Design a site like this with
Get started

Forgotten Leaders of the American Civil War – George H. Sharpe, Spymaster


Born in Kingston, New York, in 1828, George H. Sharpe was a lawyer, Republican politician, soldier, and most importantly, spymaster and intelligence pioneer. He graduated from Rutgers in 1847 at the age of 19, giving the salutary address in Latin. He passed the bar in 1849, but then spent time traveling and studying in Europe for several years, spending some time at U.S. diplomatic posts in Vienna and Rome. He returned in 1854 and spent the next six years practicing law. In 1861, he joined the Union army as a captain in the 1st Regiment of New York Volunteers.

In 1862, he was appointed colonel of the 120th New York Infantry, serving with some distinction in late 1862. In early 1863, he was made a deputy provost marshal general, and assigned to run Joseph Hooker’s new creation, the Union Intelligence Bureau; Sharpe soon changed the name to the Bureau of Military Information. In theory, he reported to provost general Marsena Patrick, but in practice, Patrick usually had little specific idea what Sharpe was up to or any real authority over him. Sharpe had a very capable second in John C. Babcock, one of the few intelligence specialists to stay on after Pinkerton’s resignation. Unlike Pinkerton, Babcock was capable of accurate intelligence gathering, and particularly specialized in interrogating deserters and prisoners, and he became an expert on the order of battle for Lee’s army.

Sharpe was quick to exploit information from Virginia Unionists, exploiting a existing underground of Richmond Unionists, and gave particular weight to reports from Unionists Isaac Silver and Ebenezer McGee, located near Lee’s army just across the Rappahannock River. Reports from their network played a great role in formulating Hooker’s strategy for the Chancellorsville Campaign. Sharpe also employed many scouts, often called “guides”, who penetrated Confederate lines to provide intelligence. Sharpe’s new BMI was soon providing extraordinarily accurate reports to Joseph Hooker’s headquarters, and based on these, Hooker formulated a brilliant strategy for the Chancellorsville Campaign. Unfortunately, Hooker quickly learned that the BMI could not continue supplying this kind of detail to him during the active campaign, and as Hooker had sent nearly all of his cavalry on a fairly pointless raid, he was handicapped and allowed his imagination to run away with him. The campaign resulted in defeat, and Hooker, previously a pioneer in forming the BMI and gathering intelligence on the enemy’s army, began to disregard it’s reports, much to the disgust of Sharpe and his erstwhile boss Patrick.

Sharpe’s BMI continued to operate with remarkable efficiency for the Gettysburg Campaign, although they didn’t get everything right. On May 27th, shortly before the campaign began, Sharpe submitted an incredibly accurate report to Hooker’s headquarters reporting the likelihood that the rebel army was about to move, as well as the position of it’s units. They continued supplying Hooker with generally correct information on the enemy’s movements, although sometimes arriving at the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. When Meade ascended to the command of the Army of the Potomac, he had very good information on the enemy’s army from the BMI and his cavalry. Still, following the great victory at Gettysburg, the BMI did not fare particularly well under Meade. Meade took from it it’s task of analyzing the intelligence it collected from various sources, and more or less assumed that task himself, a step back in the direction of McClellan-Pinkerton. Meade was a considerably more intelligent man than McClellan when it came to military realities, but undervalued the BMI; Sharpe’s boss Patrick was among those who referred to Meade as a “damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle”, and Meade didn’t think the BMI offered him much that the cavalry didn’t.

When Grant came east, it was his intention to interfere as little as possible with Meade’s management of his army. The near-debacle in the Wilderness convinced Grant to take a more active role, making Meade feel like a glorified staff officer at times, but Meade still dealt with most administrative details of the army’s operation. Grant was, however, quite acquisitive when it came to talent, and very concerned with intelligence matters; so it isn’t surprising that by July, Grant had taken Sharpe onto his own staff, along with his BMI operation, though he still ran reports past Meade to mollify the temperamental general. Sharpe, not exactly running an army himself, had only a limited amount of field agents and had his hands full with Grant’s maneuver across the James; consequently, nobody was aware of the departure from Lee of Jubal Early’s corps until it defeated Hunter in the Valley. Grant promptly took steps to rectify this shortcoming with Sharpe, expanding Sharpe’s operation to the Valley. The BMI played a key role in the Valley campaign by monitoring movements of troops to and from the Valley; Sheridan also employed a service of scouts that supplied info both to Sheridan and Sharpe. The BMI did such a good job that the constant flow of information to the enemy was greatly lamented in Richmond.

Sharpe was brevetted to brigadier-general of volunteers in December 1864, and later to major-general of volunteers in March 1865. His last task for Grant was to parole Lee’s army, obtaining oaths from each soldier that he wouldn’t take up arms against the United States again; he gallantly offered to skip this step for General Lee, who nevertheless insisted. Sharpe was mustered out in June of that year. He continued to perform intelligence duties for the government, traveling in Europe for the Secretary of State, investigating Americans living there who might have played a role in Lincoln’s assassination. He later spent time in Vermont investigating a plot by Irish nationalists to attack Canada. His former chief Grant remembered Sharpe when he became President; Sharpe became U.S. marshal for the southern district of New York, and won fame for battling and taking down the Boss Tweed political machine, jailing two of it’s ringleaders. He continued to play a role in state politics, and for nine years before his death, was on the U.S. Board of General Appraisers. He died in January 1900.


Main Source:  The Secret War for the Union, by Edwin C. Fishel.



%d bloggers like this: