Lincoln’s Spies: Their Secret War to Save a Nation

Time Period
1825 to 1860
1861 to 1876
Media Type
Civil War
Military History
Politics & Government
Women's History
Douglas Waller

On January 23, 2020, Douglas Waller delivered the Banner Lecture, "Lincoln’s Spies: Their Secret War to Save a Nation." Lincoln’s Spies is a story about dangerous espionage and covert operations during the Civil War. It is told through the lives of four Union agents. Allan Pinkerton, whose detective agency had already brought him fame nationwide, was George McClellan’s failed spymaster, delivering inflated intelligence reports that made the Union general even more cautious. Lafayette Baker ran counter-espionage operations in Washington for the War Department, putting hundreds in jail and pocketing cash from graft he uncovered. George Sharpe, a New York lawyer, successfully ran spying for generals Joseph Hooker, George Meade, and Ulysses S. Grant, outpacing anything the Confederates could field. Elizabeth Van Lew, a Virginia heiress, ran a Union espionage ring in Richmond, providing Grant critical information as his army closed in on the Confederate capital. And behind these secret agents was Abraham Lincoln who became an avid consumer of intelligence and a ruthless aficionado of covert action. The phone tapping, human collection and aerial snooping you see today’s spies doing can be traced back to the Civil War.

Douglas Waller is a former correspondent for Newsweek and TIME, where he covered the CIA, Pentagon, State Department, White House, and Congress. He is the author of several bestselling books, including Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American EspionageThe Commandos: The Inside Story of America's Secret Soldiers; and Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan. His latest book is Lincoln’s Spies: Their Secret War to Save the Nation.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

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