Espionage in the American Civil War

Topics: Confederate States of America, American Civil War, George B. McClellan Pages: 19 (5565 words) Published: November 1, 2012
Gardner-Webb University
Boiling Springs, NC

Term Paper


Lauren E. Caulder
HIS 318-C
Fall 2011

Espionage at the commencement of the American Civil War was not an organized system; however the war necessitated the development of more structured intelligence systems for both the Union and the Confederacy. By the middle of the war the dimensions of the espionage system had augmented significantly. Thus espionage came to play a critically important role that affected general’s decisions in both the North and the South, ultimately affecting the outcome of the Civil War as a whole. Throughout this research the development of intelligence organizations, the role of individual spies, Union espionage successes and failures and Confederate espionage successes and failures will be examined. It is important to understand that there is not enough recorded evidence to prove that intelligence in the American Civil War had an extreme impact on the outcome of the war. Nevertheless, as studied in the latter part of this research, the work of espionage operatives certainly did prove to be imperative to the decisions of generals in individual battles. The course that these battles took, often due to intelligence information, was what would eventually impact the course of the war.

Until 1884, the United States differed from most civilized nations in that it had no organized espionage agency. Any attempts at espionage development until this point can be described as “unorganized, event-driven, and sporadic at best.” Spying activities were implemented, in a limited extent, in the Revolutionary and Mexican Wars, but were virtually nonexistent from the end of the Mexican War until the Civil War began. Initially, both the Yankees and the Rebels approached the task of acquiring intelligence in their own way. During this time, each general typically acquired their own means for gathering intelligence. For example, Lafayette Baker directed intelligence operations for Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, Commander-In-Chief of the U.S. army. Union General Pope, on the other hand, handled his intelligence gathering with cavalry and charging his subordinates to send out spies in the field. Even President Lincoln contracted a personal intelligence agent who provided him with direct information. Each private spy agency was so self-regulating, as well as competitive, that agents were known to have kept close surveillance and even arrested rivals. When Major General George McClellan became commander of the Army of the Potomac, he enlisted Allan Pinkerton, the best-known Civil War spy, to preside over his intelligence unit. Pinkerton’s Washington-based intelligence agency became the first American Army intelligence department. Pinkerton’s services were rendered only to General McClellan, not the entire Union Army, and he had limited orders from General McClellan that allowed only espionage and interrogation. McClellan received communication from other sources directly. The agency set up by Pinkerton and McClellan was a major advancement in military intelligence as it provided a more structured, formal entity. The intelligence Pinkerton supplied proved to be essential in the early years of the war. However, Pinkerton’s information was often difficult to digest because of the vast reports he often generated; for example, “a twenty-page report of trivia from the interrogation of a refugee or single enemy soldier.” Pinkerton has also been held accountable for overestimating Confederate figures in reports to General McClellan, which resulted in military failures from being over cautious. After McClellan’s Army experienced several defeats, he was replaced by General Burnside, who dismissed Pinkerton’s agency and appointed Lafayette Baker as his intelligence officer. Despite Pinkerton’s...
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