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The William Jackson Spy and Black American Civil War Intelligence

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The William Jackson Spy and Black American Civil War Intelligence

The William Jackson spy episode is an amazing testament to the power of good intelligence during any conflict or war. The article on William Jackson was published in an issue of the CIA’s Studies in Intelligence reveals how Confederate president Jefferson Davis’ refusal to acknowledge his own negro servant as an intelligent human being eventually led to the downfall of the Confederacy.

The entire Civil War was filled with many individuals who attempted to infiltrate the enemy and learn more about the tactics, plans and weaknesses of the other side. You can be sure the both the Union and the Confederacy had men and women attempting to make their way into the inner ranks of the other side. However, the Union had a secret weapon that the Confederacy could never have imagined – black American spies.

The William Jackson the Spy

William Jackson was not just a runaway slave who conferred inside information to the Union – he was actually a long-term union agent who served as a slave at Jefferson Davis’ estate in Richmond, Virginia only to funnel information obtained during his slavery there to Union intelligence. General Lee acknowledge the impressive power of “negro ingelligence” when he wrote, “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes.” It was clear that the Union leadership understood that the failure of the South to recognize black men and women as legitimate, intelligent human beings was a major weakness that could be exploited.

Because southern officers and military leaders classified the negroes on the same level as their farm animals, they grossly misjudged the apparent intelligence and wit of the black people. As Jefferson Davis and his military leaders discussed war plans at Davis’ estate, William Jackson could spy on the conversation as he served them, performing menial tasks throughout the household.
Davis and his men completely ignored Jackson – assuming he did not understand, and did not care, about the matters they were discussing. Little did they know that Jackson was one of America’s first and most effective agents – having perfectly infiltrated the inner sanctum of the enemy and extracting some of the most guarded military secrets of the Confederacy.

Other Black Americans Who Served as Union Spies

The William Jackson spy case was clearly one of the most impressive examples of the level which the Union was able to infiltrate into Confederate planning. There were a number of other spies that are documented throughout Civil War history. All of those spies were detailed in the CIA report. Those included the following former slaves.

william jackson spy

  • – George Scott – A runaway slave who provided General Benjamin F. Butler of Fort Monroe with information about the fortifications and troop movements of the Confederacy in the area. In particular, Scott told General Butler about the two forts near Yorktown. He even offered to take part in Union scout missions to confirm his offered intelligence. The information resulted in a Union attack against Confederate positions.
  • – John Scobell – A man named Allen Pinkerton, who ran a detective agency, served as intelligence advisor to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Pinkerton focused on debriefing escaped slaves and converting them into intelligence agents for the Union. One of these spies was John Scobell in 1861. An educated Mississippi slave, he entered Pinkerton’s “spy agency” and served as an operative on a number of missions, fulfilling various roles. Scobell used his contacts in a secret southern Negro organization to operate a sort of sub-agency where his friends would act as couriers between Scobell and Union forces.
  • – W. H. Ringgold – Served for several months operating a riverboat to transfer Confederate Troops and supplies across the York River. After his boat was damaged in a storm, he escaped north and fed Confederate troop movements to Union leadership. Ringgold also ended up joining Pinkerton’s spy organization.
  • – Mary Touvestre – Worked as a housekeeper for an engineer in Norfolk. The engineer worked on the USS Merrimac, the first Confederate ironclad warship. Mary was clever enough to understand the military importance of the new ship, so she stole the plans and escaped north to Washington. Mary’s intelligence inspired the Navy to rush the development of the Monitor (the Union’s own ironclad).

While there were a great many additional black spies during the Civil War, most historians agree that the most significant was William Jackson, the spy who brought back the Confederate President’s war plans and other intelligence to General McDowell. To this day, no one knows (there’s no record) of the exact intelligence Jackson provided to the Union, but the CIA report indicates that the information was considered so critical that McDowell ordered the information to be telegraphed immediately to the Washington War Department.

One can only wonder how many amazing spy stories and covert missions took place that remain untold to this day. One thing that is for certain – the black American spy effort, such as Pinkerton’s spy organization, certainly played a pivotal role in the progress and outcome of the Civil War.

Originally published on

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