A Superabundance of Female Spies
From Washn. Oct. 31’62
For Geo H Bangs Adams HdQrs
Madame Williams wife to the Clerk
of Major Cameron Paymaster now with
Army of Potomac passing off is
a South Carolinian was sent for
to join her husband & information
says has letter for the south
quilted in her chemise or skirts
is to go through the lines
& will also Carry intelligence she
ought to be found & searched
As also her husband signed E
J Allen cut open her things
What makes a war civil? The Romans who invented the term ‘civil war’ (bellum civile) defined it as a war among fellow citizens (cives). The same Latin root element that produced the adjective describing the worst and most barbaric type of warfare also created the notions of “civility” and “civilization.”
With the outbreak of the Civil War, these last notions seemed to come crashing down. The values that Americans had long cultivated – national unity, moderation, compromise, aversion to secrecy and subterfuge, and what Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic cords of memory,” were swept away under the combined onslaught of sectional loyalties, disputes over slavery, and military necessity.
Yet some foundations held. The shared bonds of personal friendship, marriage, and family, transcended sectional divides and political interests. Officers and soldiers on both sides held the ties of manly friendship sacrosanct, and both Union and Confederate authorities felt compelled to stick to the norms of “civilized” warfare or at least aspire to it. Among these norms were the respect for the obligations imposed by marriage and family and the codes of behavior dictated by ideals of gentlemanly manliness and feminine gentility.
Thus, despite ever growing concern about smuggling and espionage, neither side attempted to close off the borders and ban traveling and communications between divided families. Regulations put in place by the beginning of 1862 by both sides allowed family members to cross the lines, provided that they obtained a pass from a provost marshal or the Secretary of War. The standards of vetting the applicants were rather loose; often they did not extend beyond having the applicant to give his or her word not to do anything untoward.
The word of a lady carried additional weight. As historian Amy Murrell Taylor (The Divided family in Civil War America, University of North Carolina Press, 2005) shows, women could count on preferential treatment. No honorable man could ignore, or decline, a plea of a dutiful wife, devoted sister, or a loving mother. Treated as “the weaker sex” and urged not to bother their pretty little heads with the filth of politics, ladies could also plead detachment from the war which was, after all, a man’s business. As one woman with admitted Confederate sympathies remarked: “I think inasmuch as ladies did not make this war, they are silly in the extreme to mix themselves up in it.” Being a lady was synonymous with integrity and trustworthiness.
A lady was entitled a respect that no gentleman, Union or Confederate, could fail to honor. Yet there was growing evidence that ladies were deeply involved in the conflict. In early 1862, the New York Tribune, fuming over the fact that “nearly every instance” of a pass granted to a lady ended up in her carrying “letters and other documents” hidden in her clothes, called for a complete ban on the passes issued to women. The Union authorities, however, never went as far as to dismantle the system. The most they could do was to issue fewer passes, even despite what Halleck lamented in 1864, as “a superabundance of female spies among us now.”
With the exception of such celebrities as Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Belle Boyd, Elizabeth Van Lew, or Pauline Cushman, the information about these female spies is hard to come by. A historian is often left with limited information offered by applications for passes, arrest records (in case a woman spy was ever caught), or an occasional mention in a diary of a private letter. For example, a letter from the Huntington’s collection of papers of New Yorker John Burrud relates of “one woman” who was “allowed to go with the army. She is a Capt. Wife on Gen. Sheridan’s staff. She acts as a spie. She is very successful in her business. She will go all through the Rebel army, and is of great service to the Union cause. This must be kept in secret of course.” (John Burrud collection, mssHM 75242 1864, Sept. 23).
The archive of the United States Military Telegraph offers a new and untapped resource for historians. To wit: the above telegram.
The message is addressed to George H. Bangs (1831-1883), a superintendent of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The sender, “J. Allen,” was Bangs’ boss, Allan Pinkerton. Contrary to Pinkerton’s later claims, he did not head the United States Army Secret Service. Rather, much like Anson Stager, Pinkerton was an entrepreneur contracted to perform a vital service for the Army of the Potomac. In the first months of the war, his old friend George B. McClellan asked him to head his intelligence operations. Because Pinkerton’s name was so familiar, he operated under the pseudonym Major E.J. Allen.
Pinkerton turned out to be patently unqualified to conduct military intelligence. As a private detective, however, he proved very adept at exposing spies and saboteurs. It was he who exposed Rose O’Neal Greenhow as a Confederate spy, a feat that he accomplished by utilizing his surveillance skills honed working divorce cases.
