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Freed slave Jon Scobell (second from right) hires on with the captain
of a boat on a Confederate river to gather information

Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote: "The true history of this war will show that the loyal army found no friends at the South so faithful, active and daring in their efforts to sustain the Government as the Negroes." His sentiment was echoed by Union Col. Rush Hawkins who, when stationed at Cape Hatteras, N.C., said: "If I want to find out anything hereabouts I hunt up a Negro; and if he knows or can find out, I'm sure to get all I want."

Union armies invading the South found that both free and enslaved blacks were able to provide them with valuable information. Runaway slaves often could tell Union commanders the location and strength of Confederate fortifications and the disposition and number of Rebel troops. Blacks who knew the roads, rivers, and terrain of their area worked as couriers between Union units, acted as guides on Union raids behind Rebel lines, and led escaped Union prisoners through confederate lines.

Many blacks worked as Union spies. They could assume a happy-go-lucky attitude, don a broad smile, and feign indifference as they went about gathering valuable intelligence. Many of the best black spies were women. In January 1861, Negro housekeeper Mary Louveste, who worked for a Confederate engineer in Norfolk, Va., stole a copy of the plans for the ironclad ram CSS Virginia and personally took them to Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in Washington. Black spy Mary Bowser infiltrated the Richmond home of President Jefferson Davis and passed along to Union commanders at Petersburg information she gained while serving at political dinners and work sessions.

John Scobell, one of the most famous black spies, was an agent of spy chief Allan Pinkerton. While Scobell wandered around Virginia gathering information, his wife worked in Richmond as a cook and gathered information on troop movements through the Confederate capital.