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The spy who nearly stopped the American Civil War

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, War on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

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This edited article about the American Civil War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

American civil war, picture, image, illustration

A battle scene from the American Civil War, by James E McConnell

During the American Civil War, the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, in Georgia, had a reputation that was not unlike that of the Nazi concentration camps that were to shock the world almost a century later.

Of the 50,000 Union troops kept there from February, 1864, to May, 1865, nearly 13,000 died of hunger, exposure and disease, and at the end of hostilities the camp commander, Captain Henry Wirtz, was court-martialled and hanged for his conduct.

Today it is generally accepted that the appalling conditions existing at Andersonville were due more to faulty administration and the Confederate army’s general shortage of food and equipment than any intentional cruelty. But there is no doubt that, at the time, Union troops would have given short shrift to any of the camp staff that came into their hands. Yet it was one of those hated men who undertook to become a secret agent behind the Union lines, and to play the leading part in a mission that was to remain one of the best kept secrets of the war.

The year 1864 saw the American Civil War at its height, and for the Confederate cause the outlook was black. The Southern States had an elaborate spy system operating in the north, and their president, Jefferson Davis, was well aware that the odds were heavily against him.

There was nothing wrong with the fighting spirit of the Southern confederacy, but, as the conflict dragged on, it became only too clear that greater wealth and a larger population would inevitably bring victory to the Union. Even without an Intelligence service, the barefooted and hungry Confederate soldiers could arrive at the same conclusion, for they only had to look at the enemy troops to see that they were infinitely better equipped. At the beginning of 1864, President Jefferson Davis had a conference with his Secretary of State, and together they composed a personal letter to Abraham Lincoln, president of the Union.

The exact contents of that letter have never been made public, but it is generally accepted that, in it, President Davis indicated his willingness to surrender and outlined his plans for an acceptable armistice. Then he was faced with a major problem. Apart from an unconditional surrender by his generals in the field, there were no diplomatic channels through which he could get his message to Lincoln – unless the letter could be delivered by hand.

To find a suitable person prepared to be Davis’s secret agent on such a mission might have been difficult, but fortunately the president had a nephew, Lieutenant Samuel Davis, a one-time member of the Andersonville staff. Here was an ideal courier, for not only was he a commissioned officer, but he had the added status of being a member of President Davis’s own family. If any man could get to see Lincoln face-to-face it would be Samuel Davis.

Samuel dyed his hair, dressed himself in civilian clothes, sewed the precious letter inside the lining of his coat and set off with a forged British passport made out in the name of Stewart. From the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, he travelled to Baltimore, Maryland, and from there had little difficulty in reaching Columbus, Ohio, which was behind the enemy lines.

He had already obtained a list of “safe houses”, where he knew he would be hidden by Confederate sympathisers. From there he made his way to Washington, where he asked for a private interview with President Lincoln.

At this point Lieutenant Davis made a mistake, because he applied for an interview while claiming to be a British newspaper reporter. Neither the Union nor the Confederate authorities had much time for reporters, and Davis was promptly turned away.

He stayed in Washington for a few more days, but the officials surrounding the president remained adamant. Eventually, in despair, Davis decided that he had no chance of success and might as well return home. Accordingly, he began to retrace his steps; but in Newark, Ohio, he fell the victim of a stroke of bad luck.

Two repatriated soldiers, on their way home from the Confederate prison at Andersonville, happened to recognize Davis as he passed them in the street. Without delay, they reported their discovery to the authorities, and within the hour Davis found himself in prison, sharing a large cell with a number of other men, mostly deserters.

Davis was searched by the guards, but they found nothing incriminating upon him, for the letter to Abraham Lincoln was still sewn within the lining of his coat.

The Confederate secret agent then had to make a vital decision. There seemed little chance of escape, and he knew well enough that in the event of his being searched thoroughly the letter would almost certainly be discovered.

He knew that the last thing his uncle wanted was for such a politically explosive document to be made public. As it now seemed highly unlikely that he would have an opportunity of delivering it, Lieutenant Davis burned the letter, and all other documents in his possession, in the prison stove.

In due course he was moved from Newark to Cincinnati, where he was charged with being a Confederate spy. He admitted that he was a Confederate officer and was promptly court-martialled. At this, he pleaded not guilty to being a spy, but guilty of being “A bearer of dispatches”. The prosecuting officer did not accept this argument. Davis, he said, was an enemy officer, who had been captured while in disguise within the Union lines. According to the laws of war that made him a spy, and in wartime spying was punishable by death.

Davis pleaded that he had been carrying a highly confidential document, intended for Abraham Lincoln. He would not reveal the contents, but assured the court that if they contacted President Davis, he would confirm that he was speaking the truth. The plea was in vain. The prosecution argued that nothing could alter the circumstances in which Davis had been captured, and the court agreed. Lieutenant Davis was sentenced to death, and taken to Johnson’s Island for execution.

Fortunately, Abraham Lincoln heard of the case and, a few hours before the prisoner was due to be shot at dawn, a messenger arrived from Washington, bearing a presidential order for a suspension of execution. Davis spent the rest of the war as a prisoner and when peace came he was released.

He never spoke of his secret mission, and neither did President Davis, but its failure must be regarded as a major tragedy. Between the time President Davis sent his letter seeking peace, and the end of the war, 248,356 Union and 174,542 Confederate soldiers were reported either killed, wounded or missing, casualties that might never have occurred if Davis had been able to deliver his letter.

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