Intelligence in the Civil War
The Bureau of Military Information
When Ulysses S. Grant was a new brigadier general in Missouri, his commander was Major General John C. Frémont, popularly known as “The Pathfinder” for his mapmaking expeditions in the West. Frémont’s intelligence unit was headed by Edward M. Kern, a former expedition artist and mapmaker on the Pathfinder’s expedition of 1845. Frémont ordered Grant to start his own intelligence organization by finding himself some “reliable spies.” Fremont’s order put Grant on the path toward a better appreciation of intelligence. He would find reliable spies, and eventually he would find himself the beneficiary of the Union’s first reliable intelligence agency, the Bureau of Military Information.
Frémont had organized a daring band of mounted spies called the Jessie Scouts, named after his wife and emulated by other commanders. The scouts wore Confederate uniforms and prowled behind the enemy’s lines, risking death as spies if they were caught. To distinguish each other from real Confederates, some units wore white scarves tied in a special way or used a “conversation code,” in which a conventional phrase, such as “Good morning,” would elicit from a Jessie an expected response that would not sound strange if overheard by a real Confederate. Jessies sometimes spent days behind the lines, picking up bits of intelligence from casual encounters with Confederates and from keen observations. One way they carried reports was wrapped in tinfoil and tucked in the cheek like chewing tobacco.
Grant’s bloodiest lesson about the need for “reliable spies” came early on the morning of April 6, 1862, in Tennessee, near a log meetinghouse called Shiloh Church. Union soldiers were beginning to wake up and make breakfast when a Confederate force stormed the Federals’ outer lines, bolted through the camps, and snatched up uneaten breakfasts as stunned Union troops retreated. Grant, with an assist from gunboats on the Tennessee River, drove the Confederates back and won the two-day battle of Shiloh, but at the cost of more than 10,000 Union soldiers killed or wounded.
Grant had relied mostly on unreliable reports from dispirited Confederate deserters, and he had not dispatched scouts or spies for two weeks prior to the battle. He believed that the Confederates were massed 20-odd miles away and was confident that he knew “the facts of the case.”
“The art of war is simple enough,” Grant would later write. “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.” The need to “find out where” called for good intelligence, and months after Shiloh, Grant began showing an appreciation of that aspect of the art of war. “You have a much more important command than that of a division in the field,” he told Brigadier General Grenville M. Dodge at his headquarters in Corinth, a rail junction in northeastern Mississippi.
Dodge was a former railroad builder who did not look like a soldier, according to people who knew him. They said he was a “sickly-looking fellow” and “not a man of very dignified personal presence.” But “we could very easily see that he was a man. . . that, when he went into anything, went in with his whole soul.” And that is the way Dodge went into intelligence. He had a broad view of intelligence, gathering information from runaway slaves, from secret Unionists in Confederate territory, from women agents, and from a well-trained “Corps of Scouts.” He taught the scouts how to estimate the enemy’s numbers by measuring the length of road encompassed by a column of soldiers. He relied on a cavalry unit made up of Southerners who were pro-Union, knowing that they could ferret out information betterthan Yankees could.
Well aware that telegraph wires could be tapped, he enciphered his dispatches and sent them by messenger. At times, he had as many as 100 men and women working for him from Mississippi to Georgia. His security precautions were so thorough that little still is known about his operations or the names of most of his agents. When Dodge’s commander, Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, demanded those names, Dodge refused. Hurlbut then threatened to cut off Dodge’s spy funds. Grant backed Dodge.
In the eastern theater of the war, Major General Joseph Hooker, who had been given command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, ordered his deputy provost marshal, Colonel George H. Sharpe, to create a unit to gather intelligence. Sharpe was aided by John C. Babcock, who had worked for Pinkerton and had made maps for McClellan. Babcock, who had been an architect in Chicago before the war, was a civilian but was unofficially called “Captain Babcock.” He became a skilled interrogator of Confederate prisoners and deserters. He was also an expert on Confederate order-of-battle; in one of his reports, his estimate of enemy forces was off by less than one percent.