“Madame Williams,” a mere paymaster’s clerk wife, is, of course, harder to place than the Washington socialite. She would have received her pass from the office of the Provost Marshal of Washington D.C., and it’s possible that her application file could still be located among the papers of the Provost Marshal at the National Archives and Records Administration (RG-110.2)
The office was then headed by Lafayette C. Baker who also presided over the National Detective Bureau, another private outfit employed by the War Department. It is possible that it was Baker who had alerted Pinkerton to the danger posed by a clerk’s wife.
“Madame Williams” indeed could do considerable damage. Paymasters, i.e. military accountants charged with distributing soldiers’ pay, reported to the office of Quartermaster General. They were not attached to particular regiments, but rather shuttled between Washington and the various army units. Since her husband’s boss, Major Bruce Cameron, was a paymaster assigned to the Army of the Potomac, “Madame Williams,” a “South Carolinian,” would have ample opportunity to gather and transmit intelligence, as she accompanied her husband on his errands.
No wonder Pinkerton raised the alarm an instructed his employee to dispense with the norms of civility due to a lady and “cut open her things,” including her “chemise and skirts.”
Two weeks later, Pinkerton, who was fiercely loyal to George B. McClellan, would leave the army, to protest his friend’s removal from command.
Thank you Decoding the Civil War Volunteer Stork for finding this gem!
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History, Huntington Library.
When in Doubt, Eat the Cipher!
By Daniel Stowell, Decoding the Civil War Independent Researcher.
When working with numerous collections, sometimes one stumbles across a little nugget that just calls out to be told. Working with the Eckert telegrams has made me familiar with the codes and ciphers used by the United States Army and Government. So, imagine how my curiosity was piqued when I saw the following story from August 1862:
“During all the spring months I alone in all the Army Corps was entrusted with the Government Cyphers. During General Pope’s retreat, I was one day sent for by Generals Pope & Banks, to put into cypher a very important dispatch to General McDowell, with whom direct communication had been cut off by the enemy.
I was obliged to reply that during the severest part of the Battle of Cedar Mountain when I was in the greatest danger of being killed or captured at any moment, I had felt it my duty to destroy the cypher which I tore up into a hundred or more very small pieces & swallowed some of them. My action was approved. I then offered to carry the orders, unwritten, myself to General McDowell, if I could find him, and take my chances.
My offer was accepted, but while the instructions were being prepared, the advance of General McDowells Corps came in sight, & I was relieved from a duty which would have put me in the greatest danger of capture or otherwise.”
This is excerpted from a twenty-five-page handwritten memoir written by Frederick d’Hauteville on his service in the American Civil War. d’Hauteville was writing about the the Battle of Cedar Mountain, fought on August 9, 1862. Brigadier General Crawford in his report on the battle specifically commended Captain d’Hauteville, “who from the first rendered me especial and important service, attended with great personal exposure.” Crawford probably wasn’t thinking of d’Hauteville’s willingness to eat the cipher when commending him, and it is impossible to tell whether the cipher which he ate was one of Stager’s telegraph ciphers, but d’Hauteville’s memories do illustrate the extent to which those entrusted with the ciphers went to protect them.
After the battle d’Hauteville discovered that a ball had pierced his blankets, strapped behind his saddle, with more than a dozen holes. Among the regiments in d’Hauteville’s division at the battle was the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, with officers from “the leading families of the City of Boston,” many of them, like d’Hauteville, graduates of Harvard University. The regiment with fewer than 500 men suffered 173 casualties, and 16 of its 23 officers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. “All of them were my friends, & very dear friends,” d’Hauteville recalled, “Their loss was enormous, but they went to their deaths with sublime courage.”
Frederick Sears Grand d’Hauteville (1838-1918) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a Swiss nobleman and American mother, who returned to the United States while pregnant. Their marital conflict led to a contentious custody battle over Frederick in 1840 in a Philadelphia court, which his mother eventually won. D’Hauteville graduated from Harvard University in 1859. He was appointed volunteer aide-de-camp to General Nathaniel Banks in December 1861, and served at the Battle of Winchester in March 1862. Commissioned captain on June 30, 1862, he served on Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford’s staff, including action at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in August and at Antietam in September 1862.
By December, 1862, d’Hauteville had returned to General Banks’ staff and traveled to New Orleans, where Banks commanded the Department of the Gulf. D’Hauteville resigned his commission on March 1, 1863. Later in 1863, he married the daughter of former New York Governor Hamilton Fish, but she died the following year. In 1872, he married Susan Watts Macomb, whose grand-father Major General Alexander Macomb was a hero of the War of 1812 and general-in-chief of the United States army from 1828 to 1841. The d’Hautevilles kept a home in Newport, Rhode Island, but they spent much of their time in his paternal family’s thirty-room chateau overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland.