The use of spying to gather intelligence had always been a part of military tactics. Depending on the situation, spies could be an old immigrant, a diplomat, or a crazy rich woman. During the American Civil War, when racism was a major issue, it was used as the main weapon against the very same side that was practicing it: The Confederacy. Who would’ve thought that a seemingly another illiterate slave was working as a spy? Plot twist.

Just Another Slave… Or So They Thought

Just like many other slaves during that time, John Scobell would sing songs, shuffle along, and appear to be oblivious to everything that was going on around him. More importantly, he looked so naive and unaware of the Civil War going on at that time, only that he was not.

Confederate officers would just leave important documents lying around where Scobell could easily see them, thinking he could not read anyway. They would also discuss important details of their action plans with him around, thinking that he did not know what was going on. What could a slave who only knew house and farm work do? Not for a second did they think he would use the information against them. At that time, Scobell was a butler or deckhand working for a rebel sympathizer’s steamboat. He would often sing Negro spiritual songs with his powerful baritone voice.

In reality, Scobell was the perfect spy planted by Union Army, who quietly stole information that the Confederate spy-catchers and slave masters could not point out.

Contributions to the Union

John Scobell was recruited in the fall of 1861 by the renowned detective agency of Allan Pinkerton, who was able to produce a lot of outstanding agents during his time. As Union forces grew in size Major General George McClellan, who was appointed as commander of the Army of Potomac defending Washington, called for a better organization and intelligence. He brought Pinkerton aboard as his chief of intelligence, using an alias of Major Allen. He did an excellent job of extensively debriefing the people that he would send across Confederate lines, providing them with vital and useful information. He would usually work with prisoners of war, deserters from the Confederate Army, civilians trying to escape the fighting, and former slaves who were most willing to cooperate and would often have the best knowledge of the camps, supply points, and fortifications of the Confederates.

Allan Pinkerton
Allan Pinkerton. (Brady’s National photographic Galleries, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before Scobell was freed, he was a slave in Mississippi by a Scotsman who educated and freed him after. His quick wit made him effective in functioning in different kinds of identities, be it food vendor, cook, or laborer. At one time, he played a servant of Timothy Webster during missions into Virginia, who was also Pinkerton’s best agent. Another time, he worked with Mrs. Hattie Lawton, who was Pinkerton’s best female operative. He was credited with providing valuable intelligence on the Confederacy’s supply of ammunition, troop morale, movements, and food. He would seek out black community leaders and collect any information regarding local conditions, soldiers’ dispositions, and fortifications.

As Pinkerton described, Scobell, on one occasion, assured the escape of Mrs. Lawton from Confederate agents who were pursuing her. Scobell worked for Pinkerton’s agency from late 1861 until the operation closed down in November 1862, after General Ambrose Burnside replaced McClellan.

Black Dispatches

Scobell was not the only one. There were other African Americans who worked for the Union forces as spies, providing intelligence that was called “black dispatches.” There was also Harriet Tubman, best known for helping slaves escape through the “underground railroad,” all while disguising herself as a poor farm wife. There was also William Jackson, who first served as President Davis’ coachman and was able to overhear their discussions regarding his military leadership.