Surveillance and Spies in the Civil War: Exposing Confederate Conspiracies in America’s Heartland by Stephen E. Towne (review)
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Surveillance and Spies in the Civil War: Exposing Confederate Conspiracies in America’s Heartland. By Stephen E. Towne. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015. Pp. xi, 430. $90.00 cloth, $34.95 paper)

In the hardly secret but somewhat sidelined field of Civil War espionage, this monograph is a game-changer. It is also a work peculiarly and appropriately of its time, and not simply because it begins by drawing parallels between Civil War espionage and today’s security state via the example of Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the National Security Agency’s possibly over-zealous but certainly extralegal electronic inquisitiveness. Rather, it aligns with the current historiographical trajectory of the Civil War era, which, perhaps in the context of the rather muted sesquicentennial events or perhaps in the wider context of the growing global terrorist threat, locates the war as a darker and more dangerous and destructive period of America’s history than scholars’ earlier emphasis on Union and emancipation acknowledged.

On one level, this work is, as its author states, neither more nor less than a study of “the rise of army intelligence operations in the Midwest during the Civil War” (p. 307). In this respect it is expertly, indeed exhaustively, researched. It details the struggles faced by state governors and military commanders alike to persuade both the president and Congress that their fears of subversion were not the products of wartime hysteria or exaggeration but were grounded in the, if not exactly clear then certainly present, danger that organized resistance to the Union represented—a danger that their growing surveillance operations were designed to counteract. Largely originating in the partnership formed early in the war between Henry B. Carrington, colonel of the Eighteenth U.S. Infantry, and Oliver P. Morton, governor of Indiana, military surveillance networks in the western states expanded throughout the war and employed, by Carrington’s estimates, some three thousand civilian and military informers over the course of the conflict. This “hidden army,” Towne concludes, “played [End Page 99] a significant part in defending the United States from widespread conspiracy in the North during the Civil War” (p. 306).

However, the extent of the threat has long been a matter of debate. Sometimes dismissed by contemporaries as no more than contrived conspiracy theories, the potential efficacy of groups such as the infamous but elusive Knights of the Golden Circle has often been similarly dismissed by historians since. Towne takes some of these, notably Frank L. Klement, to task for “training historians to dismiss evidence of secret societies and their conspiracies in the Northwest and other regions” (p. 6). In fairness, although Klement’s The Copperheads in the Midwest (1960) has had widespread traction in the field, the work’s dismissal of secret societies as little more than phantoms of Republican propaganda is not the only word on the subject. Much earlier, Wood Gray’s The Hidden Civil War (1942) had taken the threat far more seriously. But perhaps, in such matters, what we might term the conflict climate is pertinent to the nature of the threat that societies, and their scholars, identify as relevant and real.

And it is perhaps on this much deeper level that Towne’s research has moved the debate on from the narrative introduced by Wood and later challenged by Klement. Because Towne raises far wider issues than either about the lineaments and limitations of loyalty during the Civil War. Indeed, in its description of a world in which neighbor turned upon neighbor in less time than it took Fort Sumter to fall, Towne has shone the spotlight on possibly the most unsettling aspect of America’s civil war. It is one that has, largely, been downplayed in a historiography that has traditionally relegated the neighbors’ war to the margins. But Towne reminds us how central issues of loyalty and disloyalty, treason and deception were to the Civil War North.

Although Towne’s title points us toward Confederate conspiracies, his work actually reveals that overt Confederate sympathies were not the least of the covert complications that threatened to undermine the Union war effort. Some fears were no doubt exaggerated, as historians have often charged...


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