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Confederate Secret Service

Confederate Secret Service

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Confederate Secret Service is an umbrella term for a number of official and semi-official secret service
Secret service
A secret service describes a government agency, or the activities of a government agency, concerned with the gathering of intelligence data. The tasks and powers of a secret service can vary greatly from one country to another. For instance, a country may establish a secret service which has some...

 operations conducted by the Confederate States of America
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

 during the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...



During the Civil War a number of secret operations sprang up, some at the direction of the government, some with its tacit approval, and some that were under only the most tenuous control, or even under no control whatsoever. Many of these operations involved acts that were considered, by the Union, to go beyond the normal conduct of "civilized" warfare. From the Confederacy's point of view, these were desperate measures necessary to compensate for the fact that, in terms of conventional warfare, they were out-manned, out-supplied, and out-gunned. By 1864, the Confederate government was attempting to gain control over the various operations that had sprung up since the beginning of the War, but often with little success. In April 1865, most of the official papers of the Secret Service were burned by Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin
Judah P. Benjamin
Judah Philip Benjamin was an American politician and lawyer. Born a British subject in the West Indies, he moved to the United States with his parents and became a citizen. He later became a citizen of the Confederate States of America. After the collapse of the Confederacy, Benjamin moved to...

 just before the Confederate government evacuated Richmond
Richmond, Virginia
Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the United States. It is an independent city and not part of any county. Richmond is the center of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area and the Greater Richmond area...

, so the full story of Confederate secret operations may never be known.

In 1864, secret legislation was put before the Confederate Congress to create an official Special and Secret Bureau of the War Department. The legislation was not enacted until March 1865 and was never implemented, so no one really knows what an official "Confederate Secret Service" would have looked like. However, all these various bits and pieces have been referred to at one time or another as having been part of the Confederate Secret Service.

Foreign agents

The Confederacy's first secret-service agent may have been James D. Bulloch. In 1861, almost immediately after the attack on Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter is a Third System masonry coastal fortification located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The fort is best known as the site upon which the shots initiating the American Civil War were fired, at the Battle of Fort Sumter.- Construction :...

, Bulloch traveled to Liverpool
Liverpool is a city and metropolitan borough of Merseyside, England, along the eastern side of the Mersey Estuary. It was founded as a borough in 1207 and was granted city status in 1880...

, England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, and established a base of operations there. Britain was officially neutral in the conflict between North and South, but private and public sentiment favored the Confederacy. Britain was also willing to buy all the cotton that could be smuggled past the Union blockade
Union blockade
The Union Blockade, or the Blockade of the South, took place between 1861 and 1865, during the American Civil War, when the Union Navy maintained a strenuous effort on the Atlantic and Gulf Coast of the Confederate States of America designed to prevent the passage of trade goods, supplies, and arms...

, which provided the South with its only real source of hard currency. Bulloch established a relationship with the shipping firm of Fraser & Trenholm to buy and sell Confederate cotton; Fraser & Trenholm became, in effect, the Confederacy's international bankers. Bulloch arranged for the construction and secret purchase of the commerce raider CSS Alabama
CSS Alabama
CSS Alabama was a screw sloop-of-war built for the Confederate States Navy at Birkenhead, United Kingdom, in 1862 by John Laird Sons and Company. Alabama served as a commerce raider, attacking Union merchant and naval ships over the course of her two-year career, during which she never anchored in...

 as well as many of the blockade runner
Blockade runner
A blockade runner is usually a lighter weight ship used for evading a naval blockade of a port or strait, as opposed to confronting the blockaders to break the blockade. Very often blockade running is done in order to transport cargo, for example to bring food or arms to a blockaded city...

s that acted as the Confederacy's commercial lifeline. Bulloch arranged for the exchange of cotton for hard currency, which he used to purchase war material - including arms and ammunition, uniforms, and other supplies.

Signal Corps

The Confederate Signal Corps was established in 1862. Nearly 1,200 men were in the secret service, most of whom were well-to-do and knew more than one language.

