THE SECRET SERVICE
OF THE CONFEDERACY
by John W. Headley
(Captain, Confederate States Army)
Unconscious Allies of the Confederacy-
Newspaper correspondents in the field with the Union Army, whose movements were many times revealed by newspaper despatches supplying information to the southerners.
The Confederate States had no such secret-service organization as was developed and used by the Federal Government during the Civil War, and yet it is probably true that, in the matter of obtaining needed military information, the Confederacy was, on the whole, better served than was the North. Of course, many uses of the Federal secret service were not necessary in the South. The Government at Washington had to face at once the tremendous problem of separating in the non-seceding States loyalty from disloyalty to the idea that the Union formed under the Constitution was a unit and could not be divided. Thousands of citizens in the North not only denied the right of the Federal Government to invade and coerce the South, but also in this belief many stood ready to aid the Confederate cause.
From such conditions as these the Southern States were practically free. They contained nothing that the North needed for the coming conflict, while the latter had much to give. The prevention of assistance to the North was not one of the problems of existence. So, while a certain class of spies and detectives for the Union and the Confederacy operated on both sides of the dividing line, the Confederacy needed none of these in its own territory. Capable devotees of the South readily volunteered for secret service within the Federal military lines or territory, while the United States Government was compelled to organize and employ several classes of spies and detectives all over the North, for the purpose of suppressing bounty-jumpers, fraudulent discharges, trade in contraband goods, and contract frauds, thus maintaining a large force which was prevented from doing any kind of secret service within the Southern lines or territory.
The personality, the adventures, and the exploits of the Confederate scouts and spies are seldom noted in the annals of the war, and yet these unknown patriots were often a controlling factor in the hostilities. Generals depended largely on the information they brought, in planning attack and in accepting or avoiding battle. It is indeed a notable fact that a Confederate army was never surprised in an important engagement of the war.
Apart from the military service in the field, the State Department at Richmond maintained a regular line of Couriers at all periods between the capital and Maryland, and thus kept familiar with every phase of the war situation at Washington and in the North. The operations of these skilful secret agents gave constant employment to the detective force of the Federal Middle Department. One efficient means of securing information was through agents at Washington, Baltimore, New York, and other Northern points, who used the cipher and inserted personals in friendly newspapers, such as the New YorkNews, Express, and Day Book. These journals were hurried through to Richmond. At the opening of the war many well-known people of Baltimore and Washington were as hostile to the federal Government as were the inhabitants of Richmond and New Orleans, and these were of great service to the Southern armies.
Colonel Thomas Jordan, adjutant-general of the Confederate forces under General Beauregard at Manassas, made arrangements with several Southern sympathizers at Washington for the transmission of war information, which in almost every instance proved to be extremely accurate. On July 4, 1861, some Confederate pickets captured a Union soldier who was carrying on his person the returns of McDowell's army. "His statement of the strength and composition of that force," relates Beauregard, in "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," "tallied so closely with that which had been acquired through my Washington agencies... that I could not doubt them... I was almost as well advised of the strength of the hostile army in my front as its commander."
Not only that, but Beauregard had timely and accurate knowledge of McDowell's advance to Manassas. A former government clerk was sent to Mrs. Rose O'Neil Greenhow, at Washington, who was one of the trusted friends of the Confederacy and most loyal to its cause. She returned word in cipher immediately, "Order issued for McDowell to march upon Manassas to-night," and the vitally important despatch was in Beauregard's hands between eight and nine o'clock on that same night, July 16, 1861. Every outpost commander was immediately notified to fall back to the positions designated for this contingency, and Johnston in the valley, who had likewise been informed by careful scouting parties that Patterson was making no move upon him, was able to exercise the option permitted by the Richmond authorities in favor of a swift march to Beauregard's assistance.
Thus "opportunely informed," the Confederate leader prepared for battle without orders or advice from Richmond. The whole of these momentous Confederate activities were carried out through the services of couriers, spies, and scouts. In the opening of the war, at least, the Confederate spy and scout system was far better developed than was the Federal.
