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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: SECRET AGENTS

Friday, June 22, 2012


(Southern style)

By Bob Hurst

There is an expression, often cited, which goes something like this: "May you live in interesting times." Even though this sounds quite benign, it is actually a curse whose true meaning expresses a desire for the receiver of this grammatical gem to experience trouble and disorder in their life. The irony of the statement is that "uninteresting times" in one's life - those of peace, tranquility and bliss - are actually the times that provide the best life experiences.

I thought of this expression recently while watching a news channel on television that was doing a story on the latest thing to come out of government insuring that we all live in "interesting times". This story involved the use of drones to fly over towns, neighborhoods, homes, wherever, which would give the controller of the drone the ability to spy on anyone of their choosing. It is not a pretty picture to contemplate and I began thinking wouldn't it be nice if "we the people" had spies all over Washington to report back to us the goings-on of our "masters" there in the district of corruption.

That thought, as do so many others, started me thinking about another time when there was a highly effective spy network in Washington providing much useful information to another group of "good guys" who, in this case, happened to be those fighting for independence for the South during the first part of the 1860's. Yes, folks, there were Confederate spies aplenty in Washington during that period and they formed a highly effective espionage network. This article will be a brief summary of a few of the activities of some of those remarkable Southerners.

There is a difficulty in writing about Confederate spies (or any spies for that matter) since the very best ones, unless they wrote their memoirs, remain unknown and shrouded in mystery. For instance, there is evidence that one Confederate spy spent the entire war working in the office of the chief of counterintelligence for the federal government completely unbeknownst to anyone in that agency. A name has been tagged to this Confederate operative, but more than likely it is not his real name. This guy was good!

Because of the nature of this beast, in this article I will focus primarily on those better-known Confederate clandestine operatives and operations about which much has been written or the participants penned memoirs.

Let me begin by saying that there were likely far more Southern "spies" than even imagined. This is because Washington is surrounded by Southern-friendly states. Virginia, on one side, was the titular head of the Confederate States and Maryland, on the other three sides, was full of Southern sympathizers and the state would likely have seceded and joined the Confederacy had not Lincoln had more than fifty members of the state legislature arrested and imprisoned before a secession vote could be taken. Nothing quite like having a president who disregards the Constitution of this country (although tempted, I will pursue this line of thought no further).

Most of the cadre of secret agents aiding the Southern Cause did not have to go through extensive training on spying techniques or find some way to work themselves into some critical position within the federal government. They had merely to continue living in their homes, leading their lives normally and going to work each day where their government job required them to be and, all the while, keeping their eyes and ears open. Some were staff personnel who, on a daily basis , were likely exposed to information that would be beneficial to the Southern war effort. Many more were minor officials in various federal agencies and, as such, were well-situated for espionage. Others, as I will mention later, were in high government positions.

Actually, many who were devoted to the South began establishing a Confederate secret intelligence system long before secession. These operatives, when it became obvious that hostilities were inevitable between the North and the South, set about establishing a system of secret intelligence and secret communications.

Another element that played a vital role in establishing this espionage system was the involvement of the secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle. The KGC not only provided spies for the South but also performed other subversive acts to undermine Union military efforts. Throughout the War the KGC provided to the Confederate government much classified information on Union military activities and troop numbers. Very little is known of the total scope of activities of this organization because of the ultra-secret nature of the society.

As I mentioned earlier, some of the Confederates engaged in espionage held high government posts. One prime example of this is John B. Floyd who served as Secretary of War under President James Buchanan and did not leave that position until the end of 1860. It has long been rumored (and speculated upon) that Secretary Floyd, well before the firing started, had ordered federal munitions stored in Southern arsenals so that Confederates could easily seize them once fighting began. Giving strong credence to this supposition is the fact that John B. Floyd was commissioned a Confederate brigadier general on May 23, 1861, less than five months after he left his position as United States Secretary of War. Coincidence, I guess.

Another example of a highly-placed Confederate sympathizer was Jacob Thompson who served as Secretary of the Interior under President Buchanan. It was Thompson who notified Confederate forces of the voyage of the STAR OF THE WEST that was attempting to smuggle food and troops surreptitiously into Fort Sumter. Confederate forces were ready for the steamer and were able to drive it away.

There were at least three Confederate spy rings that operated in Washington at various times. It is unlikely that any of these rings were connected since it is a sound principle of intelligence practice that various intelligence organizations operate independent of others.

