William H. Seward

Allan Pinkerton


Henry Beebee


Civil War

Civil War

Civil War
End Notes

The Civil War: Lack of a
Centralized Direction


Six weeks after the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, South Carolina seceded from the Union. In February 1861, six other states (Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi) followed. They formed the Confederate States of America. When President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers after Fort Sumter was fired upon in April, 1861, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee joined the Confederacy. The Civil War had begun.

When hostilities began, neither the North nor the South had any significant intelligence or counterintelligence capability. Generals operated their own espionage rings and personally recruited and directed their spies. In Washington, President Lincoln was concerned. He only had to look outside his window to realize that the capital was penetrated and surrounded by southern sympathizers. Although Maryland stayed loyal to the Union, many of its citizens favored the southern cause.

To protect the federal government, Secretary of State William H. Seward took the initiative. Under his directon, southern spies, sympathizers and others were arrested and detained as threats to the government. When General George McClellan was appointed commander of the Union Army, Allan Pinkerton and his detectives replaced Seward in his role as counterintelligence chief. Pinkerton was very effective in stopping the flow of intelligence out of the capital to the Confederacy.

In November 1862, Lincoln removed McClellan and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside. With McClellan's dismissal, Pinkerton left Washington and his counterintelligence role to protect the city was given to Lafayette Baker. At the time, Baker was working for the War Department, targeting contraband channels. Like Pinkerton, Baker was successful in neutralizing southern agents and sympathizers.

The Confederacy did not formerly establish a Secret Service Bureau until 30 November 1864; the war would be over on 9 April 1865. The full extent of the Confederacy's counterintelligence operations and activities remain a mystery because Judah Benjamin, the Secretary of State for the confederacy, burned all espionage records as the Union Army entered Richmond.

William H. Seward1

When the Lincoln Administration suddenly found itself faced with open hostilities and accompanying espionage and spy intrigues in 1861, one of the first officials to react to the situation was Secretary of State Seward. His organization combined both the police function—pursing individuals with a view to their incarceration and prosecution—and the intelligence function—gathering information regarding the loyalty and political views of citizens without any particular regard for possible violations of the law. In combining the two tasks, of course, their distinction often became lost. One commentator notes:

The Government's first efforts to control the civilian population were conducted by the Secretary of State for reasons both personal and official. William H. Seward, the "Premier" of the Cabinet, had an unquenchable zeal for dabbling in everyone else's business. In addition, since the establishment of the Federal Government the office of the Secretary of State had been somewhat of a catchall for duties no other executive agency was designed to handle. With the war, and the new problem of subversion on the home front, Seward soon began to busy himself about arrests of political prisoners, their incarceration, and then the next step of setting up secret agents to ferret them out.2

There are no informative records as to how or why the initial arrests of political prisoners and the creation of a secret service fell to Secretary Seward. It is entirely likely that he requested these duties. The more important consideration, however, concerns the extent to which he responsibly carried out these obligations. According to one of the Secretary's biographers:

Arrests were made for any one of many reasons: where men were suspected of having given, or intending to give, aid or comfort to the enemy in any substantial way,—as by helping in the organization of troops, by supplying arms or provisions, or selling the bonds of the states in secession; by public or private communications that opposed United States enlistment or encouraged those of the Confederacy; by expressing sympathy with the South or attacking the administration; by belonging to organizations designed to obstruct the progress of the war—in fact for almost any act that indicated a desire to see the government fail in its effort to conquer disunion.3

But the question was not simply one of fact. The manner and nature of the arrest and detention of political offenders raised a number of due process considerations.

The person suspected of disloyalty was often seized at night, searched, borne off to the nearest fort, deprived of his valuables, and locked up in a casemate, or in a battery generally crowded with men that had had similar experiences. It was not rare for arrests regarded as political to be made by order of the Secretary of War or of some military officer; but, with only a few exceptions, these prisoners came under the control of the Secretary of State just as if he had taken the original action.

William H. Seward

For a few days the newcomer usually voiced varied reflection and loud denunciation of the administration. But the discomforts of his confinement soon led him to seek his freedom. When he resolved to send for friends and an attorney, he was informed that the rules forbade visitors, except in rate instances, that attorneys were entirely excluded and the prisoner who sought their aid would greatly prejudice his case. Only unsealed letters would be forwarded, and if they contained objectionable statements they were returned to the writer or filed in the Department of State with other papers relating to the case.

