- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2003

Grenville M. Dodge, who made his mark in life as a railroad pioneer, played an unlikely role in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg campaign in 1863. He conducted a spy network and provided vital information that helped bring about the capture of the key Mississippi River stronghold. The loss of Vicksburg, which opened the entire river to Union forces and essentially split the Confederacy in half, foreshadowed the South’s demise.

Like a character out of a Horatio Alger story, Dodge was born in New England in 1831 and overcame an underprivileged youth to become, in the late historian Stephen Ambrose’s words, “America’s greatest railroad-builder.” Although the names of entrepreneurs such as Vanderbilt and Harriman are more familiar, Dodge’s role as surveyor, builder, financier and director of railroads over about 60 years was unparalleled.

After working his way through Vermont’s Norwich University as a military cadet and graduating in engineering at the early age of 19, he followed Horace Greeley’s advice to “Go west, young man” and landed a job with the Illinois Central Railroad in 1851. Two years later, Dodge, by nature a risk taker, migrated to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and surveyed the future Rock Island Railroad, which he foresaw as part of a transcontinental route.

It was at Council Bluffs in 1859 that Dodge made the acquaintance of a railroad attorney named Abraham Lincoln, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and promoter of railroads across the nation.

Lincoln inquired, “What’s the best route for a Pacific railroad to the West?” The young engineer’s response led to collaboration between the two men that eventually inaugurated construction of the transcontinental railroad in Lincoln’s eyes a necessity to bind the East and West.

The outbreak of war in 1861 postponed that event because pro-Union Dodge joined the military. In 1862, his leadership of the 4th Iowa Infantry, labeled “the black-coated devils” by the enemy, earned him a brigadier general’s commission. His experience in railroading led to assignments with Gens. Grant and William T. Sherman to move troops and supplies by keeping the trains running. Sherman reminisced after the war that Dodge “repaired railroads and built bridges about as fast as the troops marched.”

In late 1862, Grant initiated a drive to capture Vicksburg and pursued Gen. John C. Pemberton’s retreating Rebel forces southward in Mississippi. Grant got word that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston might have moved into eastern Mississippi to support Pemberton. Fearing that Gen. Braxton Bragg, the Confederate commander in Tennessee, would detach units to reinforce Pemberton, Grant wanted to set up a system to provide early warning of enemy movements.

Grant chose Dodge to establish an intelligence network for this purpose. Although this was a curious choice given his background, Dodge was not a novice in conducting spy operations. While in command at Rolla, Mo., he had paid men to stay in the field and report on the enemy. This investment paid off when a warning of approaching forces aided in the Union victory at Pea Ridge in Arkansas.

Dodge applied the same dedication to espionage that he had to his civilian occupation. A shortcoming of Allan Pinkerton, who headed an intelligence operation early in the conflict, had been his penchant for inflating the size of Confederate forces. Dodge trained his scouts to calculate enemy numbers accurately by using methods such as measuring the length of a marching column.

Dodge set up a base at the rail junction of Corinth, Miss., strategically located between Grant’s army and Rebel forces in Tennessee, from which he could direct an intelligence network and keep Grant informed. By the end of 1862, he had put together an organization of 130 scouts and spies that operated within Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

Dodge described this operation in his memoirs: “From the beginning of the war I had made considerable use of spies and scouts … mostly Southern men living in Northern Alabama and Mississippi. I placed them at Chattanooga, Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery, Mobile, Meridian, Jackson and Vicksburg for the purpose of watching the movements of the enemy … especially … towards Vicksburg.”

Scouts conducted reconnaissance, while spies operated close to home. They relied on the local population, including relatives and friends, for information about Confederate activities. Dodge also employed free blacks and escaped slaves who were able to travel across lines unobtrusively. He marveled at the professionalism and bravery of these secret operatives, and observed, “I am surprised at the accuracy of the reports of these scouts. Of course they were often detected and lost their lives, but there were always others ready to take their places.”

Maintaining a network was expensive because scouts and spies required suitable compensation. Lacking sufficient funds, Dodge obtained additional money through the sale of cotton confiscated in the local area.

