- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

A welcome addition to Civil War intelligence literature is "Grant's Secret Service." The author, William B. Feis, describes "Ulysses S. Grant's collection and use of military intelligence from his early command assignments in Missouri in 1861 to his final campaigns in Virginia in 1864-65." The writer achieved this ambitious goal through extensive research, objective analysis and a focused approach. His findings are clear and concise.
This book is the first full-fledged study on the use of military intelligence during the Civil War since Edwin C. Fishel's "The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War" was published in 1996. Mr. Feis' book complements Mr. Fishel's study, and together they provide a comprehensive picture of Union military intelligence operations.
Many authors have written about Grant's generalship, but Mr. Feis adds a new dimension. For the first time, the availability and use of intelligence has been factored into the rationale for the general's command decisions.
"Determining what a commander knew, when he knew it, and how he used what he knew offers a valuable and perhaps more evenhanded perspective from which to view the nature of command in the Civil War," Mr. Feis writes, adapting a quote from a French authority on the military, Antoine-Henri Jomini.
While Mr. Feis relates how Grant used intelligence in combat situations, he also examines his character, motivation and risk tolerance as a field commander.Not unlike earlier biographers, the author finds Grant to be an enigma. Grant was a simple man in many respects, and before the war failed to find success in life. Yet as a military commander, he seemed to experience a metamorphosis. Despite his reserved manner and disdain for military accouterments, he was tenacious in pursuing the enemy and calm under fire.
Mr. Feis suggests that Grant's success may have been due in part to what the French called "coup d'oeil," the rare ability in the midst of battle to see the faint light and follow it wherever it may lead.
To place Civil War intelligence activity in context, it is important to understand that neither side had a centrally controlled system. Each command in the field had to devise its own procedures for gathering information, usually by employing cavalry or scouts and spies operating in enemy territory. They often acquired useful information by interrogating prisoners, deserters, refugees and escaped slaves ("contrabands").
In the first three years of the Civil War, Grant repeatedly demonstrated superior generalship during battles in the West where the collection and use or, in some cases, misuse of intelligence played an important role.
Early in 1861, in Missouri, he constructed rudimentary intelligence systems. After he took command of a district in southwestern Missouri, he had little time to organize intelligence operations before deciding to capture strategic Paducah at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers in Kentucky in early September 1861.
Grant's willingness to act independently in an ill-defined situation set a pattern for the future. In early 1862, he devised a plan to capture forts Henry and Donelson. These controlled access to the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, strategic water routes into the Southern heartland. Again, his inclination was to attack first, then figure out a way to capture the forts in the process. He acted despite a paucity of intelligence and a lack of guidance from his feuding superiors. Within two weeks, he had forced the surrender of both forts.
Following these victories, Grant moved south and defeated the Confederates at Shiloh in southern Tennessee and at various other locations throughout Mississippi. This drive culminated in the capture of Vicksburg in July 1863 and permitted the reopening of the entire Mississippi River.
His effort to capture Vicksburg, perhaps the most complex campaign of the war, was conducted virtually on his own volition, since his subordinate commanders were skeptical about his daring plan. He benefited, however, from an intelligence network put in place by Gen. Grenville Dodge that extended "from Corinth [in Mississippi] to Atlanta and into the interiors of Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee," Mr. Feis writes.
Following Vicksburg, President Lincoln called upon Grant to extricate the Union forces besieged by Confederates at Chattanooga. His rapid success there led the president to promote him to lieutenant general and commander of all Union forces.
In this capacity in 1864, Grant and the Army of the Potomac engaged in a campaign against the formidable Robert E. Lee and his veteran forces, a much greater challenge than he had previously experienced.
During a series of bloody battles in Virginia and a lengthy siege of Lee's forces in the Petersburg and Richmond area, however, Grant had a key advantage. An intelligence unit called the Bureau of Military Information led by Col. George Sharpe supplied timely information to Grant, which enabled him to make critical strategic and tactical decisions that led to the Confederates' defeat and surrender.
"Grant's Secret Service" sets a standard for further studies in this field. One desirable area of exploration is Confederate military intelligence operations, a subject yet to be examined comprehensively. Another is a comparative study of opposing Union and Confederate intelligence activities during specific campaigns.
Readers of this book will appreciate the intriguing and often hazardous exploits of Grant's intelligence agents who sought to learn about enemy units, locations and intentions. Specialists will welcome the detailed descriptions of intelligence operations and methodology and the fact that this study is based extensively on primary sources.
"Grant's Secret Service" should be read by anyone desiring a definitive account of the general and his use of intelligence in the conduct of successful campaigns during the Civil War.

Thomas J. Ryan is retired from the Defense Department, where he served in intelligence-related activities. He lives in Bethany Beach, Del.

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