S. Lee Manning: The best spies are the people who are least noticed. The handsome dashing man or gorgeous woman may be appealing in fiction – so of course some of us, including me – have them as protagonists –but standing out can be a liability in espionage. Spies need to fly under the radar. Who better to do so than the people we don’t generally notice: the servants or, in the case of American history, African-American slaves?
In this round of blogs we are writing about history and spies. February is also Black History Month. In honor of that, I want to use this opportunity to recognize some of those who often went unrecognized: the African-American spies in the early days of the United States. Given the limits of this post, I've only named a few.
The Revolutionary War
The story of Nathan Hale, the American spy, caught and hung by the British who said the famous words, “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” is well known. The story of James Armistead (1760-1832) not as much, although the information he provided may have helped turn the war for the Americans.
Armistead, born a slave in Virginia, was loaned out by his master to General Lafayette. He infiltrated General Cornwell’s headquarters by pretending to be a run-away slave and volunteering to spy on the American forces. Lafayette had sent other spies to infiltrate the British, but only Armistead succeeded. He traveled between British camps, learning information from officers who spoke openly of strategy in front of him – and he’d write detailed notes to be delivered to Washington. Reports he sent to Lafayette were instrumental in Lafayette’s military victory at Hampton, and Washington’s victory at Yorktown.
After the war, he was returned to his master. In 1784, Lafayette, outraged that Armistead had not been freed, wrote a testimonial letter that resulted in an act of the Virginia Legislature freeing him.
The Civil War
African-American efforts as spies and scouts were vital to the success of the Northern forces.
George Scott, a runaway slave, provided solid intelligence on Confederate positions to General Butler before one of the first large-scale battles of the war. On his way north after running away, he noticed that the rebels were erecting battlements. Union officers were impressed but wanted confirmation. He accompanied an officer on dangerous scouting missions, risking his life, but obtaining vital information. General Butler incompetently handled the resulting battle, but Scott, like all good spies, was only responsible for the intelligence.
John Scobell, a Pinkerton operative, worked behind the lines, masking his efforts by playing the role of cook, laborer, or servant. He would contact members of the local black community to get information on troop movements and strength, and to act as couriers back to the Union lines.
Black women played a large and sometimes unrecognized role in obtaining intelligence that helped the Union win the war.
Harriet Tubman is the most well-known. She is getting some of the recognition she deserves for her role in fighting slavery and will soon be the first woman whose picture will grace American currency. Did you know she was also a spy? She worked as a scout for Union forces, donning disguises and leading mission behind enemy lines to report on Confederate troop movements.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser is less well known. Born a slave, she was freed by her former master’s daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, and who, as a Union supporter and spy master, recruited Mary to spy for the North. Mary, a highly intelligent woman with a photographic memory, changed her name to Ellen Bond, and went to work as a servant in the home of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. Considered a dim witted black, she was able to listen to conversations and read and memorize papers on Davis’ desk. She then passed the information on to Elizabeth Van Lew or to a baker who delivered bread to the Confederate White House. Near the end of the war, Davis began to suspect her and she fled.
In 1995, Mary Elizabeth Bowser was recognized for her vital work and inducted into the US Army Military Intelligence Corp. Hall of Fame.
Mary Touveste was a freed African-American woman who made her living as a servant. In that role, she obtained a job in the home of a Confederate engineer in Norfolk, Virginia, who was working on turning the Merrimac into an iron clad war ship. Over the course of several months, she was able to copy some of the plans and documents for the ship. In February, 1862, a few weeks before completion of the Merrimac, she disappeared with her copies of the documents – and got them into the hands of the Union Secretary of the Navy. The Union quickly completed its own ironclad, the USS Monitor. Mary Touveste thereafter disappeared from history. It is not known whether she acted on her own or had been recruited as a spy.
A salute to these brave African-American men and women of history, and to the others - some known, some forgotten - who put their lives on the line, and sometimes died, in the dangerous pursuit of knowledge that is the espionage game. They had to go unnoticed to succeed as spies – but it is incumbent on all of us to notice them now.