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The ladies were terrific. In this war they made their American debut in espionage, and never since have
the nation's women taken such an active part as spies. No matter how raging a partisan a man might be,
his wife or sister was probably still more impassioned. They became the best recruiting sergeants; they
were "not at home" to those who lagged in enlisting, and they sent such friends white feathers or boxes
containing dresses. They connived endlessly, they took great risks, and they pushed through to success in
ways impossible to simple males. They showed again that the female is not only the deadlier of the sexes,
but also the livelier.
In the eighteen-sixties the double standard prevailed in spying as in other matters, and to the ladies'
benefit. Neither side did a great deal about it, even when the identities of women agents were well
established. As the war grew slowly more bitter, men operatives were hanged, one by one. The women
received threats, or perhaps a prison term, and then freedom to try again. That war saw no Ethel
Rosenbergs, and no Edith Cavells. After all, a lady was a lady. . . . A gentleman could not bring himself to
order her shot or swung from a gallows.
Source: "Spies for the Blue and Gray" by Harnett T. Kane
2. Click to link to an article on Harriet Tubman’s spying
3. The Dabneys�Black Civil War Spies
<>Extracted from Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War by Donald E. Markle (pp.
While Negro husband and wife spy teams were rare there is one account of such a team that
is worth noting, if for no other reasons than the ingenuity involved. The account was
written by a Union officer in 1863 when the Union Army was encamped on the banks of the
Rappahannock River in Virginia. It states:
There came into the Union lines a Negro from a farm on the other side of the river,
known by the name of Dabney, who was found to possess a remarkably clear
knowledge of the topography of the whole region; and he was employed as a cook
and body servant at headquarters. When he first saw our system of army
telegraphs, the idea interested him intensely, and he begged the operators to
explain the signs to him. They did so, and found that he could (readily) understand
and remember the meaning of the various movements. �
Not long after, his wife, who had come with him, expressed a great anxiety to be
allowed to go over to the other side as a servant to a "secesh woman," whom
General Hooker was about sending over to her friends. The request was granted.
Dabney�s wife went across the Rappahannock, and in a few days was duly
installed as laundress at the headquarters of a prominent General. Dabney, her
husband, on the north bank, was soon found to be wonderfully well informed as to
the rebel plans. Within an hour of the time that a movement of any kind was
projected, or even discussed, among the rebel generals, Hooker (the Union
general) knew all about it. He knew which corps was moving, or about to move, in
what direction, how long they had been on the march, and in what force; and all
this knowledge came through Dabney, and his reports always turned out to be true.
Yet Dabney was never absent, and never talked with the scouts, and seemed to be
always taken up with his duties as cook and groom about headquarters.
How he got his information remained for some time a puzzle to the Union Officers.
At length, upon much solicitation, he unfolded his marvelous secret to one of the
Taking him to a point where a clear view could be obtained of Fredericksburg, he
pointed out a little cabin in the suburbs near the river bank; and asked him if he
saw that clothes-line with clothes hanging on it to dry. "Well" said he, "that clothes
line tells me in half an hour just what goes on at Lee�s headquarters. You see my
wife over there; she washes for the officers, and cooks, and waits around, and as
soon as she hears about any movement or anything going on she comes down and
moves the clothes on that line so I can understand it in a minute. That there gray
shirt is (Confederate general) Longstreet; and when she takes it off, it means he�s
gone down about Richmond. That white shirt means (Confederate general) Hill; and
when she moves it up to the west end of the line, Hill�s corps has moved
upstream. That red one is (Confederate general) Stonewall. He�s down on the right
now, and if he moves, she will move that red shirt."
One morning Dabney came in and reported a movement over there. "But" says he,
"it don�t amount to anything. There�re just making believe."
An officer went out to look at the clothes-line telegraph through his field-glass.
There had been quite a shifting over there among the army flannels. "But how do
you know that there is something in it?"
"Do you see those two blankets pinned together at the bottom?" said Dabney. "Yes,
but what of it?" said the officer. "Why, that her way of making a fish-trap�; and
when she pins the clothes together that way, it means that Lee is only trying to
draw us into his fish trap."
As long as the two armies lay watching each other on opposite banks of the stream,
Dabney, with his clothes-line telegraph, continued to be one of the most prompt
and reliable of General Hooker�s scouts.
Other Tidbits
When John Scobell (an escaped slave recruited by Allen Pinkerton, chief of General
George McClellan's intellegent source) or other Negro spies would go into the
Confederacy they were aided by a Negro organization know as the "Legal League."
This organization served as spies in place gathering data from other League
members and local sources. (p. 62.)
While we hear much of the Underground Railroad, operated for the slaves, we hear
little of the underground railroad, operated by slaves, that aided Yankee escapees
making their way back to the union lines. There are many surviving stories provided
by the men they helped escape�the line did exist. (p. 62)
The acquisition and movement of intelligence by the Negroes behind Confederate
lines came to be know as the "Black Dispatch." The term was coined by General
Rush Hawkins, the Union commander at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1851,
who said of the Negro: (p. 62)
If I want to find out anything hereabouts I hunt up a Negro; and if he knows
or can find out, I�m sure to get all I want.
By their own blindness to the innate abilities of some Negroes, the Confederacy
provided the Union with a unique spy system that continued to operate in the South
until the final surrender. (p. 63)