When questions arose concerning the legitimacy of these practices, he pleaded his case with Grant, who, as beneficiary of the intelligence, issued orders endorsing Dodge’s unorthodox methods: “The Provost Marshals in your district will turn over to you all moneys collected by them [from sales of cotton] … which you will account for as secret-service funds.”

Because spies were vulnerable to exposure and retaliation, Dodge refused to comply when his quartermaster insisted that these operatives sign vouchers for payment. Instead, Dodge assumed control of disbursements to preserve their anonymity. He read their reports himself and would not reveal their names to his own staff. He continued to maintain this secrecy even after the war.

Military theorist Karl von Clausewitz wrote that information about the enemy is “the foundation of all our ideas and actions” in war. That Grant understood this concept and valued Dodge’s information-gathering role is reflected in his instructions, “Keep a sharp lookout for Bragg’s forces. … You have a much more important command than that of a division in the field.”

Dodge created a “war room” with information from scouts and spies listed on maps that lined the walls. Such was his penchant for security that notes scrupulously were destroyed after being recorded. Fearing that telegraph lines could be tapped easily, he communicated with Grant in the field primarily by messenger.

In the spring of 1863, Lincoln unexpectedly summoned Dodge. The president wanted to consult with him because Congress was about to pass the Pacific Railroad Bill to clear the way for completion of the transcontinental railway to the West Coast. Despite his preoccupation with the desperate conflict, Lincoln continued to promote construction of the vital link to the West.

This unusual request was prompted by the president’s desire to obtain an independent view of a politically sensitive issue. He recalled meeting Dodge earlier in Iowa and wanted to be certain of the most effective route for the transcontinental railroad. Dodge traveled to Washington and provided Lincoln with the information he desired. After reassuring the president, Grant’s intelligence officer returned to duty in Mississippi.

Grant’s first attempt to take Vicksburg by an overland campaign failed because his supply bases were vulnerable to quick strikes by Confederate cavalry. His second effort, begun in April 1863 down the Mississippi, succeeded with the help of the intelligence network, including an undercover agent on Gen. Johnston’s staff.

In his role as a “Confederate scout,” a former 19th Illinois sergeant named Charles S. Bell gave Johnston inflated figures for the size of Grant’s army. This confirmed in Johnston’s mind his previous erroneous estimate, causing him not to attack Grant in support of Pemberton. As a result, Grant was able to besiege Vicksburg and eventually force Pemberton to surrender. Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, the day following the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. The dual blow was devastating to the South.

When Grant became commander of all Union forces in 1864, he moved his headquarters to Virginia, where an intelligence organization existed as part of the Army of the Potomac. As a result, Grant assigned Dodge as a division commander under Sherman. Dodge earned promotion to major general by building bridges and railroads in support of Sherman’s invasion of Georgia.

After recovering from a severe wound suffered during the Atlanta campaign, Dodge refused enticing offers to leave the Army and join a railroad construction firm. Unalterably opposed to the South’s stance on the war, he stayed the course until the Union was restored.

Grant put Dodge in command of the Department of Missouri, which stretched from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains, with the mission to protect railroads and settlements from attack by Indians. Dodge employed friendly Indians as spies, and the hostiles labeled him “Long Eye” because he used surveying equipment to observe them from miles away. He relentlessly drove the Indians out of the Plains and secured the area for commerce and transportation.

Dodge left the Army after the war to become chief engineer of the Union Pacific. Although he spent the postwar years engaged in the expansion of railroads, his attention returned to the field of intelligence late in life. At the turn of the century, the man who had been one of the North’s best secret service officers headed a commission that investigated the War Department’s performance during the Spanish-American War.

Characteristic of his pioneering outlook, Dodge recommended filling a critical void by creating a general staff with a “Second Division” responsible for military intelligence. This ultimately prompted the Army to establish a permanent Military Intelligence Section, an enhancement that became the unlikely spy master’s legacy to his adopted profession.

Thomas J. Ryan is a former Department of Defense intelligence officer who lives in Bethany Beach, Del. The South Coastal Library in Bethany and Council Bluffs (Iowa) Daily Nonpareil provided research assistance.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide