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America’s Unknown Intelligence Czar
George Henry Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information helped win the Civil War—and is especially worth remembering today
October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Although he never had more than about 70 men on his full-time payroll and though the intelligence challenge he faced was but a fraction of what a modern spymaster must confront, Sharpe nevertheless pioneered the fundamental principle of modern intelligence analysis and organization that remains valid today. As the CIA historical report notes, he “obtained, collated, analyzed, and provided reports based on scouting, spying behind enemy lines, interrogations, cavalry reconnaissance, balloon observation, . . . flag signal and telegraph intercepts, captured Confederate documents and mail, southern newspapers, and intelligence reporting from subordinate military units. This structured approach, which ended with the Confederate surrender, was not reinstitutionalized until 1947, when the CIA was created.”
George Henry Sharpe was born in 1828 in Kingston, New York, on the Hudson River. His father, who died when George was two, was a wealthy merchant, and the family was left well-off. Sharpe graduated from Rutgers at 19—delivering the salutatory address, in Latin—then went to Yale Law School and breezed through the New York bar exam at the age of 21, worked in New York City for the law firm of Bidwell and Strong, then traveled to Europe and worked for the U.S. legations in Vienna and Rome, where he acquired diplomatic and linguistic skills that his contemporaries would remark on throughout his life, at last returning to his hometown to set up his own law practice.
With his receding hairline and large drooping mustache, he looked more like a prosperous small-town merchant than a future spy chief. But to those who knew him there was no doubting either his intellectual formidability or his native vigor, determination, and charisma. When Fort Sumter was attacked, he hastened back home from a business trip and, without bothering to consult the colonel of the 20th New York militia (and apparently overlooking the fact that he had resigned his own captain’s commission in the regiment earlier that year), immediately began enrolling volunteers and assumed command of the regiment’s Company B. A year later, in response to President Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers, he used several thousand dollars of his own money to raise a new regiment, the 120th New York, of which he took command as colonel. The unit played a small but steady part in the fighting around Fredericksburg in November and December 1862. Fiercely loyal to his regiment, Sharpe refused an offer of promotion and the command of a brigade.
In January 1863 Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker became the third general named by Lincoln to command the Army of the Potomac, succeeding the irresolute George McClellan and the ineffectual Ambrose Burnside. Hooker was in many ways an unsavory character. He had schemed behind Burnside’s back to get his job; he had brayed to the press that what the country needed was a dictator, and it was pretty clear whom he had in mind for that position. As for Hooker’s headquarters, it was described as “a place which no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go. It was a combination of barroom and brothel.”
But as a leader of men and—more unusually for a man of action, as an administrator also—Hooker well deserved his epithet “Fighting Joe.” Upon taking command, he immediately cracked down on corruption in the supply services, ordered hospitals and food improved, and began demanding results everywhere. This was exactly what Lincoln had been hoping for. When the President appointed Hooker, he had handed him a gently chiding letter in which he admonished the general for his dishonorable conduct toward Bumside and for his remark about the country’s needing a dictator. “Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command,” Lincoln wrote. “Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”
Among the other deficiencies Hooker found in his new command was the absence of a single document about the Confederate forces that he now faced across the Rappahannock River. “There was no means, no organization, and no apparent effort, to obtain such information,” he fumed. McClellan had created an intelligence service, of sorts, in the Army of the Potomac; it had been headed by the famous Chicago detective Allan Pinkerton, who ran the private detective agency that bore his name. (Before the war, when McClellan was vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad, that company had been one of Pinkerton’s largest clients.) As McClellan’s spy chief, Pinkerton had proved reasonably successful in breaking up some none-too-professional Confederate spy rings in Washington. He also had done a conscientious job of gathering information from interrogations of Confederate prisoners and deserters.
But his isolation from the rest of McClellan’s headquarters led to a hopelessly splintered authority over the flow of intelligence and a repeated failure to synthesize and cross-check information against other sources. Scouting of enemy positions was left to individual division commanders. The cavalry, traditionally the eyes and ears of the Army, reported to McClellan directly, bypassing Pinkerton, and at this stage of the war was also notoriously lackadaisical in pursuing aggressive reconnaissance of enemy positions. Balloonists and Signal Corps observers sent their reports to the nearest division headquarters or to McClellan, again leaving Pinkerton out of the picture. Other key sources, such as Southern newspapers, were ignored altogether.