Bet­ter intelligence turns tide of bat­tle for the North

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Thomas J. Ryan

His­to­ri­ans main­tain that Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of North­ern Vir­ginia lost the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg in large part be­cause of the lack of an ef­fec­tive intelligence-gath­er­ing ca­pa­bil­ity. This was due to the sep­a­ra­tion of the cavalry un­der Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stu­art dur­ing the cam­paign.

What has re­ceived less at­ten­tion is the ex­ten­sive intelligence ap­pa­ra­tus that the Union army had avail­able to help it de­feat the Rebel army.

Af­ter the Army of the Po­tomac’s de­feat at Chan­cel­lorsville in May 1863, Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker knew that he had lit­tle time to pre­pare for an­other en­gage­ment with Lee’s army. For this pur­pose, he needed to de­ter­mine the strength, dis­po­si­tion and in­ten­tions of the en­emy. At the same time, he wanted to en­sure that Gen. Lee learned as lit­tle as pos­si­ble about the plans and op­er­a­tions of the Army of the Po­tomac.

To ac­com­plish th­ese ob­jec­tives, Hooker had con­sid­er­able re­sources in place, in­clud­ing the provost mar­shal de­part­ment and its re­cently es­tab­lished Bureau of Mil­i­tary In­for­ma­tion, the Cavalry Corps, the Sig­nal Corps, the U.S. Mil­i­tary Tele­graph, spe­cial units, and spy net­works. Provost mar­shal

Gen. Marsena Pa­trick, provost mar­shal of the Army of the Po­tomac, was re­spon­si­ble for mil­i­tary intelligence and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions. Th­ese du­ties in­cluded di­rect­ing a team of scouts and spies. He also in­ter­ro­gated Con­fed­er­ate pris­on­ers of war and de­sert­ers, as well as es­caped slaves or “con­tra­bands” to gather in­for­ma­tion about the en­emy.

Scouts con­ducted re­con­nais­sance, and spies op­er­ated be­hind en­emy lines. Pa­trick’s coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence du­ties in­cluded track­ing down spies within Union lines and lo­cal cit­i­zens who served as guides for en­emy raids and in­cur­sions.

When Hooker took com­mand of the Army of the Po­tomac in early 1863, he or­dered Pa­trick to es­tab­lish a mil­i­tary intelligence unit. Known as the Bureau of Mil­i­tary In­for­ma­tion (BMI), its mis­sion was to col­lect in­for­ma­tion about the en­emy de­rived from all avail­able sources, eval­u­ate and process this data, and re­port the re­sult­ing intelligence to the army com­man­der. The bureau

Gen. Pa­trick chose vet­eran reg­i­men­tal com­man­der Col. Ge­orge H. Sharpe, a vet­eran reg­i­men­tal com­man­der, to di­rect the bureau, and put him in charge of col­lect­ing and an­a­lyz­ing data about the en­emy’s strength, dis­po­si­tion, move­ment and morale. The 35-year-old Sharpe was a Yale-trained lawyer from the Hud­son River town of Kingston, N.Y. Sharpe had two ca­pa­ble as­sis­tants, John C. Bab­cock, a civil­ian, and Capt. John McEntee.

Work­ing as an ar­chi­tect in Chicago when war came in 1861, John Bab­cock en­listed in the Stur­gis Ri­fles. Al­lan Pinker­ton, the head of Maj. Gen. Ge­orge B. McClel­lan’s se­cret ser­vice op­er­a­tion, had re­cruited Bab­cock as a map­maker and an in­ter­roga­tor of pris­on­ers and de­sert­ers, skills that proved valu­able in fu­ture as­sign­ments.

Sharpe as­signed Bab­cock as his pri­mary an­a­lyst and re­port writer. The BMI com­man­der se­lected his other as­sis­tant, Capt. McEntee, to lead scout and spy teams in the field, and also to serve as an in­ter­roga­tor and re­port writer. Th­ese three men as­sumed the re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­vel­op­ing the BMI into an ef­fec­tive intelligence or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The BMI would have am­ple op­por­tu­nity to demon­strate its pro­fi­ciency dur­ing Lee’s in­va­sion. In ad­di­tion to its own ca­pa­bil­i­ties, it re­lied on var­i­ous other re­sources to col­lect in­for­ma­tion, par­tic­u­larly the cavalry. The Cavalry corps

The cavalry had vi­tal intelligence and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence roles to per­form in ad­di­tion to its com­bat mis­sion. Th­ese in­cluded gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion for use by the com­man­der and screen­ing the army’s move­ments from the eyes of the en­emy. Th­ese roles in­creased in im­por­tance when the army was on the march, and the cavalry’s mo­bil­ity was a key fac­tor in per­form­ing th­ese tasks.

Early in the war, the Union cavalry’s abil­ity to con­duct intelligence and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions was lim­ited, be­cause Fed­eral au­thor­i­ties failed to pro­mote the cavalry’s de­vel­op­ment and mil­i­tary com­man­ders of­ten in­hib­ited its role in the field.

The sit­u­a­tion had be­gun to im­prove as Lee’s in­va­sion of the North got un­der way in early June 1863. Gen. Hooker had re­vamped the cavalry into a sin­gle unit in Fe­bru­ary, about the same time he es­tab­lished the BMI. The re­or­ga­ni­za­tion helped cre­ate a much­needed sense of iden­tity among the horse sol­diers. The cavalry con­sisted of a three-di­vi­sion corps with newly pro­moted Maj. Gen. Al­fred Plea­son­ton in com­mand. U.S. Sig­nal Corps

The units of the Army of the Po­tomac com­mu­ni­cated with each other in a variety of ways, one of which was the “Sig­nal Corps’ wig­wag” sys­tem, which em­ployed flags dur­ing the day and torches at night to send mes­sages by code. In ad­di­tion to send­ing and re­ceiv­ing mes­sages, Sig­nal Corps du­ties in­cluded in­ter­cept­ing and trans­lat­ing en­emy mes­sages, ob­serv­ing their move­ments, and en­gag­ing in ex­plor­ing and re­con­nais­sance.