As the war went on, each commanding general relied upon his own spies and the scouts of his cavalry leader. Colonel J. Stoddard Johnston was a nephew of Albert Sidney Johnston and served on General Bragg's staff from Stone's River to Chattanooga. All through this important campaign he had charge of the secret-service orders and reports. he has related how he always utilized soldiers of known intelligence, honor, and daring as spies, without extra compensation, and employed the cavalrymen of Wheeler, Morgan, and Forrest as scouts. It was the same with Lee and the commanders in the Trans-Mississippi Department.
In "Stonewall" Jackson's 1862 campaign against Banks, Fremont, and Shields in the valley of Virginia, the Federal forces were defeated, within a month, in five battles by an army that aggregated one-fifth their total, through divided, numbers. This great achievement must not be attributed entirely to the genius of Jackson and the valor of his army. A part of the glory must be given to the unknown daring spies and faithful scouts of Ashby's cavalry, who were darting, day and night, in all directions. Their unerring information enabled Jackson to strike and invariably escape. On the other hand, the Federal generals had no such means of gathering information, and they seem never to have been protected from surprise or advised of Jackson's movements.
Among the most noted bands of Confederate scouts was one organized by General Cheatham, over which one Henry B. Shaw was put in command. Shaw, who had been a clerk on a steamboat plying between Nashville and New Orleans, had accurate knowledge of middle Tennessee, which in the summer of 1863 was in the hands of the Federal army, owing to Bragg's retreat from Tullahoma. He assumed the disguise of an itinerant doctor while in the Federal lines, and called himself Dr. C. E. Coleman. In the Confederate army he was known as Captain C. E. Coleman, commander of General Bragg's private scouts. The scouts dressed as Confederate soldiers, so that in case of capture they would not be treated as spies. Nevertheless, the information they carried was usually put into cipher.
Shaw was finally captured and sent to Johnson's Island.(See Historic Marker) The command of the famous scouts devolved upon Alexander Gregg, who continued to sign despatches "C. E. Coleman," and the Federal authorities never knew that the original leader of the daring band was in safe-keeping in Sandusky Bay.
On April 7, 1864, President Davis, at Richmond, sent the following telegram to the Honorable Jacob Thompson, in Mississippi, "If your engagements permit you to accept service abroad for the next six months, please come here immediately." Thompson was a citizen of Oxford, Mississippi, and said to be one of the wealthiest men in the South. He was, besides, a lawer and a statesman, had served in Congress, and in the cabinet of President Buchanan as Secretary of the Interior.
The reason of the sending for Thompson was that the Confederate Government had decided to inaugurate certain hostile movements in Northern territory. Clement C. Clay, Jr., of Alabama, was selected as Mr. Thompson's fellow commissioner to head the Department of the North. Both were among the foremost public men of the Confederacy. Their mission was one of great secrecy, and if one of their projects could be successfully accomplished there was no doubt, in the opinion of the Southern Government, that the war would be brought to a speedy conclusion. Negotiations looking toward peace were opened with men like Horace Greeley and Judge Black, but correspondence with Greeley was made public, and the matter reached an untimely end.
There existed in the Northern States an essentially military organization known as the Sons of Liberty, whose principle was that the States were sovereign and that there was no authority in the central Government to coerce a seceding State. It is estimated that the total membership of this society was fully three hundred thousand, of whom eighty-five thousand resided in Illinois, fifty thousand in Indiana, and forty thousand in Ohio. The feeling was general among the members that it would be useless to hold the coming presidential election, since Mr. Lincoln held power and would undoubtedly be reelected. Therefore it was planned to resort to force. Plans for a revolution and a new Confederacy were promoted, in all of which the Southern commissioners took a most active interest.
The grand commander of the Sons of Liberty was C. L. Vallandigham, a sympathizer with the south, who in 1863 had been expelled from Federal territory to the Confederacy. He managed, however, to make his way to Canada, and resided at Windsor. The prominence of his attitude against the further prosecution of the war led to his receiving the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Ohio, and, braving rearrest, he returned home in June, 1864, ostensibly to begin the campaign, but with a far deeper purpose in view.
