- Historic Sites
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
As its success and efficiency became known, Sharpe’s bureau grew, setting up “branch offices” throughout the Eastern theater, each with a team of some 30 to 40 scouts. Within his headquarters Sharpe was soon ably assisted by several deputies, all men after his own intelligent and careful stamp. His chief assistant, John C. Babcock, an architect in civilian life, had charge of the critical order-of-battle assessments, keeping meticulous records, preparing reports, and constantly updating maps and organizational charts of the Confederate Army. Capt. John McEntee, a former neighbor of Sharpe from upstate New York, oversaw scouting operations and interrogation reports. At its core the BMI remained a small operation, but it was now a strikingly professional one that knew its business and produced a highly refined product that went directly to the top generals. “As a result of the BMI’s all-source capability,” writes Feis, the Union commanders “received not an assemblage of undigested bits of news seemingly of equal weight but true intelligence, the finished product of systematic information analysis.”
Unlike Pinkerton, Sharpe sent his scouts — most of them noncommissioned officers and enlisted men —right into the enemy military camps. Some masqueraded as smugglers or Federal deserters and hung about a Rebel camp for a few days before vanishing back across the lines; others, even more daringly, donned Confederate uniforms and posed as soldiers separated from their units or members of irregular Confederate forces like John S. Mosby’s rangers.
One especially daring BMI scout, Sgt. Milton W. Cline, managed to attach himself to a Confederate cavalry captain and rode the entire length of Lee’s lines a few days before the Battle of Chancellorsville/ Among Sharpe’s papers are requests to Federal military authorities for tens of thousands of dollars in captured Confederate currency, for him to give to his military scouts and civilian spies to use.
Another frequently valuable source of direct news from behind the Southern lines was “contrabands,” escaped slaves who had often been in a position to gather a great deal of information without arousing suspicion. Believing that slaves were too ignorant and docile either to understand military matters or to risk their lives aiding the Union, Southerners often spoke freely in front of them about recent or planned troop movements and military activity. “Three contrabands have just been sent in bringing important information,” Sharpe reported on November 14, 1863.“They heard from their master in conversation that the Army was moving toward Louisa C[ourt] H[ouse].”
At Appomattox, sharpe frequently astonished southern soldiers by telling them which brigade they belonged to when they themselves did not know.
It was information from an escaped slave that would provide the crucial advance warning in June 1863 of Lee’s sudden movement north into Maryland and Pennsylvania, the move that culminated in the decisive Southern defeat at Gettysburg. After Chancellorsville, Lee’s army had undergone a rapid series of reorganization and reinforcement maneuvers . that left Sharpe scrambling to pinpoint its strength and exact whereabouts. The locations of two entire divisions under Gen. James Longstreet were a mystery; some reports had them in Richmond, others on their way back to Fredericksburg.
By May a combination of interrogations of deserters, reports of spies and informants in Fredericksburg, visual observations from Signal Corps flagmen (who could often spot enemy movements at long distances from their tall signal towers), and balloon observations enable the piecing together of a more solid picture. On May 27 Sharpe was able to report to Hooker in considerable detail on the locations of Lee’s various divisions. He also reported that something big was afoot: “The Confederate Army is under marching orders, and an order from General Lee was very lately read to the troops, announcing a campaign of long marches and hard fighting, in a part of the country where they would have no railroad transportation.
“All the deserters say the idea is very prevalent in the ranks that they are about to move forward upon or above our right flank.” But still there was no precise information on Lee’s intended objective.
That suddenly changed late on June 12, when a telegram arrived at Sharpe’s headquarters from his assistant Captain McEntee, who was deployed at the moment with the Union cavalry forces: “A contraband captured last Tuesday states that he had been living at Culpepper C. H. for some time past. Saw Ewells (Jacksons) corps pass through that place destined for the Valley & Maryland. That Ewells corps had passed the day previous to the fight [the cavalry battle at Brandy Station, which had just taken place on June 9] & that Longstreet was then coming up.” Later that evening a second wire arrived from McEntee: “Continuation of last statement. Gen. R. E. Lee Hd Qrs were at Culpepper C. H. on Tuesday last. Ewell arrived there with command night of 6th. Cooked 4 days rations. Marched morning of 7th. Column half day passing through town. Longstreet arrived night of 8th & marched 9th. This boy knew many of the troops. I think statement reliable.”