Senate House talk illuminates George Sharpe’s pivotal role in Civil War

Gen. Sharpe.

Did a Union army officer from Kingston save Robert E. Lee from a trial for treason and possible death on the gallows? Walt Witkowski, a local historian and authority on the life of Gen. George H. Sharpe, Ulysses S. Grant’s chief of military intelligence during the Civil War, thinks so.

The story, as told last week by Witkowski, a retired schoolteacher, in the second of a series of local history lectures at the Senate House Museum in Kingston, is an intriguing one.

Sharpe raised the 120th Ulster Regiment at the beginning of the war and was its colonel. He was later assigned as chief of military intelligence by Army of the Potomac commander Gen. Joseph Hooker. Sharpe, a graduate of Kingston and Albany academies and a Yale-educated lawyer, served in a similar capacity for Gen. George Gordon Meade and finally for Grant.

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A brigadier general by then, Sharpe was at Appomattox for the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. One of the duties assigned to him was securing “paroles” for officers in the defeated army. A parole in that context was defined as a sworn, signed statement that the parolee would not carry arms against the national government and would obey all laws in whatever area he settled in after the war.

Witkowski said that Sharpe, out of respect and courtesy to Lee, did not ask the commander of the Confederate army to sign a parole. But Lee, “perhaps with an eye to the future,” said Witkowski, insisted on being paroled “as a member of the Army of Northern Virginia.” Sharpe, after consulting with Grant, issued the necessary documents.

Several months later, a committee of Congress composed of radical Republicans hell-bent on revenge against the South raised the possibility of trying Confederate leaders, including Lee, for treason — a crime punishable by death.

Lee produced his parole papers, but it took a threat by Grant to resign as general-in-chief of the Army to convince the radicals to drop the treason idea.

Witkowski said his interest in Sharpe began when his father took him as an 11-year-old to the Senate House in Kingston to view artifacts from the general then on display.

The historical researcher’s 80-minute lecture attracted about 50 people and was followed by a brief question-and-answer session. Given the time constraints — Witkowski was told to hold his lecture to an hour — the speaker concentrated on Sharpe’s military service during the Civil War.

Sharpe, then 33, a Kingston lawyer and businessman, raised the regiment of some 900 men in only a few weeks, Witkowski said. They were assigned to guard duty for their 90-day enlistment in Maryland. The first upstate regiment to report for duty, it sailed from Rondout on Aug. 22, 1861.  “Our whole trip to New York City was an ovation,” Sharpe recorded.

Assigned to Gen. Dan Sickles’ corps, the 120th bravely fought in the bloody battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, both Confederate victories.

Sharpe was offered the position of chief of the Bureau of Military Information (BMI), described by Witkowski as the first all-source intelligence agency in history. “Their work was decisively positive for the Army of the Potomac,” Witkowski said.

As chief union spy, Sharpe gathered information from numerous sources, including the BMI’s network of 70 spies, from captured Confederates, Southern newspapers, army patrols, telegraph intercepts, letters and diaries. Sharpe’s staff would collate and coordinate data, analyze it, and offer assessments to commanding officers. “General Sharpe was unique in his operations in that he told his commanders what it was, not what he thought they wanted to hear,” Witkowski said.

Slaves, either escaped or captured by Union forces, were a key source of information for Sharpe’s BMI. “Southerners had a very low opinion of the intelligence of slaves,” Witkowski said. “They thought them ignorant and often spoke freely in front of them. Well, they certainly were not ignorant, and the information they gave was often very valuable and accurate.”

Sharpe’s spies were quick to pick up Lee’s northward movement after Chancellorsville in May, toward what would culminate in the battle of Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863. Sharpe was able to identify 100 Southern regiments, their makeup and direction and later their order of battle at Gettysburg.

Sharpe’s information was vital in allowing the Army of the Potomac first to shield Washington from Lee’s army and then to outrace it north into Pennsylvania and to assume commanding positions on the heights surrounding Gettysburg.

Sharpe’s spies played another decisive role at Gettysburg, Witkowski said. After the second day of heavy casualties, Meade called a council of war with his officers “to decide wither to stay or go.” At that council, Sharpe reported that Lee had left only one uncommitted unit, Pickett’s division of Virginians. “We got ‘em licked!” an officer shouted. Next day, Pickett’s force was decimated in a frontal attack on the Union center. So accurate was Sharpe’s intelligence regarding the Army of Northern Virginia in its chaotic final days that it appeared the spy in some respects knew more about the army than its commander. At Appomattox, Lee asked Grant for rations for his starving forces. Grant asked him how much he needed. Lee said rations for about 25,000 men. Sharpe corrected him. His intelligence had suggested a figure closer to 28,000, Witkowski said, a figure subsequently confirmed by the rations consumed.

While Witkowski’s research indicates Sharpe was present in the McLean House at Appomattox where the surrender was signed, historical accounts vary. It is known that Sharpe purchased a pair of candlestick holders for $10 as souvenirs from the owner of the home. Sharpe later displayed the candlesticks at his home on Albany Avenue in Kingston. They were donated to the Senate House museum with other memorabilia after his death in 1900.

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