Reviews: Books on Civil War Spies
By Wesley Britton
Reviews in this file:
* Bakeless, John. Spies of the Confederacy. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970)
* Varon, Elizabeth R. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Bakeless, John. Spies of the Confederacy. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970)
Written by a former intelligence officer known for his books and research on both Revolutionary War and Civil War spies, this extensive overview has a mixed reputation.
Beginning with the origins of Confederate espionage, Bakeless traces the well-known ease the South had in the early years of the war. In his first pages, he demonstrates how rebel sympathizers were largely already in place before the outbreak of hostilities while the North was still waiting to learn who the enemy was. Bakeless recounts how the Union didn’t help itself due to ineptitude, carelessness, and almost comic efforts at counter-espionage. Because of excellent intelligence, the South scored two quick victories in 1861 at Harpers Ferry and the first battle at Bull Run. And the good intelligence kept coming, especially for Generals Stuart and Jackson.
After setting the stage, Bakeless mixes the documented record with colorful anecdotes about Confederate spies. For example, rebel generals faced one dilemma similar to the CIA’s worries about KGB defectors—were deserters crossing the lines plants or real? Surprisingly, Bakeless only provides quick sketches of the beautiful Washington hostesses able to use feminine charms to pry secrets from high-ups and low-level clerks alike while hiding secret correspondence in their hair and shoes. And hiding spies under their petticoats, as in the slightly built, 91 pound super-spy, Frank Stringfellow. He not only fit under hoop skirts, he was able to disguise himself as a woman as well.
Bakeless is far more detailed recounting the exploits of Stringfellow and Captain Thomas Conrad, drawing mainly from their own accounts of their adventures. He gives considerable space to the spunky Belle Boyd and Tennessee and Arkansas spies Sam Davis and David O. Dodd, although he spends more time exploring the circumstances of their hangings than their spy work. Along the way, he points out secret messages were hidden in coat linings—writing on silk doesn’t crinkle when clothing was being searched. Even in the early days of photography, photographs of secret documents were shrunk and hidden in coat buttons. Just as modern, wiretapping was common, as in the exploits of George Ellsworth, a Southern telegraph operator proficient at giving the Yankees false information. Bakeless also briefly describes the Confederate “Secret Service” which had nothing to do with protecting officials or gathering intelligence but rather in procuring and developing new weapons. One of these, designed by John Maxwell, was the “Horalogical Torpedo,” a time bomb.
Since its original publication, scholars have complained about some points in the book while others have used it as a frequently cited source. As Bakeless quotes passages from books written by ex-spies, it’s true he’s repeating claims clearly exaggerated. Others note his inclusion of certain operatives is suspect as combat intelligence personnel aren’t technically spies and he ignores Confederate agents abroad. According to the “SPIES, SCOUTS AND RAIDERS HOME PAGE, Bakeless was incorrect in one description. “James Harrison was not the spy who warned Longstreet and Lee of federal troop movements. It was actually Henry Thomas Harrison. He also was not an actor like James Harrison but a spy for the CSA Secretary of War.” (To be fair, the accompanying article had its own errors, such as repeating the claim that Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew was known as “Crazy Bet” during the war years. See Varon below.) (note 1)
While these criticisms have merit, Bakeless did point out there are distinctions between scouts and spies while discussing both. His wide canvas—already broad enough—would have been unwieldy including European agents where Bakeless had not done primary research. One puzzling definition of a spy is when Bakeless repeatedly claims they must be in disguise and not in uniform, but this doesn’t fit the numerous “Girl Spies” and rural citizens who provided information and acted as couriers but were not part of military units. In many discussions, Bakeless makes it clear he is making speculations and drawing from what resources he could find, piecing together events that were reported in contradictory accounts.
Like many non-fiction books before and since, Bakeless both corrects previously erroneous errors and creates new ones of his own. Certainly, much scholarship since 1970 must be taken into account by any devotee of the period. General readers, however, still have a very readable overview of the subject and need realize no single volume ever contains the full story. It’s a book that remains useful as a starting point.
scard.buffnet.net/pages/spy/spy.html - 30k –
Varon, Elizabeth R. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. (Oxford University Press, 2003).
The title of this highly regarded, well researched “biography” of Elizabeth Van Lew, a “Unionist” sympathizer and spymaster in Richmond, is a bit misleading. While the exploits of Van Lew gives this very readable book its focal point, Varon offers much more than the life of one extraordinary woman.
