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African American Contributions During the Civil War

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Intelligence gathered during the Civil war came from many sources however we will look at on the African American role … African intelligence information was some times referred to as “Black Dispatches”, this was a term used by Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by Negroes. This source of information represented one of the most creative and productive types of intelligence information obtained and acted upon by Union forces throughout the Civil War. Black Dispatches resulted from frontline tactical debriefings of slaves--either runaways or those having just come under Union control. Many African Americans contributed, to tactical and strategic Union intelligence through behind-the-lines missions and agent-in-place operations. Two such Union agents functioned as long-term penetrations of Confederate President Jefferson Davis "White House" staff in Richmond, Virginia. Even such a prominent woman as Harriet Tubman, best known for her activities involving the "underground railroad," played a vital role in gathering Union intelligence.

The value of the information that could be gathered, both covertly and overtly, by African Americans behind Confederate lines was clearly understood by almost all Union generals early in the war. Popular recognition of this type of intelligence was very apparent through a stream of articles and stories in the Northern press publications during the war. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was very aware, and in May 1863 he said, "The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes" Said Lee. Because of the culture of slavery in the Southern States, Negroes involved in general activities could easily move about without causing any suspicion. Furthermore, officials and officers tended to ignore their presence as personal servants when discussing war-related matters.

After the war the intelligence contributions of African Americans was lost. While racial prejudice possibly played a large part in this, as it did regarding the military contributions of African American Union military units, several other factors also added to this lack of recognition. Historically, the most successful spies do not want their identities made public. Even people who may have provided just one-time pieces of useful intelligence usually prefer to remain anonymous. This was particularly true in the emotional time after the Civil War, when many of these African Americans lived near people still loyal to the South.

The simple lack of official records of intelligence gathering activities on both sides was another factor. Many of these records were purposely destroyed to protect those involved and still living. One of the last acts of the Confederate secretary of war before leaving Richmond in 1865 was to destroy virtually all intelligence files, including counter intelligence records regarding Union spies.

In Washington, the War Department turned over portions of its intelligence files to many of the participants involved. Most of these records were subsequently destroyed or lost. Thus, accounts by individuals of their parts in the war or official papers focusing on larger subjects, such as military official correspondence, have become important sources of information on intelligence activities. Much of this information is difficult to substantiate or place in perspective and context due to the lack of supporting documents.

Self-proclaimed spies or counterspies wrote about their experiences 19 were by men and 5 by women a total of twenty-four books were published after the war. 17 of these books came from the Union side and 7 from the Confederate side. (Note: African Americans wrote none of these.) Nevertheless, research of existing records does permit the identification of 9 African Americans whose intelligence contributions to the Union cause were significant.

One of the first large-scale Civil War battles resulted from information provided by George Scott, a runaway slave. He furnished intelligence on Confederate fortifications and troop movements to General Benjamin F. Butler, commander of Fort Monroe located at the mouth of the James River on the tip of the Virginia peninsula. Shortly after the beginning of the war, Butler had issued orders that all "contraband" arriving in Union lines be brought to his headquarters for debriefing. "Contraband" was a term used by Union officers to refer to slaves who had come under their control. These slaves continued to be the legal "property" of their Confederate owners until 1 January 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation became law.

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 fort. Butler's officers were impressed with Scott's information but he needed to confirm it. Scott agreed to accompany a Union solider on several scouting trips behind Confederate lines to obtain more specific intelligence information.

Based on the intelligence gained from these missions, Butler determined that Confederate forces were planning an attack on Newport News, which could isolate Fort Monroe from Union re-supply lines. He ordered a preemptive attack on the Confederate position, but the military operation was poorly conducted and ended in a Union defeat. Although the intelligence was solid, the military tactics were not.

As Union forces grew stronger and better organization was essential, Major General 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 his fame running a Chicago detective agency. Pinkerton, often used the alias Major Allen or E. J. Allen, he had the responsibilities of collecting information on the enemy and for counterintelligence activities against enemy agents. Most of the information he collected resulted from an extensive and well-organized debriefing program of people crossing over from Confederate lines. These informants included merchants with business ties on both sides, deserters from the Confederate Army, prisoners of war, civilians traveling to escape the fighting or for other personal business, and former slaves. While each group provided valuable information, Pinkerton soon discovered that a few former slaves were the most willing to cooperate and often had the best knowledge of Confederate fortifications, camps, and supply points.

Pinkerton instructed his operatives to focus their efforts on debriefing the former slaves. He also directed them to be on the lookout for former slaves who had some education or seemed particularly skilled



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