Thursday, September 12, 2019


Much has been written about the Civil War and students of military history know much about the great battles and the generals who led and fought those bloody battles.

But perhaps less well known are the Civil War spies who fed those generals the intelligence they required to engage their enemy. Douglas Waller, a former reporter for Time magazine and Newsweek, and the author of “The Commandos: The Inside Story of America’s Secret Soldiers,” “Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage” and other books on intelligence and the military, offers a comprehensive look back at the men and women who risked their lives to provide vital intelligence to the Union Army during the Civil War.      

In Mr. Waller’s “Lincoln’s Spies: Their Secret War to Save a Nation,” readers learn about the Civil War’s military intelligence officers, counter-intelligence officers, secret agents and informants. Although there are numerous historical characters portrayed in the book, Mr. Waller stated he wanted to write an ensemble biography of four Union spies during the Civil War. According to Mr. Waller, two of the spies were heroes, one was a failure and one was a scoundrel.

“Lincoln’s Spies” is the story of Allan Pinkerton, Lafayette Baker, George Sharpe and Elizabeth Van Lew — important Union agents who operated mainly in the Civil War’s Eastern Theater, which included Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The U.S. government, of course, ran intelligence operations elsewhere — against Confederates in the Deep South and the western campaigns, for example, and to root out pro-Confederate subversives in the northeastern and northwestern states. To cover all the spying that went on in the Civil War would consume several volumes,” Mr. Waller writes in his note to readers.

“This book focuses on the espionage and counter-espionage of these four operatives in what became a crucial region for the war. The Eastern Theater, in which these agents fought in secret and the Union Army of the Potomac battled the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the open, included the capitals for the two belligerents, Washington and Richmond. On its fields and in its towns and cities were waged many of the largest, costliest, and most consequential battles, which helped determine the outcome of this tragic conflict and the fate of a nation.”

Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, was hired to protect Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration on a train journey through Baltimore and foil assassination plots. He later joined the staff of Union Gen. George McClellan and served as his spymaster during the early years of the Civil War. Although he and his detectives were good at catching Confederate spies and uncovering plots, the famous private detective and his operatives did not have the military training or experience to collect or analyze intelligence. He often presented the general with reports that overestimated enemy strength. When McClellan was sacked by President Lincoln for not being aggressive enough, Pinkerton returned to running his detective agency.   

Col. George Sharpe, a prosperous New York lawyer prior to joining the Army, took over spymaster duties from Pinkerton. Although he had no experience in espionage matters, he took almost immediately to the spy game.

“Unlike Pinkerton, Sharpe was a military man, with some combat experience,” Mr. Waller writes. “He understood the intelligence a commander needed and the value of speeding information to him quickly.”

Elizabeth Van Lew, daughter of a wealthy Richmond merchant, already had empathy for slaves before she was sent to be educated in Philadelphia. She returned to Richmond with a hatred of slavery and the Confederacy. In her 40s and unmarried, she managed a successful Union spy ring out of her mansion.

When the war began, the Union Army’s top general, Winfred Scott, was surrounded mostly by Southern officers that the president didn’t trust. “Scott knew he had to set up some kind of intelligence collection service — and that he had to keep it secret from the officers closest to him,” Mr. Waller writes. “It may explain why the general was willing to meet with a poorly educated and aimless drifter who had been roaming the country for nearly two decades and who now had the vague notion of serving the Union cause as a spy.” 

The drifter was Lafayette Baker, an unscrupulous former vigilante who called himself a “Special Provost Marshall” and a “Colonel.” He hired shady spies, thieves and prostitutes to gather information that led to the arrest of traitors and crooks.

“Lincoln’s Spies” is a fascinating, well-written and well-researched book that covers the Civil War chronologically while highlighting the actions of the four spies and others.

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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By Douglas Waller

Simon & Simon, $35, 624 pages

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