Lincoln's Spies by Douglas Waller

Lincoln’s Spies: Their Secret War to Save a Nation
By Douglas Waller
Simon & Schuster, 2019

Lincoln’s Spies: Their Secret War to Save a Nation     By Douglas Waller Simon & Schuster, 2019

When taking up the subject of spying during the American Civil War, historian Douglas Waller makes some very smart paring decisions right at the outset. As he rightly notes, the subject itself is vast: North and South enlisted great crowds of individuals in all kinds of information-gathering capacities over virtually every inch of the country. Innumerable books have been written on the subject, and a comprehensive account would probably fill a shelf. Acknowledging this, Waller makes the wise choice to limit both his setting - the Eastern Theater of the war, which included both Richmond and Washington - and his cast - a relatively small group of key players, ranging from President Lincoln on down but numbering no more than a dozen or so major speaking parts.

Lincoln’s Spies finely balances these personalities, their adventures, and even their ultimate fates. Through four main figures, Waller explores a great breadth of beehive activity in the Eastern Theater, giving readers an at times intensely cinematic look at how spycraft was conducted when newspapers ran every speculation that came their way, families were divided in their loyalties, and the fates of entire battles could turn on a single careless sentence. 

The four are perfectly chosen. There’s Captain George Sharpe, a learned man who read poems to his enlisted men (“They never objected to his recitals,” Waller piously asserts); “He had a balding head, sad eyes, and a droopy mustache that gave him the look more of a city preacher than a combat commander.” There’s Lafayette Baker, an ex-vigilante from California, a fine horseman, a crack shot, a tee-totaler, and a Roman history buff, who comes across as the most Hollywood-ready of the group: “Baker was a handsome man, with brown hair, a full red beard, and piercing gray eyes that were almost hypnotic,” Waller writes. “He stood five feet ten inches tall, a muscular 180 pounds, agile, almost catlike in his quick movements, always seemingly restless.”

The most famous of the quartet is Allan Pinkerton, the dogged lawman whose agency became synonymous with private security. He was a prickly, difficult person, suspicious of everybody, with what Waller rightly calls “a sixth sense to anticipate criminal activity before it happened.” Like most people who knew Pinkerton in life, our author can’t help but be impressed by him but also can’t quite bring himself to like the man: “He could be a tiresome prig, who harangued employees, friends, and relatives about the virtues of honesty, integrity, and courage.” If anything, even Waller’s decidedly tempered account is too generous; Pinkerton was a vain, pompous amateur phrenologist, a bully who effortlessly lied about himself to make himself look better and about others to make them look worse. It’s entirely possible that his almost complete inability to make human connections was the central asset in making him a brilliant operative, but even so, he’s exactly the type of character a spy novelist would be subtly encouraging his readers to hate.

The most fascinating of Waller’s characters is the only woman in his quartet, Elizabeth Van Lew, daughter of a wealthy Richmond merchant, who was appalled by the secessionist fever she felt growing all around her in the pre-war years. Like Pinkerton, she could be “acid-tongued and scalding” when dealing with disagreeable people (who all too often were merely people who disagreed with her), but her devotion to the Union cause never wavered through all her years of living - and organizing a very active spy ring - in the heart of the Confederacy. “Though her criticism of slavery and refulsal to sew shirts for soldiers became common knowledge around her neighborhood, Elizabeth still remained a member in good standing of Virginia’s old-line aristocracy,” Waller writes. “No one could conceive of a woman from that class becoming a spy for the Union.” 

Lincoln’s Spies follows these four through espionage adventures and personal triumphs and low points, and by the end of the book it would be difficult to say which aspect, the personal or the professional, is the more interesting. A broader, more comprehensive look at espionage during the war would have lost the fascination of the personal, and a closer focus on, say Van Lew or even Pinkerton would have lost the scope of the professional. Instead of either misstep, Waller gives readers a well-grounded tale of heroes and antiheroes - first-rate Civil War reading.

—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.