The first Confederate spy net was established by Thomas Jordan who, at the time, was a captain in the U.S. Army. Jordan was a native Virginian who, to me, was one of the most interesting Confederate figures to come out of the War. His West Point roommate had been William Tecumseh Sherman and I've wondered if this might be one of the reasons he became such a solid Confederate. Jordan maintained his Union Army ties until he had his spy ring well established. He then turned management of this organization over to Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow (likely in early 1861) and joined the Confederate Army where his entire service was as a staff officer. He was promoted to brigadier general for gallantry at Shiloh. He was a prolific writer and, after the War, made many contributions to that fine compendium of the War, BATTLES AND LEADERS OF THE CIVIL WAR. Altogether a very interesting and accomplished person.

Tom Jordan had done his work so well in organizing his spy ring that it could continue to operate effectively without him under the astute management of Mrs. Greenhow. (Note: The August 2009 CONFEDERATE JOURNAL article was about Belle Boyd and Rose O'Neal Greenhow - two outstanding female spies for the Confederacy.) Rose Greenhow was a charming Southern lady who was a leader of Washington society. She was one of that cadre of attractive Southern women who maintained homes in the District and continued to ply their charms on Northern officers - much to the benefit of the Confederacy.

Rose Greenhow had been a fixture in Washington society since a young lady and her deceased husband had been a State Department official. With this background and her good looks, she was able to maintain connections with many highly-placed government types. Among those she entertained regularly at her fine home were Secretary of State William Seward; Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee; and Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon, also a member of the Military Affairs Committee.

It has been a shortcoming on the part of males throughout history that when in the presence of an attractive and charming woman they tend to lose their inhibitions and their common sense. Rose Greenhow was able to glean incredible bits of sensitive information from her many highly-positioned admirers. She received intimate love letters fron Senator Wilson and she commented upon how the cold and standoffish Seward could become quite affable and talkish when plied with various libations.

However she got the information, Rose was incredibly adept at gathering intelligence information beneficial to the Southern Cause. She was able to report to the Confederate government contents of correspondence between the commander of the U.S. Army, General Winfield Scott, and the chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee. She was able to learn the exact plans of General George McClellan and General Irvin McDowell on numerous occasions. She was also able to gather other tid-bits such as where guards for Abraham Lincoln would be stationed at various times. It was only after the arrest and imprisonment of Rose Greenhow and her daughter that Northern intelligence operations began to close the gap between their effectiveness and that of the Confederates in the field of espionage.

And, while speaking of Abraham Lincoln, his wife was a Kentuckian who had a brother, three half brothers and three brothers-in-law serving in the Confederate Army. It was frequently said that during the first few months of the conflict every decision made by Lincoln's cabinet was known in Richmond within twenty-four hours. Could it have been...nah, I won't even go there. They didn't get along very well, though. I also recall reading that there was discussion at one point by some northern senators who wanted Mrs. Lincoln brought up on charges of treason. Interesting.

Well, it certainly seems that our ancestors of this period lived in some "interesting times". Unfortunately, we are also living in "interesting times" when you consider the condition of the economy in this country, the world financial situation, our joblessness here, the staggering national debt that we are living under, our troops overseas and the constant threat of more involvement, the continuing breakdown of our society, the constant crime in our society, the ever-increasing partisanship on the part of the national media, the continuing turning-away of this country from our Christian roots, and the list goes on.

To conclude this article I would like to say that my personal preference , especially now that I have grown a bit older, is to live in peaceful, tranquil, I guess what could be called "uninteresting times". I do realize, however, that living in "interesting times" - those times of danger, turmoil and uncertainty - is not all bad. It is frequently during these "interesting times" that the creative genius of man is unleashed (frequently of necessity) and some truly amazing technological and social advances are made.

My wish for myself, and for all of you who read this column, is that the next few decades are filled with the uninteresting times of peace and tranquility.


Note: Previous articles of CONFEDERATE JOURNAL are available in book form. Articles from 2005 through 2007 are in Volume 1 and can be ordered online at Articles from 2008 through 2009 are in Volume 2 and can be ordered at

Bob Hurst is a Son of the South who has special interests in the Confederacy and the antebellum architecture of the South. He is Commander of Col. David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and is also 2nd Lt. Commander of the Florida Division, SCV. He can be contacted at or 850-878-7010 (after 9 PM).


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