Lafayette Curry Baker Banner


Baker (right) talking to Jefferson Davis

Lafayette Baker, the head of the U.S. Secret Service during the Civil War, wrote History of the United States Secret Service in 1867. The book is generally marred by the self-serving sensationalism that characterized Baker's personality, but the beginning forthrightly details his start in espionage and the first mission he undertook as a Union spy.

Political contacts gained Baker a June 1861 interview with army commander General Winfield Scott, who was desperately in need of intelligence about Confederate military activity around Manassas, Virginia. Scott recognized Baker's qualities and employed him to undertake a spying mission into Virginia to gain information that five other Union spies had already failed to gather.

Furnished with ten $20 gold pieces from Scott's vest pocket, Baker set out on July 11, 1861. Unable to evade the Union pickets at Alexandria, Virginia, Baker was arrested as a Confederate spy, promptly returned to Washington, and brought before Scott, who with a smile of amusement told him to try again. On his next attempt, Baker did not even make his way across the bridge over the Potomac River before he was once more arrested.

Baker succeeded on his third attempt to reach Rebel territory by traveling to southeast Maryland and paying a Negro to row him across the Potomac in a small boat. Confederate pickets then quickly arrested Baker as a suspected Union spy. He was taken to Manassas, where he was interrogated by Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and confined in the guardhouse.

Baker bribed a guard to escort him around Manassas, where he gained much of the information Scott needed. He was then sent to Richmond, where he reported being interrogated several times by President Jefferson Davis. Eventually bluffing his way into freedom, Baker successfully made the hazardous journey back to Washington, long after the information he had gathered had lost any military value.