Book Review: Lincoln’s Spies


Lincoln’s Spies, by Douglas C. Waller

Yes, I have to admit I’m a bit of an Abraham Lincoln nerd and definitely a Civil War buff.  I like reading about the less told stories of the Civil War, both North and South. 

When I found this book at the Barnes and Noble last year with Christmas money burning a hole in my pocket, I knew I had to get it!

Lincoln’s Spies is as its name suggests, a book about the spies and intelligence gatherers employed by the Union Army, either as paid employees or volunteers.  They ranged from excellent agents of information to corrupt and ineffective, but there can be no doubt that these spies helped the Union cause.

The book explores in depth the intelligence gathered by Allan Pinkerton and his agents; both the good information and the garbage.  Pinkerton uncovered a likely plot to assassinate Lincoln on his way in to Washington D.C. after his election, and they were able to protect the President-elect.  However, Pinkerton was a huge supporter of General George McClellan and provided grossly inflated Confederate troop numbers, which contributed to McClellan’s unwillingness to aggressively attack Lee’s Army and significantly prolonged the war.

It discusses Lafayette Baker, whose intelligence was often more accurate, but concerns about corruption and side schemes to cash in on government payouts tainted his positive contributions.  And most importantly, Baker did not ferret out the plot to assassinate Lincoln in April 1865, resulting in John Wilkes Booth shooting the President at Ford’s Theatre. 

The author devotes time to George Sharpe, one of the unsung heroes of Army intelligence.  He brought accurate information in with a ring of agents working throughout the south.  General Grant came to rely on Sharpe’s reports.

And last but certainly not least, Elizabeth Van Lew.  A Richmond society woman, she supported the northern cause and used her own money to collect intelligence, and to support Northern soldiers languishing in Richmond’s Confederate prisons.  She was paid a pittance by the U.S. Government for her work, which Stanton considered invaluable.  She risked her reputation and her life to continue supplying information, even as the Confederate authorities investigated her.  She was shunned and ostracized by her southern neighbors and died deeply in debt after the war.  She was a true hero.

The author weaves these stories in with the battles of the war, and examined these characters with such depth that they were three dimensional.  They all had their motives and they all had positive and negative attributes, and Waller brought them to life. 

It was well researched and well written, with nearly a third of the book being footnotes and bibliography.  It is not an easy read, but well worth it.

4 stars.

 

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