LINCOLN’S SPIES: THEIR SECRET WAR TO SAVE THE NATION by Douglas Waller

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(President Abraham Lincoln and General U.S. Grant)

It goes without saying that intelligence gathering during the American Civil War was an inexact science.  Information was derived from a myriad of sources that included; newspaper articles, railroad passengers and riders, free blacks, runaway slaves, deserters, prisoners of war, local farmers and other non-combatants along with the Union’s use of hot air balloons during the first half of the war.  This menagerie of sources produced a great deal of conflicting information that needed to be sifted through and analyzed.  The key information rested on how many troops each side possessed and their location.  The end result was a decision-making process that at times was flawed and battlefield decisions that rested on a weak foundation.  If one was to compare the intelligence strengths of the Union and the Confederacy, the northern spy network had major advantages and, in the end, would create an intelligence service that would later develop into an effective organization that contributed to victory.

Effective studies of Civil War spying are few in number and Douglas Waller’s new book LINCOLN’S SPIES: THEIR SECRET WAR TO SAVE THE NATION is a wonderful addition.  Waller has previously shown himself to be adept at dissecting important aspect of the history of American intelligence in his previous works.  DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR TWO MISSIONS OF THE CIA, DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR WILD BILL DONOVAN, and WILD BILL DONOVAN: THE SPY MASTER WHO CREATED THE OSS AND MODERN AMERICAN ESPIONAGE are all thoughtful, well researched monographs with a strong element of analysis.  Waller has now shifted his focus to the Civil War and those interested in early American intelligence gathering and techniques should be very satisfied with the latest contribution to the topic.

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(Allan Pinkerton)

Waller focuses on the Civil War’s Eastern Theater, arguing that a comprehensive history of all theaters of the war would require a minimum of three volumes.  His approach includes Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. because some of the largest, costliest, and significant battles of the war took place in those states.  Waller zeroes in on a number of important characters but his main focus is on Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and a man whose ego knew no bounds and in the end was not a very effective head of Lincoln’s spy organization despite the reputation that he himself  cultivated.  Lafayette Baker is another individual who plays a significant role in Waller’s narrative.  Baker was a poorly educated aimless drifter who arrived in Washington after a rather questionable career as a detective in California.  He would eventually convince Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to employ him and set up a spy network for the military.  In the end the corruption, use of blackmail, coercion, and illegal means to extract information and bribes would lead to the end of Baker’s career as a wartime spy by 1864.  Next, Waller introduces the reader to George Sharpe, probably the most effective Union spy during the war whose intelligence was the most accurate and in the end after his network of detectives was able to assist General George Meade at Gettysburg would join with General Ulysses S. Grant in helping to achieve final victory.  With a background as a lawyer who inherited a great deal of money Sharpe never could conceive that he would become the war’s “preeminent spymaster.”  Lastly, Waller discusses the contributions of Elizabeth Van Law, a Richmond socialite who abhorred slavery and all the Confederacy stood for.  Using her “social contacts” inside the Confederate government she was able to tap into a great deal of useful information.  She would create the “Richmond Spy Ring” and was very helpful for the Union cause.  She provided accurate estimates of Confederate forces in and around Richmond, assistance for runaway slaves to reach Union lines, helped organize prison breaks, and hid political prisoners and those suspected of spying against the Confederacy.

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(Lafayette Baker)

Waller, a stickler for detail, provides mini biographies of all his characters particularly those who were involved with the aforementioned four figures.  His discussion of the course of the war and its major players, be it Generals Robert E. Lee, George McClellan, George Meade Joseph Hooker, Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln, Secretary of Defense Edwin M. Stanton, and Jefferson Davis among many others echoes the comments of earlier historians.  Waller excels in describing the differences and dislikes that led to competitions and downright hostility among allies especially Sharpe and Pinkerton; Baker and Pinkerton; Meade and Sharpe; Lincoln and McClellan; Meade and Grant among many presented.  The strategies and geographical and economic conflicts are presented in a cogent fashion and are easily understood by the general reader.

Perhaps Waller’s best chapters include his analysis of the contribution intelligence made to the Union victory at Gettysburg which along with Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg was the turning point in the war.  Another fascinating chapter deals with Allan Pinkerton and how poorly he ran his intelligence operation for Lincoln and how incompetent he was.  A key to finally defeating the Confederacy was Sharpe’s relationship with Grant that Waller explores in detail.  Their mutual respect for each other’s skills and capacity in their fields of expertise was the foundation of their personal alliance.  Lastly, and throughout the book Waller discusses Civil War spy craft and how it evolved into an effective tool for victory.