In brief, Vallandigham purposed by a bold, vigorous, and concerted action, engineered by the Sons of Liberty, to detach the States of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio from the Union, if the Confederate authorities would, at the same time, move sufficient forces into Kentucky and Missouri to hold those lukewarm Federal States. The five commonwealths would thereupon organize the Northwestern Confederacy upon the basis of State sovereignty, and the former Federal Union would now be in three parts, and compelled, perforce, to end the contest with the South. The date for the general uprising was several times postponed, but finally settled for the 16th of August. Confederate officers were sent to various cities to direct the movement. Escaped Confederate prisoners were enlisted in the cause. Thompson furnished funds for perfecting county organizations. Arms were purchased in New York and secreted in Chicago.
Peace meetings were announced in various cities to prepare the public mind for the coming revolution. The first one, held in Peoria, was a decided success, but the interest it aroused had barely subsided when th publication of the Greeley correspondence marked the new Confederacy as doomed to stillbirth. The peace party in the Union was won over to the idea of letting the ballot-box in the coming presidential election decide the question of war or peace. The Sons of Liberty, none too careful as to who were admitted to membership, inadvertently elected a number of Federal spies to their ranks. Prominent members were arrested. The garrison at Camp Douglas, Chicago, was increased to seven thousand. The strength of the allies was deemed insufficient to contend with such a force, and the project was abandoned. The Confederates returned to Canada.
Before the prospects of the Northwestern Confederacy had begun to wane, Captain Charles H. Cole, one of Forrest's cavalrymen, confined as a prisoner on Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay, made his escape, reporting in Canada to Mr. Thompson, plans were made at once for the seizure of the United States gunboat Michigan, which was guarding Johnson's Island, and the release of the prisoners. The plot developed rapidly, and the services of Captain John Y. Beall of the Confederate navy were added in carrying out the scheme. The Confederates on the island were ready to overpower their guards as soon as the Michigan and her fourteen guns were in Beall's hands. The 19th of December was decided on for the date of the seizure. Cole, who had become very friendly with the Michigan's officers, was to go on board and give the signal for Beall and a boat-load of Confederates to approach and surprise the vessel. Beall, who had mustered some twenty Confederates at Windsor, was approaching Sandusky Bay in the steamer Philo Parsons, which he had seized, when seventeen of his men mutinied, and he was obliged to turn back. To make the failure complete, Cole fell under suspicion and was arrested even while waiting for Beall to appear.
The latter was arrested at the Suspension Bridge railway station, about the middle of December, while working on a plan to resue seven captured Confederate generals, as they were being transferred from Johnson's Island to Fort Lafayette. He was hanged in New York, February 24, 1865, by order of a military court, for the seizure of the steamer Philo Parsons. [John Yeats Beall was captured near Niagara Falls, New York on December 16, 1864 after a failed attempt to derail a train near Buffalo. Tried for piracy and spying, he was convicted and sentenced to hang. Beall was executed at Governor's Island, New York on March 24, 1865.]
The active commissioners were also attempting to carry out an economic policy, which had been suggested by Secretary of State Benjamin and developed by a Nashville banker, John Porterfield by name. It was hoped thereby to work great damage to, and bring much distrust upon, the Federal finances. The Southern sympathizers in the North had, in obedience to request, converted much paper money into gold and withdrawn it from circulation. This however, caused the price of gold to rise until it reached 290, which great figure naturally caused a change of policy. When the precious metal had fallen as low as 180, Mr. Porterfield went to Montreal, his temporary residence, to New York and began purchasing and exporting gold, selling it for sterling bills of exchange, and reconverting this into gold, the amount lost in trans-shipment being met out of the funds placed at his disposal by the commissioners. About two million dollars was thus exported, but before any perceptible disaster had been wrought upon the national finances, General Butler, in New York, arrested a former partner of Porterfield, and the latter prudently returned to Montreal.
