Battling Black Confederate Spies

When John C. Frémont was replaced as commanding general of the U.S. Army’s Department of the West, his position soon passed to Maj. Gen. Henry Wager Halleck. Henry Halleck was a mediocre tactician, but a crafty and devious administrator. Halleck showed the latter quality in an order he had issued on November 2o, 1861. It read:

1. It has been represented that important information respecting the numbers and condition of our forces is conveyed to the enemy by means of fugitive slaves who are admitted within our lines. In order to remedy this evil it is directed that no such person be hereafter permitted to enter the lines of any camp or of any forces on the march and that any now within such lines be immediately excluded therefrom.

2. The general commanding wishes to impress upon all officers in command of posts and troops in the field the importance of preventing unauthorized persons of every description from entering and leaving our lines and of observing the greatest precaution in the employment of agents and clerks in confidential positions.

While it is possible that Confederate forces in Missouri were using slaves as spies, it is even more likely that Halleck was using their supposed existence to keep fugitive slaves from seeking sanctuary with Union forces and expel those that were already there. Assuming that black Confederate spies even existed the value of whatever intelligence they brought back to the rebels was greatly outweighed by the news escaped slaves brought federal forces, and loss of their labor to the Confederates and gain of the same to the Union. There can be little doubt that Gen. Halleck’s real aim was to appease Unionist slaveholders in Missouri and elsewhere worried and angered by Frémont’s controversial proclamation that had sought to free the slaves of disloyal owners.

Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune in its November 23 issue saw through Henry Halleck’s subterfuge. The paper noted sarcastically:

It would be sheer affectation to pretend not to see that this order is a concession to Slavery, and that its true object is dissembled and would fain be concealed. Nobody on earth will believe that one fugitive slave has carried information to the Rebels where ten have brought the like to our camps. But suppose the contrary were the fact, what then? The obvious remedy for the asserted evil is not to repel all fugitives coming from the enemy to us, but take care that none should escape from our camps to him. White deserters are often spies for the service they have left, but no general ever thought of repelling the approach of deserters. On the contrary, they are always welcomed, with a perfect knowledge that they may be spies, every general taking the chances of getting more information out of them that they can glean in his camp and get away with. He questions them sharply, believes so much as he chooses of their replies, treats them civilly, unless he detects them in treachery, and takes good care that they do not desert back again. He would like to have the enemy send over half his force as sham deserters, and would gladly take the risk of their deceiving and outwitting him.

Gen. Halleck has invented a very different method. He is so afraid some negro will outwit him and return laden with information to Dixie that he drives every one out of his lines and forbids any more to come in! To such innocence, a resolve never to bathe for fear you might get wet, is the very acme of shrewdness.

Gen. Halleck is of course fishing for the good opinion of rebel slaveholders. Whenever he gets an encouraging nibble, we trust he will let us know it.

Henry Halleck’s actions show both an antipathy to African Americans that he would demonstrate on several occasions during the Civil War, and his eagerness to prove to his superiors that he had no intention of reviving the policies of his predecessor that had so antagonized slaveholders in the Border States. Other Union commanders around the same time also sought to exclude escaped slaves from their lines. For example, the following order was issued in Kentucky on November 23: “No officer or soldier shall be allowed to arrest, secrete or harbor or in any way interfere with persons held to service (negroes), property of citizens of slaveholding States. By order of Col. John Cook, commanding Fourth Brigade.

Yet ultimately the actions of officers such as Cook and Halleck were futile. The slaves kept coming in Fall 1861 and seeking sanctuary with the Union army and getting it often enough from troops in camp if not their superiors at headquarters not to discourage their flight. Federal commanders might just as well have ordered the sun not to rise. It wasn’t quite “self emancipation” but unquestionably slaves were playing an active role in gaining their freedom, subverting even Maj. Gen. Henry Wager Halleck’s attempts to stop them.

Sources: 1); 2)

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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