There still remained a possibility, it was generally assumed, of speedy relief by appeal to the Secretary in person. Then a long narrative, describing the experiences of a man whose innocence was equaled only by his misfortunes, was addressed to the nervous, wiry, all-powerful man keeping watch over international relations, political offenders, and affairs generally. The letter was read by the Chief Clerk or Assistant Secretary, and then merely filed. A second, third, and fourth petition for liberation and explanations was sent to the department—but with no result save that the materials for the study of history and human nature were thereby enlarged; the Secretary was calm in the belief that the man was a plotter and could do no harm while he remained in custody.4

To rectify this situation, two important steps were taken in February 1862. On St. Valentine's Day, an Executive order was issued providing for the wholesale release of most political prisoners, excepting only "persons detained as spies in the service of the insurgent, or others whose release at the present moment may be deemed incompatible with the public safety."5 In addition, a special review panel, consisting of Judge Edwards Pierrepont and General John A. Dix, was established to expedite releases under this directive.6

With regard to intelligence activities, Seward apparently employed Allan Pinkerton for such operations during the summer of 1861, "but did not keep him long, perhaps because he felt that the detective was too close to the President, and Seward wanted his own man, whose loyalty would be direct to him."7 A listening post was sought in Canada for purposes of checking on the activities of Confederate agents and to monitor the trend of sentiment in British North America during the secession crisis.8 Former Massachusetts Congressman George Ashmun was appointed special agent to Canada for three months in early 186l at a salary of $10 a day plus expenses. Seward advanced $500 cash on account. Another operative, Charles S. Ogden, took residence in Quebec and additional stations were subsequently established at Halifax and St. John's, among other seaports.9

A domestic network also came into being while the Canadian group struggled to recruit confidential agents.

Seward's "Secret Service Letter Book" for 186l was full of inquiries dispatched to friends and trusted official associates throughout the country asking them to discover persons who could be put on important investigating tasks. He wanted "a discreet and active" man for the Northern frontier, to arrest spies seeking entrance from Canada, and offered to pay such a man $100 a month. A little later he appointed a special agent at Niagara Falls, to examine the persons coming over the Suspension Bridge, and seize and hold any whom seemed suspicious. He sought, without immediate results, a good man for Chicago and another for Detroit. He authorized the United States Marshall at Boston to employ two detectives for two-month's time, each at $150 a month. This was particularly urgent; therefore let the Marshall consult the governor of the State, "and take effective measures to break up the business of making and sending shoes for the Rebel Army."10

Almost unnoticed, Seward's intelligence or-ganization began to grow; though its agents often proved to be ineffective amateurs. Shortly, however, professionalism, discipline, and a careful sense of mission came to the Secretary's spy corps in the person of Lafayette Charles Baker.


Allan Pinkerton 11

Allan Pinkerton (1819-1884), a Scottish immigrant, is best known as the founder of the Pinkerton detective agency, one of the most famous organizations of its kind. Pinkerton emigrated to Chicago in 1842 and moved to Dundee, Kane County, Illinois in 1843. After apprehending a gang of counterfeiters, he was appointed deputy sheriff of Kane County in 1846 and immediately afterward of Cook County, head-quartered in Chicago. There he organized a force of detectives to counter theft of railroad property, and in 1850 he established the North Western Police Detective agency, later renamed Pinkerton's National Detective Agency.

A group of Union spies.

Members of the Bureau of Military Information, Army of the Potomac.

Pinkerton also was an important player in intelligence gathering during the Civil War years of 1861 and 1862 when he organized a system of obtaining military information in the Southern states. Pinkerton recorded his exploits as a Union operative, under the nom-de-plume of Major E. J. Allen, in the book, The Spy of the Rebellion: Being a True History of the Spy System of the United States Army During the Late Rebellion, published in 1883. Unfortunately for the historian, the book was published after Pinkerton lost his records during the Chicago fire of 1871. The majority of his narrative relied upon his few remaining notes, official reports, and his memory of events that had occurred 20 years before. The book also served the purpose of refuting claims that Pinkerton's spies had provided inflated numbers of Confederate troops, a claim that has become an accepted part of Civil War history.