Torpedo Bureau

The Torpedo Bureau, authorized on October 31, 1862 and headed by Brigadier General Gabriel Rains, was charged with the production of various explosive devices, including land mine
Land mine
A land mine is usually a weight-triggered explosive device which is intended to damage a target—either human or inanimate—by means of a blast and/or fragment impact....

s, naval mine
Naval mine
A naval mine is a self-contained explosive device placed in water to destroy surface ships or submarines. Unlike depth charges, mines are deposited and left to wait until they are triggered by the approach of, or contact with, an enemy vessel...

s and "coal torpedo
Coal torpedo
The coal torpedo was a hollow iron casting filled with explosives and covered in coal dust, deployed by the Confederate Secret Service during the American Civil War, and intended for doing harm to Union steam transportation. When shoveled into the firebox amongst the coal, the resulting explosion...


Submarine Battery Service

Created at the same time as the Torpedo Bureau, the Submarine Battery Service was the Confederate Navy's group of torpedo specialists. The Submarine Battery Service primarily utilized electrically-detonated torpedoes to protect the South's waterways. Originally commanded by Cmdr. Matthew Fontaine Maury
Matthew Fontaine Maury
Matthew Fontaine Maury , United States Navy was an American astronomer, historian, oceanographer, meteorologist, cartographer, author, geologist, and educator....

, also known as "The Pathfinder of the Seas", the reins of command were turned over to his protege`, Lt. Hunter Davidson, when Maury was sent abroad to further his experiments involving electrical torpedoes and to procure needed supplies and ships for the Confederate Navy. The Service was found operating along the James River between Richmond and Hampton Roads, Wilmington, NC, Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA among other locales.


The Confederacy benefited from the services of a number of "traditional" spies
American Civil War spies
Tactical or battlefield intelligence became very vital to both armies in the field during the American Civil War. Units of spies and scouts reported directly to the commanders of armies in the field. They provided details on troop movements and strengths. The distinction between spies and scouts...

 including Rose O'Neal Greenhow
Rose O'Neal Greenhow
Rose O'Neal Greenhow was a renowned Confederate spy. As a leader in Washington, D.C. society during the period to prior the American Civil War, she traveled in important political circles and cultivated friendships with presidents, generals, senators, and high-ranking military officers, using her...

, Belle Boyd
Belle Boyd
Isabella Marie Boyd Isabella Marie Boyd Isabella Marie Boyd (May 9, 1844 – June 11, 1900, best known as Belle Boyd or Cleopatra of the Secession, was a Confederate spy in the American Civil War...

, and Catherine Virginia Baxley.

The Bounty Law

The Confederacy knew it was in trouble from the beginning of war, because it didn't have a Navy. All the ships of the United States Navy naturally belonged to the Union, and the few privately owned ships that could be converted to military service were no match for the Union Navy. Privateer
A privateer is a private person or ship authorized by a government by letters of marque to attack foreign shipping during wartime. Privateering was a way of mobilizing armed ships and sailors without having to spend public money or commit naval officers...

ing was essential. On May 21, 1861, the Confederate Congress enacted an amendment to their May 6, 1861 Declaration of War
Declaration of war
A declaration of war is a formal act by which one nation goes to war against another. The declaration is a performative speech act by an authorized party of a national government in order to create a state of war between two or more states.The legality of who is competent to declare war varies...

 which provided that

the government of the Confederate States will pay to the cruiser or cruisers of any private armed vessel commissioned under said act, twenty per centum on the value of each and every vessel of war belonging to the enemy, that may be sunk or destroyed by such private armed vessel or vessels, the value of the armament to be included in the estimate.

This was a useful incentive program but it didn't go far enough. In 1862, possibly following a suggestion, the Confederate Congress enacted a bounty of fifty percent of the value of any vessel destroyed by means of a new invention.

The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That the first section of the above entitled Act be so amended, that, in case any person or persons shall invent or construct any new machine or engine, or contrive any new method for destroying the armed vessels of the enemy, he or they shall receive fifty per centum of the value of each and every such vessel that may be sunk or destroyed, by means of such invention or contrivance,

This naturally attracted the attention of engineers, entrepreneurs, patriots and crackpots. Horace Hunley
Horace Lawson Hunley
Horace Lawson Hunley , was a Confederate marine engineer during the American Civil War. He developed early hand-powered submarines, the most famous of which was posthumously named for him, H. L...

 put together a group of investors to finance the submarine
H. L. Hunley (submarine)
H. L. Hunley was a submarine of the Confederate States of America that played a small part in the American Civil War, but a large role in the history of naval warfare. The Hunley demonstrated both the advantages and the dangers of undersea warfare...

 that bears his name, hoping to cash in on the bounty. Private individuals with engineering experience such as E. C. Singer, C. Williams, and Zere McDaniel developed and patented new torpedo
The modern torpedo is a self-propelled missile weapon with an explosive warhead, launched above or below the water surface, propelled underwater towards a target, and designed to detonate either on contact with it or in proximity to it.The term torpedo was originally employed for...

es and fuses
Fuse (explosives)
In an explosive, pyrotechnic device or military munition, a fuse is the part of the device that initiates function. In common usage, the word fuse is used indiscriminately...


