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 instance he allegedly led Union troops directly against his old master.
It wasn’t until his wife crossed back across the river and took up the job of … [ Read all ]