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.
“The most memorable Independence Day in American history.”
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts.
On 10 a.m. July 4, 1863, the United States Military Telegraph transmitted this notice:
“The President announces to the country that news from the Army of the Potomac, up to 10 p.m. of the 3rd. is such as to cover that Army with the highest honor, to promise a great success to the cause of the Union, and to claim the condolence of all for the many gallant fallen. And that for this, he especially desires that on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude. ABRAHAM LINCOLN.”
This was the President’s press-release of the victory at Gettysburg. Two hours later, Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Confederate army at Vicksburg, Miss. The double victory of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, made July 4, 1863, in the words of historian James McPherson, “the most memorable Independence Day in American history since the first one four score and seven years earlier.”
Yet, apart from the traditional celebrations on the White House grounds, there were few signs of jubilation elsewhere in the Capital. The immediate reaction to the battle of Gettysburg was a mixture of relief and frustration at the failure to capture Lee’s army. It would take three days for the news of the fall of Vicksburg to reach Washington.
The work of the United States Military Telegraph proceeded at a frantic pace, as a team of operators were busy receiving, sending, and routing messages. On 6 p.m., for example, one operator entered a message in his ledger (EC 6), reporting the progress (or rather lack of thereof), General William F. Smith’s unsuccessful pursuit of Lee’s army.
6 P.M. Harrisburg Pa. July 4, 1863
For SecWar Genl Smith on his
march met a flag of truce
two miles from Mt. Holly on
the Bendersville road with two thousand
prisoners which he recd & sent
the escort back trusting that the
exaggerated idea which they had of
his numbers would have a good
effect he delayed his march for
for two hours as his route was
thus discovered he says with
references to news “nothing unfavorable”
Signed L. Thomas Adjut Genl
Sent to Fredk & Baltimore 7 P.M.
At the same time, another operator, his own ledger (EC 8) on his desk, was receiving this message from Dana Couch to General Meade:
6 PM Harrisburg Penna July 4,1863
for Genl Meade Genl Smith’s
advance in the mountain
passes beyond Mount Holly
met two thousand paroled
prisoners from your army
under Escort period Smith
being discovered recd the
prisoners I will send
them to Camp at
West Chester Signed D. N. Couch
Not sent to Meade. One from Thomas gives same information.
Thirty minutes later, Thomas T. Eckert transmitted this cipher from the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Arabia) to William H. Ludlow, the Union commissioner for exchange.
Sheldon Ft Mon. Wash DC July 4, 1863
Rosetta Venus Lud-low you will
if it has not already been
done forward to Adorn by Express
the copy of Jeff Davis’ dispatch
sent him today also my telegram
of this Evening and until you
receive the Adam’s instruction hold no
communication with Mr Stephens or Mr
Ould nor permit either of them
to come within our lines period
Our Victory is complete Lee in
full retreat Arabia Bully
The blotted out “Bully,” (meaning “Well done!”), at the end of the message is one of the few signs of celebration at the War Department.
Yet the telegram showed that the victory at Gettysburg had already born results. Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America and Robert Ould, chief agent for prisoner exchange of the Confederate Army, were envoys of the President of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis dispatched the two on July 2, in anticipation of Lee’s successful invasion of Pennsylvania. Lee’s victory was expected to force Lincoln’s hand not only in the negotiations over cartel of the prisoner exchange — suspended in retaliation for the harsh treatment of African American prisoners of war — but in recognizing the independence of the Confederate States of America.
Stephens acted as the bearer of the official communication addressed to Lincoln and intended to start international diplomatic negotiations “which public law recognizes as necessary and proper between hostile forces.” The communication was filled with complaints about “numerous difficulties” in “the execution of the cartel of exchange,” for which Davis, unsurprisingly, squarely blamed the Union side. More ominously, Davis accused Lincoln of war crimes: some of “your officers” asserted “a right to treat as spies” and execute prisoners of war, i.e., “the military officers and enlisted men under my command who may penetrate into States recognized by us as our allies.” Davis referred to the execution of William Orton Williams, a staff officer in Braxton Bragg’s command, and a cousin-in-law of Robert E. Lee, and his adjutant, Walter G. Peters. Captured by in Tennessee, while impersonating Union officers, Williams and Peters were hanged on June 9 on the order of William S. Rosecrans.
Rosecrans had acted in accordance with the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, a.k.a. Lieber Code, the first United States Army field manual, (and a foundation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 as well as the 1949 Geneva Conventions). The Code distinguished between a prisoner of war, “a public enemy armed or attached to the hostile army for active aid, who has fallen into the hands of the captor, either fighting or wounded, on the field or in the hospital, by individual surrender or by capitulation” (Section III, Article 49), and a spy defined as “a person who secretly, in disguise or under false pretense, seeks information with the intention of communicating it to the enemy.” (Section IV, Article 88). While a prisoner of war was “subject to no punishment,” nor any acts of “the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity,” a spy was “punishable with death by hanging by the neck, whether or not he succeed in obtaining the information or in conveying it to the enemy.” The execution of Williams and Peters was, in fact, the lead item in the July 4, 1863 issue of the Harpers’ Weekly:
Stephens’ mission hinged on the success of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. But when Stephens and Ould arrived to Fort Monroe in the afternoon of July 4, they were greeted by the news of the Union victory at Gettysburg. When Stanton found out about their arrival, the Secretary of War “swore and growled indignantly.” He then fired off the above telegram, instructing Ludlow to forward Davis’ message to John A. Dix (Adorn) and refrain from any communication with the envoys until he received Lincoln’s instructions.
Lincoln’s instructions were telegraphed a couple of hours later. The President of the United States refused to meet with Stephens. Stating that all questions having to do with prisoner exchange were to be resolved through “Military channels,” he added that “nothing else, will be received by the President, when offered, as in this case, in terms assuming the independence of the so-called Confederate States.” (Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 6, p. 315)
On July 7, after the news of the fall of Vicksburg reached Washington, a procession with bands of music marched to the Executive Mansion. The crowd cheered as the President marveled at the double victory in Pennsylvania and Mississippi marking the “birthday of the United States of America. It was no accident that “the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal” should “turn tail and run” on the very same day when, “eighty odd years” ago “for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.'” Lincoln then added as an afterthought: “Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.” He finally delivered that speech on the Gettysburg battlefield on November 19, 1863.