Intelligence in the Civil War
At the beginning of the war, when the Union announced a blockade of Southern ports, leaders of the Confederacy believed that the blockade could be broken by pressure from Britain and France. The plan was to withhold cotton from the textile mills of those nations, forcing them to aid the Confederacy by convincing the Union to lift the blockade. But the French and British textile mills had huge stockpiles of cotton and did not face an immediate shortage from the Southern embargo.
North and South turned to diplomacy to advance their interests. Slavery was abhorred in both France and Britain. Neither nation could openly support the Confederacy. But, strategically, both nations liked the idea of a United States weakened by a crack-up of the Union. And Britain especially did not side with the North because of the hostile policy of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who threatened to declare war on the British if they intervened.
The South wanted Britain and France to recognize the sovereignty of the Confederate States of America. Union diplomats hoped to keep Britain from recognizing or intervening in any way. More than diplomacy was involved. Confederate and Union agents in Britain and France were fighting a secret war over the South’s clandestine operations aimed at buying arms and building warships.
The North’s blockade of Southern ports had inspired the Confederacy’s diplomatic efforts in London and Paris. Southern strategists realized that the Confederacy could not survive on whatever just happened to trickle into the South from swift ships whose bold captains slipped through the blockade. The South decided that to break the blockade, the Confederacy needed to build a navy that could attack the Union warships, sink Northern merchantmen, and protect friendly commercial ships running guns and other supplies to the South.
Lacking adequate shipyards, Confederate officials sent agents to Britain and France to arrange for the shipbuilding and the arms purchases. Covert operations were needed because British law prohibited the arming of private ships in British yards. In the fall of 1861, the Confederacy’s Department of State launched the plan on a diplomatic level by naming two representatives: former U.S. Senator James M. Mason of Virginia was to go to Britain and former Senator John Slidell of Louisiana to France. Officially, the two envoys were empowered to negotiate treaties with their respective countries. Their clandestine mission was the obtaining of warships and arms.
Mason and Slidell were put on a ship that got through the blockade at Charleston and sailed via Nassau to Havana. The two new diplomats had no notion of security. A Cuban newspaper published their itinerary. This bit of open-source intelligence was read in another Cuban port by Captain Charles Wilkes, the commanding officer of the U.S.S. San Jacinto.
Mason and Slidell sailed from Havana on board the Trent, a British mail packet. The San Jacinto lay in wait and stopped the Trent with a shot across her bow. After a tense standoff, Wilkes snatched Mason and Slidell off the Trent, put them aboard the San Jacinto, and triumphantly sailed to Boston, where the two envoys were imprisoned. Britain reacted violently, ordering 10,000 troops to Canada, ostensibly for its protection against the United States. The crisis ended when the Lincoln administration convinced the British that Wilkes had acted on his own. Mason and Slidell were soon on their way across the Atlantic again.
Mason, though aware of covert Confederate activity in England, restricted himself to diplomacy. Slidell, however, became involved in setting up illicit arms deals and hiring propaganda agents for a campaign to counteract European sentiments against slavery and the Confederacy. One agent found seven “writers on the daily London press” who were willing to accept what was discreetly called “partial employment.” Besides the payoffs, the journalists got Havana cigars and American whiskey. An agent in France had a $25,000 “secret service fund” to be used to sponsor newspaper articles that “may be useful in enlightening public opinion.”
The propaganda fund paid for the publishing of 125,000 copies of a pro-slavery tract by “the Clergy of the Confederate States of America.” Some copies were stitched into religious publications, one of which was strongly against slavery. Propaganda agents also produced placards showing the Confederate and British flags intertwined and placed them in “every available space in the streets of London.” Henry Hotze, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, was an undercover Confederate operative who wrote pro-South articles for British newspapers and founded Index, A Weekly Journal of Politics, Literature, and News, which appeared to be a British publication. Hotze hired British journalists and syndicated their pro-Confederate articles to dozens of British and European publications—and to Northern newspapers. Hotze’s journal kept publishing until five months after the war ended.
Hotze mingled with key British politicians, including William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who made pro-Confederacy speeches. Hotze also worked with other Confederate agents to stage a peace rally calling for the ending of the war on Southern terms.
