Intelligence in the Civil War
Conspiracy in Canada
In secret sessions during February 1864, the Confederate Congress passed a bill that authorized a campaign of sabotage against “the enemy’s property, by land or sea.” The bill established a Secret Service fund—$5 million in U.S. dollars—to finance the sabotage. As an incentive, saboteurs would get rewards proportional to the destruction they wreaked. One million dollars of that fund was specifically earmarked for use by agents in Canada. For some time, agents there had been plotting far more than across-the-border sabotage. They believed that their plans for large-scale covert actions could win the war.
Canada, then officially known as British North America, was against slavery, but not fully supportive of the North. As a British possession, Canada reflected Britain’s brand of neutrality, which tipped toward the South and King Cotton. Many Canadians worried about the possibilitythat the breakup of the Union might tempt the United States to add territory by attempting to annex Canada. As the war wore on and Canadians’ sympathy for the South grew, so did toleration for harboring Confederate agents.
The Canadian operations station was in Toronto under the military command of Captain Thomas Henry Hines, who had ridden with Morgan’s Raiders in guerrilla sorties into Kentucky and Tennessee. On the raids, Hines had made contact with leaders of pro-South underground networks in what was then called the “Northwest”—part of today’s Midwest.
Hines’s orders from the Confederate War Department said he was “detailed for special service” in Canada and was empowered to carry out “any hostile operation” that did not violate Canadian neutrality. As Hines saw his mission, which became known to foes as the Northwest Conspiracy, he was “creating a Revolution.” By raising an insurrection in the Northwest states, he believed that he would turn them against the Union and bring an end to the war on Southern terms.
The conspirators especially recruited sympathizers from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, where an estimated 40 percent of the population was Southern-born. Many belonged to secret societies, such as the Knights of the Golden Circle or the Order of the Sons of Liberty, which were anti-Union and anti-abolition. Members wore on their lapels the head of Liberty, cut from copper pennies. Their enemies called them Copperheads for the poisonous snake that struck without warning.
Among the conspirators were military officers in civilian clothes and politicians, such as Jacob Thompson who had been Secretary of the Interior under President James Buchanan and Clement Clay, former U.S. Senator from Alabama. They were ostensibly “commissioners” sent to Canada with vaguely defined public roles as their cover. Other politicians involved in plots were George N. Sanders, who had taken part in Confederate operations in Europe, and Clement L. Vallandigham, who had been a powerful member of Congress from Ohio. He claimed he had 300,000 Sons of Liberty ready to follow him in an insurrection that would produce a Northwest Confederacy.
Hines reported to the civilians, especially Thompson. But there was a shadowy connection between Hines and the Secret Service Bureau of the Confederate Signal Corps. One clue to this connection is a Signal Corps order that Hines be instructed in the use of Confederate ciphers.
Much of the Canada-Richmond communication system relied on couriers, and one of them was a double agent. Richard Montgomery, as a Confederate agent, carried dispatches from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to the Canadian station. As a Union agent, he stopped off in Washington, where the dispatches, which were usually in cipher, were copied and decrypted. To strengthen Davis’ faith in Montgomery, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana even had him captured and imprisoned. In his staged escape, Montgomery claimed he shot himself in the arm so he could have proof of his desperate flight.
Not far from the Canadian border were two large Union prisoner of war camps—on Johnson’s Island, near Sandusky, Ohio in Lake Erie, and at Fort Douglas in Chicago. To enlist soldiers for the insurrection, the conspirators came up with an elaborate plan: agents would slip out of Canada, take over Lake Erie river steamers, and use them as impromptu warships for the boarding and seizure of the U.S.S. Michigan, which guarded the lake for the Union. The Confederates would then attack Johnson’s Island, free the thousands of prisoners there, and arm them. In coordinated raids, prisoners at Fort Douglas would also be freed and armed. The Confederate soldiers, allied with the Sons of Liberty, would then take over the region, forcing the North to sue for peace.
On September 19, 1864, John Yates Beall, a veteran blockade runner, and about 20 men boarded the Philo Parsons, a small Detroit-Sandusky steamer, in Detroit as ordinary passengers. At Beall’s request, the captain made an unscheduled stop at Amherstburg on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, and several more of Beall’s men boarded, toting a large trunk filled with grappling hooks for seizing the Michigan.
