Assignment: 10 Minute presentation: Civil War Deceptions and Espionage: Describe an example of a military, Feint (maneuver, weapon, sound etc.) or spy activity.
Note: Photographs added by Webmaster.
The principal objective of my remarks to you this evening is to give a brief overview of U.S. efforts that were aimed at countering clandestine Confederate attempts to build or to buy warships in Europe, mainly in the United Kingdom. I should perhaps also note that the presentation is a progress report on a larger research project that could form the basis for a potential presentation at a future OCWRT meeting.
At the beginning of the war, when the Union announced a blockade of Southern ports, leaders of the Confederacy believed that the blockade could be broken by pressure from Britain and France. The plan was to withhold cotton from the textile mills of those nations, forcing them to aid the Confederacy by convincing the Union to lift the blockade. But the British and French textile mills had huge stockpiles of cotton and did not face an immediate shortage from the Southern embargo.
North and South turned to diplomacy to advance their interests. Slavery was an unpopular cause, though not universally at the beginning of the war, in both Britain and France, and neither nation could or would openly support the Confederacy. But, strategically, both nations liked the idea of a United States weakened by a break-up of the Union. And Britain especially did not side with the North because of the hostile policy of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who threatened to declare war on Britain – and nearly every other country — if it intervened.
The South wanted Britain and France to recognize the sovereignty of the Confederate States of America. Union diplomats hoped to keep Britain from recognizing or intervening in any way. More than diplomacy was involved. Confederate and Union agents in Britain and France were fighting a secret war over the South’s clandestine operations aimed at buying arms and building warships.
The North’s blockade of Southern ports had inspired the Confederacy’s diplomatic efforts in London and Paris. Southern strategists realized that the Confederacy could not survive on whatever just happened to trickle into the South from swift ships whose bold captains slipped through the blockade. The South decided that, to break the blockade, the Confederacy needed to build a navy that could attack the Union warships, sink Northern merchantmen, and protect friendly commercial ships running guns and other supplies into the South.
Lacking adequate shipyards, Confederate officials sent agents to Britain and France to arrange for the building of ships and for arms purchases. Covert operations were needed because British law prohibited the arming of private ships in British yards.
In the autumn of 1861, the Confederacy’s Department of State launched the plan on a diplomatic level by naming two representatives – former U.S. Senator James M. Mason of Virginia, who was to go to Britain, and former Senator John Slidell of Louisiana, who was to go to France. Officially, the two envoys were empowered to negotiate treaties with their respective countries. Their clandestine mission was to obtain warships and arms. Their voyage to Europe gave rise to the Trent Affair, which is a fascinating story in itself and is a potential subject for another presentation.
Mason, though aware of covert Confederate activity in England, restricted himself to diplomacy. Slidell, however, became involved in setting up illicit arms deals and hiring propaganda agents for a campaign to counteract European sentiments against slavery and the Confederacy. One agent found seven “writers on the daily London press” who were willing to accept what was discreetly called “partial employment.” Besides the payoffs, the journalists got Havana cigars and American whiskey. An agent in France had a $25,000 “secret service fund” to be used to sponsor newspaper articles that “may be useful in enlightening public opinion.” The propaganda fund paid for the publishing of 125,000 copies of a pro-slavery tract by “the Clergy of the Confederate States of America.” Some copies were stitched into religious publications, one of which was strongly against slavery. Propaganda agents also produced placards showing the Confederate and British flags intertwined and placed them in “every available space in the streets of London.” Henry Hotze, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, was an undercover Confederate operative who wrote pro-South articles for British newspapers and founded Index, A Weekly Journal of Politics, Literature, and News, which appeared to be a British publication. Hotze hired British journalists and syndicated their pro-Confederate articles to dozens of British and European publications—and to Northern newspapers. Hotze’s journal kept publishing until five months after the war ended.
Hotze mingled with key British politicians, including William Ewart Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who made pro-Confederacy speeches. Hotze also worked with other Confederate agents to stage a peace rally calling for the ending of the war on Southern terms. The Confederate secret service, which ran the Secret Line courier service between Union territory and Richmond, extended the service to reach England and France. The courier service was set up by George N. Sanders, a former journalist and political operator with connections in the North, the South, and Europe. Union agents, aware of Sanders’ sympathies, kept him under surveillance. A surveillance report notes Sanders’ landing at Liverpool “in a great hurry” and describes him as “a man of small stature with black whiskers under his chin” who “no doubt is a bearer of dispatches from the insurgents.”
Records of the Secret Service Fund refer to the extended Secret Line as the “Postal Route to Richmond.” The route ran from England to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then to coastal pickup points on Chesapeake Bay, where Secret Line couriers were given the dispatches and got them to the Confederate capital. Agents in Europe used a special cipher for such correspondence. While the South had to invent a European intelligence presence, the North possessed a ready-made, albeit amateur, intelligence network in the form of U.S. ambassadors and consuls. Thomas Haines Dudley, the U.S. consul in Liverpool, ran the network in Britain. He had a natural talent for espionage. A Quaker, Dudley once disguised himself as a slave trader in a scheme to purchase back fugitive slaves kidnapped in the North.