Equip­ment in­cluded flags of dif­fer­ent sizes and col­ors, torches, fuel and other para­pher­na­lia. Since the Fed­er­als and Con­fed­er­ates used es­sen­tially the same sig­nal code to trans­mit mes­sages, at times both sides em­ployed ci­phers with pre­ar­ranged keys to se­cure the con­tents. The Sig­nal Corps sup­ple­mented flag sig­nals with a sys­tem of field teleg­ra­phy. Por­ta­ble bat­ter­ies and mag­neto-elec­tric gen­er­a­tors fa­cil­i­tated use of the tele­graph for tac­ti­cal pur­poses. Mil­i­tary Tele­graph

In ad­di­tion to the Sig­nal Corps, the U.S. Mil­i­tary Tele­graph Ser­vice sup­plied the Army of the Po­tomac’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions re­quire­ments. The Tele­graph Ser­vice, es­sen­tially a civil­ian bureau adapted for mil­i­tary pur­poses, had as its pri­mary mis­sion to en­sure that strate­gic and ad­min­is­tra­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tions were avail­able to com­man­ders. The Sig­nal Corps, on the other hand, mainly sup­ported tac­ti­cal op­er­a­tions.

From an intelligence per­spec­tive, the tele­graph per­mit­ted the Army of the Po­tomac to ex­change in­for­ma­tion with other com­mands and the gov­ern­ment in Wash­ing­ton. The ser­vice em­ployed ci­phers to en­hance the se­crecy of com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the event lines were wire­tapped. Spe­cial units

The Army of the Po­tomac had other means for gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion and deny­ing the en­emy knowl­edge of its strength and move­ments. In par­tic­u­lar, there were sharp­shooter units whose main func­tion in com­bat was to serve as skir­mish­ers form­ing a de­fense line in front of the army while re­con- noi­ter­ing en­emy po­si­tions. They also con­fronted en­emy skir­mish­ers who were at­tempt­ing to re­con­noi­ter Union lines. Most no­table of th­ese spe­cial units were the 1st and 2nd United States Sharp­shoot­ers, oth­er­wise known as Ber­dan’s Sharp­shoot­ers af­ter their founder and com­man­der, Col. Hi­ram Ber­dan.

An­other unit with spe­cial qual­i­fi­ca­tions avail­able to the Army of the Po­tomac dur­ing the cam­paign was the Loudoun Rangers. In June 1862, Sec­re­tary of War Ed­win M. Stan­ton re­cruited Samuel C. Means, a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man from Water­ford, Va., to or­ga­nize the in­de­pen­dent Loudoun Rangers and as­signed him as com­man­der. The Rangers’ mis­sion was to serve as scouts and guides for reg­u­lar Army units and to coun­ter­act Con­fed­er­ate raid­ing par­ties in the North­ern Vir­ginia area, par­tic­u­larly Mosby’s Rangers.

Couri­ers, guides and es­corts as­signed to the Army of the Po­tomac also per­formed in­for­ma­tion-gath­er­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Sev­eral units per­formed es­sen­tial du­ties for army head­quar­ters, in­clud­ing the 2nd Penn­syl­va­nia Cavalry, two com­pa­nies of the 6th Penn­syl­va­nia Cavalry, and de­tach­ments from the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th U.S. Cavalry. They scouted the best routes for move­ment of the army and kept watch for en­emy spies and in­form­ers op­er­at­ing in or near the Union en­camp­ment. Spy net­works

The­move­ment­awayfromtheRap­pa­han­nock River in Vir­ginia in June 1863 to friend­lier re­gions in Mary­land and Penn­syl­va­nia meant that the Army of the Po­tomac could de­pend more on the lo­cal pop­u­lace for in­for­ma­tion. Dur­ing the cam­paign, a num­ber of civil­ians ac­tively ob­served Lee’s troops and in­formed the Union Army about their move­ments.

Maj. Gen. Dar­ius N. Couch, the De­part­ment of the Susque­hanna com­man­der in Penn­syl­va­nia, es­tab­lished one group, and Maj. Gen. Robert C. Schenck, 8th Corps com­man­der in Mary­land, also sent out civil­ians in search of Lee’s army. Other op­er­a­tions were be­ing run out of Wash­ing­ton and Bal­ti­more.

Th­ese com­po­nents of a re­or­ga­nized and up­graded Union intelligence sys­tem were in place by mid1863, when the Con­fed­er­ate army be­gan a full-scale in­va­sion of the North. Un­ques­tion­ably the ab­sence of intelligence be­cause of Stu­art’s sep­a­ra­tion from the main Con­fed­er­ate army un­der­mined Lee’s abil­ity to im­ple­ment his strat­egy and tac­tics. In con­trast, Union Maj. Gen. Ge­orge G. Meade, who had re­placed Gen. Hooker, had a so­phis­ti­cated intelligence ap­pa­ra­tus in place that as­sisted him in gain­ing a de­ci­sive vic­tory at Get­tys­burg.

Thomas J. Ryan is pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral Delaware Civil War Round Ta­ble.

Li­brary of Congress

Gen. Joseph Hooker’s re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of the Union cavalry and an intelligence bureau helped the Union army win a vic­tory at Get­tys­burg.

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