The Confederate secret service, which ran the Secret Line courier service between Union territory and Richmond, extended the service to reach England and France. The courier service was set up by George N. Sanders, a former journalist and political operator with connections in the North, the South, and Europe. Union agents, aware of Sanders’ sympathies, kept eliminate him under surveillance. A surveillance report notes his landing in Liverpool “in a great hurry” and describes him as “a man of small stature with black whiskers under his chin” who “no doubt is a bearer of dispatches from the insurgents.”
Records of the Secret Service Fund refer to the extended Secret Line as the “Postal Route to Richmond.” The route ran from England to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then to coastal pickup points on Chesapeake Bay, where Secret Line couriers were given the dispatches and got them to the Confederate capital. Agents in Europe used a special cipher for such correspondence.
The South had to invent a European intelligence presence. The North possessed a ready made, though amateur, intelligence network in the form of U.S. ambassadors and consuls. Thomas Haines Dudley, the U.S. consul in Liverpool, ran the network in Britain. He had a natural talent for espionage. A Quaker, Dudley once disguised himself as a slave trader in a scheme to purchase back fugitive slaves kidnapped in the North. Working with Dudley were Henry Shelton Sanford, minister to Belgium, and Freeman Harlow Morse, U. S. consul in London. Sanford believed in sabotage and rigorous intelligence gathering. Sanford paid more attention to Confederates in Britain than to matters in Belgium. Like Dudley, Sanford engaged British detectives as agents and saw no reason not to gather information “through a pretty mistress or a spying landlord.” Sanford bribed factory clerks to tell him what Confederate purchasing agents were paying for ordered supplies. “I go on the doctrine that in war as in love everything is fair that will lead to success,” Sanford wrote.
Fearing that Sanford’s rash approach would produce another U.S.-British crisis, the Lincoln administration reined him in. In a message that praised him for his “active and intelligence services for detecting traitorous proceedings,” he was ordered to turn over those duties to Morse and go back to being just a minister to Belgium.
Morse hired a former detective of the London police, who set up surveillance posts in London and Liverpool and got daily reports from his detectives. Among other actions, they bribed postal workers to obtain the addresses on letters sent and received by Confederate agents. The Union detectives also managed to intercept Confederate telegrams.
The chief target of surveillance was James Dunwody Bulloch, a former U.S. Navy officer (and three-year-old Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle). Bulloch had launched the Confederate shipbuilding operation in June 1861 when he found a Liverpool shipyard whose owner agreed to build a ship to Bulloch’s specifications. As he later explained, “The contract was made with me as a private person, nothing whatever being said about the ultimate destination of the ship….” Bulloch named her the Oreto and sent her off to Nassau with a Confederate captain and crew.
The U.S. consul in Nassau, apparently tipped off by American agents in England, went into court to charge that the ship was a Confederate warship, in violation of British law. The court ruled that no law was broken because the Oreto was unarmed.
She then sailed to a coral isle some 75 miles south of Nassau. There she rendezvoused with an arms-filled ship dispatched by Bulloch. Quickly armed and renamed the Florida, she set sail. After a delay caused by an outbreak of yellow fever aboard, she headed for Mobile, Alabama. Because of a bungled installation, her guns could not fire when she initially encountered Union warships. She got away, though badly damaged. Once repaired, the Florida survived to ravage Union shipping. In the two years before she was captured, she seized or destroyed more than 30 American ships.
Dudley was determined to keep Bulloch’s next ship from going to sea. The ship, known in the yard simply as “290,” was nearly ready to sail in July 1862 when Bulloch’s agents realized that Dudley had gathered enough intelligence to go to court with a legal claim against the shipyard for violating British neutrality laws.
Bulloch hastily arranged what appeared to be a leisurely sail down the River Mersey, complete with several women and men seemingly out for the day. Suddenly, a tugboat appeared alongside the ship, the passengers were disembarked, and the 290 became the cruiser Alabama, bound for the Azores, where she would take on guns, ammunition, and supplies.
Bulloch appeared to have outwitted Dudley. But Bulloch did not know that Dudley had planted an agent on the Alabama. The agent, paymaster Clarence Yonge, left the ship in Jamaica, returned to England, and added his knowledge to Dudley’s legal case against the clandestine Confederate operations. In an affidavit, Yonge noted that the shipyard had equipped the supposedly commercial ship with sockets in her decks and other fixtures for guns, along with powder tins, and accommodations for a 100-man crew.
