BLACK DISPATCHES: The Original “Spooks Who Sat by the Door” in the Age of Steam
Espionage – the act or practice of spying or of using spies to obtain secret information – has been with us probably since of our first villagers looked over the hill to see what the other village was up to.
Espionage is one of the world’s oldest professions because as long as there is one person who has an advantage over another, be it military, agricultural, industrial, or even sexual, undoubtedly, someone will be skulking about trying to get their hands on someone else’s information or technology.
The most valuable thing in the world is not gold or diamonds, it is information.
Information of every kind has its own value depending on who wants it and why.
Industrial espionage can alter the wealth of a nation and thus its capacity to compete commercially and wage war. A great example of this took place around A.D. 550, when Justinian I, leader of the Byzantine Empire, wanted to undo China’s historic domination of the silk trade and, at the same time, end Persian control of this valuable commodity as the middlemen.
Justinian I was undeterred in wresting this information from China, which they protected under penalty of death.
He sent two Nestorian monks into China with the specific intent of conducting industrial espionage. While in China they observed how silk was produced and what key ingredients were used in silk production. The monks took two hollowed out walking sticks with them and hid silk worms and mulberry bush seeds inside them – both essential for silk production.
The monks were stopped and searched repeatedly on their journey home. Nevertheless, they were successful in their quest: they single-handedly transferred the technology for silk production to the West and within a short period of time, the silk trade had been completely upended. Byzantium, and thus the Roman Empire, became the world leader in silk production, which is why your ties are made in Milan and not Beijing.
This act of espionage changed trade throughout the world.
In the United States, Samuel Slater, a former apprentice at a state-of-the-art cotton mill in England, found eager buyers for the technology he had regarding the most modern techniques in use in England for wool and cotton production. With the information Slater sold, America became the world’s leading manufacturer of cotton, which shifted wool and cotton production from Europe to the Americas, thus kick-starting America’s Industrial Revolution.
This single act of industrial espionage elevated the United States to international economic eminence in less than 50 years.
These two industrial espionage cases demonstrate that all it takes is one person to alter history, if they are in the right place, at the right time, with the right kind of information.
Having people in the right place at the right time was vital to both the Union and the Confederate armies during the American Civil War.
Units of spies and scouts reported directly to the commanders of armies in the field. They provided details on troop movements and strengths.
Intelligence gathering for the Confederates was focused on Alexandria, Virginia, and the surrounding area. Virginia Governor John Letcher created a network of agents that included Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Thomas Jordan. Greenhow delivered reports to Jordan via the “Secret Line,” the name for the system used to get letters, intelligence reports, and other documents across thePotomac and Rappahannock rivers to Confederate officials.
The Confederacy’s Signal Corps was devoted primarily to communications and intercepts, but it also included a covert agency called the Confederate Secret Service Bureau, which ran espionage and counter-espionage operations in the North including two networks in Washington.
The Union’s intelligence gathering initiatives were decentralized.
Allan Pinkerton worked for Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and created the United States Secret Service.
Lafayette C. Baker conducted intelligence and security work for Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army.
President Abraham Lincoln hired William Alvin Lloyd to spy in the South and report to Lincoln directly.
The most useful military intelligence of the American Civil War, however, was provided to Union officers by “Black Dispatches” – a common term used among Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by Black people.
Black Dispatches were the original “Spooks Who Sat by the Door”.
For those unfamiliar with the film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, based on the incredible novel of the same name by author Sam Greenlee, let me offer this brief synopsis: A congressman, hoping to attract African-American voters during an election year decides to make political hay by pointing out that the Central Intelligence Agency has no Black agents.
Bowing to subsequent public pressure, the CIA admits a number of Black applicants to their training program, but they purposefully make the process difficult and unpleasant enough to winnow out nearly all the African-American candidates.
Dan Freeman, a strong, intelligent but soft-spoken man, somehow makes it through the gauntlet to become the Black CIA agent; however, rather than being given important field assignments, Freeman is put in charge of the agency’s copying machines and gives tours of their facilities to give the offices a progressive front for visitors.
After a few years, Freeman leaves the agency to move back to his hometown of Chicago and do work with the community…at least that’s what he tells his superiors. In fact, Freeman has used his time at the CIA to collect information on how to launch a political revolution, and not long after he arrives in Chi-Town, he begins recruiting an army of leftist radicals and Black nationalists fed up with the system. With their help, Freeman launches the first stage of an armed revolt with the stated goal of bringing the white-dominated power structure to its knees.
In 1862, Frederick Douglass wrote:
The true history of this war will show that the loyal army found no friends at the South so faithful, active, and daring in their efforts to sustain the government as the Negroes. Negroes have repeatedly threaded their way through the lines of the rebels exposing themselves to bullets to convey important information to the loyal army of the Potomac.
Black Americans contributed to tactical and strategic Union intelligence through behind-enemy-lines missions and deep covert operations during the American Civil War.
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