Thursday, June 18, 2015

Author Interview---Tom Ryan's Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign

Author Interview: Thomas Ryan   Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign [2015]

CWL:  How many file drawers have you fill with the research that went into Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign {SSSGC} ?  

TR: It is difficult to separate the SSSGC research from my other Civil War research, because in some cases the files are in the same drawers. However, rough estimate for SSSGC would be two file drawers. I also have a full set of the Official Records which takes up a wall of shelving, and several shelves of intelligence-related publications that have been useful in my research.

CWL: on page 6   SSSGC states that Hooker’s background and knowledge called forth the BMI during the early months of 1863.  What in his background allowed for this?

TR: I elaborate on Hooker’s earlier interest in conducting intelligence gathering on pages 60-61, including employing elements of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry in early 1862 to scout enemy forces and track down smugglers and blockade-runners carrying mail, newspapers, and contraband through southern Maryland. He also employed agents in an attempt to halt the smuggling, and used air balloons to observe enemy positions. He also exchanged information about the enemy with Union naval units operating in the area.  This experience in intelligence operations earlier in his career evidently motivated him to create an intelligence staff that became known as the BMI, when he took command of the Army of the Potomac.

CWL: Describe Record Group 393 in the National Archives.

TR: Record Group 393 is a generic designation for the Records of United States Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920 at the National Archives, including various Civil War records. The BMI files fall within that category. 

CWL: How close are you with both Feis and Fishel?

TR: Although Ed Fishel and I worked for the Department of Defense, I did not know him personally. He published his book, The Secret War for the Union, in 1996, I believe some years after he retired from the federal government. However, I admired his perseverance in conducting research over some four decades to produce his monumental study. I consider it the standard in the field.
With regard to William Feis, a professor at Buena Vista University in Iowa, I was pleasantly surprised when his marvelous work titled Grant’s Secret Service became available in 2002. He was one of the few (possibly only) academics who devoted himself to the study of Civil War intelligence. I wrote a very positive review of his book for The Washington Times in May 2002, and commented that there was a need for a “comparative study of opposing Union and Confederate intelligence activities during specific campaigns.” Since no one else took up the challenge, it turns out that my effort some 13 years later fulfills that objective with regard to the Gettysburg campaign.  Professor Feis was extremely pleased about my review of his book, and sent a letter of gratitude at the time. He and I have stayed in touch on occasion over the years; however, distance and his family and university duties limited these contacts. He graciously wrote advance praise for SSSGC.

CWL:  pg 25   Describe how a civilian telegraph operator was chosen and trained to handle the ciphers?  

TR: When Edwin Stanton became Secretary of War in 1862, he took personal interest and control of the U.S. Military Telegraph Service. He specifically determined that telegraph operators would be civilians and only designated operators would be responsible for enciphering and deciphering message traffic. In other words, military commanders had no control over the telegraph operators assigned to their command. These operators functioned independently, and answered only to USMT headquarters regarding their activities and behavior. General Meade experienced this anomaly when he found during the heat of battle at Gettysburg that he could not read or send enciphered messages from and to Washington, because his senior operator named Caldwell decided to take a trip to Westminster without informing Meade and his officers beforehand. This situation was highlighted in OR, 27, I, pp. 74 and 78.

CWL:  pg 31     SSSGC states that Meade’s and Hooker’s of the BMI were different.  What in Meade’s background made it different for him as compared to Hooker?  

TR: Meade’s philosophy regarding the gathering and processing of information was different than Hooker’s , because Meade preferred to control the evaluation of information gathered by different methods, rather than simply depending on the BMI to fulfill this role and produce a finished product, i.e., a report that synthesizes this information into an intelligence report. In this regard, Meade may have been mimicking his former commander George McClellan who acted as his own intelligence officer. McClellan took the raw data from his information gatherers, specifically Pinkerton’s staff, and personally determined its meaning and value as intelligence. We know that McClellan was particularly inept in this regard. Nonetheless, Meade more or less followed in McClellan’s footsteps, and proved on more than one occasion that his method was ineffective. During the latter stages of the Gettysburg campaign, Meade complained about the lack of information about the enemy, yet his intelligence operations personnel were steadily feeding him information about the enemy’s location, strength, and intentions that went unheeded. This is just one of the mysteries in a campaign that also fostered many others.

CWL:  pp 32-33    SSSGC states that Lee began to rely on cavalry more for information gathering since Hooker had increased camp security and information began to drop off from CS scouts and spies.  How did Hooker achieve this?  

