Confederate dirty laundry: spies and slaves

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

It's possible Dabney contributed details to this map, completed in the days before the Battle of Chancellorsville [Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, 77-CWMF-Z399(2)]
It’s possible Dabney contributed details to this map, completed in the days before the Battle of Chancellorsville. (Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, 77-CWMF-Z399(2))
The Civil War was a spy’s dream come true. With a porous border between the Union and the Confederacy, and little way to distinguish between friend and foe, spies were everywhere. Both sides used ciphers. Both tapped telegraph wires. Stories of aristocratic schmoozing abound so much that James Bond would be jealous of all the cocktail cloak and dagger that occurred in the Civil War. But for all the espionage that happened in Richmond, the Union quickly learned that one of the best places to hide their spies wasn’t in a veil of aristocracy, but beneath the Confederate’s own prejudices. Thinking African Americans uneducated and illiterate, Confederate officers would speak of military maneuvers in front of their slaves and servants without a second thought.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of a man named Dabney and his wife. The two had crossed over into Union lines in 1863, and Dabney took up work as a cook and body servant at General Joseph Hooker’s Falmouth encampment along the Rappahonnock River. Dabney’s intimate knowledge of the terrain across the river made him an intelligence asset, and soon he was leading troops into battle as a scout—in one instance he allegedly led Union troops directly against his old master.

It wasn’t until his wife crossed back across the river and took up the job of a laundress that Dabney started reporting accurate and timely information to Hooker about Confederate movements, though. None of the officers knew how their cook obtained critical information about rebel movements without ever leaving camp.

Eventually Dabney agreed to tell one of the officers just how he gathered his intelligence. He took the officer to a spot along the river that overlooked Fredericksburg, and told the man to look at the clothesline at the back of a house on the outskirts of the town.

“Well, that clothesline tells me in a half an hour just what goes on at Lee’s headquarters,” Dabney explained.

You see my wife over there? She washes for the officers, cooks, and waits around, and as soon as she hears about any movement or anything going on she comes down and moves the clothes on that line so I can understand in a minute. That there gray shirt is Longstreet; and when she takes it off it means he’s gone down about Richmond. That white shirt means [A. P.] Hill; and when she moves it up to the west end of the line, Hill’s corps has moved up stream. That red one is Stonewall Jackson. He’s down on the right now, and if he moves, she’ll move that red shirt.

The Confederate’s dirty laundry provided the Union with a great source of intelligence. While Lee emerged victorious at the subsequent Battle of Chancellorsville, Hooker had some of the best intelligence in preparing for the campaign, thanks in part to spies like Dabney and his wife.

For more on espionage in the Civil War, visit our latest exhibit, Discovering the Civil War, now at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

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