Black Dispatches: Slaves as Spies



Many runaway slaves, who were mandated to work for Confederate military forts during the Civil War, along with “stay-in-place” slaves (stay at slaveowners’ homes) served as spies for the Union and provided a steady stream of information that saved the lives of Union soldiers and fellow slaves. These African-American spies did this while risking their own lives. The information was so valuable to the Union Army, it was given a special name: Black Dispatches.

The Union Navy also benefited from the work of these brave African-American spies. Mary Touvestre, a free African-American woman, worked as a housekeeper for one of the Confederate engineers who worked on the repair team for the U.S. Navy’s Merrimac. The steam-powered vessel had suffered serious damage, was rebuilt as an ironclad, and renamed the C.S.S. Virginia. Touvestre overheard the team of engineers talking about the ship and realized it would likely be used as a weapon against the North. She stole a set of Confederate war plans, fled to Washington, and met with Department of the Navy officials. In response to Touvestre’s alarming intel, Navy officials rushed to finish building the Union’s ironclad, called the Monitor. Some historians believe the Union would have suffered devastating losses had it not been for Mary Touvestre.

Harriet Tubman, the well-known conductor of the Underground Railroad, was also a Union spy. Most of her work was carried out under Colonel James Montgomery. Montgomery had fought against slavery in Kansas, believed in guerilla warfare, and was an admirer of abolitionist John Brown. Tubman became Montgomery’s second-in-command during a night raid along the Combahee River in South Carolina. Tubman and her men led  300 African-American troops ashore who freed over 700 slaves and destroyed a Confederate supply depot, homes, and warehouses.

A Confederate report stated, “The enemy seems to have been well posted as to the character and capacity of our troops … and to have been well guided by persons thoroughly acquainted with the river and country.” We are such a powerful and dynamic people!

Brigadier General Rufus Saxton said, “This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid, and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted.”

After the war, Harriet Tubman lived on a farm in Auburn, New York. She continued to help now free African Americans and African-American veterans. She also supported women’s rights. Citing her work for the Union Army, Tubman petitioned for a pension. A former Union general and sitting member of Congress supported her petition, noting her contributions to the war effort as a nurse, scout, and spy. In 1890, she received eight dollars a month from the government. Nine years later, her monthly pension was increased to $20. Prior to the increase, she had been living in poverty.

Harriett Tubman died in 1913 and was buried with military honors.

Speak your peace.

Source: CIA

%d bloggers like this: