Intelligence in the Civil War
Saving Mr. Lincoln
On February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln said his farewell to the people of his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, and boarded a train that would take him to Washington for his inauguration on March 4. As he started out, rumors of assassination plots circulated in several cities along the planned route. In Washington, stories spread that assassins would strike down Lincoln before or during his inauguration.
The South Carolina legislature had responded to Lincoln’s election by unanimously voting to secede from the Union, leading the march of Southern states toward secession. “Civil war,” said an Ohio newspaper, “is as certain to follow secession as darkness to follow the going down of the sun.” The Union was tearing apart—and so, it seemed, was the nation’s capital itself.
Rumors of plots swirled around the city. Secessionist congressmen were said to be planning to kidnap lameduck President James Buchanan so that Vice President (and future Confederate general) John C. Breckinridge, who had run against Lincoln as a pro slavery candidate, could seize power. “Minutemen” from Virginia and Maryland were reportedly ready to invade the city.
Charles Pomeroy Stone, a West Point graduate who had served in the Mexican War, was in Washington when the secessions began. Concerned about the rumors, he called upon his old commander, now Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army. Scott made Stone a colonel and named him inspectorgeneral of the District of Columbia militia.
Most of the U.S. Army was in Indian country, far beyond the reach of railroads. Washington’s potential defenders included volunteer units of dubious loyalty. These included the National Rifles, whose captain said his men stood ready to “guard the frontier of Maryland and help to keep the Yankees from coming down to coerce the South.”
Like many other Army officers of the time, Stone had to grope for military intelligence, using whatever resources he managed to find. There was no formal military intelligence organization, and counterintelligence was an unknown art. Stone realized that he needed help from civilians with special skills: detectives.
The U.S. government, lacking any federal investigative agency, often used private detectives to track down counterfeiters and mail thieves. Suspecting that the National Rifles harbored secessionists, Stone planted a detective in the ranks and told him to keep the unit’s captain under surveillance.
Stone’s detective told him that the men of the National Rifles were planning to storm the Treasury building as part of a plot to take over Washington. Stone also learned that more than 300 other men, known as “National Volunteers,” were drilling in a hall above a large livery stable. Stone gave the task of penetrating that group to a “skillful New York detective” who had been loaned to the Army.
Through the detective’s undercover work, Stone was able to learn enough to force the disbanding of the National Volunteers. Their captain, Dr. Cornelius Boyle, a prominent Washington physician, left the capital and later became a Confederate intelligence officer. Stone’s counterintelligence efforts also purged the National Rifles of secessionists. The unit became one of 30 companies formed by Washingtonians loyal to the Union and ready to defend both the capital and Lincoln.
Soon after Lincoln’s train left Springfield, Stone began receiving reports of assassination plots. “So many clear indications pointed to Baltimore that three good detectives of the New York police force were constantly employed there,” Stone recalled. In a classic example of intelligence analysis, he compared the detectives’ reports to “the information received from independent sources.” Stone did not mention another detective—Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
Samuel Morse Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, had hired Pinkerton after hearing reports that rabid secessionists in Baltimore were planning to cut Baltimore off from Washington by burning bridges and sinking the Susquehanna River train ferry. Pinkerton went to Baltimore with five operatives, including a trusted assistant, Kate Warne, described by Pinkerton as America’s first woman detective. Pinkerton set up an office and posed as a stockbroker named John H. Hutchinson.
While investigating the sabotage rumors, Pinkerton heard of a plot to kill Lincoln in Baltimore when his train arrived from Harrisburg on February 23. Lincoln was to be taken by carriage to a private home for lunch and then returned to the train. While secessionists—the National Volunteers were mentioned—whipped up a riot, a barber who called himself Captain Ferrandini would kill Lincoln, vanish into the mob, and slip away to the South. Baltimore police would have only a small force at the scene, under orders from the mayor and chief of police, both Southern sympathizers.
Pinkerton hoped to foil the plot by getting Lincoln to change his schedule. On February 21, he met with Lincoln in a Chicago hotel room. Lincoln said he could not believe there was a conspiracy to kill him. Hours later, Frederick Seward, son of Senator William Henry Seward, arrived at Lincoln’s room and warned him of the plot, which had been discovered independently by detectives working for Colonel Stone and General Scott. They had sent young Seward to Lincoln, who now was convinced.
Next morning, Lincoln left by train for Harrisburg, as scheduled, then boarded a special train, accompanied by his bodyguard Ward H. Lamon, a burly former law partner. When the train pulled into West Philadelphia, Pinkerton was waiting in a carriage. The telegraph to Baltimore was cut off. Agents were placed in telegraph offices in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York City, where there was a special watch to hold up any messages about Lincoln’s travels. The carriage took Lincoln and Lamon to the yard of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad. There, Kate Warne met the carriage with four tickets for sleeping berths. She and Pinkerton, like Lamon, were armed.
The train pulled out shortly before 11 p.m. and arrived in Baltimore about 3:30 a.m. on February 23. Warne remained in Baltimore as the sleeping cars with Lincoln on board were shifted to another train, which arrived in Washington around 6 a.m. Later, Lincoln would say he regretted slipping into the capital “like a thief in the night.”
On March 4, the morning of the inauguration, Stone stationed riflemen in windows overlooking the broad steps where Lincoln would take the oath of office. Sharpshooters stood on roofs along the inaugural route to the Capitol as Lincoln rode past in an open carriage. Soldiers lined the streets. Under the platform where Lincoln stood, other soldiers huddled, guarding against bomb planters.
Other troops formed a cordon at the foot of the steps. After Lincoln’s inauguration, Stone continued to protect the capital, taking control of telegraph offices and the railroad station, and seizing boats on the Potomac to keep Confederate agents from using them.
On April 12, Confederate cannons in Charleston began firing on Fort Sumter. The Civil War had begun.
Nine days later, Pinkerton wrote to President Lincoln, offering to start “obtaining information on the movements of the traitors, or safely conveying your letters or dispatches.” Before Lincoln
responded, Major General George B. McClellan asked Pinkerton to set up a military intelligence service for McClellan’s command, the Army’s Division of the Ohio. A former railroad executive, McClellan was Pinkerton’s friend and former client. Pinkerton agreed and, with several operatives, headed for McClellan’s headquarters in Cincinnati. Like the detectives who had worked for Colonel Stone, Pinkerton would be a civilian, but he assumed a military cover name, Major E. J. Allen.
The Eye that Never Sleeps
Allan Pinkerton, born in 1819 in Glasgow, Scotland, was the son of a police sergeant. At the age of 23, he emigrated to the United States. After working for a time as a cooper, he became first a deputy sheriff in Illinois and then a member of Chicago’s newly organized police force.
In 1850, he left the force as a detective and founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton’s code called for his agents to have no “addiction to drink, smoking, card playing, low dives or ... slang.” On the front of his Chicago headquarters, he placed a sign with a huge eye bearing the company slogan—“We Never Sleep.” That Pinkerton logo was probably the origin of the term “private eye.”
Pinkerton’s detectives specialized in tracking and capturing gangs that robbed railroads. Through his work, Pinkerton met George B. McClellan, president of the Rock Island and Illinois Central Railroad, and its attorney, Abraham Lincoln. Those connections led to his work during the Civil War.
After the war, Pinkerton returned to Chicago and basked in the publicity earned by Pinkerton detectives as they pursued such notorious bandits as the James brothers and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “Pinkertons,” as they were called, also worked as strikebreakers for the executives of companies battling unions that were organizing rail workers and coal miners.
Pinkerton died in 1884 and was buried in a family plot whose graves included that of Timothy Webster, one of his best agents who was hanged by the Confederates. Pinkerton had recovered Webster’s remains after the war. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency continued as a family enterprise through four generations. Outsiders bought it and kept thePinkerton name. In 1999, Securitas, an international security firm, acquired the Pinkerton company.