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Civil War Spies

This Page Last updated 1/4/99

"I employed every capacity with which God has endowed me, and the result was far more successful than my hopes could have flattered me to expect." -Rose O'Neal Greenhow

In learning about the American CIvil War focus is put on the generals, the battles, and who won. For most of my secondary education that is what I have focused on - what my teacher has focused on. However, what about the civilians? What role did they play? How did those Generals know when to move? Was it just a lucky guess? No. At least, not all of the time. Many female civilians took on the part of spies as did many soldiers and male civilians for either side. Before the Civil War the last spymaster was General George Washington, during the American Revolution. Between the Revolution and the Civil War there was no organized system for espionage. Any espionage activity that did take place was scattered and individual. Even at the beginning of the war, most of the spies operated on their own.


It was General George McClellan who brought a spymaster with him - Allan Pinkerton. Pinkerton was a railroad detective, but that point may have made him a bad spy. As a detective one gathers information until you have enough to prove your case, and Pinkerton and the employees that he brought with him were used to this way of information gathering. As a spy, one must gather information quickly and get it back to the pople who need it as fast as possible, for the information could lose value. Much of the information that is gathered on the field has a time limit for how long it could make a difference in counter plans and the such. Many times McClellan recieved the information agter it was too late. General Winfield Scott hired Lafayette Baker as his intelligence gatherer. Baker and Pinkerton often worked at counter - purposes and didn't realize it till it was too late. Due to the fact that neither had prior knowledge of the other's existence it provided for confusion as to who was a Union agent and who was a Confederate agent. It has been recorded, that at times, One of Baker's agents (or vice versa) would arrest one of Pinkerton's agents in the beleif that they were CSA spies. General U.S. Grant also appointed a spymaster for his use. General Grenville Dodge was appointed as Chief of Intelligence for Western Operations. Dodge was of importance to both Grant and General William T. Sherman, and he developed into a proficient spymaster. Sadly, the Confederacy was lacking in this area. Although the Confederate Generals used the intelligence information that was sent to them, they diddn't attempt to organize spies in a way that was beneficial to them.

Union Male Spies

"Did you ever pass through a tunnel under a mountain? My passage, my death is dark, but beyond all is light and bright." -Spencer Kellogg Brown

As stated above, the Union had spymasters, and due to that, many spies. But who were they? What did they accomplish? Spencer Kellogg Brown, George Curtis, and Philip Henson were just three of many male spies for the Union. I will just quickly try to summarize the story of each of these men.

Spencer Kellogg Brown

Spencer Kellogg Brown was born in Kansas, but left and traveled to Missouri. He ended up in St. Louis where he enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight against the violence in Missouri After he was honorably discharged from the Army, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving on the Essex. His espeionage activity began in 1861 when he volunterred to collect information about shore batteries and the troop strenghth of the Confederates. Brown and his companion, a gentleman by the name of Trussel, boarded teh Confederate ship the Charm under the pretense of being Union deserters. During theirr journey on the Charm they gathered as much information as they could about the Confederater shipsand troops. The next part of their adventure occured when they were once again put on land. They helped with construction work until Brown was seen spending a lot of time by the river, observing. He was then arrested and sent to Fort Pillow, Tennessee. He was released on the impression that he was going to Corinth, Mississippi to join the CSA Army. He met and joined the 1st Louisiana Cavalry Volunteers, temporarily. He soon escaped and worked his way to the Union lines to speak to General Grant. There he shared the information that he had gathered on his journey. On August 15, 1862, he was arrested, taken to Richmond for trial, and sentenced to Hang. He was arrested after sinking the ferry supplying Fort Hudson, Georgia. On September 25, 1863 Spencer Kellogg Brown was hanged.

George Curtis

George Curtis was living in New York at the beginning of the war, and he joined a New York Infantry Regiment. He then became a Pinkerton agent, and a very good spy. He was selected in 1862 to obtain information from Richmond. He made his way to the Confederate capital as a contraband merchant selling gun caps, ammunition, and the much needed quinine. The day after reaching Virgiania he was taken to the Confederate lines and to an audience with General Ambrose Powell Hill. General Hill gave him a pass to go on to Richmond and also asked Curtis if he would carry some dispatches as well. Curtis gladly agreed to carry out his chore. When Curtis reached Richmond he was introduced to Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin where he negotiated for the delivery of his contraband goods and recieved a pass to move in and out of Richmond freely. Throughout the war Curtis was asked to, and did, carry dispatches to Confederate General John B. Macgruder. But before they reached General Magruder they were taken by Mr. Bangs, Pinkerton's supervisor for field agents. There they were copied before continuing on to General Magruder. Curtis was never suspected for a spy, he was never arrested. He worked as a contraband merchant for the duration of the war, never once was he suspected of carrying important information to the Union Forces.

