Until now, the role of espionage during the Civil War has often gone unaddressed in volumes about the great conflict. Douglas Waller (Wild Bill Donovan), whose work focuses on the role of spies in history, remedies that with Lincoln's Spies: Their Secret War to Save a Nation.
Waller highlights four Union spies--Allan Pinkerton, Lafayette Baker, George Sharpe and Elizabeth Van Lew--to demonstrate how their lapses and successes influenced the Union's losses and ultimate victory. Working independently, these operatives concentrated on the Civil War's Eastern theater: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Waller portrays Pinkerton and Baker as inept and even villainous; Sharpe and Van Lew emerge as heroes.
Their intelligence didn't prevent Lincoln's assassination amid numerous threats to the president; "It was a miracle this highly controversial president, hated and feared by so many embittered Southerners and disaffected Northerners, had lived for as long as he did." Baker, who was ultimately responsible for Lincoln's safety, failed to identify John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices prior to the murder.
Waller also gives special attention to the key role African Americans played in providing information to Union spies, noting that they "enjoyed the freedom, denied to most whites, to travel near [Confederate] military sites. Rebel pickets usually let African Americans pass without a search, considering them stupid and harmless." Hence, they made perfect accomplices.
Lincoln's Spies is an intriguing and exciting read, one offering a new perspective on espionage in the Civil War and how the successes and failures of four people helped to shape the conflict's ultimate outcome. --William H. Firman Jr., writer and historian