"The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes", said General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army. Although African Americans in America had been in bondage since early colonial times, they had contributed a lot in the civil war. Many were unaware that an astounding amount of military intelligence did not come from trained detectives or military operatives, but instead from poor, uneducated African Americans who risked everything to aid the Union cause. Black intelligence information was sometimes referred to as “black dispatches”. This term was used by Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by African Americans. Black Dispatches resulted from frontline tactical debriefings of slaves--either runaways or those having just come under Union control. Black Americans also contributed, however, to tactical and strategic Union intelligence through behind-the-lines missions and agent-in-place operations (Rose). Many African Americans were able to assist not only the Union army but as well as the Confederates by operating as spies, detectives and soldiers.
With the war just beginning, freed slaves and many other African Americans wanted to get involved. One African American woman involved in the Union intelligence was Harriet Tubman, an ex-slave who earned her freedom by escaping to the North. After her escape, she went on a mission to help other slaves to freedom. However, the start of the Civil War changed Harriet’s mission. Instead of giving liberty to a few slaves, she soon joined the Union’s cause of gaining freedom for all slaves. She was also able to convince other freed slaves into doing the same, sometimes even risking their lives and entering Confederate territory to gather information
for the Union soldiers (Allen, 11-12). Often disguised as a field hand or a poor farm wife, she led several spy missions herself, while directing others from Union lines. She reported gathered information to Colonel James Montgomery, a Union officer commanding a black unit involved in guerrilla warfare activities called the Second Carolina Volunteers. Under the command of Colonel Montgomery, Harriet led the Combahee River expedition designed to destroy Southern supply lines and free hundreds of slaves. On June 1, 1863, three gunboats set out on the Combahee River in South Carolina to begin the mission. Relying on information Harriet and other scouts received from their sources about the Confederate positions, they began their strategic mission that resulted in over 750 slaves to be freed. In The Scenes of the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869) written by Sarah Bradford, Harriet describes her experience during the expedition:
“When our armies and gun-boats first appeared in any part of the South, many of the poor Negroes were as much afraid of "de Yankee Buckra" as of their own masters. It was almost impossible to win their confidence, or to get information from them.”
Harriet Tubman is credited not only with significant leadership responsibilities for the mission itself, but also for the ability to keep the slaves’ trust despite the fact that they were under Confederate fire during the expedition. General Saxton, who reported the raid to Secretary of War Stanton, said "This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted”(Harriet Tubman). Since African Americans at the time lived their lives as invisible people, they were able to use this quality as the basis for using freed slaves as spies for the Union (Allen 95).
Although Harriet Tubman played an important role in freeing slaves during the Civil War, she was not the only African American who contributed to the Union intelligence. Other African Americans such as John Scobell and Robert Smalls also played significant roles during the war. As Union forces grew and better organization was required, General George B. McClellan was given command of the Army of the Potomac defending Washington. He brought with him as his chief of intelligence Allan Pinkerton, who had gained some fame running a Chicago detective agency. Pinkerton, often using the alias Major Allen or E. J. Allen, had responsibilities for collecting intelligence on the enemy and for counterintelligence activities against enemy agents. Most of the intelligence he collected resulted from an extensive and well-organized debriefing program of people crossing over from Confederate lines. Pinkerton ordered his operatives to focus on searching for former slaves who have seemed to have some education and have skills in remembering military details. Once these individuals were identified, they were sent to Pinkerton for further evaluation. From these black Americans, Pinkerton recruited a small number for intelligence collection missions behind Confederate lines (Rose). One of these chosen agents and the most known was John Scobell. Scobell had a quick wit and had the abilities of an actor. These qualities allowed him to play various roles— including a cook, food vendor, or laborer— on different intelligence-gathering missions in the South. While Pinkerton and his white agents would gather information from Confederate officers, Scobell would often travel to black communities in order to obtain answers form prominent leaders and various authorities. He also used his membership to the “Legal League,” an undercover black anti-slavery organization in the South, to acquire additional information. He often used the services of
other League members, who would act as messengers to transport Scobell's findings to Union lines. Because of his efforts and courage, Scobell became famous for providing the Union valuable information on Confederate troop movements, orders of battle, and other tactical procedures (“John Scobell”). Another freed black man, Robert Smalls, provided great aid to the Union. While in Charleston, Smalls stumbled upon plans for Confederacy in 1862. These plans showed that Confederate troops were to evacuate and destroy the harbor of the small Florida town of Fernandina upon their withdrawal. Smalls realized that it was important to the Union to keep Fernandina open as a base for Union operations on nearby Charleston, South Carolina. Thus, he led a solo mission to a Union warship that was docked outside Fernandina, poised to attack. Acting on the information Smalls provided, Union troops were able to attack Fernandina before the Confederate Navy could destroy the harbor. His intelligence was considered to be so significant that the Secretary of the Department of the Navy described it in detail to President Lincoln in his annual report (Rose).
Although African Americans were prohibited from joining the U.S. army due to a federal law dating from 1792, they were eventually allowed to enlist during the Civil War. Since the number of white volunteers declined by mid-1862, the Union Army had increasingly demanding personnel needs. They began recruiting black volunteers from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Massachusetts. Recruitment was slow at first until black leaders such as Frederick Douglass encouraged black men to enlist. By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men —10% of the Union Army— served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy (The Fight for Equal Rights). However, African American faced additional difficulties caused by
racial prejudice. One black soldier, Richard McDaniel, explains in his letter how whites treated them as if they were inferior.
In a short time I entered into conversation with another white gentleman, and was speaking to him concerning the number of colored men… He said, “You need never be afraid of having to fight, because this is not a Negro’s war, and the rebels will have to spill the blood of all white men in the North before a nigger can take up arms. They don’t know anything, and what would they do if they were armed? It would only cause the greater portion of the white men in the field to throw down their arms and rebel” (McDaniel).
Many African Americans who served during the war were often looked down upon but as the war continued on, they were able to show what they were capable of and eventually become true heroes.
Despite the difficulties African Americans had to face during the Civil War era, they were still able to provide significant contributions to the Union cause. Although they often had to risk their lives to do so, their courage and determination allowed them to succeed in aiding the Union. Without the help Black Americans like Harriet Tubman, John Scobell, Robert Smalls, the African American soldiers, and many others, the Union would not have accomplished its goals— to reunite all states of the Union and as well as free all Southern slaves. Records of African Americans in the Civil War detailing the exploits of these brave men and women are rare, with few having survived the nearly 150 years since the outbreak of the worst conflict ever to occur on American soil. Though many of the names and faces have faded and some never discovered
at all, many tales have morphed into Civil War legend and folklore. There is no doubt, however, that African Americans made a significant impact on the course of the war through their efforts as Union spies, informants, and soldiers.