- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

CHICKASAW, A MISSISSIPPI SCOUT FOR THE UNION: THE CIVIL WAR MEMOIR OF LEVI H. NARON AS RECOUNTED BY R.W. SURBY

Edited by Thomas D Cockrell and Michael B. Ballard, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, $19.95, 181 pages, Illus.

“Scout” was often used during the Civil War as a polite term for those who engaged in spying. So it was in the case of a disenchanted Mississippian by the name of Levi H. Naron.

Though Naron was a prosperous slaveholding farmer before the war, his opposition to secession drove him to leave Mississippi and offer his services to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in nearby Tennessee. Sherman recognized his potential, christened him Chickasaw in honor of his home county, and immediately sent him back into Mississippi to spy on his former fellow citizens.

R.W. Surby, an Illinois cavalryman, said Naron had narrated his Civil War adventures to him and that he in turn had published them as part of the catchall “Grierson’s Raids, and Hatch’s Sixty-four Days March, With Biographical Sketches, Also, The Life and Adventures of Chickasaw the Scout” in 1865. Since then, except for an occasional mention in a historical work, Naron essentially has been forgotten.

Thomas D. Cockrell and Michael B. Ballard, the editors of “Chickasaw,” have resurrected this memoir from the dustbin of history and made a valuable addition to our knowledge of clandestine operations during our nation’s greatest upheaval. With the encouragement and support of Dr. Horton Taylor, a descendant of Naron’s brother, Mr. Cockrell and Mr. Ballard reviewed, edited and annotated it for re-publication.

While opposition to secession within Southern states is well-documented, it is popularly understood to have resided in the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri as well as the Appalachian Mountain states from Virginia down to northern Alabama. Less is known about unrest in Deep South states such as Mississippi. Yet pockets of resistance to secession and military conscription existed in the Magnolia State, particularly in the northeastern and southern counties.

Mississippi had two breeds of oppositionists: anti-Confederates and pro-Unionists. The former were more passive in their protests, while many in the latter category actively resisted their government.

Pro-Unionist Levi Naron publicly voiced disagreement with Confederate policies and recruited like-minded citizens to join in nullifying the decision to separate from the North. For his efforts, he experienced arrest, interrogation, threats and attempts on his life. When the choices came down to pledging allegiance to the Southern banner or hanging from a nearby tree, he surreptitiously left home seeking safe harbor across Union lines.

He arrived in Union-held territory just weeks before the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Gen. Sherman’s close examination of Chickasaw revealed his outgoing personality, overall resourcefulness and avowed commitment to preservation of the Union.

Satisfied that the Mississippian could be trusted, Sherman sent him back across Rebel lines into “the country with which I was familiar,” in Chickasaw’s words, to investigate the location and designs of the Rebels.

According to Chickasaw, he brought back valuable information that warned of a planned attack on Union positions at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., that were under the overall command of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Though this intelligence would prove to be accurate, Sherman and Grant were slow to react. As a result, a surprise attack threatened destruction during the Battle of Shiloh before the timely arrival of reinforcements.

As the story unfolds, Union commanders moved on to other assignments, and Naron performed scouting duties for a number of generals, including John Pope, William Rosecrans and Grenville Dodge. He tells of a six-day trip in which he circumnavigated the Confederate army under Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, gathering information that he reported to Pope upon his return. This occurred about the same time Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was making his much-heralded ride around Gen. George McClellan’s army back east in Virginia.

Chickasaw relates a series of adventures that took him to many cities and towns across northern Mississippi and into Alabama and Tennessee. He describes operations behind enemy lines, either in Confederate uniform or in mufti, where he often was stopped, questioned and detained. These harrowing experiences required him to use his wits to survive.

At times, Naron came into contact with relatives, friends and acquaintances who were not necessarily supportive, especially because of his decision to join the Yankees. The Confederates seized his property in Mississippi, leaving his family destitute, and at one point, his own brother attempted to take him into custody.

By late 1862 and early 1863, during the Vicksburg campaigns, Grant directed Dodge to gather information about the movements and intentions of the enemy. Being familiar with Chickasaw’s previous exploits, Dodge recruited Naron to be his chief of scouts and requested him, among other assignments, to arrange for the delivery of newspapers, a frequent source of useful military information, from as far away as Atlanta and Mobile.

Chickasaw soon had about 25 scouts and spies working for him. Some lived within local communities, and others came from the military ranks. By its nature, the work was dangerous, and at times members of his team were killed or captured.

Naron relates the tale of how his scouts captured a Southern spy by the name of Sam Davis who went to the gallows rather than identify his spy chief. Naron says he encouraged Davis to reveal the information and save his life, but Davis refused. In historical accounts of this incident, Davis is pictured as a symbol of steadfastness and loyalty in the face of certain death.

After a leave of absence to recover from a wound, Chickasaw returned to duty in time to participate in Gen. Benjamin H. Grierson’s cavalry raid across Mississippi. He and his scouts assisted Grierson as he moved relentlessly from the northeastern part of the state all the way to Vicksburg, destroying the railroad and supply facilities.

Despite Naron’s valuable service to both Sherman and Grant, neither mentioned the scout in his postwar memoirs. Though it is possible they overlooked his contribution, more likely they did not want to expose anyone liable to retaliation from former neighbors and friends. Surby did include testimonials, however, of three prominent Union generals praising Naron for his work in the “secret service.”

The story of Chickasaw the scout illustrates the impact that disaffected elements of the population in the South had on the outcome of the war. It is a welcome addition to studies about Southern resistance in locations such as Richmond (Elizabeth Varon’s “Southern Lady, Yankee Spy”) and Atlanta (Thomas Dyer’s “Secret Yankees”). This book also supplements William Feis’ “Grant’s Secret Service,” which describes the exploits of Grenville Dodge and his intelligence network.

Chickasaw’s story should be read with some caution because in firsthand accounts of spy activity, the narrator’s exploits often are embellished. In this case, however, enough historical evidence exists to lend overall credence to his memory of events. The value of this document lies in the level of detail it provides about spying and scouting methods employed at the time that is not often found elsewhere. It reinforces the adage that well-informed generals are usually victorious generals.

Those seeking tales of Civil War espionage will not be disappointed in Chickasaw’s memoirs.

Thomas J. Ryan is a former Defense Department intelligence officer and vice president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover.

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