“12000 strong…they intend to seize the capitol” – the pitfalls of human intelligence, 11 April 1861

Unknown to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, April 11, 1861 (Plan to seize Washington) (Library of Congress)
Unknown to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, April 11, 1861 (Plan to seize Washington) (Library of Congress)

In early April, 1861, the possibility of civil war was growing by the day. Seven southern states had already seceded, and tensions in Baltimore and Virginia were poised to make things even worse (the attack on Fort Sumter would commence on 12 April). Intelligence gathering was a lost art, and insurrection outside the gates of Washington was of utmost concern to the new president. Scarcely a month following his inauguration in March, a poorly written intelligence warning was sent to President Lincoln:

“Baltimore April 11. 1861 “Dear Friend I take this metod of informing you that you better prepair yourself for an asailing mob that is organizing in Baltimore as far as i can inform myself is about 12000 m. strong they intend to seize the capitol and yourself and as they say that they will tar & put cotton on your head and ride you and Gen Scot on a rail this secret organation is about 70000 m members in Maryland and Virginia and thay can be all brought to gether in five days, the person that rits this was a member and is bound by a strong oath which if they now ho i was i wold not be suffer to live but justis to you and my country make me do this”

There’s no record (that I am aware of) that Lincoln reacted to (or even read) this letter. Clearly, no such force attempted to seize Washington, but such intelligence certainly contributed to the mounting wariness of a possible attack. A week later (19 April), US soldiers did clash with a mob in Baltimore, but this was hardly an organized attempt to overthrow the government. Rather, southern-sympathizers were outraged that Union troops were passing through their city, and tensions ultimately exploded into a riot. Also of note, on 1 July, the Union army, by order of Winfield Scott, arrested Baltimore’s chief of police and the city’s police commissioners in order to “carry consternation into the ranks of our numerous enemies about you [General Nathaniel Banks].” This dramatic move was based on the recent discovery of supposed secret armories, and the suspect allegiance of certain key members of Baltimore’s civilian leadership.

Ascertaining the credibility of intelligence is always a tricky endeavor. However, making matters worse for Lincoln (and the forming Confederacy, for that matter), was that there was no institutional intelligence capability to help provide such guidance. Intelligence capabilities (and the skills needed to use them) were as lacking as the general military readiness of the North and the South – and probably more so. The consequences of this were many. Among them was a hyper-sensitivity to possible threats to Washington, as Lincoln and Scott demanded significant forces be always held back to protect the city, which at times frustrated generals who felt they had better use of the army. But such weakness in the Union’s intelligence apparatus arguably contributed to the early defeat of Union forces at Bull Run, as military leaders  – scarcely more competent in intelligence operations – were largely left to their own devices and cunning to collect and assess intelligence.

WEL

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