Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence...
"Black Dispatches" was a common term used among Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by Negroes. This source of information represented the single most prolific and productive category of intelligence obtained and acted on by Union forces throughout the Civil War. Black Dispatches resulted from frontline tactical debriefings of slaves--either runaways or those having just come under Union control. Black Americans also contributed, however, to tactical and strategic Union intelligence through behind-the-lines missions and agent-in-place operations.
Union armies invading the South found that both free and enslaved blacks were able to provide them with valuable information. Runaway slaves often could tell Union commanders the location and strength of Confederate fortifications and the disposition and number of Rebel troops. Blacks who knew the roads, rivers, and terrain of their area worked as couriers between Union units, acted as guides on Union raids behind Rebel lines, and led escaped Union prisoners through confederate lines.
Many blacks worked as Union spies. They could assume a happy-go-lucky attitude, don a broad smile, and feign indifference as they went about gathering valuable intelligence. Many of the best black spies were women.
In January 1861, Negro housekeeper Mary Louveste, who worked for a Confederate engineer in Norfolk, Va., stole a copy of the plans for the ironclad ram CSS Virginia and personally took them to Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in Washington.
Black spy Mary Bowser infiltrated the Richmond home of President Jefferson Davis and passed along to Union commanders at Petersburg information she gained while serving at political dinners and work sessions.
Freed slave Jon Scobell
John Scobell, one of the most famous black spies, was an agent of spy chief Allan Pinkerton. While Scobell wandered around Virginia gathering information, his wife worked in Richmond as a cook and gathered information on troop movements through the Confederate capital.
PHOTO INFORMATION: Freed slave Jon Scobell (second from right) hires on with the captain of a boat on a Confederate river to gather information.