Sharpe, a New York lawyer in civilian life, set up what he called the Bureau of Military Information, which foreshadowed the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division. Sharpe’s bureau produced reports based on information collected from agents, prisoners of war, refugees, Southern newspapers, documents retrieved from battlefield corpses, and other sources. Sharpe assembled about 70 agents who were carried on the rolls as “guides.” Major General Philip H. Sheridan, operating in the Shenandoah Valley, said the guides “cheerfully go wherever ordered, to obtain that great essential of success, information.” Of the 30 or 40 guides roaming the valley, 10 were killed in action.
An example of Sharpe’s thoroughness can be seen in a nine-part report produced in May 1863 as General Robert E. Lee began moving troops in a march that ultimately ended at Gettysburg. The report begins with a detailed order-of-battle and later notes, “The Confederate army is under marching orders, and an order from General Lee was very lately read to the troops, announcing a campaign of long marches and hard fighting, in a part of the country where they would have no railroad transportation.”
By the time Grant began his siege of Petersburg in June 1864, Sharpe was Grant’s intelligence chief, stationed in Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia. So much intelligence was flowing out of Richmond and into Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information that a clerk in the Confederate War Department wrote in his diary, “The enemy are kept fully informed of everything transpiring here.” The clerk appealed directly to President Jefferson Davis, warning that “there was no ground for hope unless communication with the enemy’s country were checked….”
Sharpe’s reports are full of detailed references to the whereabouts and numbers of troops, based on counting tents; the length of an artillery train (for determining the number of cannons); the number of guards at fortifications and ammunition dumps. “One of my lines is running very well now,” Sharpe said in one report, offering to provide “any specific information” wanted by Grant. Grant was also getting help from Samuel Ruth, superintendent of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad—and a secret Unionist. Ruth provided information about Confederate Army movements and, as a railroad executive, managed to slow down the repairing of bridges and the shipping of supplies to embattled Richmond. Under instructions from Sharpe, Elizabeth Van Lew, the most important Union agent in the Richmond underground, had recruited Ruth. He apparently formed an interlocking spy ring, using railroad workers and others as his sub-agents.
Ruth was arrested in a sudden Confederate sweep on suspected agents, but he was soon released because, as The Richmond Whig reported, “There was not the slightest shadow of evidence against him.” After the court released him, The Whig indignantly said, “The charge against Ruth was trumped up.” For the rest of the war, Ruth remained a respected Richmond citizen—and a Yankee spy serving the Bureau of Military Information.
Giving Grant All He Wanted
George H. Sharpe, descendant of an old American family, came from Kingston, New York. At the age of 19, he graduated from Rutgers—giving the salutatory address in Latin—and went on to Yale Law School. He passed the New York bar in 1849, but did not begin practicing for several years because he wanted to travel in Europe. While there, Sharpe studied European languages and served at times in U.S. diplomatic posts in Vienna and Rome.
When the war began, he was in a New York militia as a captain. In 1862, he organized a regiment which was assigned to the defense of Washington. Early in 1863, Colonel Sharpe was made a deputy provost marshal general—essentially, an intelligence officer—assigned to run the Bureau of Military Information. The bureau had been set up by Major General Joseph Hooker, then commander of the Army of the Potomac.
General Ulysses S. Grant, after creating the Armies Operating Against Richmond in July 1864, put Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information directly into Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia. Grant said Sharpe’s work enabled him to “keep track of every change the enemy makes.”
In February 1864, Sharpe was promoted to brigadier general. His last task was at Appomattox, where he oversaw the granting of parole certificates to the soldiers of the Army of Virginia after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee. Out of respect for Lee, Sharpe gallantly declined to issue him a parole. But Lee said he, too, was a member of that defeated army, and Sharpe issued him a parole.
Sharpe returned to Kingston and took up his law practice again. In 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward asked him to go to Europe to locate and investigate Americans who might have been involved in the assassination of President Lincoln. Seward was particularly interested in finding John Surratt, whose mother, Mary Surratt, had been hanged as one of the assassination conspirators.
Surratt was brought back to the United States and put on trial in a civilian court. The trial ended with a hung jury, and Surratt was soon set free, never to be tried again.
President Grant appointed Sharpe U.S. marshal for the Southern District of New York State. His investigation of political corruption in New York City helped to smash the Tweed Ring run by Boss (William Marcy) Tweed. Sharpe later was elected to the New York State Assembly. He died in 1900.