Wednesday, May 15, 2013

America's Secret War by @TomRizzoWrites #civilwar #western

America's Secret War

In my novel, Last Stand At Bitter Creek, the main character is Grant Bonner, a burned-out Union Army spy who emerges from three years behind enemy lines, ready to move on to the next chapter in his life. He has no way of knowing, of course, that life on the other side of the battle line is just as dangerous and unpredictable.

When Bonner became an operative, the Confederacy had the upper hand when it came to spying. Neither side, however, had much of a formal intelligence network in place.

The Confederacy managed to establish the Secret Service Bureau, an arm of the Confederate Signal Corps, which operated a spy network in the federal capital of Washington, DC, early on in the war. Washington happened to be home to many southern sympathizers.

Union General Ulysses S. Grant, however, didn't realize the need for a reliable spy system until the Battle of Shiloh when a Confederate force surprised the Federals and stormed through their camps forcing a Union retreat.

In the two weeks before the battle, Grant hadn’t bothered to dispatch any spies or scouts.

According to the facts, as he knew them, Confederates were camped at least twenty miles away. But this information came from dispirited Confederate deserters. Grant and his troops eventually drove the Confederates back, and his actions helped shape his reputation as an effective field commander—but at a cost of more than 10,000 Union soldiers killed or wounded.

Grant once wrote, "The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.” He hadn't realized—until Shiloh—that locating the enemy could best be accomplished through espionage.

After this battle, Grant helped forge what would be called the Bureau of Military Information.

The new agency utilized around 70 field agents during the war—ten whom were killed. The bureau also gathered information by interrogating prisoners of war, and refugees. In addition, agents combed through newspapers, and documents left on the battlefield by Confederate officers who retreated, or had been killed.

At the outset of the war, casual gossiping and newspaper clippings served as the main sources for intelligence gathering, until both sides decided to formalize spying operations, even to the point of involving cavalry forces.

Two different organizations carried out espionage activities for the Union. Scouts—as they were called— wore uniforms, and served as an army’s advance force. Their mission: to determine the location and size of the enemy, and weapons capability. Spies—like Grant Bonner—operated mostly behind enemy lines, and in civilian attire.

One daring band of mounted Union Army scouts wore Confederate uniforms, and operated behind enemy lines.

This force was, composed of eager young volunteers who didn’t mind extra dangerous duty, fell under the leadership of Major General John C. Frémont. He dubbed them the Jessie Scouts, named after his wife.

These volunteers risked their lives to collect intelligence on the locations and intentions of enemy forces in their particular area so they could provide a sufficient warning of any possible surprise attacks being planned against Union forces.

Jessie Scouts, however, risked death if caught wearing the enemy’s uniform because this—as defined by the rules of war—represented as an act of espionage, and punishable by death if captured. These scouts used their own ingenuity to keep in touch, and to distinguish each other from real Confederate soldiers.

Some Jessie Scouts units wore white scarves knotted in a particular way. Others used conversational code where they would use a conventional phrase (such as “Good morning”) that would provoke a response from another Jessie that wouldn’t sound strange if overheard by a real Confederate soldier.

Confederate cavalry units also engaged in similar scouting missions.

As their Northern counterparts, Confederate scouts also operated independently, and wore the uniform of the enemy to improve their ability to get access to certain areas, and information. They too risked summary execution, if caught.

Some families, however, suffered at the hands of Confederate scouts. For example, scouts in Union uniforms often asked for help from families that lived between opposing battle lines. If such help materialized, these scouts often returned the next day, wearing their regular uniforms, accompanied by a military force, and burn the homes of those who thought they were giving aid and comfort to Union forces.

Regardless of the army, scouts were special types of soldiers.

For the most part, they were fearless, who embraced such duty without regard for the potential danger they were putting themselves in. According to William Gilmore Beymer’s Scouts and Spies of the Civil War, other soldiers – fearless and brave on their own – found they could not tolerate the kind of pressure experienced by these special scouts.

Overall, the Union experienced more success rate at espionage and counterintelligence. The Confederacy, on the other hand, excelled at covert operations. Both succeeded at conducting a secret war within America’s Civil War. And, in the end, the efforts of both sides established the foundation for the future of military intelligence.

2013 Peacemaker Nominee
Best Western First Novel
Last Stand at Bitter Creek
by Tom Rizzo
including an excerpt from 
Last Stand at Bitter Creek

Thanks to Tom for guesting at Romancing The West this week!
You can learn more about or contact Tom at:

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