TR: Hooker increased security in a number of ways. He clamped down on civilians passing through his lines into those of the enemy, since every civilian was a potential spy for the enemy. He halted the previously common practice of exchanging newspapers with the enemy (the Northern papers tended to report more military-related information than the Southern papers). He issued orders to Northern newspaper editors regarding the type of information that could be printed about his army’s operations. He also insisted that stories carry a reporter’s byline, so that errant reporting could be traced back to its origin. Also, the provost marshal cracked down on any suspected spies in and around the Union army camps.

CWL:  on page 71 and 73       SSGC states that Lee had his own covert operations personnel in Washington DC. Please describe this.  

TR: Lee did not have a high opinion of the information he received from the Confederate secret service operation headquartered in Richmond. This group controlled a number of routes into the North called the “secret line.” There is evidence that Lee decided to establish his own link into the North. This was accomplished by his cavalry commander Jeb Stuart assigning the task to a particularly clever and successful agent by the name of Frank Stringfellow. Briefly stated, Stringfellow made his way into the North, established contacts in Washington and created another “secret line” down which information would travel about the enemy’s plans and movements to Stuart who would pass it on to Lee.  Not much is known about this link, if it in fact did exist; however, there is some indication that it in fact was up and operating.

CWL:   442 pp is a long book.  What did you have to leave out?

TR: Good question. Actually, the book was much longer before the editing process began. To reduce the amount of detail, I moved considerable data into the footnotes. My editor, Tom Schott (who did a marvelous job getting the text ready for prime time) recommended that some of this material be placed back into the text while a good deal of the rest would simply be eliminated  for clarity. As every writer knows, we tend to “own” whatever we write and find it difficult to hit the delete button. Looking back, however, the weeding process was needed, and generally beneficial.

CWL:   Should a biography of George Sharp be written?

TR: I have had that same thought for a number of years, and it is a project that has been on the back burner. I am not certain there is enough information available about Sharpe to merit a full-fledged bio. However, conceivably a combination of the BMI “big three” of Sharpe, Babcock, and McEntee could make for an interesting story. I have also thought that the BMI story could be depicted in the format of a novel — similar to The Killer Angels.  That is, an historical novel that manages to tell the story in a lively and interesting fashion.

CWL:  What findings are in the book that you feel might be contested regarding Lee, Longstreet, Hill, Ewell and Stuart?  

TR: There is actually very little in my book regarding Longstreet, Hill and Ewell, primarily because there was not much to say about them from an intelligence operations point of view. Longstreet of course saved the day for Lee by hiring Henry Thomas Harrison. who brought the news to Lee at Chambersburg that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Potomac and was not that far away in the Frederick, MD area. But, even that was more about Harrison than about Longstreet. The thing that might be contested is the argument I make about how poorly Lee planned the coordination of Stuart’s three cavalry brigades passing through the Union army on June 25, and Lee’s sending both Hill and Longstreet’s corps across the Potomac without allowing Stuart sufficient time to pass through Hooker’s army safely. Over the years, there has been reams written about these events, but the finger of blame has been mainly pointed toward Stuart. Also, this controversy has almost exclusively focused on the actions of the Confederates involved. My book demonstrates that Stuart likely would have been successful in his attempt to pass through the Union army, except for the timely intelligence sent to Hooker’s headquarters by the signal corps on Maryland Heights and a BMI agent operating under cover in the Frederick/South Mountain area of Maryland. I welcome discussion of these events.

CWL:  How many books do you own regarding SSSGC topic?  

TR: Sad to say, very little has been published over the years regarding intelligence operations during the Gettysburg campaign. In part, Fishel’s book deals with Gettysburg, but does not devote a lot of time to the retreat and pursuit after Gettysburg. Of the Gettysburg historians of note, Stephen Sears’ Gettysburg is the most intelligence knowledgeable. Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign was written long before we knew what the BMI was, so it contained much less about intel ops. Allen Guelzo’s recent study deserves all the acclaim it has received, but it also addresses intelligence on a limited basis. William Feis’s book Grant’s Secret Service deals with the period after the Gettysburg campaign had ended. Peter Tsouras recently published a book titled Scouting for Grant and Meade which provides the reminiscences of Judson Knight, the BMI’s chief scout. But, again, this deals with the post-Gettysburg era. Bottom line is that the body of work on SSSGC is still quite slim.

1 comment:

William Nester said...

Thank you for sharing the interview with author Tom Ryan. We appreciate it very much. Those interested in checking out Tom's new book, Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign can read more at the Savas Beatie website here: