BLACK DISPATCHES: The Original “Spooks Who Sat by the Door” in the Age of Steam!
BLACK DISPATCHES: The Original “Spooks Who Sat by the Door” in the Age of Steam
Espionage – the act or practice of spying or of using spies to obtain secret information – has been with us probably since of our first villagers looked over the hill to see what the other village was up to.
Espionage is one of the world’s oldest professions because as long as there is one person who has an advantage over another, be it military, agricultural, industrial, or even sexual, undoubtedly, someone will be skulking about trying to get their hands on someone else’s information or technology.
The most valuable thing in the world is not gold or diamonds, it is information.
Information of every kind has its own value depending on who wants it and why.
Industrial espionage can alter the wealth of a nation and thus its capacity to compete commercially and wage war. A great example of this took place around A.D. 550, when Justinian I, leader of the Byzantine Empire, wanted to undo China’s historic domination of the silk trade and, at the same time, end Persian control of this valuable commodity as the middlemen.
Justinian I was undeterred in wresting this information from China, which they protected under penalty of death.
He sent two Nestorian monks into China with the specific intent of conducting industrial espionage. While in China they observed how silk was produced and what key ingredients were used in silk production. The monks took two hollowed out walking sticks with them and hid silk worms and mulberry bush seeds inside them – both essential for silk production.
The monks were stopped and searched repeatedly on their journey home. Nevertheless, they were successful in their quest: they single-handedly transferred the technology for silk production to the West and within a short period of time, the silk trade had been completely upended. Byzantium, and thus the Roman Empire, became the world leader in silk production, which is why your ties are made in Milan and not Beijing.
This act of espionage changed trade throughout the world.
In the United States, Samuel Slater, a former apprentice at a state-of-the-art cotton mill in England, found eager buyers for the technology he had regarding the most modern techniques in use in England for wool and cotton production. With the information Slater sold, America became the world’s leading manufacturer of cotton, which shifted wool and cotton production from Europe to the Americas, thus kick-starting America’s Industrial Revolution.
This single act of industrial espionage elevated the United States to international economic eminence in less than 50 years.
These two industrial espionage cases demonstrate that all it takes is one person to alter history, if they are in the right place, at the right time, with the right kind of information.
Having people in the right place at the right time was vital to both the Union and the Confederate armies during the American Civil War.
Units of spies and scouts reported directly to the commanders of armies in the field. They provided details on troop movements and strengths.
Intelligence gathering for the Confederates was focused on Alexandria, Virginia, and the surrounding area. Virginia Governor John Letcher created a network of agents that included Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Thomas Jordan. Greenhow delivered reports to Jordan via the “Secret Line,” the name for the system used to get letters, intelligence reports, and other documents across the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers to Confederate officials.
The Confederacy’s Signal Corps was devoted primarily to communications and intercepts, but it also included a covert agency called the Confederate Secret Service Bureau, which ran espionage and counter-espionage operations in the North including two networks in Washington.
The Union’s intelligence gathering initiatives were decentralized.
Allan Pinkerton worked for Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and created the United States Secret Service.
Lafayette C. Baker conducted intelligence and security work for Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army.
President Abraham Lincoln hired William Alvin Lloyd to spy in the South and report to Lincoln directly.
The most useful military intelligence of the American Civil War, however, was provided to Union officers by “Black Dispatches” – a common term used among Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by Black people.
Black Dispatches were the original “Spooks Who Sat by the Door”.
For those unfamiliar with the film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, based on the incredible novel of the same name by author Sam Greenlee, let me offer this brief synopsis: A congressman, hoping to attract African-American voters during an election year decides to make political hay by pointing out that the Central Intelligence Agency has no Black agents.
Bowing to subsequent public pressure, the CIA admits a number of Black applicants to their training program, but they purposefully make the process difficult and unpleasant enough to winnow out nearly all the African-American candidates.
Dan Freeman, a strong, intelligent but soft-spoken man, somehow makes it through the gauntlet to become the Black CIA agent; however, rather than being given important field assignments, Freeman is put in charge of the agency’s copying machines and gives tours of their facilities to give the offices a progressive front for visitors.
After a few years, Freeman leaves the agency to move back to his hometown of Chicago and do work with the community…at least that’s what he tells his superiors. In fact, Freeman has used his time at the CIA to collect information on how to launch a political revolution, and not long after he arrives in Chi-Town, he begins recruiting an army of leftist radicals and Black nationalists fed up with the system. With their help, Freeman launches the first stage of an armed revolt with the stated goal of bringing the white-dominated power structure to its knees.
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 Americans contributed to tactical and strategic Union intelligence through behind-enemy-lines missions and deep covert operations during the American Civil War.
The value of the information that could be obtained, both passively and actively, by Black Americans behind Confederate lines was clearly understood by most Union generals early in the war.
Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was equally aware, and in May 1863 he said, “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes.”
Because of the culture of slavery in the South, Blacks involved in menial activities could move about without suspicion. Also, officials and officers tended to ignore their presence as personal servants when discussing war-related matters.
Let’s look at some of the Black Dispatches and their invaluable contributions and acts of derring-do.
One of the first large-scale Civil War battles was the result of information provided by George Scott, a runaway slave.
Scott furnished intelligence on Confederate fortifications and troop movements to Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commander of Fort Monroe, located at the mouth of the James River on the tip of the Virginia peninsula.
Scott had escaped from a plantation near Yorktown. While making his way toward Fort Monroe, he observed that Confederate forces had thrown up two fortifications between Yorktown and the fortress. Butler’s officers were impressed with Scott’s information but wanted to confirm it. Scott agreed to accompany a Union officer on several scouting trips behind Confederate lines to obtain more specific intelligence. On one of these missions, Scott barely missed being wounded by a Confederate rifle; the bullet went through his jacket.
Based on the intelligence gained from these missions, Butler determined that Confederate forces were planning an attack on Newport News – capture of which would have isolated Fort Monroe from Union resupply.
As Union forces grew and better organization was required, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was given command of the Army of the Potomac defending Washington. He brought with him, as his chief of intelligence, Allan Pinkerton, who had gained some fame running a Chicago detective agency.
Pinkerton, often using the alias Major Allen or E. J. Allen, had responsibilities for collecting intelligence on the enemy and for counterintelligence activities against enemy agents.
Most of the intelligence he collected resulted from an extensive and well-organized debriefing program of former enslaved Black people, who had extensive knowledge of Confederate fortifications, camps, and supply points.
From these Black men and women, Pinkerton recruited a small number for intelligence collection missions behind Confederate lines.
The best known of these Pinkerton agents was John Scobell, recruited in the fall of 1861.
Scobell had been a slave in Mississippi but had been well educated by his owner, a Scotsman who subsequently freed him. He was quick-witted and an accomplished actor, which permitted him to function in several different identities on various missions, including food vendor, cook, or laborer.
Scobell often worked with other Pinkerton agents, sometimes playing the role of their servant while in the South. He worked with Timothy Webster, perhaps Pinkerton’s best agent, on missions into Virginia and also with Mrs. Carrie Lawton, Pinkerton’s best female operative.
Scobell is credited with providing valuable intelligence on Confederate order of battle, status of supplies, and troop morale and movements. Frequently, while the white Pinkerton agents elicited information from Confederate officials and officers, Scobell would seek out leaders in the Black community and collect their information on local conditions, fortifications, and troop dispositions.
Scobell often used his membership in the “Legal League,” a clandestine Black organization in the South supporting freedom for slaves, to acquire local information. League members sometimes supported Scobell’s collection activities by acting as couriers to carry his information to Union lines. On at least one occasion, as described by Pinkerton, Scobell protected the escape of the aforementioned Carrie Lawton from pursuing Confederate agents.
Scobell worked for Pinkerton from late 1861 until the intelligence chief closed down his operations in November 1862, when McClellan was replaced by Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside.
W. H. Ringgold
W. H. Ringgold worked on a riverboat on the York River in Virginia. Ringgold spent six months on the river, helping move Confederate troops and supplies on the Virginia peninsula. When his ship was damaged by a storm, he and the other crewmen were permitted to travel back North by way of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. On reaching Baltimore, he sought out Union officials, who immediately sent him to Pinkerton in Washington.
In December 1861, Ringgold provided Pinkerton with detailed intelligence on Confederate defenses on the peninsula. This included locations of fortifications and artillery batteries, troop concentrations, and defenses on the York River. His information was the best McClellan received before the start of his peninsula campaign in March 1862; it was also the basis for much of his strategic planning for that campaign.
Mary Touvestre, a freed slave, worked in Norfolk, VA as a housekeeper for an engineer who was involved in the refitting and transformation of the USS Merrimac into the Virginia, the first Confederate ironclad warship. Overhearing the engineer talk about the importance of his project, she recognized the danger this new type of ship represented to the Union navy blockading Norfolk. Touvestre stole a set of plans for the ship and fled North. After a perilous trip, she arrived in Washington and arranged a meeting with officials at the Department of the Navy.
The stolen plans and Touvestre’s verbal report on the ship’s construction convinced the officials of the need to speed up construction of the Union’s own ironclad, the Monitor.
Robert Smalls – a contraband ship pilot who had recently escaped from Charleston, SC – supplied important military operational intelligence that generated a turning of the forces in the Charleston harbor. Smalls supplied Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont with the necessary intelligence to seize Stono Inlet, occupying it with several gun-boats and securing an important base for military operations.