The Alabama was the Confederate’s most successful raider. She captured or destroyed more than 60 ships with a total value of nearly $6 million before a Union warship ended her career. While she was destroying the U.S. commercial fleet, Dudley was using his evidence to deprive the Confederacy of two additional warships ordered by Bulloch. Dudley argued that the ships—two ironclads with metal underwater rams jutting from their hulls to rip holes in a foe’s wooden hull—were obviously warships. And he warned that if British officials allowed them to go to sea, the decision would be considered an act of war against the United States.
Dudley was awaiting the British decision when he received a report from the U.S. consul in Cardiff, Wales: a French ship had arrived in Cardiff carrying men who carelessly talked about being crewmen for the rams, as the warships were called. The consul noted that the men boarded a train for Liverpool. Surveillance of the Liverpool shipyard showed that one of the ironclads was almost completed; a Frenchman, not Bulloch, claimed ownership. In October 1863, as a ram was about to sail, the British government seized both rams; the British government later bought them.
The State Department’s intelligence work in Europe produced another coup in June 1864 when the U.S. minister to France learned that the Alabama was in Cherbourg for repairs. The minister passed the information in a telegram to the captain of the U.S.S. Kearsarge, which was in a Dutch port. The Kearsarge sailed to Cherbourg, stood off outside the territorial limit, and waited for the Alabama. In a two-hour battle watched by 15,000 spectators ashore and at sea, the guns of the Kearsarge sank the Alabama.
By then, there was little hope that either France or Britain would recognize the Confederacy. In February 1864, reporting to the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Bulloch had written, “The spies of the United States are numerous, active, and unscrupulous. They invade the privacy of families, tamper with the confidential clerks of merchants, and have succeeded in converting a portion of the police of this Kingdom into secret agents of the United States….” There was, he said, “no hope of getting the ships out.”
Shipbuilder of the Confederacy
James BullochGeorgia-born James Dunwody Bulloch was the eldest brother of Mittie Bulloch,Theodore Roosevelt’s mother. Bulloch, who joined the U.S. Navy as a midshipman in 1839, rose only to the rank of lieutenant and quit after 14 years because no further promotion seemed likely. He became master of a coastal steamer carrying mail and passengers between New Orleans and New York.
When the Civil War began, Bulloch volunteered for service in the Confederacy and was sent to Liverpool to secretly arrange the building of blockade runners. He arrived in England on June 4, 1861. His first British contact was a Liverpool cotton merchant whose firm had a branch in Charleston, South Carolina. Within three days after his arrival, Bulloch negotiated a contract for building the first Confederate blockade cruiser. On paper, the ship was named the Oreto and was owned by a Liverpool agent of an Italian company.
Another ship built during Bulloch’s covert operation was the Alabama. His younger brother, Irving Bulloch, later served on the ship. Legend makes him the sailor who fired the last shot when the Alabama was sinking after her duel with the Union’s Kearsarge. Irving later joined the crew of the raider Shenandoah, which circumnavigated the globe in search of Yankee prey.
After the war, Bulloch remained in Liverpool, where he lived with his daughter and son-in law. He remained connected with maritime activities and became director of the Liverpool Nautical College. In 1883, he published his memoirs, “The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe” or “How the Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped.” He lived to see his nephew become Vice President, but died in Liverpool in January 1901, eight months before Theodore Roosevelt became President following the assassination of President McKinley.
Pride of the Confederate Navy
In August 1862, the Alabama left Liverpool, bound for war and fame under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes. She captured and burned U.S. ships in the North Atlantic and the West Indies, then sailed for the Texas coast, where she continued her voyage of destruction. Her most famous feat was the sinking Pride of the Confederate Navy of the U.S.S. Hatteras, a steel-hulled, side-wheeled warship. After a stop in Cape Town, South Africa, the Alabama spent six months in the East Indies chasing and sinking U.S. ships. She destroyed seven more ships before going around the Cape again on a voyage to Cherbourg, France, for overhaul.
In her final duel, on June 19, 1864, the U.S.S. Kearsarge sank the Alabama. A British yachtsman picked up Semmes and 41 others and took them to England. Semmes soon returned to Virginia, where he commanded the James River Squadron and, after the fall of Richmond, rallied his sailors as infantrymen and fought on.