One of my distant ancestral family members was a man named James Armistead Lafayette, related by marriage. During the Revolutionary War, he worked as a double-agent providing false information to the British Lord Cornwallis, and sending British War plans to George Washington. He worked as a servant, and was ignored as a threat because he was a slave. He was one of the most famous of American spies during the war as over dinner, British Officers blithely ignored the slave in the corner, believing him part of the furniture.
The confederates apparently didn’t learn that lesson. Black women were particularly effective in running spy rings, and collecting information even in the Capital of the confederacy.
The servants knew. The Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia, was not a happy home. The coachman had heard Varina Davis, the first lady of the South, wondering aloud if the rebellion her husband led had any prayer of success. It was, he heard her say, “about played out.” Less than a year into the war, she had all but given up hope. And the president himself, Jefferson Davis, gaunt and sere, was under tremendous strain, disheartened and querulous, complaining constantly about the lack of popular support for him and his policies.
What the servants at the dinner table heard could be even more interesting: insights into policy, strategy and very private lives. They could glimpse up close the troubled emotions of Varina, who was much younger than her husband. She was in her mid-30s, he was in his mid-50s, and her energy, even her sultry beauty, were resented by many in that small society. She had a dark complexion and generous features that led at least one of her critics to describe her publically as “tawny” and suggest she looked like a mulatto.
Varina’s closest friend and ally in the cabinet was Judah P. Benjamin, the cosmopolitan Jewish secretary of war and then secretary of state. He was a frequent visitor to the Davis residence. He shaped Confederate strategy around the globe. And over port after dinner, what intimacies might have been revealed about this man, whose Louisiana Creole wife lived in self-imposed exile in Paris, and whose constant companion in Richmond was her beautiful younger brother?
As in any of the big households of yesteryear (one thinks of Downton Abbey, to take a popular example), what the servants knew about the masters was a great deal more than the masters knew about them. And in the Davis household the servants were black slaves, treated as shadows and often as something less than sentient beings. The Davises knew little of their lives, their hopes, their aspirations, and they certainly did not realize that two of them would spy for the Union.
History is almost equally oblivious. When it comes to secret agents, or servants, or slaves, all learned to tell the smooth lie that let them survive, and few kept records that endure. When it comes to the question of the spies who worked in the Confederate White House, where solid documentary evidence has failed, legend often has stepped in to fill the gaps and, to some considerable extent, to cloud the picture.
The one slave-spy we know the most about is William A. Jackson, the handsome coachman who appears to have been hired out by his owner at one point to work as a waiter in a Richmond hotel before being rented to the Davis family to drive them around the city.
In early May 1862, soon after New Orleans had fallen to the Union and as the Federal army under Gen. George McClellan was inching its way up the peninsula from Yorktown toward Richmond, the slave William Jackson crossed the lines into the Federal camp and began telling his story to the officers, who debriefed him at length, then to a handful of reporters. Over the next several weeks, tales about his revelations were printed and reprinted in papers all over the country.
Thus, one could read in the The Liberator, an abolitionist paper out of Boston, an article picked up from Horace Greeley’s Tribune in New York that was a paean to the escaped slaves making their way to Union encampments. Typically they were called “contrabands,” not yet entitled to their freedom (the Emancipation Proclamation was not announced until later that year, and did not go into effect until 1863).
“The fact cannot be questioned that the most important information we receive of the enemy’s movements reaches us through the contrabands,” the author of the Tribunearticle proclaimed.
When Jackson made his appearance in the Union camp, we are told, generals, colonels and majors flocked around him and the commander, Gen. Irvin McDowell, telegraphed the War Department with some of Jackson’s revelations.
If he brought useful tactical intelligence, however, it didn’t make it into the Northern newspapers, which focused on the gossip he passed along.
Jackson described Jefferson Davis as “pale and haggard,” sleeping little, eating nothing, constantly irritable and complaining about his generals: ‘He plans advances, but they execute masterly retreats,’” Jackson is quoted saying.
Varina Davis, meanwhile, had become a terror to her servants. “Mr. Davis treated me well,” said Jackson, “but Mrs. Davis is the d–––l,” the word devil considered too fraught for the paper’s readers.
Jackson seems to have spent quite a bit of time driving Varina around, and listening closely to her depressed views of the “played out” Confederacy. In part, no doubt, Jackson was telling the Union officers and press what they wanted to hear, raising their morale by talking about the declining mood in Rebel Richmond. He said not only slaves but whites were looking forward to the arrival of the Union troops. The Davises kept their bags packed and ready to go, he said, and even Mrs. Davis couldn’t pass off Confederate money…Read the Rest Here, including the story of Mary Elizabeth Bowser the amazing woman who operated a spy ring in the confederate capital...