About the 1st of September, Thompson's force of secret workers in the Southern cause had been joined by Colonel Robert M. Martin, who had been a brigade commander in Morgan's cavalry, and myself [Captain John W. Headley], who had served on Martin's staff. We had been detached for this service by the Secretary of War. We expected to take an active part in an attempt by the Sons of Liberty to inaugurate a revolution in New York City, to be made on the day of the presidential election, November 8th. Thompson sent Martin with seven selected Confederate officers, myself included, to report for duty to the leaders. Martin was in charge of the whole thing. The plot was exposed by Northern secret service agents, and General Butler with ten thousand troops arrived, which so disconcerted the Sons of liberty that the attempt was postponed. We remained in the city awaiting events, but the situation being chaotic we had nothing to do.
When Sherman burned Atlanta, November 15th, Martin proposed to fire New York City. This was agreed to by Thompson, and the project was finally undertaken by Martin and five others, including myself.
On the evening of November 25th, I went to my room in the Astor house, at twenty minutes after seven. I hung the bedclothes over the foot-board, piles chairs, drawers, and other material on the bed, stuffed newspapers into the heap, and poured a bottle of turpentine over the whole mass. I then opened a bottle of "Greek Fire" and quickly spilled it on top. It blazed instantly. I locked the door and went downstairs. Leaving the key at the office, as usual, I passed out. I did likewise at the city Hotel, Everett House, and United States Hotel. At the same time Martin operated at the Hoffman House, Fifth Avenue, St. Denis, and others. Altogether our little band fired nineteen hotels. Captain Kennedy went to Barnum's Museum and broke a bottle on the stairway, creating a panic. Lieutenant Harrington did the same at the Metropolitan Theater, and Lieutenant Ashbrook at Niblo's Garden. I threw several bottles into barges of hay, and caused the only fires, for, stra nge to say, nothing serious resulted from any of the hotel fires. It was not discovered until the next day, at the Astor House, that my room had been set on fire. Our reliance on "Greek Fire" was the cause of the failure. We found that it could not be depended upon as an agent for incendiary work. Kennedy was hanged in New York, March 25, 1865.
We left New York on the following Saturday over the Hudson River Railroad, spent Sunday at Albany, and arrived in Toronto on Monday afternoon.
Every Confederate plot in the North was fated to fail. The Federal secret service proved to be more than a match for the Sons of Liberty and the Confederates. Captain T. H. Hines, another daring officer of Morgan's command, had undertaken an even more extensive plot in Chicago for November 8th, election night. He had to assist him many escaped prisoners of war, Confederate soldiers, and members of the Sons of Liberty. The plot involved not only the overpowering of the little garrison at Camp Douglas, and the release of over eight thousand military prisoners, but the cutting of telegraph wires, the seizure of banks, the burning of the railroad stations, the appropriation of arms and ammunition within the city, in fact, the preparation for a general uprising in favor of terminating the war.
The federal secret service, however, forestalled the conspirator's plans, and one hundred and six of them were arrested on November 7th. They were subsequently tried by a military court at Cincinnati, and many were sent to penitentiaries for terms ranging from three years to life.
Such were the last of the Confederate operations from Canada. The considerable force collected there gradually returned to the Confederacy. Martin and I left during the first week of February, 1865. We went from Toronto to Cincinnati and Louisville, where we attempted to kidnap the Vice president elect, Andrew Johnson, on his way to the inauguration. This failing, about ten o'clock on the morning of March 1st we went to a stable where Major Fossee of General Palmer's staff kept three fine horses. Two of these we seized, locked the surprised attendants in the stable and rode away to the south. We were at Lynchburg when Lee surrendered at Appomattox, eighteen miles away.
As we came to Salisbury, North Carolina, we met two gentlemen strolling alone in the outskirts. Martin recognized them as president Davis and Secretary of State Benjamin. We halted, and Mr. Benjamin remembered martin. He enquired for Colonel Thompson. Continuing south, we fell in at Chester, South Carolina, with Morgan's old brigade under general Basil W. Duke, and marched in president Davis' escort as far as Washington, Georgia, where he left us all behind, and the Confederacy perished from the earth.