Imagine being in the perfect position to spy: you can move about without suspicion and your presence is inconspicuous. You could learn information important to your organization and deliver it without attracting attention. This was the position that many African-Americans found themselves in during the Civil War.
Intelligence played a critical role in the outcome of the Civil War. The Union’s ability to gather information about the Confederacy’s next move allowed them to prevail in many situations. How was the Union able to collect such crucial knowledge? Many brave black American men and women risked their lives to learn and share intelligence vital to the success of the Union.
During the war, African-Americans received recognition for their contributions through articles in the press. However, after the war, the recognition died off. Racial prejudice and a lack of official records of intelligence activities were factors in the lack of acknowledgment.
In honor of Black History Month and in an effort to give these brave black Americans the recognition they deserve, here are a few of their amazing stories…
The Perfect Spy
African-Americans played an important role in the outcome of the Civil War. Slaves and freed African-Americans were an invaluable resource to the Union, providing information on the Confederate forces. This became known as the “black dispatches.”
The dispatches were most commonly obtained from debriefing slaves—either runaways or those who had come under Union control. And a few brave black Americans learned important intelligence about Confederate plans through behind-the-lines missions or by serving as an agent-in-place.
William A. Jackson
Africans-Americans who could serve as agents-in-place were a great asset to the Union. They could provide information about the enemy’s plans instead of reporting how the plans were carried out. William A. Jackson was one such agent-in-place who provided valuable intelligence straight from Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Jackson served as a coachman to Davis. As a servant in Davis’ home, Jackson overheard discussions the president had with his military leadership. His first report of Confederate plans and intentions was in May 1862 when he crossed into Union lines. While there are no records of the specific intelligence Jackson reported, it is known that it was important enough to be sent straight to the War Department in Washington.
When it comes to the Civil War and the fight to end slavery, Harriet Tubman is an icon. She was not only a conductor of the Underground Railroad, but also a spy for the Union.
In 1860, she took her last trip on the Underground Railroad, bringing friends and family to freedom safely. After the trip, Tubman decided to contribute to the war effort by caring for and feeding the many slaves who had the fled the Union-controlled areas.
A year later, the Union Army asked Tubman to gather a network of spies among the black men in the area. Tubman also was tasked with leading expeditions to gather intelligence. She reported her information to a Union officer commanding the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a black unit involved in guerrilla warfare activities.
After learning of Tubman’s capability as a spy, Gen. David Hunter, commander of all Union forces in the area, requested that Tubman personally guide a raiding party up the Combahee River in South Carolina. Tubman was well prepared for the raid because she had key information about Confederate positions along the shore and had discovered where they placed torpedoes (barrels filled with gunpowder) in the water. On the morning of June 1, 1863, Tubman led Col. James Montgomery and his men in the attack. The expedition hit hard. They set fires and destroyed buildings so they couldn’t be used by the Confederate forces. The raiders freed 750 slaves.
The raid along the Combahee River, in addition to her activities with the Underground Railroad, made a significant contribution to the Union cause. When Tubman died in 1913, she was honored with a full military funeral in recognition for work during the war.
Mary Touvestre was a freed slave who worked as a housekeeper for a Confederate engineer who was repairing and transforming the USS Merrimac into the Virginia, the Confederate’s first ironclad (warship). She overheard the engineer talking about the importance of the ship and realized that it could be a significant weapon against the Northern blockade.
At great personal risk, Touvestre stole the plans for the ship and fled to Washington, where she met with the Department of the Navy. Upon seeing the plans and hearing Touvestre’s report, the Union Navy sped up the construction of its ironclad, the USS Monitor.
It is believed that if Touvestre had not alerted the Union of the Confederacy’s activities, the Virginia might have caused enough damage to the blockade to allow much needed supplies from Europe to slip through.
John Scobell was a freed slave who was recruited by Union intelligence chief Allan Pinkerton to spy behind Confederate lines. Scobell was intelligent and a good actor. He took on several identities, including food vendor, cook and laborer. Scobell often worked with two of Pinkerton’s best agents—Timothy Webster and Carrie Lawton—posing as a servant.
Scobell provided valuable information about Confederate order of battle, status of supplies and troop morale. He also sought out leaders in the black community to collect information about local conditions, fortifications, and troop dispositions.
The stories above are just a few examples of the amazing acts of bravery carried out by black Americans during the Civil War. To learn more about the “black dispatches,” read our publication Black Dispatches: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence During the Civil War.
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