As the Philo Parsons neared Johnson’s Island, Beall put a pistol to the helmsman’s head and took over the ship. The Confederate flag was hoisted, and the real passengers and most of the crew were put ashore on another island. Then Beall sailed the steamer to a point off Johnson’s Island and awaited a signal from the Michigan.
A genial Philadelphia banker–and a new friend of the captain of the Michigan–was supposed to signal Beall that all was clear for the attack. However, the supposed banker, who was really Captain Charles H. Cole of the Confederate Army, had been arrested by Union soldiers. Cole, Confederates later said, had been betrayed. Union records show that Cole, captured on a tip from a Confederate captive and held aboard the Michigan, “disclosed the whole plot” in time for the Union warship to prepare for battle. Seeing no signal and fearing that the Michigan had been alerted, Beall’s crew, murmuring mutiny, demanded that he abort the attack. He set course for Canada, landed everyone ashore, and then burned the Philo Parsons.
A month after the Michigan fiasco, about 20 Confederate agents in civilian clothes entered St. Albans, Vermont, 15 miles south of the Canadian border. The plan was to burn down the village in a “retribution” raid, retaliating for Union rampages in the South. The raiders robbed three banks of about $200,000, but managed to set fire only to a woodshed. They recrossed the border on stolen horses, killing a pursuer. Montgomery, the double agent, had passed to Washington a dispatch that mentioned a military operation in Vermont without naming St. Albans. Canadian authorities tracked down and arrested 14 of the raiders, but did not turn them over to U.S. authorities. They were eventually freed through the efforts of George Sanders.
Another mission, twice postponed, was soon to begin. Colonel Benjamin J. Sweet, commander of the POW camp at Fort Douglas, knew it was coming. In a dispatch to his commanding officer, he reported that Chicago “is filling up with suspicious characters, some of whom we know to be escaped prisoners, and others who were here from Canada….” Sweet sent the dispatch by messenger because he feared the conspirators might intercept telegrams.
Sweet had only 800 men to guard about 9,000 prisoners. They were restless because they, like Sweet, had heard the wild rumors of insurrection, prison-camp breakouts, and an invasion of Chicago. Sweet tracked the rumors and, from a planted agent, learned the identities and plans of the Confederate officers who had slipped into Chicago.
As he described the plot, the infiltrators planned to strike on November 8. They “intended to make a night attack on and surprise this camp, release and arm the prisoners of war, cut the telegraph wires, burn the railroad depots, seize the banks and stores containing arms and ammunition, take possession of the city, and commence a campaign for the release of other prisoners of war in the States of Illinois and Indiana, thus organizing an army to effect and give success to the general uprising so long contemplated by the Sons of Liberty.”
Sweet struck first on the night of November 7. With the aid of Union Army agents, Sweet arrested the raid’s leaders and Sons of Liberty officers, along with “106 bushwhackers, guerrillas, and rebel soldiers.” Cached in a collaborator’s home near the camp were 142 shotguns and 349 revolvers, along with thousands of rounds of ammunition. Sweet reinforced the military guard in the city by mobilizing a force of 250 militiamen—and arming them with the raiders’ confiscated guns.
Undeterred by the failure in Chicago, Commissioners Thompson and Clay authorized the boldest operation yet: the torching of New York City by eight agents. The agents were to set the fires with containers of “Greek fire,” the general name, dating to antiquity, for incendiary substances. The 1864 version of Greek fire was developed for the Confederacy by a Cincinnati chemist who mixed phosphorous with carbon bisulphide. Exposed to air, the mixture bursts into flames.
In New York, the leader of the saboteurs went to a certain basement where an old man with a beard handed him a valise containing twelve dozen sealed, four-ounce bottles. Each man checked into a series of hotels, then went back to each one, opened a bottle in the room, left, and locked the door. They set fires in 19 hotels, a theater, and P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. The fires did not amount to much. There was no panic. There was no uprising.
The last known Canadian sabotage operation came in December 1864. John Beall, who had failed to seize the Michigan, vainly tried three times to derail Union trains as they passed near Buffalo. Some of these trains carried Confederate prisoners. As he was heading back to Canada after the third attempt, he was arrested. Tried and convicted as a spy and a guerrilla, Beall was hanged on February 24, 1865.