Pinkerton felt the need to defend his spy system's record during the first years of the war and his close association with Major General George B. McClellan. Pinkerton had been well acquainted with McClellan before the Civil War, during his years as railroad detective when McClellan was president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad.

Pinkerton began his intelligence activity before President-elect Lincoln's arrival in Washington, D.C. for his inauguration in 1861. Pinkerton had received a letter from Samuel H. Felton, the president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, warning of a plan to disrupt Lincoln's trip by destroying rail transportation between Washington, D.C. and cities in the west and north. In response, Pinkerton dispatched surveillance agents along the roads, selecting places where intelligence indicated there were secessionist supporters. He also employed two agents to infiltrate secessionist groups, one of whom learned of plans to assassinate Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore, Maryland.

These agents established their credibility through ethnic ties, collegiate studies, foreign travel, knowledge of foreign languages, familiarity with local customs and prominent individuals, vocal support for secessionist causes, and participation in secret secessionist societies. They discovered that the conspirators, in league with members of the Baltimore police force, planned to assassinate Lincoln as he rode in an open carriage for a half-mile between the Northern Central Railroad Station to the Washington depot.

Pinkerton Letter

Chicago, April 21st 1861
To His Excellence
A Lincoln, Pres. of the U-S

Dear Sir

When I saw you last I said that if the time should ever come that I could be of service to you I was ready-If that time has come I am on hand.

I have in my Force from Sixteen to Eighteen persons on whose courage, Skill & Devotion to their Country I can rely. If they with myself at the head can be of service in the way of obtaining information of the movements of the Traitors, or Safely conveying your letters or dispatches, or that class of Secret Service which is the most dangerous, I am at your command-

In the present disturbed state of Affairs I dare not trust this to the mail-so send by one of My Force who was with me at Baltimore-You may safely trust him with any message for me-Written or Verbal-I fully guarantee his fidelity-He will act as you direct- and return here with your answer.

Secrecy is the great lever, I propose to operate with-Hence the necessity of this movement (If you contemplate it) being kept Strictly Private-and that should you desire another interview with the Bearer that you should so arrange it-as that he will not be noticed.

The Bearer will hand you A Copy of A Telegraph Cipher which you may use if you desire to Telegraph me-

My Force comprises both Sexes-All of Good Character-And well Skilled in their Business.

Respectfully yours,

Allan Pinkerton

In a tale with as many twists and turns as any good spy novel, Lincoln is secretly whisked from a public appearance in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, by a special train to Philadelphia, then through the "lines of treason" in Baltimore and safely on to Washington, D.C. Key to the success of this plan was Pinkerton's arrangement to have the telegraph lines out of Harrisburg cut so that news of Lincoln's abrupt departure was contained. He also detained two journalists by force of arms from immediately reporting the plan and assumed responsibility for the security of the railroad tracks, on which the special train traveled.

The identity of Pinkerton's infiltrated agents was closely held and led to an incident that added to the credibility of his chief operative, Timothy Webster. Webster had become well entrenched among secessionist groups in the Baltimore area, frequently socializing with them and carrying letters through Union lines for them. He played his role so well that another secret service agent, who was not aware of his identity and activities, arrested him in Baltimore. Webster had to contact Pinkerton to obtain his release.

His escape, arranged by Pinkerton, increased Webster's standing among the Southern sympathizers and allowed him to continue his successful spy
operations. He became a trusted emissary of the Confederate government, delivering letters and other communications to relatives in the North.

These documents were first inspected by Pinkerton's service before being delivered and in this way served two purposes. Webster not only won the trust of the Confederate authorities, but he also provided the federal government with valuable information. In one case, the intercepted documents revealed the presence of a Confederate spy ring in the Provost Marshal's office in Washington, D.C.

John C. Babcock (center standing) pictured while a member of Pinkerton's organization. Standing with him are (left) Augustus K. Littlefield and (right)
George H. Bangs. Seated (left) William Moore, Secretary to
War Secretary Stanton and Allen Pinkerton.


