Secrets, spies and ciphersFeb 29th, 2012 | By JCrutchfield | Category: History Mystery, In Every Issue
Secrets, signals, spies and ciphers
by Jennifer Crutchfield
Secrets and spies are a staple of war, ferreting out facts and cloaking figures in disinformation. As America entered the war between brothers an official spy network was not in place. During the first few years of conflict espionage efforts were characterized by dramatic figures with little organized systems for using the information they gleaned from their enemy prey. As the war progressed both the Union and Confederate armies developed ways to collect, transmit and use information collected from across the land.
President Lincoln had his own spy who traveled behind enemy lines, collecting answers to the President’s questions and reporting personally or with notes that his family delivered to the nation’s Chief. Abraham Lincoln established the War Department Telegraph Office where he could actively engage in battles by communicating with Generals and their signal corpsmen. They used a precursor to the code we recognize as dots and dashes. American Morse was a complex multi-element code that was often transmitted by cipher-operators working in wagons at battlefronts and de-ciphered under the watchful eye of the President.
President Davis also employed a spy, an educated former slave who served in the Confederate White House as a favor to her former master, a Southern woman who believed fiercely in freedom. Elizabeth Van Lew used her family’s fortune to comfort Union prisoners of war and to maintain a spy network that kept Union leaders well informed and sometimes even supplied them with produce and flowers from her farms and gardens.
More than 16,000 miles of telegraph lines were strung by both armies and signal corps linemen became valuable assets for their skills at retrieving information their leaders can exploit and at providing disinformation to enemy commands. Telegraphers were often attached to cavalry commands, leading the way into occupied territory and tapping into lines along the way. These early spies used de-ciphered code to switch military traffic to wrong destinations, transmit false orders to enemy commanders and to exploit the information they learned.
Confederate soldiers scoured the countryside in May of 1863 as they searched for Union spies between Knoxville and Chattanooga. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson was under siege in Vicksburg and Union Major General William S. Rosecrans wanted to know if General Bragg was going to send troops to his aid. Morning dew on the telegraph line sparked a warning to the Confederate General and launched a search for the Union spies.
Frank VanValkenburgh, who has descendants living in Chattanooga, was sent to the region with Pat Mullarkey with instructions and supplies from General Rosecrans. Armed with pulley blocks, telegraph line and pocket telegraph keys these secret soldiers spent 33 days behind enemy lines. They obtain the needed information and spread disinformation, middle Tennessee being reclaimed for the Union in the wake of the coming battles.
Whether they were using flares and flags from mountaintop heights, sending signals on tapped lines or listening to generals as they served their meals spies played an important role in the Civil War. Their personalities made some figures of lore and legend while others quietly heralded advances in technology and communications.