Popular history remembers the Confederate States of America for a lot of things, but having a developed government capable of almost anything the United States could do is seldom one of those things. But it did have all the trappings of a democratic government, including a Treasury Department, an Electoral College, and even coordinated clandestine activities.
Spies. They had spies.
They’re, like, the first thing new governments get. Catch “Turn: Washington’s Spies” on AMC.
I describe the Confederacy’s secret soldiers as a kind of Secret Service, but that’s not entirely an accurate description. The mission of the U.S. Secret Service is not only to protect the President and other American leaders, but to act as an investigation and enforcement arm of the Treasury Department. They track down counterfeiters and other fraudsters while assisting on anti-terror and counter-narcotics task forces with other agencies. But intelligence is not their mission.
In the Confederacy, it could have been. The Confederate government had countless secret agents in their employ, so many the Confederate government couldn’t always track them all. They were assigned many, many roles.
In the early morning hours of a balmy August night in 1864, an American barge parked on the James River was filled with stores of supplies for the Siege of Petersburg. After about an hour, the barge exploded, destroying an estimated million of Union supplies. Its destroyer was Capt. John Maxwell of the Confederate Secret Service. He and a handful of other saboteurs destroyed a number of Union supply carriers, sunk Union ships, and allegedly destroyed the river steamship Sultana, killing thousands in one of the worst maritime disasters in American history.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a DC socialite who provided the Confederate Army with enough information to win at First Bull Run.
Like any other army fighting a war, the Confederate Army needed information about their opponents. More than that, the Confederates needed to know what was happening in Washington, who their friends were, and other such information. There were many Northerners willing to oblige them.
James Murray Mason and John Slidell were captured by the Union on their way to Britain. They were later released.
The Confederate States were, like most rebellions, eager to have international recognition of their independence. Confederate agents operated in Europe and elsewhere looking for this kind of support. They also measured public sentiment for or against their cause while providing any useful military information they could pick up. The US and Britain almost came to blows after two Confederate agents were captured from a British ship and detained.
“They’re over there!”
The Confederate version of the US Army’s storied unit not only conducted battlefield communication for the Confederate armies in the field but also took on a number of espionage-related missions. They gave the Confederate artillery the positions of Union troops and maintained a secret telegraph line of communications for its spies that extended all the way to Canada.
Much of the Signal Corps’ mission logs were destroyed in the Union capture of Richmond, so the full extent of their clandestine activities may never be known.
Confederates were so renowned for their use of torpedos that the Union had guys who did nothing but disarm them all day.
The Torpedo Bureau
The Confederates were very vulnerable to the vast superiority of the Union Navy. The solution for them was to mine or torpedo everything in sight. To this end, they hired two brothers who developed Confederate torpedo technology, taking them from crude wooden shells filled with gunpowder to disguised canisters which looked like coal that would be smuggled into the boiler rooms of Union steamships.
Land mines and sea mines were soon to follow.
Raids from Canada
Like modern-day green berets, Confederate agents recruited Canadians and sympathetic northerners to launch raids on American outposts in the north of the country. One such raid was the St. Albans Raid of St. Albans, Vermont in 1864. Locals of the Vermont area were forced to swear loyalty oaths to the Confederacy at gunpoint as the raiders robbed the three local banks, gaining money and notoriety for the Confederates.