The Coal Torpedo

Developed by Thomas Courtenay
Thomas Courtenay
Thomas Courtenay may refer to:*Thomas Courtenay , British politician and author*Thomas de Courtenay, 13th Earl of Devon *Thomas Courtenay, 14th Earl of Devon *Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay...

 of the Confederate Secret Service, coal torpedo
Coal torpedo
The coal torpedo was a hollow iron casting filled with explosives and covered in coal dust, deployed by the Confederate Secret Service during the American Civil War, and intended for doing harm to Union steam transportation. When shoveled into the firebox amongst the coal, the resulting explosion...

es were hollow metal castings resembling a lump of coal. The castings were filled with powder and then secreted in the coal bunker of enemy vessels. When the coal replicas were shoveled into the fire boxes of ship's boilers, the resulting explosions either damaged or sank the ship. A variation of the coal torpedo used against river steamers was a piece of wood, hollowed out and filled with powder, which could easily be concealed in the fuel piles of cord wood stacked along the river banks and which was capable of producing disaster to the unlucky ship that hoisted it aboard.

See also

  • American Civil War spies
    American Civil War spies
    Tactical or battlefield intelligence became very vital to both armies in the field during the American Civil War. Units of spies and scouts reported directly to the commanders of armies in the field. They provided details on troop movements and strengths. The distinction between spies and scouts...

  • Black Dispatches
    Black Dispatches
    Black Dispatches was a common term used among Union military men in the American Civil War for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by Negroes...

  • Bureau of Military Information
    Bureau of Military Information
    The Bureau of Military Information was the first formal and organized American intelligence agency, active during the American Civil War.-Predecessors:...

Confederate Secret Service in Literature

  • The Butcher's Cleaver, (A Tale of the Confederate Secret Services.) by W. Patrick Lang
    W. Patrick Lang
    Walter Patrick "Pat" Lang, Jr. is a commentator on the Middle East, a retired US Army officer and private intelligence analyst, and an author. After leaving uniformed military service as a colonel, he held high-level posts in military intelligence as a civilian...

     Rosemont Books, 2007, ISBN 978-0595711857
  • Death Piled Hard, (A Tale of the Confederate Secret Services.) by W. Patrick Lang iUniverse.com 2009 ISBN 978-1440123917


  • Matthew Fontaine Maury, Scientist of the Sea, Frances Leigh Williams, (1969) ISBN 0-8135-0433-3
  • The Pathfinder of the Seas, The Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury, by John W. Wayland, (1930)
  • Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury, U.S.N. and C.S.N., by Diana Fontaine Maury-Corbin.
  • The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe; James Dunwody Bulloch
  • Perry, Milton F. "Infernal Machines: The story of Confederate submarine and mine warfare." Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
  • Crowley, R.O. "Confederate Torpedo Service" in The Century
    The Century Magazine
    The Century Magazine was first published in the United States in 1881 by The Century Company of New York City as a successor to Scribner's Monthly Magazine...

     / Volume 56, Issue 2, The Century Company
    The Century Company
    The Century Company was an American publishing company, founded in 1881.It was originally a subsidiary of Charles Scribner's Sons, but was bought and renamed. The magazine it had published up to that time, Scribners Monthly, was renamed The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine.The Century Company...

    , New York, June 1898.
  • Bulloch, James D. "The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe; or, How the Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped." 1883.
  • Tidwell, William A. "April '65." Kent State University Press, 1995.
  • Kochan, Michael P. and John C. Wideman. "Torpedoes: Another look at the Infernal Machines of the Civil War." 2002.
  • United States Government, Intelligence in the Civil War. Washington, D.C., Central Intelligence Agency, 2005.

CategoryGovernment of the Confederate States