The spies who helped President Lincoln win the Civil War

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The spies who helped President Lincoln win the Civil War

Lincoln’s Spies: Their Secret War… by Douglas Waller, Simon & Schuster, US $35.00, Pp 624, August 2019, ISBN 978-1501126840

The use of intelligence in war is as old as the war itself. The success of war depends equally on the commander-in-chief and the intelligence operatives. In Lincoln’s Spies, Douglas Waller shines a light on four of President Lincoln’s important intelligence operatives including one woman and explains how war intelligence was conducted in the time of President Lincoln. The period he covers starts from Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 to the surrender at Appomattox in 1865. The secret agents performed different duties. If Allan Pinkerton helped Lincoln slip through Baltimore before his inauguration to foil an assassination attempt, George Sharpe recruited skilled operatives and ran highly successful intelligence operations that outpaced anything the enemy could field. Elizabeth Van Lew ran a Union spy ring in Richmond out of her mansion. Lafayette Baker assembled a retinue of disreputable spies, thieves, and prostitutes to root out traitors in Washington, D.C. Douglas Waller concludes that Lincoln set a template for the dark arts the CIA later practiced.

Douglas Waller says that Lincoln found subversion and propaganda useful tools to undermine the states that had joined the confederacy and to keep the ones that remained with the Union under his control. In Confederate Tennessee’s eastern region, where rebels were terrorizing and jailing pro-Union men, Lincoln in the summer would approve a fifth-column movement of federal loyalists in the region, secretly funded with $2,500 from Washington, to launch guerrilla attacks burning bridges and severing rail lines connecting Memphis and Nashville with Richmond. The plan eventually failed, but it did not dull Lincoln’s willingness to launch fifth column movements. In the critically important Union state of Kentucky, Lincoln could not use the hardball tactics he employed in Tennessee. He launched instead a propaganda campaign to woo the state, at the same time covertly arming pro-unionists there, and had informants report regularly to him on whether the tactics were working.

The Republican party had its own paramilitary group called the “Wide Awake” to protect campaign marches from Democratic thugs. Lincoln approved other unconventional schemes that crossed his desk. Douglas Waller says that Lincoln was open to kidnapping Rebels to exchange for Union men the Confederates snatched. He was willing to let a US Army officer venture out on an off-the-books operation the government would deny if he was caught. The Army colonel, who had been a Methodist minister before the war, would travel south undercover to entice Methodist Church members to defect. Lincoln had no doubt that Jefferson Davis would infiltrate subversives and spies into Union territory – which Davis would. The two men were alike in this respect.

Douglas Waller says that whatever enthusiasm Lincoln displayed early on for espionage and sabotage had to be tempered by the fact that he had no organization to carry it out. If that was what Pinkerton intended to propose as he settled into a chair across the cabinet table from the president and his secretary of state, he would be starting from scratch. Spying had remained largely dormant in the United States since the Revolutionary War. During the 1846-48 Mexican War, Scott employed a handful of Mexican bandits and Army engineers to collect intelligence.

Americans had an age-old resistance to the idea of standing armies with any kind of centralized spy service. Douglas Waller says that when the Confederates shelled Fort Sumter, neither belligerent had made any preparations to collect military intelligence. It would not be until a year later that a Confederate Signal Bureau was officially organized to provide secure communications, intercept the enemy’s signals, maintain courier lines to the North, and run espionage and counter-espionage operations through a Secret Service Bureau.

The Union Army had no plan for organizing an intelligence staff and no official name for such an activity. Douglas Waller tells us that commanders in those days gathered “information” rather than “intelligence” and sent out scouts or “guides” who were often spies. Organizations that came to be called secret services usually ended up being a hodgepodge of intelligence collection activities (the work of spies), counterintelligence (the job of spy catchers), and ordinary criminal investigations. Officers learned on the job how to gather intelligence, their secret agents tendering to be volunteers – many were lawyers or actors – even more amateurish than rookie soldiers.

Lincoln’s Spies is a much-needed addition to the history of the Civil war that sheds light on how President Lincoln used spies to win the war. It is equally the untold history of the Lincoln presidency. With major intelligence histories to his credit, Douglas Waller shows that the espionage strategy devised under President Lincoln was later used by the CIA. It is a very well-researched scholarly work that is written in a beautiful way to make it readable for laypeople. Douglas Waller is a gifted storyteller who has made it more thrilling than a spy novel. It is an essential read for everyone interested in American or Civil War history. It will hugely benefit if you are interested in understanding the evolution of spying in American history.

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