- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

Robert E. Lee organized a reconnaissance of the enemy’s flank, a supposedly impassable area. After a way

was found to circumvent the obstacles and a crushing attack achieved victory, Lee received much of the credit for the outcome. Although this is reminiscent of the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, it actually took place at Cerro Gordo in 1847 during the Mexican War. It was there that then-Capt. Robert E. Lee demonstrated ability in the field of intelligence that he would apply with effect during the Civil War.

After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Lee waited more than a year for an opportunity to display intelligence skills developed during the earlier war. He received his first field command in July 1862, when he replaced the wounded Gen. Joseph E. Johnston during Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.

Characteristically, Lee’s initial action was to order his cavalry leader, Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, to conduct a reconnaissance of McClellan’s lines. This led to a ride completely around the Union Army that brought Stuart fame and Lee the information he desired. Lee did not fail to act on the intelligence, which led to a crucial victory over McClellan’s forces.

• • •

As commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee basically served as his own intelligence chief during the Civil War. This was a throwback to the days of his idol, George Washington, who also served as his own intelligence chief during the Revolutionary War.

Lee had an appreciation for a variety of intelligence operations, including collection, counterintelligence, information security, deception, disinformation and covert operations. (The latter generally involved the recruiting and handling of spies.) He relied primarily on cavalry units and spy networks to gather information about the deployment, strength and intentions of Union forces. He assigned responsibility for the collection of tactical intelligence to “Jeb” Stuart.

To carry out this important task, Stuart selected a talented group of people, including Maj. John S. Mosby’s Partisan Rangers, and a number of scouts and spies. Their duties were to observe the Union Army in camp and anticipate a movement; stay on their flank when they were in motion, report their line of march and size of their forces, and cross the lines into Washington and beyond bearing dispatches and securing information. These responsibilities almost always fell into the category of hazardous duty.

• • •

Lee ordinarily left little to chance when dealing with his opponents. Before engaging in battle, he took the measure of Union commanders, many of whom he knew well from the old Army. He scoured Northern newspapers that conveniently provided useful data about enemy plans and activities. Lee also was concerned that Southern newspapers revealed military information and took steps to prevent it.

Lee issued instructions to destroy dispatches received from him “to prevent the possibility of their falling into the hands of the enemy.” This precaution undoubtedly was prompted by the famous “lost order,” when a Union soldier found Lee’s battle plans wrapped around cigars lying in a field near Frederick, Md., before the Battle of Antietam in 1862.

One notable instance of his practicing deception was when he sent Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early with a large force to threaten Washington in July 1864. The goal was to force Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to detach forces from the siege of Richmond to defend the Federal capital, thereby relieving pressure on the outnumbered Confederate army. The maneuver worked when Grant sent an entire corps to fend off Early’s troops.

Disinformation was another of Lee’s tools. He sent carefully coached military “deserters” and civilian “refugees” into Union lines to mislead Yankee interrogators. Lee also was aware that the “chief source of information to the enemy is through our negroes,” who frequently escaped across the lines to freedom.

To counter this, Lee sought to deceive the slaves regarding Confederate plans so they would provide inaccurate information to the enemy. Keeping knowledge about military activities from the slaves was virtually impossible, however, because they were woven throughout the fabric of the Confederate army, performing tasks such as cooking, washing clothes and digging fortifications.

• • •

Lee recognized the value of, and at times was directly involved in, covert operations. He reportedly ordered the establishment of a spy network in Washington to supply information about the disposition, size and plans of Union forces. In his correspondence, Lee made reference to scouts operating in Northern areas such as Baltimore and Washington.

Lee preferred to have experienced scouts and spies seek out the enemy’s secrets — “men accustomed to see things as they are, & not liable to excitement or exaggeration.” He had found that “reports from citizens however intelligent and honest cannot be relied on” because they frequently contained distorted facts and inflated figures regarding the enemy.

Lee had a battalion-size provost guard with about 200 men assigned to his headquarters. In addition to military police responsibilities, this unit supported intelligence operations. One duty was to interrogate prisoners of war to obtain order of battle (size, organization and leadership of enemy forces) and other useful intelligence.

Lee also had a cavalry unit, the 39th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, assigned to perform scouting duties and serve as couriers linking him and his corps commanders. The battalion’s intelligence responsibilities included accompanying engineers on reconnaissance missions and locating roads for the army to move about during combat. One company that served as Lee’s “body guard” kept an eye out for suspicious people and spies.

Lee once instructed an officer in his command: “Secrecy, diligence, and constant attention must always be practiced.” He elaborated: “Your movements must be secret — not even disclosed to our own people.” These were Lee’s watchwords during his long tenure at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia.

• • •

Lee, the mature commander, had a special relationship with Stuart, his young cavalry leader. They worked together exceptionally well, responding to each other much like father and son. Lee relied on Stuart to fulfill his army’s intelligence requirements and had learned to expect accurate reports on which to base strategy and tactics. He said of Stuart, “He never brought me a piece of false information.”

One stellar example of this collaboration was the Chancellorsville campaign.

The Southern army, sorely outnumbered by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s forces, routed the enemy after Stuart’s cavalry discovered the Union right flank to be unsupported. Lee sent Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps, guided by the cavalry, to launch a surprise attack that crushed the Union flank. Lee’s earlier experiences at Cerro Gordo no doubt resonated with him at Chancellorsville, where he gained his greatest victory.

• • •

The exceptional communication between Lee and Stuart failed on one critical occasion — during the Gettysburg campaign. Lee’s vaguely written orders and unforeseen circumstances in implementing them led Stuart and his most experienced cavalry brigades to become separated from his commander. This resulted in a virtual information blackout for Lee and led to defeat at the hands of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg in July 1863.

Notwithstanding this lapse, Lee and Stuart continued to work together effectively until the cavalry commander fell mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern in May 1864. After Stuart’s demise, his right-hand man for intelligence, John Mosby, began reporting directly to Lee. Earlier in the war, Stuart’s assessment of Mosby had been, “He is bold, daring, intelligent and discreet.”

“Black flag” warfare, a particularly virulent form of warfare that does not refrain from assassination and wholesale destruction of property, had broken out after an abortive Union raid on Richmond in early 1864. This was the so-called Dahlgren affair, which evidently involved targeting President Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet for assassination. Later, some of Mosby’s rangers supported clandestine Confederate retaliatory operations, including attempts to kidnap President Lincoln and to blow up the White House and its occupants.

• • •

Lee’s role in these actions remains obscure. He had counseled restraint on the Confederate government’s part after the Dahlgren raid. He undoubtedly was aware of covert operations in the North because Mosby was involved.

Lee is remembered in history as a wily, audacious commander. He also was pragmatic. He displayed the latter trait as the conflict was concluding in April 1865. At the village of Appomattox, his forces enormously outnumbered and without rations, Lee made a desperate attempt to bring his army to safety.

He ordered Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s corps to cut through the Union encirclement. When the anxious Lee sent a staff officer for a status report, Gordon reluctantly said, “Tell General Lee that my command has been fought to a frazzle. … I cannot long go forward.” In other words, the enemy was too powerful, and the situation was hopeless.

This was the last intelligence Lee would receive. He evaluated it and took action just as he always had done. With trepidation, the man who embodied the aspirations of the Southern people decided to go “see General Grant, and I had rather die a thousand deaths.” Lee surrendered the remnants of his once powerful army — his final act as commander and intelligence chief of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Thomas J. Ryan is a former Department of Defense intelligence officer who lives in Bethany Beach, Del. He is a member of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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