A month later, Robert Cobb Kennedy met the same fate. He had been caught trying to get from Canada to Richmond. He blurted out a confession that doomed him as one of the New York terrorists. “I know that I am to be hung for setting fire to Barnum’s Museum,” he said, “but that was only a joke.”
The next arrest of a Canadian conspirator came in May 1865. Luke Pryor Blackburn, a Kentucky doctor attached to the Confederate sabotage group, was arrested in Canada on charges of conspiracy to murder in a foreign country. The charge had originated with an alert U.S. consul in Bermuda. Blackburn had been in Bermuda caring for victims of a yellow-fever epidemic. The consul learned that Blackburn had secretly collected victims’ sweat-soaked clothing and blankets and shipped them to Canada.
At Blackburn’s Canadian trial, an accomplice-turnedinformant testified that Blackburn believed that yellow fever could be transmitted by the victims’clothing. (It was not yet known that the disease was spread by the bites of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.) On Blackburn’s instructions, the accomplice picked up trunks in Halifax and shipped them to Northern cities in a plot to start a yellow-fever epidemic. A special valise was to be presented to President Lincoln. Secreted among the gift of dress shirts were rags of fever victims’ clothing.
Blackburn was soon acquitted for lack of evidence, but few noticed. The war was over, and Lincoln was already dead—assassinated by a man who had met with the Canadian conspirators, John Wilkes Booth.
Booth had been in Canada in October 1864, but little is known about his visit with conspirators there. Richard Montgomery, the double agent in Canada, claimed that Booth and others had met to plot the kidnapping of President Lincoln. (The ransom was to be the freeing of Confederate prisoners of war, who could then fight again and perhaps win the war.) The kidnappers were to strike in March 1865, but an unexpected change in Lincoln’s schedule thwarted them. When General Lee surrendered to General Grant on April 9, 1865, the plot dissolved. But five days later, Booth transformed himself from kidnapper to assassin and killed Lincoln.
Lafayette Baker, head of the National Detective Police, responded to a summons from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “Come here immediately and see if you can find the murderer of the President.” On April 26, Baker found Booth, but failed to take him alive. The assassin was fatally shot when he refused to come out of a barn that his pursuers had set afire
Death of a Raider
John Yates Beall
John Yates Beall, born in Jefferson County, Virginia, in 1835, attended the University of Virginia and studied to become a lawyer. When the war began, he enlisted in the Stonewall Brigade, led by Colonel Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson. He was severely wounded during a skirmish during the Shenandoah campaign of 1862. He returned to battle for a short time, but he was still too weak for battle and was given a medical discharge.
Beall made his way to Canada, where he briefly discussed covert plans with Confederate agents there. He next appeared in the Chesapeake Bay, leading two small vessels on raids against Union supply ships. He and his guerrilla band also cut a Union telegraph cable, blew up a lighthouse, and captured several ships. One of them was a ship carrying supplies to a Union force at Port Royal, South Carolina. Beall put a prize crew aboard and had the ship sail to Richmond. “I do not know that we ever accomplished any great things,” he later wrote, “but we deviled the life out of the Gun boats of the Chesapeake trying to catch us.”
In November 1863, he and his comrades were arrested for piracy and imprisoned for several months. In May 1864, he was sent to Richmond in a prisoner exchange. He slipped into Canada again and worked on his plan to capture the U.S.S. Michigan and free Confederate prisoners of war.
After his capture at Niagara Falls, he was taken to a New York City police station. While in the station, he tried to bribe a police officer with $3,000 in gold to help him escape. He was unsuccessful. Beall was transferred to Fort Lafayette, a prison on a bleak rocky island at the mouth of upper New York Bay. (Today, the island supports the east tower of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.)
On February 10, 1865, a court martial convened to try Beall on two charges: violating the law of war by capturing a civilian ship and acting as a spy. He insisted that he had honorably worked under the orders of President Jefferson Davis and authorized agents of the Confederate government. The court ignored his defense, found him guilty, and sentenced him to death.
On February 21, Beall wrote a desperate letter to the Confederate commissioner in charge of prisoner exchange. “I acted under orders.” he wrote, insisting that he was not a spy and deserved to be treated as a prisoner of war.
The commissioner received the letter on February 27. Three days before, Beall had been hanged. On the gallows, he said, “I protest against the execution of the sentence. It is absolute murder, brutal murder. I die in the defense and service of my country.”