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Confederate dirty laundry: spies and slaves

It's possible Dabney contributed details to this map, completed in the days before the Battle of Chancellorsville [Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, 77-CWMF-Z399(2)]

It's possible Dabney contributed details to this map, completed in the days before the Battle of Chancellorsville. (Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, 77-CWMF-Z399(2))

The Civil War was a spy’s dream come true. With a porous border between the Union and the Confederacy, and little way to distinguish between friend and foe, spies were everywhere. Both sides used ciphers. Both tapped telegraph wires. Stories of aristocratic schmoozing abound so much that James Bond would be jealous of all the cocktail cloak and dagger that occurred in the Civil War. But for all the espionage that happened in Richmond, the Union quickly learned that one of the best places to hide their spies wasn’t in a veil of aristocracy, but beneath the Confederate’s own prejudices. Thinking African Americans uneducated and illiterate, Confederate officers would speak of military maneuvers in front of their slaves and servants without a second thought.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of a man named Dabney and his wife. The two had crossed over into Union lines in 1863, and Dabney took up work as a cook and body servant at General Joseph Hooker’s Falmouth encampment along the Rappahonnock River. Dabney’s intimate knowledge of the terrain across the river made him an intelligence asset, and soon he was leading troops into battle as a scout—in one [ Read all ]

The OSS and the Dalai Lama

OSS spies Brooke Dolan and Ilia Tolstoy traveling to Lhasa (still from "Inside Tibet", Records of the Office of Strategic Services)

OSS spies Brooke Dolan and Ilia Tolstoy traveling to Lhasa (still from "Inside Tibet," Records of the Office of Strategic Services)

In the summer of 1942, the Allies’ war against Japan was in dire straits. China was constantly battling the occupying Japanese forces in its homeland, supplied by India via the Burma Road. Then Japan severed that supply artery. Planes were flown over the Himalayan mountains, but their payloads were too little, and too many pilots crashed in the desolate landscape to continue the flights.

The Allies were desperate to find a land route that would reconnect China and India. The task fell to two OSS men—Ilia Tolstoy, the grandson of Leo Tolstoy, and explorer Capt. Brooke Dolan. To complete the land route would require traversing Tibet, and to traverse the hidden country required the permission of a seven-year-old boy, the Dalai Lama.

When the two men arrived in Lhasa, the remote capital of Tibet, these spies were received as ambassadors. A military brass band played, and they were treated as guests of honor in a city that only a few decades earlier had forbidden Westerners to enter.

They came carrying a message from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On December 20, at 9:20 in the morning, they were granted an audience with His Holiness. As a further sign of his respect for these two emissaries, the … [ Read all ]

Green Bay Packer, Detroit Lion, or US President?

“]Gerald Ford, Jr. out on the football field at the University of Michigan, 1933 [GRF-WHPO-H0035(03)]

Gerald Ford, Jr. out on the football field at the University of Michigan, 1933 [GRF-WHPO-H0035(03)

These days, the average NFL player receives about $1.2 million a year, not a bad paycheck for throwing around the old pigskin. After all, that’s three times what the President makes (though he does get free limo rides), and plenty more than your average blogger does (sigh).

But in 1935, playing football wasn’t the glitzy well-funded enterprise it is today. That’s the year the Green Bay Packers went looking for a center, and found future President Gerald Ford. They offered President Ford $110 bucks a game.  Over the course of a season—14 games—that means Ford would’ve squirreled away $1,540, about $24,000 bucks in 2011 dollars, if he had accepted the draft deal.

Ford declined this offer, and another offer from the Detroit Lions to play professional football, and instead made his way over into Yale to study law, then to the Navy to serve his country, then to the House of Representatives, and finally to the White House where, thankfully, the salary was a bit better.

You can learn more at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library’s Facebook page.

Letter from the Green Bay Packers to Gerald Ford (Gerald Ford Presidential Library)

Letter from the Green Bay Packers to Gerald Ford (Gerald Ford Presidential Library)

[ Read all ]

The must-have Christmas gift of 1776

Washington Crossing the Delaware (66-G-15D)

Washington Crossing the Delaware (66-G-15D)

In 1864, Savannah, Georgia, was offered to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present. But in 1776, George Washington delivered one of the greatest gifts in American history: the United States.

Winter was a bad season for Washington. His Continental Army had been driven out of New York, and then it was driven out of New Jersey, leaving just a few thousand men shivering on the far side of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, while the British made camp in New Jersey.

The Continental Army was desperate for a victory. Many men had left the military after finishing their enlistments. Others were low on morale after the series of bitter defeats. Santa, it appeared, was siding with the British forces.

On December 25, George Washington ordered the few thousand men at his disposal to cross the Delaware River. Ice flowed down its waters–further downstream a unit that was supposed to join him couldn’t cross because of the ice flow–but Washington forced his men across, and was one of the first to land on the shores of British-occupied New Jersey.

Through the cold night air and sleet and snow, his men marched another nine miles, and then in a few quick maneuvers, launched a surprise attack against the Hessian forces encamped at Trenton. He took a thousand soldiers prisoner. He killed … [ Read all ]

The CIA’s catalog of covert conundrums

The Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, (412-DA-4215)

The Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, (412-DA-4215)

In 1992, George Washington University’s “National Security Archive” submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), soliciting information from the Central Intelligence Agency. Their request was inspired by a 1973 memorandum issued from then-CIA Director James R. Schlesinger, who requested that all CIA employees, past or present, “report to me immediately on any activities now going on, or that have gone on in the past, which might be construed to be outside the legislative charter of this Agency.”

The reason for Schlesinger’s request? The 1972 break-in at the Watergate by veteran CIA officers who had alleged cooperation from within the Agency.

What resulted from the request was something else altogether: over 700 pages of illegal CIA activities ranging from the 1950s to the 1970s. Former CIA Director William Colby called the report the “skeletons” in the CIA’s closet.

In 2007, the CIA delivered the report, dubbed the “Family Jewels” to the National Security Archive. It detailed assassination plots, illegal surveillance of journalists, drug testing, warrantless wiretapping, break-ins, and a litany of other illegal operations (sadly there was nothing on the CIA’s “Tunnel of Love”).

The full report is available on the CIA’s CREST database at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland and on the CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room. Below are just a few of … [ Read all ]