Book review

Grant's Secret Service: The Intelligence War from Belmont to Appomattox

by William B. Feis (pp 330 pages, University of Nebraska Press; ISBN: 0803220057)

Review by: Thomas J. Ryan

 

A welcome addition to Civil War intelligence literature is "Grant's Secret Service." The author, William B. Feis, describes Ulysses S. Grant's collection and use of military intelligence from his early command assignments in Missouri in 1861 to his final campaigns in Virginia in 1864-65. The writer achieved this ambitious goal through extensive research, objective analysis and a focused approach. His findings are clear and concise.


This book is the first full-fledged study on the use of military intelligence during the Civil War since

 

Edwin C. Fishel's "The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War" was published in 1996. Feis's book complements Fishel's study, and together they provide a comprehensive picture of Union military intelligence operations.

 

Many authors have written about Grant's generalship, but Feis adds a new dimension. For the first time, the availability and use of intelligence has been factored into the rationale for the general's command decisions.

 

"Determining what a commander knew, when he knew it, and how he used what he knew offers a valuable - and perhaps more evenhanded - perspective from which to view the nature of command in the Civil War," Feis writes, adapting a quote from a French authority on the military, Antoine-Henri Jomini.

 

While Feis relates how Grant used intelligence in combat situations, he also examines his character, motivation and risk tolerance as a field commander.

 

To place Civil War intelligence activity in context, it is important to understand that neither side had a centrally controlled system. Each command in the field had to devise its own procedures for gathering information, usually by employing cavalry or scouts and spies operating in enemy territory. They often acquired useful information by interrogating prisoners, deserters, refugees and escaped slaves.

 

Grant's effort to capture Vicksburg, perhaps the most complex campaign of the war, was conducted virtually on his own volition, since his subordinate commanders were skeptical about his daring plan. He benefit- ed, however, from an intelligence net- work put in place by Gen. Grenville Dodge that extended "from Corinth to Atlanta and into the interiors of Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee," Feis writes.

 

During a series of bloody battles in Virginia and a lengthy siege of Lee's forces in the Petersburg and Richmond area, Grant had a key advantage. An intelligence unit called the Bureau of Military Information led by Col. George Sharpe.

 

"Grant's Secret Service" sets a standard for further studies in this field. One desirable area of exploration is Confederate military intelligence operations, a subject yet to be examined comprehensively. Another is a comparative study of opposing Union and Confederate intelligence activities during specific campaigns.

 

"Grant's Secret Service" should be read by anyone desiring a definitive account of the general and his use of intelligence in the conduct of successful campaigns daring the Civil War.

 

(The reviewer is retired from the US Defense Department, where he served in intelligence.)