Francisco as a vigilante. He terrorized, threatened, and blackmailed suspects, both Union and Confederate, to obtain information. For three years, he continued to operate a haphazard espionage system for the North but most of his information was learned second-hand from scouts working directly for Union cavalry commands. He continued to have some spies behind the Confederate lines but Pinkerton had picked the best of these first.

Baker bragged that there is no single Confederate spy or agent behind Union lines who is unknown to him. Yet, flourishing within Washington were dozens of conspirators all plotting the assassination of the President. One group met regularly only a few blocks from Baker’s offices throughout the early part of 1865. Its leaders were, John Surratt, Jr. and a vainglorious actor from an illustrious theatrical family, John Wilkes Booth.

Within two days of his arrival in Washington from New York, 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. Baker was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and received a generous share of the $100,000 reward.

However, Baker was sacked from his position as government spymaster by President Johnson who accused him of spying on him, a charge Baker admitted in his book which he published in response. He also announced that he had had Booth’s diary in his possession which was being suppressed by the Department of War and Secretary Stanton. When the diary was eventually produced, Baker claimed that eighteen vital pages were missing. It was suggested that these would implicate Stanton in the assassination.

Lafayette C. Baker died in 1868, supposedly from meningitis. However, his death was as mysterious as some parts of his life. Using an atomic absorption spectrophotometer to analyze several hairs from Baker’s head, Ray A. Neff, a professor at Indiana State University, determined the man was killed by arsenic poisoning rather than meningitis. He had been unwittingly been consuming it for months, mixed into imported beer provided by his wife’s brother.

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