Philip Henson

Phillip Henson was born and raised in Alabama, but when the war began he was outcast from his family. He was then living in Mississippi, and lived there as a loyal Unionist. He avoided Confederate Military service by convincing the owner of a plantation to make him the manager of the plantation. In 1862 General U.S. Grant came to Mississippi, and Henson began his career as a Union Spy. After he completed his first mission - that of buying as much cotton as he could for the Union - he was then sent to work for General William Rosencrans. Henson was returning from a mission behind confederate lines when the Union stopped him. They were wary of anyone with a "Southern drawl" and took him to General Dodge. (The same General Dodge as the spymaster eariler mentioned.) He impressed Dodge so much that he procurred his services for himself. Henson was then sent to Vicksburg, Mississippi to gather information on the Confederate forces in the city. Much to Henson's good fortune he was introduced to General John C. Pemberton (the CSA commander of the city). Henson informed General Pemberton of the inhumane treatment the Confederate prisoners were recieving from the Union. Pemberton then asked him to share his information with the troops in Vicksburg - giving him free reign of the city. The information he gathered was used by General Grant in preparing for his attack on Vicksburg. Next Henson again went South, and this time put himself in the good graces of Generals Lucius Polk and Sterling Price. There he became a member of their staff and stayed until he had gathered the neccessary information. Other Confederate Generals that henson used were: Daniel Ruggles, Samuel Gholson, James Longstreet, and Nathan Forrest. He was arrested by some of Forrest's men, but used the guise of double-agent to have himself released. In 1864 he was again captured and this time Forrest imprisoned him until February of 1865 when he was released to aid Forrest by joining the 26th Mississippi. However, he escaped and returned to Union lines in time for Confederate surrender.

Confederate Male Spies

"Was it not possible that as a spy I might discover that which would soon give the Southern Cause the upper-hand in its struggle for Seccession?"Thomas N. Conrad

At the beginning of the war Thomas N. Conrad was living in the Union capital of Washington D.C. as headmaster of Georgetown College. He used the college as the beginnings for his intelligence system. He used a system of signaling - that of raising and lowering shades - for the students to send messages to the Confederate side of the Potomac River. He was arrested in 1861 for the contents of his Commencement Speech and for allowing the processional march to be "Dixie". No harm came to him, and he moved on to Virginia. In Virgiania he enlisted in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry of Jeb Stuart as a chaplin. He used this guise to begin his infiltration of the Union side. He was soon called to Richmond to safely deliver CSA sympathetic English and French diplomats from D.C. to Richmond. After this escapade he changed his hair style, beard style, clothing to become a typical Northerner in Washington where he continued his intelligence gathering. In 1862 he successfully alerted General Robert E. Lee to the change in command from General McClellan to General Ambrose Burnside. This information also included General Burnside's plans to attack Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Lee later defeated Burnside. In 1863 Conrad alerted General Lee of General Burnside's plans to join the forces of General Grant. Shortly hereafter he decided to leave the active duty of intelligence gathering, and tried his hand at counter-intelligence. In 1865 he once again changed his appearance, and this time ended up looking like John Wilkes Booth. On April 16, 1865 he was arrested as such and sent to Lafayette Baker. Baker however learned of his true identity and released him immediately.

Harrison - The Mysterious Gettysburg Spy

In 1863 Harrison arrived in the camp of General James Longstreet with a letter of recommendation by CSA Secratary of War, James A. Seddon. Longstreet ordered Harrison to spy on the Union forces that were alongside (congruent) to the Confederate troops in Pennsylvania. In mid - June he returned to General Longstreet with news of General Joseph Hooker's army. Harrison reported that they were moving North, and faster than General Lee thought possible. Longstreet promoptly took him to General Lee, where Lee discounted the information at first due to the fact that Jeb Stuart's Cavalry hadn't reported yet. But Lee eventually became convinced and made the appropriate preparations. Harrison was next sent to Gettysburg to find out the number of troops there. This is the point where Harrison disappears into thin air and his identity is questioned. Some believe that he was James Harrison, an actor who inlisted in the CSA army. An aide of General Longstreet's is said to have been told by Harrison that he was going to appear on stagein September of 1863 in Richmond and was recognized there by this same aide. Or he could have been Henry Thomas Harrison. Both Harrison's were spies for the CSA, and they were both paid off due to drinking and weren't reliable security risks. Or - Harrison could have been niether of them, just someone using the psuedonnym "Harrison".

