The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War

By Clifford, James H. | Military Review, November/December 1997 | Go to article overview

The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War


Clifford, James H., Military Review


THE SECRET WAR FOR THE UNION: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War by Edwin C. Fishel. 640 pages. Houghton Mifflin, New York. 1996. $35.00.

Since the American Civil War ended, many authors have tried to tell the military intelligence, or secret operations, part of the story. Until now, no publication has gained credibility as anything more than the dubious memoirs of someone attempting to gain notoriety as a major contributor to the cause. Edwin C. Fishel's book attempts to correct this deficiency.

Fishel, a career intelligence professional, spent 40 years researching Civil War intelligence operations and uncovered new information. He describes the actions of spies, scouts, signalmen, balloonists and others involved in supplying information as he relates how commanders used military intelligence to make tactical decisions.

Fishel attacks three Civil War myths. Was General George B. McClellan really duped into believing he was massively outnumbered in the Peninsula and later at Antietam? Through an exhaustive study of McClellan's and chief intelligence officer Alan Pinkerton's papers, Fishel found that Pinkertonwith McClellan's knowledge and approval-purposely inflated enemy strength estimates. Although the two agreed enemy estimates must be "made large," the estimates fell short of McClellan's preconceived ideas, so he inflated them even more before forwarding them to his military and political superiors, thus-the first myth.

The second myth surrounds General "Fighting Joe" Hooker conducting an undetected 55-mile forced march from the front at Fredericksburg to the Confederate rear at Chancellorsville. Rather than amazing luck, a bogus message and a nearly perfect knowledge of enemy dispositions allowed Hooker to cause Lee to split his army. This shows why good intelligence alone cannot win battles. If it could, Chancellorsville would have been a resounding Union success.

The final myth the author examines is that Gettysburg was an accidental meeting of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. …

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