How a Kingston-born lawyer became the Civil War spymaster

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No one dies without leaving a story for us to discover and savor. The Dead Beat intends to search out, find and report those stories. The story may reside in a survivor’s heart or a victim’s last words. It may be legend or it may be fact. It may be recorded in stone or on yellowing newsprint. It may warm the heart or break it. It may explain a lifetime or illuminate a single moment in that lifetime. It may tell us more about the living than the dead, more about ourselves and the way we live than the way that others have died. 

By the look of him, you wouldn’t peg Civil War brevet brigadier general George Henry Sharpe for a dashing military leader, let alone a 19th-century spymaster. Sharpe’s formal portrait shows a sad-eyed, balding man with a drooping mustache wearing an ill-fitting Union officer’s uniform. He looks about as dynamic as a hound dog. But it was that very doggedness that made George Henry Sharpe the spymaster that he was. He created and successfully oversaw America’s first intelligence agency, the Bureau of Military Information [BMI]; an operation that greatly hastened general Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Sharpe’s modest family headstone in Kingston’s Wiltwyck Cemetery suggests an impressive life in the military. He was born in Kingston of well-to-do and influential parents. He was a successful lawyer when the war broke out. In 1862, he singlehandedly established the 900-man 120th New York State Infantry, using his own money and influence. And while that may have been his most famous contribution to the war effort, it wasn’t his most important one.

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Like most accounts of his life, his headstone makes no mention of Sharpe’s creation of the BMI, the country’s first and arguably most successful secret service. The BMI, after all, helped bring the Civil War to a close; the same can’t be said of its modern-day successor, the CIA – an agency better known for starting wars than ending them.

George Henry Sharpe (1828-1900). General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac, selected Sharpe to “organize and perfect a system for collecting information as speedily as possible.” (US Army)

This is a sliver of a story about a man lost to history, a story known today only by Civil War enthusiasts and local history buffs. But as journalist and author Stephen Budiansky wrote in the October 2004 edition of American Heritage magazine, Sharpe’s story continues to resonate today, more than a century after his death.

Sharpe lived in an age when being a spy – providing military intelligence during the Civil War – was the province of legend and lies, of dashing romantic heroes, heroines and villains. But the reality was otherwise: The Union forces had no formal military intelligence network. That was where Sharpe’s abilities came to bear on a war effort in which a Union victory was far from guaranteed. He became director of the BMI in 1863, and in the process created the thoroughgoing structure that modern intelligence agencies ignore at their – and the country’s – peril.

 

George H. Sharpe, John G. Babcock, unidentified, and John McEntee at Army of the Potomac headquarters, Brandy Station, Va. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Here’s how Budiansky described Sharpe’s great achievement, quoting from a CIA historical report, in his story, “America’s Forgotten Intelligence Czar”: “Although he never had more than about 70 men on his full-time payroll and the intelligence challenge he faced was but a fraction of what a modern spymaster must confront, Sharpe nevertheless pioneered the fundamental principle of modern intelligence analysis and organization that remains valid today. As the CIA historical report notes, he ‘obtained, collated, analyzed and provided reports based on scouting, spying behind enemy lines, interrogations, cavalry reconnaissance, balloon observation…flag signal and telegraph intercepts, captured Confederate documents and mail, Southern newspapers and intelligence reporting from subordinate military units. This structured approach, which ended with the Confederate surrender, was not reinstitutionalized until 1947, when the CIA was created.”

Budiansky used the Union’s critical victory at Gettysburg to illustrate the importance of Sharpe’s emphasis on the amassing of data from every conceivable source, rather than relying on any sort of derring-do. Sharpe’s approach, he said, provided the final key to the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Union forces had beaten back two days of desperate Rebel attacks. Major general George Meade, the new Union commander, didn’t know whether his troops could take much more if Confederate general Robert E. Lee decided to renew his attack the next day. Fortunately for the Union cause, Sharpe had discovered a critical fact from information gleaned from 1,360 Confederate prisoners taken that day: “The prisoners came from nearly a hundred different regiments, representing every single one of Lee’s brigades save only the four brigades of Pickett’s division, which was still coming up from the rear. Lee, in other words, had no fresh troops left to throw into the fight but [major general George] Pickett’s lone division.”

Meade acted on Sharpe’s intelligence and decided that his troops would stand and fight. “The next day,” Budiansky wrote, “Pickett secured a name for himself in history synonymous with futile courage by sending his men charging against Union artillery – which mowed down two-thirds of them in half an hour.” The battle of Gettysburg was won. The war would soon be over.

Even after the war, Sharpe played a memorable and more commonly remembered role: As the newly appointed assistant provost marshal, he paroled 28,000 Confederate Army soldiers, among them general Robert E. Lee, following the surrender.

Sharpe’s approach to intelligence-gathering was praised by the CIA more than a century after his death. John H. Lehman, a member of the commission that examined the mistakes surrounding 9/11, said at the time “We need to ensure the fusion and sharing of all intelligence that could have helped us to avoid 9/11.” In other words, the CIA and the FBI, which had their own intelligence about the 9/11 attackers, couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t do what Sharpe did: bring together and correlate relevant information from multiple disparate agencies in order to provide the fullest picture of what was happening.

Budiansky’s conclusion was clear: George Henry Sharpe’s dogged thoroughness had been instrumental in ending the Civil War. And the failure of latter-day spymasters to follow Sharpe’s example culminated in the beginning of what has come to be called the War on Terror.

 

Sharpe’s headstone in Kingston’s Wiltwyck Cemetery (Thomas J Fraser | findagrave.com)

 

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