Working with Dudley were Henry Shelton Sanford, minister to Belgium, and Freeman Harlow Morse, U. S. consul in London. Sanford believed in sabotage and rigorous intelligence gathering and paid more attention to Confederates in Britain than to matters in Belgium. Like Dudley, Sanford engaged British detectives as agents and saw no reason not to gather information “through a pretty mistress or a spying landlord.” Sanford bribed factory clerks to tell him what Confederate purchasing agents were paying for ordered supplies. “I go on the doctrine that in war as in love everything is fair that will lead to success,” Sanford wrote.
Fearing that Sanford’s rash approach would produce another U.S.-British crisis, the Lincoln administration reined him in. In a message that praised him for his “active and intelligence services for detecting traitorous proceedings,” he was ordered to turn over those duties to Morse and to go back to being just minister to Belgium. Morse hired a former detective of the London police, who set up surveillance posts in London and Liverpool and got daily reports from his detectives. Among other actions, they bribed postal workers to obtain the addresses on letters sent and received by Confederate agents. The Union detectives also managed to intercept Confederate telegrams.
The chief target of surveillance was James Dunwoody Bulloch, a former U.S. Navy officer (and the uncle of three-year-old Theodore Roosevelt). Bulloch had launched the Confederate shipbuilding operation in June 1861 when he found a Liverpool shipyard whose owner — John Laird, of Laird Brothers of Birkenhead and also a Member of Parliament — agreed to build a ship to Bulloch’s specifications. As Bulloch later explained: “The contract was made with me as a private person, nothing whatever being said about the ultimate destination of the ship….” Bulloch named her Oreto and sent her off to Nassau with a Confederate captain and crew.
The U.S. consul in Nassau, apparently tipped off by Union agents in England, went into court to charge that the ship was a Confederate warship, in violation of British law. The court ruled that no law had been broken because Oreto was unarmed. She then sailed to a coral isle some 75 miles south of Nassau. There she rendezvoused with an arms-filled ship dispatched by Bulloch. Quickly armed and renamed the Florida, she set sail. After a delay caused by an outbreak of yellow fever aboard, she headed for Mobile, Alabama. Because of a bungled installation, her guns could not fire when she initially encountered Union warships. She got away, though badly damaged. Once repaired, the Florida survived to ravage Union shipping. In the two years before she was captured, she seized or destroyed more than 30 Union ships.
Dudley was determined to keep Bulloch’s next ship from going to sea. The ship, known in the yard simply as “Hull 290,” was nearly ready to sail in July 1862 when Bulloch’s own agents realized that Dudley had gathered enough intelligence to go to court with a legal claim against the Laird shipyard for violating British neutrality laws. Bulloch hastily arranged what appeared to be a leisurely sail down the River Mersey, complete with several women and men seemingly out for the day. Suddenly, a tugboat appeared alongside the ship, the passengers were disembarked, and the 290 became the cruiser Alabama, bound for the Azores, where she would take on guns, ammunition, and supplies.
Bulloch appeared to have outwitted Dudley, but Bulloch did not know that Dudley had planted an agent on board the Alabama. The agent, paymaster Clarence Yonge, left the ship in Jamaica, returned to England, and added his knowledge to Dudley’s legal case against the clandestine Confederate operations. In an affidavit, Yonge noted that the shipyard had equipped the supposedly commercial ship with sockets in her decks and other fixtures for guns, along with powder tins, and accommodation for a 100-man crew. Alabama was the Confederate’s most successful cruiser. She captured or destroyed more than 60 ships, with a total value of nearly $6 million before a Union warship ended her career. While she was destroying the U.S. merchant fleet, Dudley was using his evidence to deprive the Confederacy of two additional warships ordered by Bulloch. Dudley argued that the ships — two ironclads with metal underwater rams jutting from their hulls to rip holes in a foe’s wooden hull —were obviously warships. And he warned that, if British officials allowed them to go to sea, the decision would be considered an act of war against the United States.
Dudley was awaiting the British decision when he received a report from the U.S. consul in Cardiff, Wales; a French ship had arrived in Cardiff carrying men who carelessly talked about being crewmen for the rams, as the warships were called. The consul noted that the men boarded a train for Liverpool. Surveillance of the Liverpool shipyard showed that one of the ironclads was almost completed; a Frenchman, not Bulloch, claimed ownership. In October 1863, as a ram was about to sail, the British government seized both rams; the British government later bought them.
The State Department’s intelligence work in Europe produced another coup in June 1864 when the U.S. minister to France learned that Alabama was in Cherbourg for repairs. The minister passed the information on in a telegram to the captain of the U.S.S. Kearsarge, which was in a Dutch port. The Kearsarge sailed to Cherbourg, stood off outside the territorial limit, and waited for Alabama. In a two-hour battle, watched by 15,000 spectators ashore and at sea, the guns of the Kearsarge sank Alabama.
By then, there was little hope that either France or Britain would recognize the Confederacy. In February 1864, reporting to the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Bulloch had written: “The spies of the United States are numerous, active, and unscrupulous. They invade the privacy of families, tamper with the confidential clerks of merchants, and have succeeded in converting a portion of the police of this Kingdom into secret agents of the United States….” There was, he said, “no hope of getting the ships out.”