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(Elizabeth Van Lew)

According to Waller intelligence gathering during the war also pioneered what today is called “all-source intelligence” under the leadership of George Sharpe.  The result was “merging espionage, cavalry reconnaissance, and signal intercepts with prisoner, deserter, and refugee interrogations to produce reports on Confederate strength and movement.  The phone tapping, human collection, and aerial snooping today’s U.S. spy community engages in can be traced to the Civil War.  It’s no wonder that the CIA tasked analysts to study era’s tradecraft for lessons learned.” (417)

The human side of the war is on full display as the carnage was unimaginable up until that time.  The book does not present itself as a history the war, but just a component that contributed to the northern victory.  An aspect of the war that has not been given enough treatment by historians.  The book itself does a remarkable job focusing on the Eastern front of the war and I recommend it to the general reader as well as Civil War aficionados.

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BY GASLIGHT by Steven Price

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(Victorian London, 1880s)

When I approach a 700-page novel I do so with trepidation and expectation wondering if the effort will be worthwhile.  In the case of Steven Price’s BY GASLIGHT, a multi-generational biographical noir mostly set in late 19th century London one must conclude that Price has produced a fascinating story encapsulating a violent period in history with many original characters amongst actual historical figures.

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(William Pinkerton)

Price, a Canadian poet and novelist has written a marvelous story set in London, Civil War America, and South Africa spanning the 1860s through the late 1880s.  The plot line is in part a biography of William Pinkerton, the son of Allan Pinkerton, Civil War spy and founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the fictional Adam Foole, a man of questionable business interests that dates back to a diamond heist in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1863.  Each man possesses an agenda that was formulated in the past.  For Pinkerton it is the hunt for a criminal his father never apprehended, an elusive thief named Edward Shade.  On the other hand, Foole is seeking  a woman he has not seen for over ten years and realizes he has always been deeply in love with her.  The novel focuses on how each man searches for answers and the relationship they develop.

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(Victorian London, 1880s)

As Price unwraps his story the tastes and sounds of London form a backdrop of poverty that centers on thieves, dock workers, and the general underclass that permeates London’s houses for children, sewers and hovels.  Historical periods are clear as the author alternates from the American Civil War with its brutality and vengeance to London in the 1880s infected with a criminal element and poverty that seems to dominate everyday life.  This is further highlighted by Price’s ear for Victorian London and its underworld slang.

Character development is effective, particularly that of Foole, Shade, Charlotte Rickett, John Shore, the Pinkertons, the Uttersons, among many others.  A great deal of research is evident from Price’s work reflected by its historical accuracy and the authenticity of its characters.

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The plot line moves slowly from the outset as each character is introduced.  The plot seems to center on Charlotte Rickett who from childhood was trained as a thief and a grifter in a London workhouse for indigent children.  She was rescued by a pseudo-uncle who furthered her education for a life of crime.  Charlotte’s life will take her to South Africa, India and back to London until her supposed death that resulted in dismemberment and mutilation.  Charlotte’s plight will become an obsession for Pinkerton and Foole.

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(Allan Pinkerton, Lincoln’s master spy during the Civil War who laid the ground work for later American spy agencies)

The novel highlights the horrors of the American Civil War and the poverty that dominates post 1873 Depression London.  Scotland Yard and the Pinkerton Agency are developed as a dam to prevent further criminality and murder.  Aside from Charlotte’s horrible death, the novel zeros in on the fate of Edward Shade, a shadowy character surrounded by myth who may not even have existed.  Rickett and Shade foster an alliance between Pinkerton and Foole that allows Price the opportunity to create numerous subplots as twists and turns abound in each chapter.

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According to Price in an interview with the Vancouver Sun, “I think of it as a novel about a detective, rather than a detective novel, ultimately Gaslight is about parents and children, and our inheritance of grief, and how we come to with the unfinished business of life.”  The course of the novel certainly reflects what Price wanted to achieve as each character is tied to their upbringing and how their socialization impacted the choices they made in later life.

Ian Weir writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail,

The narrative touches on themes relating to grief and loss, and the relationship of sons to fathers. There are nods as well to the nature of truth and storytelling, the unreliability of memory, and the conundrum of appearance and reality. But it is difficult to say what these add up to, in the end. The novel – for all of its force and ingenuity – struggles to reach beyond its own specifics.

But those specifics are splendid, nonetheless. And it is a tribute to Price’s skill and power that we never – well, almost never – pause to ask whether the novel really needed every last one of its nearly 750 exquisitely crafted pages.*

In creating the story, Price has written a book that is both challenging and rewarding for the reader due to its length, time periods that seem to turn on a dime, and its multiple characters.  If one works their way through, the time spent with BY GASLIGHT will be well worth it as Price has pulled out all the stops to capture the readers attention and maintain it for hours on end.

*Ian Weir, “Steven Price’s By Gaslight pulls out all the stops, Toronto Globe and Mail, August 19, 2016.

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(East End, London, 1880s)