Maj. Gen. George G. Meade called a conference with his commanders on the evening of July 2, 1863, after two days of fierce combat between the Union Army of the Potomac and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Before the meeting, Meade’s intelligence organization, the Bureau of Military Information (BMI), informed him that Lee had already committed all of his units in battle, with the exception of the brigades of Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division.
The BMI had acquired this information through interrogation of more than a thousand prisoners and deserters taken during the first two days of fighting at Gettysburg. It was accurate except for one other brigade it did not detect. From this Meade knew that his army was in much better condition than Lee’s and that he would have a distinct advantage in available troop strength the following day.
Armed with this intelligence, Meade and his commanders decided to maintain their defensive position on Cemetery Ridge and await an attack. On July 3, that attack came as the Union Army held its ground and repulsed Pickett’s Charge and, thereby, gained a critical victory.
The BMI’s performance at Gettysburg was an indication of its rapid development as an intelligence bureau. It had been in operation only since January 1863, when Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the army commander at the time, established it, and selected Col. George H. Sharpe as its leader.
Sharpe, a lawyer and State Department diplomat before the war, was a native of Kingston, N.Y., and had been in charge of the 120th New York Regiment. The BMI’s mission was to collect and analyze information gathered from a variety of sources and generate intelligence reports for the use of the Army of the Potomac commander.
During the months before Gettysburg, Sharpe’s bureau had become adept at ascertaining the organization, disposition, intentions and morale of enemy forces through the interrogation of prisoners and deserters.
To entice these men to divulge the information it sought, the BMI held out the hope of avoiding prison as well as a speedy release for those who made, as Sharpe phrased it, a “full discovery of their knowledge of the enemy.”
The BMI offered the possibility of release primarily to those who had no strong ties to the Confederacy and who expressed a desire to remain within Union lines. There were many prisoners and deserters who gladly traded military information for their freedom. Some of these men had Union sympathies but had been forced into the Rebel army.
A problem existed, however, in that on occasion large numbers of captives came into the BMI’s hands at the same time and the unit did not have the ability to interrogate them all before they were shipped to Washington, where some were processed and sent to prisons in the North, while others were held to exchange for Union POWs under the terms of a July 1862 agreement.
Having received a continuing stream of letters from these men asking for consideration of their cases, Sharpe knew there were many who would not wish to be exchanged and, thereby, returned to the Southern forces.
With this in mind, on Dec. 12, 1863, Col. Sharpe sent a letter to Brig. Gen. John H. Martindale, the military governor of Washington, proposing that the Federal government adopt a policy of preferential treatment to Confederate deserters or prisoners who wished to stay in the North.
While Sharpe’s proposal appeared to be motivated in part by genuine humanitarian sentiments, there was also the clear objective to encourage these prisoners and deserters to be amenable toward sharing their knowledge of the enemy’s military situation.
Sharpe sent this letter a few days after President Abraham Lincoln had issued a Proclamation of Amnesty that granted pardons to selected participants in “the existing rebellion” if they swore an oath of allegiance to the United States.
Sharpe’s letter recommended that authorities in Washington let it be known that Rebel soldiers coming voluntarily into Union lines, or preferring to remain there when captured, would be offered an opportunity to take a job in the North or return to their homes if located within Union-held territory. It also proposed that the government disavow stories Southern officers told their soldiers that they would be forced into the Union Army if captured.
The officers did this to convince their troops that, if they went over to the other side, there would be no alternative but to fight against their own relatives and friends. By clarifying this issue, the BMI commander believed it “would create a disorganizing influence within the rebel army,” meaning that many more would be willing to come over to the Union side.
Sharpe told Martindale that “We are entirely familiar with the organization of the rebel forces in Virginia and North Carolina, with each regiment, brigade, and division, with the changes therein, and in their officers and locations.” He maintained that this could be used as a “standard of credibility” to gauge whether prisoners and deserters were providing valid information and whether they could be expected to honor the terms of their release when granted.
The intelligence chief further believed that many prisoners and deserters would join the military service of the Federal government, and some could be highly effective as scouts and rangers gathering information behind enemy lines. He observed that the air of confidence and defiance of the rank and file of Lee’s army had abated, and, in an increasing sign of demoralization, officers were now deserting, as well. It seemed to him that the president’s Amnesty Proclamation provided a fitting opportunity for the proposed action.
Sharpe’s letter can be seen as the motivation for the War Department’s issuance of General Orders No. 64 on Feb. 18, 1864, that closely resembled his proposal. Officials in Washington apparently decided that the prospect of gaining needed manpower to fill shortages in the labor force and military ranks could not be ignored.
The general orders offered incentives for civilian refugees and deserters from the Southern army to flee to the North. They directed Union provost marshals (military police) to examine these men to determine their motives and to inform them that they would not be imprisoned or forced into the Army. Instead they would be offered employment and allowed to settle in the North.
Although the option to enlist was not mentioned, that was already permitted under existing policy. Former Confederate soldiers had been “galvanized” into the Union Army since early in the war, and more than 6,000 would voluntarily change from gray to blue before the conflict ended.
The net effect of the War Department’s directive was to preclude men sympathetic to the North from being returned to the Southern army through the exchange program or from languishing in Federal prisons. It also enhanced the BMI’s ability to acquire valuable military information from refugees, deserters and prisoners in return for freedom to live and work in the North.
Soon after the Federal government adopted this new program designed to encourage his troops to desert, Gen. Lee recognized the need to limit the amount of intelligence flowing to the other side as a result. On April 7, 1864, he informed all Army of Northern Virginia units that they were to instruct their troops that, if they fell into the hands of the enemy, they were not to divulge information about the position, movement, organization or strength of the army.
They especially were not to disclose the brigade, division or corps to which they belonged. This was to prevent the enemy from compiling order of battle data about the Army of Northern Virginia that would disclose the size and leadership of their forces.
Flood of deserters
Lee realized that desertion was not only undermining the fighting ability of the army, but the maintenance of organizational and operational secrecy, as well. Despite strenuous efforts on the part of the Confederate high command to prevent this from happening, desertion continued to escalate.
By late 1864 it had become a flood, and by early 1865 an epidemic. In just a four-month period, more than 70,000 reportedly fled the Confederate forces east of the Mississippi, causing Lee to lament, “Desertion is increasing in the army notwithstanding all my efforts to stop it.”
Those who crossed into Union lines and some who were taken prisoner were anxious to avail themselves of the opportunity to avoid fighting for a cause that was not their own, to get a job and live in the North, or to join the military.
Undoubtedly Sharpe saw the specific guidelines of the War Department’s General Orders on Refugees and Deserters issued along with the president’s more general Amnesty Proclamation as the fulfillment of his proposals.
Just as it had done during the Battle of Gettysburg, Sharpe’s bureau used what it learned from these deserters and prisoners to provide a continuous flow of military intelligence to Union commanders throughout the remainder of the conflict. This sustained hemorrhaging of its strength, and secrecy was a malady the South could not survive.
Thomas J. Ryan is a former Department of Defense intelligence officer and vice president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He is author of “Intelligence Operations During the Gettysburg Campaign,” a five-part series for Gettysburg Magazine.