Jun 20, 2011

Harriet Tubman
 
 
 

WASHINGTON (AP) – In the Confederate circles he navigated, John Scobell was considered just another Mississippi slave: singing, shuffling, illiterate and completely ignorant of the Civil War going on around him.

Confederate officers thought nothing of leaving important documents where Scobell could see them, or discussing troop movements in front of him. Whom would he tell? Scobell was only the butler, or the deckhand on a rebel sympathizer's steamboat, or the field hand belting out Negro spirituals in a powerful baritone.

In reality, Scobell was not a slave at all.

He was a spy sent by the Union army, one of a few black operatives who quietly gathered information in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with Confederate spy-catchers and slave masters who could kill them on the spot. These unsung Civil War heroes were often successful, to the chagrin of Confederate leaders who never thought their disregard for blacks living among them would become a major tactical weakness.

"The chief source of information to the enemy," Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, said in May 1863, "is through our negroes."

Little is known about the black men and women who served as Union intelligence officers, other than the fact that some were former slaves or servants who escaped from their masters and others were Northerners who volunteered to pose as slaves to spy on the Confederacy. There are scant references to their contributions in historical records, mainly because Union spymasters destroyed documents to shield them from Confederate soldiers and sympathizers during the war and vengeful whites afterward.

"These kinds of spies and operatives come up over and over again, many of them unnamed and rarely do they receive glory," said Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, who lectures on the Civil War's African American spies.

Jones and other experts are hoping the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will include some measure of remembrance for these officers.

 

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