Union Female Spies

"I am naturaly fond of adventrue, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic - but patriotism was the true secret of my sucess." - Sarah Emma Edmonds

Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew was born in 1818 to an aristocratic family. She was sent North for an education and when her family freed their slaves, so were many of them. Many of her family's slaves stayed with her and even became part of her spy ring. They became couriers for her, and none were caught by the CSA or gave her away to the authorities. Miss Van Lew was one of the many spies who decided independently to spy for her government. Since she lived in Richmond, Virginia it was practical for her to inform Washington of activities in Richmond. In the beginning she sent her information straight to President Lincoln himself. Eventually she sent her information to General Grant's intelligence officer, General Sharpe. Miss Van Lew used methods of transferring messages that were ahead of most of her contemporaries. For example she wrote her messages in a special ink that could only be read when milk was applied to them. Another example of her ingenuity was tearing her messages into different parts, with different couriers and different routes. Miss Van Lew and her mother, who readily agreed to help her daughter, frequented Libby Prison where they learned of Confederate Plans from new prisoners. They also helped them to escape. She had two rooms in her house tha she used to safehouse escaped Union Prisoners - one that she had blankets covering the windows, and the other with a spring door behind a bookcase. Miss Van Lew, a.k.a. "Crazy Bet" due to her prison visits, financed most of her espionage efforts and by the end of the war she had little money left. When she died in 1900 no one in Richmond attended her funeral because she was still so detested.

"If I am entitled to the name of "spy" because I was in the Secret service, I accept it willingly; but it will hereafter have to my mind a high and honorable signification, For my loyalty to my country I have two beautiful names - here I am called "Traitor", farther North a "Spy" - instead of the honored name "Faithful". - Elizabeth Van Lew

Pauline Cushman

Pauline Cushman was born as Harriet Wood in New Orleans, but when the war broke out she was a loyal unionist, and she sought a way to serve her country. She enlisted in the Secret Service as a spy and the Union used her in the Western Theater. Her first assingment was in St. Louis, Missouri where she was to find Confederate spies and end their operations there. From St. Louis she was sent to Nashville, Tennessee with the same mission. In May of 1863 General Rosencrans was preparing to drive General Bragg across the Tennessee River and Cushman was sent into the Army of the Tennessee (AOT) to gather information on the strength and location of the army. Cushman was captured by General Bragg and sentenced to hang on the spot. But Shelbyville, Tennessee, where she was imprisioned, had to be evacuated. General Bragg's troops left in such a hurry that they forgot about Cushman and left her behind, to be rescued by the Union troops. The news of her capture and rescue spread like wildfire throughout the country, and she was useless to the Union then. Her identity was then known, and her career as a spy was compromised due to that. But her career with the army wasn't compromised. She a had firsthand knowledge of the terrain of Tennesse, Alabama, and Mississippi so she shared this information and it resulted in very good maps for the Union. After her rescue the Union granted her the honorary title of "Major", and she demanded to be called Major Cushman the duration of her life. After the war she returned to her career as an actress, later married, and after her career as an actress saw its waning she became a dressmaker's assistant and charwoman. She died in the far west in 1894.

This part of my page is under construction...I am continually researching spies and how they contributed to the War. I ask that you retrun often to see who I've added to this page dedicated to Civil War Spies. Thank you!

Coming soon.......Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Belle Boyd, and Sarah Emma Edmonds

Also Coming Soon....JEB Stuart as the "Eyes of the Army", a look into Jeb's career and contributions as a Scout.

Books on Civil War Spies

Spy Links

Rose O'Neal Greenhow Papers @ Duke
Rose O'Neal Greenhow (Research Individuals)
Spies, Traitors, Unsavories, & Detectives
Civil War Civilians
Amid Bedbugs & Drunken Secessionists...
Allan J. Pinkerton
Belle Boyd