Union Spies: Philip Henson

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South

Philip HensonUnion intelligence gathering during the American Civil War was not centralized as it is today. Very often, each major commander had his own spy or spies that concentrated on gathering intelligence in their particular area of operations. Philip Henson was just such a spy for General Ulysses S. Grant when he commanded operations in the Western Theater. (This is the only known picture of this daring spy.)

Henson was a native of Blount Springs, Alabama where he was born on December 28, 1827. He traveled widely accompanying his father, a Federal Indian Agent, on his travels to Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. At the start of the war Henson was a storekeeper in Corinth, Mississippi.

Alabama Governor A.B. Moore and Montgomery Mayor A.J. Noble appointed him Captain of the State’s Militia and the Confederacy’s Postmaster General, John Henninger Reagan selected him for the position of Field Supervisor in the Confederate Post Office Department.

His Post Office job required Henson to travel widely throughout the Southwest. During one of these trips he met with former Texas Governor Sam Houston who was a staunch Unionist. Houston persuaded Henson to become a spy for the Union Army. He had him travel to Illinois and meet with a little-known Union general by the name of Ulysses Grant.

Henson swore an oath of loyalty to the Union, because, as he’d attest to whenever asked about it, “I believed in it”. Thus began a twenty-five year relationship between the two men that would see them move together from Civil War battlefields to the White House.

Henson’s first opportunity to assist Grant was when he met with Confederate General Leonidas Polk, the “Fighting Bishop”. Polk thinking that Henson was a loyal Confederate confided in him that Confederate Generals Gideon Johnson Pillow and John Buchanan Floyd were in command of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, respectively. Henson immediately advised Grant of Polk’s admission that two “political” generals were in charge of defending the two key forts.

Grant realizing that he was dealing with amateurs immediately attacked Fort Henry with his naval and army forces. The fort fell after a brief struggle. He then marched to Fort Donelson where after a significant action delivered the first of his famous “Unconditional Surrender” demands. The Confederate suffered 13,846 total casualties out of a force of 16,171, including 327 killed, 1,127 wounded and 12,392 captured/missing.

Henson was responsible for introducing Grant to the Southern Unionists Andrew Jackson Hamilton and Charles Christopher Sheats, known as “The Mossbacks of Nickajack”, resulting in the enlistment of over 2,000 loyal Alabamans and Tennesseans in the legendary 1st Alabama Cavalry US Volunteers.

In 1863 Henson traveled to Vicksburg, Mississippi where he convinced Confederate General John C. Pemberton (the CSA commander of the city) that he would be an asset. Henson gave Pemberton misinformation about the inhumane treatment Confederate prisoners of war were supposedly receiving from their Union captors.

Pemberton had him speak to units throughout the fortress city. During these trips Henson was able to gather intelligence on the Confederate defenses. Grant was able to use the information to crack the formidable Confederate defenses and force the city’s surrender in July 1863.

In 1864 Henson was arrested by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and imprisoned. Henson was able to escape from prison after more than six months and escape to Union lines where he was reunited with Grant. Forrest was to call Henson “The most dangerous spy operating within the Confederacy”. For his contributions to the war effort Henson would receive brevets for the rank of Major.

After the war Henson remained in Grant’s service. After the assassination of President Lincoln, Grant asked him to conduct a “confidential and discrete” investigation to discover any and all details of Lincoln’s death. It was a task that continued during Grant’s Presidency and resulted in brevets for the rank of Lieutenant Colonel being bestowed upon him. Ultimately, it took over twenty years to complete.

Upon the election of U.S. Grant to the U.S. Presidency (1869–1877), Henson became the first Special Secret Service Agent of the United States of America, serving until Grant’s death in 1885. Henson died in Paris, Texas at the home of his eldest son, Phillip Edgar, a well-known cotton dealer, at 10:15 P.M. on Tuesday evening the 10th day of January, 1911.

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One thought on “Union Spies: Philip Henson

  1. Curious, what is the source of your info on Henson’s activities after the war?
    According to his biography by George Johns, he moved onto a small farm in Corinth, MS in 1867 and was still there in 1887

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