Varon begins her narrative by painting a richly detailed portrait of Southern women before and during the war. The author explains why gender was both an aid and hindrance for those Virginian women seeing themselves as patriots in a culture expecting well-bred women to be naturally supportive of the rebel cause. Varon’s vista includes sketches of other agents, soldiers, and politicians for both sides with old family connections to establish how newspapers, the courts, and the government attempted to categorize women by their political correctness.
Thus, Southern belles like Van Lew, Abby Green, and Lucy A. Wright could, on one hand, demonstrate the Christian duty expected of 19th century women by visiting Union prisoners in hospitals while smuggling instructions to them to help in escapes. For example, while not involved with the 1864 Dalmon Raid, when a small Union band tried to invade Richmond, Varon uses Van Lew’s comments on the incident to illustrate how Van Lew’s sensibilities were shaped by her certainty that “slave power” was the reason for the war. These sensibilities led to her taking action beginning with her most famous escapade. Van Lew provided financial support to those who sheltered the escapees in the breakout at the Libby Prison, when 109 men tunneled their way to freedom. From that point on, she played a very dangerous game indeed.
While not really a spy per se in the early years of the war, Van Lew wore disguises as she assisted the new loyalist underground—the ironical situation of black slaves helping white soldiers go north to freedom. Then, in 1864, the emphasis of the underground, with Van Lew’s home its nerve center, shifted as Union troops came closer and closer to Richmond. Van Lew became spymaster for a wide network of Unionists, accepting orders from Generals Grant and Benjamin Butler and coordinated the activities of couriers and informants. This inter-racial network was able to provide Union forces an average of three useable intelligence reports a week, greatly aiding in the fall of Richmond. She was able to do all this, escaping arrest by the Confederates, by ironically creating the pose of a well-heeled woman who “talked too much,” and therefore an unlikely person to act on her beliefs. She avoided danger by over-estimating the skills of the watchers around her home while they under-estimated her.
Grant was grateful to Van Lew, the general eager for both reports of enemy defenses and the state of morale of Richmond citizens as the war entered its final phases. In 1869, President Grant rewarded her by appointing Van Lew postmaster of Richmond, an act that angered Southerners opposed to women’s suffrage, her hiring of black postal carriers, and her well-known reputation as a Federal spy. At the same time, much of her network found work as Federal detectives. Varon chronicles Van Lew’s legacy as a pioneer in the politics of the period, ended when Democrats reclaimed the White House. After that, Van Lew became a recluse, shunned by her neighbors as her once palatial home became a scene of squalor and disrepair. She was supported in her last years by donations from influential Bostonians, not by the much vaunted Southern Christian culture of which she had been one of its truest exponents.
With an even hand, Varon deals with the myths that have surrounded Van Lew’s legacy since her death in 1900. For example, Varon offers plausible explanations that a very special slave of Van Lew’s might have spied on Jefferson Davis in the Southern White House, but admits considerable doubt this occurred. She completely discredits the legend of "Crazy Bet," a spinster pictured as a mad old woman who wore odd clothes and had no friends. Quoting from Van Lew writings, she demonstrates the spymaster did not see herself as a spy at all—how could a patriot spy against their own government? In Van Lew’s view, she was a resister of “moral oppression,” racism pure and simple.
Varon clearly establishes the dual legacy of Van Lew—her own achievements as a spymaster and that she was not a lone activist but rather a member of a large number of Southerners who supported the Union. Then, Van Lew’s service in the male-dominated postal service shows how Van Lew opened doors for women in government service and the hiring of ex-slaves into respectable positions. She paid a heavy personal cost for all these accomplishments, both financially and suffering an unfair reputation that followed her until, well, the publication of this very important study.
Note: The Van Lew story was dramatized in a 1987 CBS TV movie, A Special Friendship, purporting to tell the story of Van Lew (Tracy Pollan) and Mary Bowser, (Akosua Busia), a former slave who was a principal member of the spy ring. Much of the script was obvious nonsense, including an interrogation by a Confederate officer said to have once been Van Lew’s fiancée. Another example of romance triumphing any attempt to be at least quasi-accurate in Hollywood.
WEBSITES OF NOTE
Civil War - Confederacy - Intelligence Specific
Female Spies of the Confederacy - Confederate Women Spies
Belle Boyd, Antonia Forc, Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Nancy Hart, Laura Ratcliffe, Loreta Janeta Velazquez and more.
womenshistory.about.com/od/civilwar/a/women_spies_con.htm - 24k - Jul 13, 2007 –