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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
After the war Sharpe was sent by Secretary of State Seward to Europe on a “secret mission” to try to track down Americans living there who were believed to have been involved in the Lincoln assassination. In 1870 he was appointed by his old boss, now President Grant, as United States marshal for the Southern District of New York and at once went after the Boss Tweed ring. “Many times Gen. Sharpe’s life was threatened by the followers of Tweed,” his obituary in The New York Times would later note, but Sharpe nonetheless succeeded in securing convictions against two of the most notorious perpetrators of election fraud and in overseeing an honest census that purged the election rolls of fraudulent voters. He later served as speaker of the New York State Assembly. He died in 1900.
Unlike the dozens of self-proclaimed spies and secret agents and spymasters (Pinkerton among them) who wrote flamboyant, self-dramatizing, or even wholly invented memoirs of their Civil War exploits, George Henry Sharpe and his aides kept their accomplishments to themselves. His lengthy obituary in The Times devoted several paragraphs to his “distinguished army career” but referred to his assignment as chief of the Bureau of Military Information in but a single sentence, noting that it was “a dangerous and delicate mission”—and providing no further enlightenment.
Yet as a recent U.S. Army study on the BMI notes, a fair reading of history would unquestionably place Sharpe among the ranks of America’s most important intelligence directors. He established the first truly modern intelligence organization, pioneering the practice of “comparing intelligence from a number of sources and evaluating it before passing it along.” He also clearly saw his job as being one of telling it like it is—rather than telling it like the commander wanted to hear.
That, too, is a lesson for our times.