By the early to mid-1800s, the world was coming into its own, with many nations having shaken off (or were in the process of shaking off) tyrants and monarchies. Governments and militaries were re-shaped and reformed, but the age-old art of intelligence gathering remained a mainstay of both. Those nations ruled by kings, queens, and dictators needed to know what the people were up to, and if they weren’t happy, what they intended to do about it. The people wanted to know how to exploit the weakness of the upper class and rulers, and military leaders were constantly searching for their enemy’s disposition, plans, and intentions. The early 19th century provided the intelligence officer and their agents with plenty of work.
In 1805 in Paris, France, General Anne-Jean-Marie-René Savary, Duc de Rovigo, former chief of the gendarmerie d’élite (Napoleon’s personal bodyguard), and Napoleon I’s personal confidant, presented a man to the ruler with the simple introduction, “Here, sire, is a man, all brains and no heart.” The man he presented was Karl Schulmeister. The two men had met in 1799 when Schulmeister was a young smuggler from Hungary. He soon became an agent for Savary, who was then chief of intelligence for Napoleon. Schulmeister was soon sent on his first mission to Vienna, Austria, undercover as a Hungarian nobleman who had been exiled under suspicion of espionage (how ironic).
After establishing his bonafides, Schulmeister was able to meet and befriend the commander of the Austrian Army, Baron Mack Von Leiberich, who took a liking to him and even went so far as to obtain a commission for him—placing him on his staff as his chief of intelligence. Schulmeister realized the gravity of his position and took full advantage of his newfound influence. He began to feed Mack false information and used covert influence methods in the form of specially printed French newspapers and letters that hinted at opposition to Napoleon and unrest in France.
He also used bribes to sway two Austrian officers to provide independent, corroborating information (a hallmark of intelligence) to sell the ruse. Based on the false tip that French troops were being pulled from the front to help suppress the coming rebellion, Mack deployed his entire army in October 1805. He quickly realized his mistake when his men were surrounded at Ulm by the same French forces that were supposed to have left. They were forced to surrender.
Schulmeister went on to enjoy continued success as a spy, taking on missions as far away as Ireland and London. He later held positions ranging from commissary-general to the field armies (which made him a very rich man) to commissioner of police during the second occupation of Vienna (which he ruthlessly excelled at), and finally head of the French secret service. After falling out of favor, he finally retired to his estates and ironically ended up dying in poverty.
In the United States, civil war was set to explode, tearing apart an already fractured nation. It would literally become a war of brother against brother, and neighbor against neighbor. By 1861, as states began to secede from the Union, more and more cadets at the prestigious West Point military academy left to return home and prepare for the coming fight. As the first shots were fired, the need for actionable intelligence became a priority, and many a volunteer stepped up and became famous (or infamous) for it.
Before the war began, John S. Mosby was a 16-year-old university student at the University of Virginia. By the time the fighting had started, he had been expelled from school for fighting and had ended up in jail for seriously injuring the other student. While imprisoned, Mosby immersed himself in the study of law, ironically aided by the very prosecutor who put him there in the first place.
Upon hearing of Virginia’s cessation, Mosby enlisted in Confederate Army’s Washington Mounted Rifles, conducting raids and recon missions in advance of battles such as that at Bull Run. Mosby’s feats in intelligence gathering were a formula of one part traditional intelligence officer and three parts special operations deep reconnaissance/direct action. He captured his first prisoners at Warrenton in the spring of 1862. He and his men, the 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia Cavalry—known as Mosby’s Rangers—became famous for scouting enemy positions undetected before slipping away, or if the opportunity presented itself, they would ride against an often superior force, striking out of the dark and taking many prisoners or blending in with the local populace before making their way back to friendly lines.
Mosby was soon dubbed the Gray Ghost for his ability to lead his men in and out of enemy territory undetected (when he chose to be), and his legend spread. It is rumored that he even undertook a reconnaissance mission that ended with him within sight of the White House. He was once captured but was exchanged as was often the custom of the day, and retained the information that he had gathered while imprisoned regarding General Ambrose Burnside’s movements toward Fredericksburg. After the war, Mosby continued his law practice, and in another twist of irony, came to support the Confederacy’s biggest enemy, General Ulysses S. Grant—serving as his U.S. consul in Hong Kong and in the Department of Justice.
One of the most famous spies of the Civil War is a man who was also known as one of the fathers of modern law enforcement. Allan Pinkerton was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1819 and immigrated to the United States in 1842. Seven years later, Pinkerton became the first detective in Chicago, and soon founded the North-Western Police Agency, which was later renamed Pinkerton & Company, a subsidiary of Securitas AB. The resolution of several train robberies brought Pinkerton to the attention of and in contact with high-profile, future famous figures such as General George B. McClellan and President Abraham Lincoln. Many of the techniques perfected by Pinkerton are still in use today, including surveillance (shadowing) of a suspect and working undercover (assuming a new identity.)
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Pinkerton joined the Union Army and soon was appointed head of the Union intelligence services, the precursor to today’s Secret Service. His intelligence work led to his foiling an assassination plot in Baltimore against Abraham Lincoln, who was en route to his inauguration. Pinkerton taught his men to run covert operations to gather military intelligence, disguising themselves as Confederate soldiers and sympathizers. Pinkerton ran many undercover missions himself, using the alias Major E.J. Allen. After the war ended, Pinkerton went back to chasing bank robbers, including the infamous Jesse James (who he never caught, and he considered it his biggest failure). Pinkerton died in July 1884, leaving behind a legacy that has lasted well into today.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015.