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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
Once again it was Sharpe and Babcock’s meticulous attention to the Confederate order of battle that provided the vital check on the reliability of the information supplied by the young contraband, whose name was Charlie Wright. Wright had been able to name more than a dozen individual regiments in Ewell’s and Longstreet’s corps, and all of them agreed with Sharpe’s data.
For years conventional cavalry reconnaissance was credited for Hooker’s order to set his troops on the move, shadowing on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Lee’s movement into Maryland and Pennsylvania. But Edwin Fishel’s research in the Army of the Potomac records in the National Archives, which turned up McEntee’s telegrams, established conclusively that it was the BMI’s reports based on Wright’s information, combined with the bureau’s painstakingly assembled orderof-battle data, that provided the crucial warning. Hooker’s timely movement both shielded Washington from Lee’s forces and allowed the Union Army to arrive at Gettysburg in time to seize the advantageous high ground.
Sharpe’s bureau continued to follow Lee’s movement into Maryland and Pennsylvania with reports from local citizens and other sources. A telegram wired to Sharpe from his assistant McEntee in Baltimore reported on June 24: “The students of St James College Hagerstown came down from there today—They report . . . Gen Ewells corps with 70 pieces of artillery as having passed through Hagerstown the last passing yesterday going towards Chambersburg.…They report no force between Hagerstown and Frederick on the Boonsboro road except one cavalry camp 4 miles from Hagerstown.”
Still, fittingly, it was once again Sharpe’s emphasis on the patient, unspectacular amassing of data, rather than any dashing cloak-and-dagger exploits, that provided the final key to the Union victory at Gettysburg. Two days of desperate Rebel attacks had been beaten back, but Maj. Gen. George Meade, the new Union commander, was uncertain whether his own troops could take much more if Lee decided to renew his attack the next day.
However, Sharpe’s order of-battle expert, Babcock, had discovered a fact of the greatest importance from a careful tabulation of the 1,360 Confederate prisoners taken that day: The prisoners came from nearly a hundred different regiments, representing every single one of Lee’s brigades save only the four brigades of Pickett’s division, which was still coming up from the rear. Lee, in other words, had no fresh troops left to throw into the fight but Pickett’s lone division.
At 9:00 P.M. on July 2 Meade called a council of war to decide whether the Union Army would stand and fight for another day or withdraw. Sharpe was summoned, and he presented his finding that Lee had already used almost everything he had. When he was finished speaking, one of the generals exclaimed to Meade, “General, we got them nicked!” A moment of silence then settled over the room. Sharpe, who had scarcely eaten all day, had been glancing forlornly at a small plate of crackers and a half-pint of whiskey sitting untouched on the table in Meade’s headquarters. Finally another of the generals in attendance spoke up: “General Meade, don’t you think Sharpe deserves a cracker and a drink?”
The council unanimously voted to stand and fight. The next day Pickett secured a name for himself in history synonymous with futile courage by sending his men charging against Union artillery—which mowed down two-thirds of them in half an hour.
Sharpe’s bureau had its share of failures. The worst arguably occurred in June 1864 when the BMI failed to detect Gen. Jubal Early’s II Corps slipping out of the line to launch a lightning raid through the Shenandoah Valley, into Maryland, and to within five miles of the White House. In response, Sharpe built up his intelligence sources in the Valley, recruiting three Virginia Unionists who lived near key railroad depots and could report on troop movements, and also strengthened his ties with two spy networks in Richmond, one led by the superintendent of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, the other by the subsequently (and, for once, deservedly so) famous Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew. The BMI was now producing a series of “information maps” that plotted the locations of all the Confederate forces. They were distributed on a regular basis to Union commanders.
By being able to watch for any shift of troops between the Richmond-Petersburg area and the Valley, Sharpe provided the crucial advantage that allowed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (who had assumed command of all the Union armies and to whose staff Sharpe was now attached) to “take from Lee his last remaining weapon: strategic mobility,” as the historian William Feis put it. Grant himself said that with Sharpe’s intelligence system, Lee “could not send off any large body without my knowing it.”
Present at the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Sharpe, now brevetted a brigadier general, had one last opportunity to show off his mastery of his orderof-battle intelligence about the enemy. Under the terms of the surrender, Lee’s officers and men were required to give their parole not to take up arms again against the government of the United States. A small printing press was set up, and some 28,000 parole forms were run off and distributed to Lee’s men. General Sharpe supervised the operation for a week—and frequently was able to astonish Southern soldiers by telling them which brigade and division they belonged to when they themselves did not know.