When General George B. McClellan was given command of the Army of the Potomac in November 1861, Pinkerton came to Washington with him. It was at this time that Pinkerton was given the responsibility for security and counterintelligence within the nation's capital. How Pinkerton was going to handle this new assignment was spelled out in a letter to McClellan. In it, Pinkerton wrote:

In operating with my detective force, I shall endeavor to test all suspected persons in various ways. I shall seek access to their houses, clubs, and places of resort, managing that among the members of my force shall be ostensible representatives of every grade of society, from the highest to the most menial. Some shall have the entree to the gilded salon of the suspected aristocratic traitors, and be their honored guests, while others will act in the capacity of valets, or domestics of various kinds, and try the efficacy of such relations with the household to gain evidence. Other suspected ones will be tracked by the "Shadow" detective, who will follow their every foot-step, and note their every action.
I also propose to employ a division of my force for the discovery of any secret traitorous organization which may be in existence; and if any such society is discovered, I will have my operatives become members of the same, with a view to ascertaining the means employed in transmitting messages through the lines, and also for the purpose of learning, if possible, the plans of the rebels. All strangers arriving in the city, whose associations or acts may lay them open to suspicion, will be subjected to a strict surveillance.12

Another counterintelligence technique used by Pinkerton was the double agent. As Pinkerton wrote:

In war, as in a game of chess, if you know the moves of your adversary in advance, it is then an easy matter to shape your own plans, and make your moves accordingly, and, of course always to your own decided advantage. So in this case, I concluded that if the information intended for the rebels could first be had by us, after that, they were welcome to all the benefit they might derive from them.13

Another of Pinkerton's agents infiltrated the Southern bureau of intelligence in Richmond, managed partly by the Confederate government and
partly by wealthy merchants in Richmond and Baltimore. This bureau was said to employ about 50 persons to carry information across Union lines. Pinkerton's agent, George Curtis, gained access to the "subterranean headquarters" of this bureau, which actually were located above ground in a Richmond hotel, by claiming to be a dealer in contraband material. According to Pinkerton, Curtis was such an excellent spy that the "subterranean headquarters, with its corps of operatives, never did the Union cause any practical harm, but a great deal of good, in furnishing intelligence of the movements and intentions of the rebel forces."

Pinkerton's memoirs also recount how his service used women and slaves as spies. Mrs. E. H. Baker, a former resident of Richmond who had moved north at the war's start, was one notable woman agent. Returning to Richmond in Pinkerton's service, she renewed an acquaintance with a Confederate officer and his wife, and learned of a planned test of a submarine battery. She pursued this lead and asked to be invited to the test of a small working model of the Merrimac. She immediately carried news of the test back to Pinkerton who alerted General McClellan and the Secretary of the Navy. Pinkerton saw this incident as changing the destiny of the Union in the face of this "infernal machine."

Pinkerton stopped working with the Union Army after General McClellan was removed as commander, although he continued to investigate government fraud cases. In 1865 he severed his connection with the Secret Service and returned to Chicago to pursue his detective profession. What he provides in his memoir is his case that his wartime agents operated heroically in the service of their country.


1. Dr. Harold Relyea, Analyst in American National Government, Government and General Research Division, Congressional Research Center, Library of Congress, for the Select Committee on Intelligence and printed in Supplemental Reports on Intelligence Activities, Book VI, Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, 1976.

2. George Fort Milton. Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column. New York, the Vanguard Press, 1942, p. 48.

3. Frederick Bancroft. The Life of Williams H. Seward (Vol. 2). New York, Harper and Brothers, 1900, p. 260.

4. Ibid., pp. 261-262.

5. See Richardson, op cit. (Vol. 7), pp. 3303-3305.

6. The correspondence of this panel and lists of those released at its direction may be found in Fred C. Ainsworth and Joseph W. Kirkley, comps. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series II (Vol. 2). Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1897.

7. Milton, op. cit., p. 49.

8. See John W. Headley, Confederate Operations in Canada and New York, New York and Washington, The Neale Publishing Company, 1906; also of related interest is James D. Bulloch, The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe, New York, Thomas Yoseloff, 1956; originally published 1884.

9. Milton, loc. cit.

10. Ibid., pp. 50-51.

11. This article was written by Louise Sayre, National Security Agency.

12. Allan Pinkerton, The Spy of the Rebellion, New York, G.W. Carleton and Company, 1883, pp. 247-248.

13. Ibid., pp. 429-430.


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