Books Monographs

Black Dispatches: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence During the Civil War


By: P. K. Rose

“Black Dispatches” was a common term used among Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces  provided by Negroes. This source of information represented the single most prolific and productive category of intelligence obtained and acted on by Union forces throughout the Civil War.

In 1862, Frederick Douglass wrote:

The true history of this war will show that the loyal army

found no friends at the South so faithful, active, and

daring in their efforts to sustain the government as the

Negroes-. Negroes have repeatedly threaded their way

through the lines of the rebels exposing themselves to

bullets to convey important information to the loyal army of the Potomac.

Black Dispatches resulted from frontline tactical  debriefings of slaves—either runaways or those having just come under Union control. Black Americans also  contributed, however, to tactical and strategic Union intelligence through behind-the-lines missions and agent- in-place operations. Two such Union agents functioned as  long-term penetrations of Confederate President Jefferson  Davis’s “White House” staff in Richmond, Virginia. Even  such a prominent woman as Harriet Tubman, best known  for her activities involving the “underground railroad,” played an important role in Union intelligence activities.

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