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We continue our series on African-American Civil War Spies…
As Union forces grew and better organization was required, Maj. Gen. 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. These informants included merchants with business ties on both sides, deserters from the Confederate Army, prisoners of war, civilians traveling to escape the fighting or for other personal business, and former slaves. While each group provided valuable information, Pinkerton soon discovered that the former slaves were the most willing to cooperate and often had the best knowledge of Confederate fortifications, camps, and supply points.
Pinkerton instructed his operatives to focus their efforts on debriefing former slaves. He also directed them to be on the lookout for former slaves who had some education or seemed particularly skilled in observing and remembering military details. Once these individuals were identified, they were sent to Pinkerton for further assessment and evaluation. From these black Americans, Pinkerton recruited a small number for intelligence collection missions behind Confederate lines.
The best known of these Pinkerton agents was John Scobell, recruited in the fall of 1861. Scobell had been a slave in Mississippi but had been well educated by his owner, a Scotsman who subsequently freed him. He was quick-witted and an accomplished role player, which permitted him to function in several different identities on various missions, including food vendor, cook, or laborer. He often worked with other Pinkerton agents, sometimes playing the role of their servant while in the South. He worked with Timothy Webster, perhaps Pinkerton’s best agent, on missions into Virginia and also with Mrs. Carrie Lawton, Pinkerton’s best female operative.
Scobell is credited with providing valuable intelligence on Confederate order of battle, status of supplies, and troop morale and movements. Frequently, while the white Pinkerton agents elicited information from Confederate officials and officers, Scobell would seek out leaders in the black community and collect their information on local conditions, fortifications, and troop dispositions.
Scobell often used his membership in the “Legal League,” a clandestine Negro organization in the South supporting freedom for slaves, to acquire local information. League members sometimes supported Scobell’s collection activities by acting as couriers to carry his information to Union lines. On at least one occasion, as described by Pinkerton, Scobell protected the escape of Mrs. Lawton from pursuing Confederate agents. 5 He worked for Pinkerton from late 1861 until the intelligence chief closed down his operations in November 1862, when McClellan was replaced by Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside.
Read More About John Scobell in The Spy of the Rebellion by Allan Pinkerton: