Monday, January 23, 2012

Confederate Secret Service

Confederate Secret Service is an umbrella term for a number of official and semi-official secret service operations conducted by the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War.

During the Civil War a number of secret operations sprang up, some at the direction of the government, some with its tacit approval, and some that were under only the most tenuous control, or even under no control whatsoever. Many of these operations involved acts that were considered, by the Union, to go beyond the normal conduct of "civilized" warfare. From the Confederacy's point of view, these were desperate measures necessary to compensate for the fact that, in terms of conventional warfare, they were out-manned, out-supplied, and out-gunned. By 1864, the Confederate government was attempting to gain control over the various operations that had sprung up since the beginning of the War, but often with little success. In April 1865, most of the official papers of the Secret Service were burned by Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin just before the Confederate government evacuated Richmond, so the full story of Confederate secret operations may never be known.

Military operations and officially sanctioned Secret Service activities
Foreign agents
The Confederacy's first secret-service agent may have been James D. Bulloch. In 1861, almost immediately after the attack on Fort Sumter, Bulloch traveled to Liverpool,England, and established a base of operations there. Britain was officially neutral in the conflict between North and South, but private and public sentiment favored the Confederacy. Britain was also willing to buy all the cotton that could be smuggled past the Union blockade, which provided the South with its only real source of hard currency. Bulloch established a relationship with the shipping firm of Fraser & Trenholm to buy and sell Confederate cotton; Fraser & Trenholm became, in effect, the Confederacy's international bankers. Bulloch arranged for the construction and secret purchase of the commerce raider CSS Alabama as well as many of the blockade runners that acted as the Confederacy's commercial lifeline. Bulloch arranged for the exchange of cotton for hard currency, which he used to purchase war material - including arms and ammunition, uniforms, and other supplies.

Signal Corps
The Confederate Signal Corps was established in 1862. Nearly 1,200 men were in the secret service, most of whom were well-to-do and knew more than one language.

Torpedo Bureau
The Torpedo Bureau, authorized on October 31, 1862 and headed by Brigadier General Gabriel Rains, was charged with the production of various explosive devices, including land mines, naval mines and "coal torpedos."

Submarine Battery Service
Created at the same time as the Torpedo Bureau, the Submarine Battery Service was the Confederate Navy's group of torpedo specialists. The Submarine Battery Service primarily utilized electrically-detonated torpedoes to protect the South's waterways. Originally commanded by Cmdr. Matthew Fontaine Maury, also known as "The Pathfinder of the Seas", the reins of command were turned over to his protege`, Lt. Hunter Davidson, when Maury was sent abroad to further his experiments involving electrical torpedoes and to procure needed supplies and ships for the Confederate Navy. The Service was found operating along the James River between Richmond and Hampton Roads, Wilmington, NC, Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA among other locales.

The Confederacy benefited from the services of a number of "traditional" spies including Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Belle Boyd, and Catherine Virginia Baxley.

Sanctioned destructionists, privateers, and licensed operators
The Bounty Law
The Confederacy knew it was in trouble from the beginning of war, because it didn't have a Navy. All the ships of the United States Navy naturally belonged to the Union, and the few privately owned ships that could be converted to military service were no match for the Union Navy. Privateering was essential. On May 21, 1861, the Confederate Congress enacted an amendment to their May 6, 1861 Declaration of War which provided that the government of the Confederate States will pay to the cruiser or cruisers of any private armed vessel commissioned under said act, twenty per centum on the value of each and every vessel of war belonging to the enemy, that may be sunk or destroyed by such private armed vessel or vessels, the value of the armament to be included in the estimate.

This naturally attracted the attention of engineers, entrepreneurs, patriots and crackpots. Horace Hunley put together a group of investors to finance the submarine that bears his name, hoping to cash in on the bounty. Private individuals with engineering experience such as E. C. Singer, C. Williams, and Zere McDaniel developed and patented new torpedoes and fuses.

Special and Detached Service
The Coal Torpedo
Developed by Thomas Courtenay of the Confederate Secret Service, coal torpedoes were hollow metal castings resembling a lump of coal. The castings were filled with powder and then secreted in the coal bunker of enemy vessels. When the coal replicas were shoveled into the fire boxes of ship's boilers, the resulting explosions either damaged or sank the ship. A variation of the coal torpedo used against river steamers was a piece of wood, hollowed out and filled with powder, which could easily be concealed in the fuel piles of cord wood stacked along the river banks and which was capable of producing disaster to the unlucky ship that hoisted it aboard.

Learn more about the American Civil War Espionage

Non-Fiction Books

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