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.