Civil War Spies

Civil War Scouts / Allen Pinkerton

American Civil War spies worked on both sides supplying valuable information on enemy troop movements, military strategies, fortifications and more. Although both the Union and Confederacy had a network of spies, the manner in which they operated was very different.


The Union had multiple streams of spies who worked independently, yet were very effective. President Abraham Lincoln had a personal spy named William Alvin Lloyd who was to operate in the southern states and report back to him. Lloyd had business interests in the Confederacy prior to the war so he had a valid reason for traveling about the south freely.

Allen Pinkerton, who would later start the Pinkerton National Detective Agency worked directly for General George B. McClellan. Pinkerton’s agents would often work undercover as Confederate soldiers or sympathizers and report back to him with valuable intelligence. He even foiled an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln that was to take place at his 1862 inauguration.

Civil War Spies, Civil War Scouts, Allen Pinkerton

General Ulysses S. Grant started an intelligence network of his own that ranged from Georgia to Mississippi. Grant ordered some of his subordinates to oversee the network and it is believed that his spy network contained as many as one hundred agents.


Confederate General Robert E. Lee had Civil War spies of his own and he would make sure to get recent copies of northern newspapers delivered to him. He spent hours reading these newspapers that would often report the movement of Union armies.

Virginia Governor John Letcher was also known to have created a network of spies that operated in and around the major cities in Virginia.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was employed by Letcher to provide information while she lived in Washington D.C. She was married to a powerful northerner and ran in important social circles prior to, and during the war. She socialized with politicians, generals, senators and even presidents. The information she gathered was relayed then relayed back to Letcher who used the information against the Union cause.

Civil War Spies, Civil War Scouts, Rose O'Neal Greenhow

It is believed that she obtained plans for the Union battle strategy at the First Battle at Manassas (also know as the First Battle of Bull Run) and Jefferson Davis credited her helping win the battle for the Confederacy.

She did raise suspicion however and was arrested for espionage by Allen Pinkerton. She was found guilty after important Union military documents were found in her home and was deported to Virginia with no further judgment. She continued to spy for Confederate President Jefferson Davis until meeting her death on a blockade-run after a sympathy-gaining mission for the Confederate cause in Europe.

The Confederacy also ran a spy network named the Confederate Secret Service with networks in Washington D.C. and abroad.


The spy game in the Civil War was not without significant risk. A Confederate spy by the name of Will Talbot was left behind in Gettysburg just before the battle started. He was captured, and under orders from General John Buford, was sent to Maryland and executed.

Throughout the conflict, Civil War spies and Civil War scouts gained valuable information for their respective sides and much of the information gathered helped make a measurable difference in the result of the war.

Ironically, both the Union and Confederacy refused to indulge detailed information about their spy networks after the war as they felt an obligation to protect the people who made up these teams that served their causes so well.

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