Agents in Place
While the Confederacy did not create a civilian and military power structure until just before the war began, the Union already had several deep cover agents, called “Agents in Place”, in the Confederate capital by the first year of the war. Two were Black Americans employed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis in his official residence.
William A. Jackson was a slave hired out to President Davis as a coachman. As a servant in the Davis household, he was able to observe and overhear the Confederate President’s discussions with his military leadership.
The second agent, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was part of a Union spy ring known as “the Richmond underground”, directed by Elizabeth Van Lew, whose family was well respected and well connected socially in Richmond.
Bowser had been a slave of the Van Lew family, but Van Lew freed her and sent her North to be educated. When Van Lew decided to establish a spy ring in Richmond shortly before the fighting began, she asked Bowser to return and work with her for the Union. Van Lew obtained a position for Bowser as a servant in the Confederate “White House” through the recommendation of a friend who provided supplies to that household.
Bowser pretended to be uneducated but hardworking and, after working part-time at several functions, was hired as a regular employee. Her access provided her with opportunities to overhear valuable information. As a Black woman – and a servant at that – Bowser was ignored by the President’s guests.
Her reports focused on conversations she overheard between Confederate officials at the President’s residence and on documents she was able to read while working around the house. She and Van Lew would meet at isolated locations on the outskirts of Richmond to exchange information.
Bowser had a photographic memory and could report every word of the documents she saw at the “White House”.
In recognition of her intelligence contributions, Bowser was inducted into the US Army Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on 30 June 1995.
Her intelligence activities are well documented in many books and served as part of the inspiration for this author writing Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet (Book 1: Kings / Book 2: Judges).
Tubman, often referred to by her contemporaries as “Moses” and as “General Tubman”, is best known for the numerous trips she made into the South to free relatives, friends and many more and to bring them to safety. Her last trip took place in 1860. With the advent of the fighting, she spent the early years of the war assisting with the care and feeding of the massive numbers of slaves who had fled to Union-controlled areas.
In South Carolina, the Union forces were in desperate need of information about Confederate forces opposing them. Intelligence on the strength of enemy units, location of encampments, and designs of fortifications was almost non-existent. It fell to Tubman to organize and lead short-term spying expeditions behind enemy lines to gather such intelligence.
Tubman selected a few former slaves knowledgeable about the areas to be visited and then she established her spy organization. Often disguised as a field hand or poor farm wife, Tubman led several spy missions herself, while directing others from Union lines.
She reported her intelligence findings to Col. James Montgomery, a Union officer commanding the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a Black unit involved in guerrilla warfare activities.
The tactical intelligence Tubman provided to Union forces during the war was frequent, abundant, and used effectively in military operations. Tubman conducted spy missions into the area, identified enemy supply areas, and reported weaknesses in Confederate troop deployments.
In late May, Gen. David Hunter, commander of all Union forces in the area, asked Tubman to personally guide a raiding party up the river. On the evening of 2 June, Tubman led Montgomery and 150 of his men up the river past Confederate picket lines. In a swift raid, taking the Confederates by surprise, the Union forces destroyed several million dollars worth of Confederate supplies and brought back more than 800 slaves and thousands of dollars in enemy property. When Tubman died in 1913, she was honored with a full military funeral as a mark of respect for her activities during the war.
The Ingenious Dabneys
A runaway slave named Dabney, crossed into Union lines with his wife and found employment in General Hooker’s headquarters camp. It became apparent that Dabney knew the geography of the area very well, and, though he had little education, was clever. He quickly developed an interest in the Union flag-signal system, and he studied it intensely.
After several weeks, Dabney’s wife asked permission to return to Confederate lines as a personal servant to a Southern woman returning to her home. A few days after his wife’s departure, Dabney began reporting Confederate movements to members of Hooker’s staff. His reports soon proved accurate, and he was questioned as to the source of his intelligence.
Dabney explained that he and his wife had worked out a signaling system based on the laundry that she hung out to dry at her mistress’ house, which was observable from Hooker’s headquarters. As the wife observed Confederate troop movements, she would hang the laundry in a particular sequence to signal Dabney of the activity. For example, a white shirt represented Gen. A. P. Hill, a pair of pants hung upside down represented the direction west, and so forth. This system produced useful intelligence on Confederate movements.
While I am not a fan of government agents, spies and the like – I grew up with the philosophy of “no snitchin’” – and Blacks worldwide have suffered much due to COINTELPRO and other overt and covert operations, this does not diminish the courage, dedication, and personal commitment which these Brothers and Sisters demonstrated in doing what they believed to be a way to free themselves and their people.
I have been inspired to write – and possibly direct – a film on the Black Dispatches. It will be action-packed, thrilling and, of course, Steamfunk!