Military Intelligence - Revolution to First World War

The use of intelligence in war

In the following context, intelligence is generally defined as information prepared for the use of policy makers. Such policy makers as generals and presidents take intelligence into account when making their decisions and acting upon them. The information springs from a variety of sources, such as spies or codebreakers, and is analyzed and written by evaluators. The main purpose of intelligence is to enable policy makers to optimize their physical and psychological resources.

Intelligence sources may be grouped into three categories: human, imagery, and signal.

  • Human intelligence includes the most basic form of military intelligence, which is observation. Soldiers at the front lines watch their enemies for details that might provide information on what the enemy is doing, as well as where and when and how fast. Soldiers remain the backbone of information about the enemy. The most glamorous, but least reliable source of human intelligence is espionage.
  • Imagery intelligence is based on visible light, infrared, or on radar. Pictures in light give fine detail while those taken by infrared or radar are coarser but can penetrate darkness or cloud. They provide literal snapshots of events. Photo interpreters can tell, for instance, how wide a bridge or other structure is.
  • Signal intelligence is the most important secret intelligence source. It is faster and more dependable than spies, and more insightful than photographs. Signal intelligence obtains information from enemy signals. Radio operators intercept such communications and teams locate the enemy transmitters. Analysts then diagram the senders and receivers to infer an underlying organization; they graph quantities to predict enemy activity. When code-breakers solve encrypted messages and disclose the actual words of the enemy, they directly reveal enemy capabilities, attitudes, and specific plans.
  • Intelligence does not win wars. Wars are won by the men and women in the trenches, on the ships, and aboard aircraft. Intelligence is secondary to strength, morale, and a commander’s ability. But it can help commanders win by optimizing resources. In many instances, intelligence can shorten wars and save lives.

    Intelligence during the Revolutionary War

    Second Continental Congress

    The Founding Fathers fully recognized that intelligence was nearly as vital an element of national defense as a strong military. Their intelligence operations were well-disciplined and focused, and were designed to support specific national objectives. Recognizing the need for foreign intelligence and foreign alliances, the Second Continental Congress created the Committee of Correspondence, which was shortly renamed the Committee of Secret Correspondence, by a resolution of November 29, 1775. The committee was appointed for the sole purpose of corresponding with America's friends in Great Britain and other parts of the world. The committee members, America's first foreign intelligence directorate, were Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Johnson, and James Lovell, who became an expert on codes and ciphers and has been called the father of American cryptanalysis. The committee employed secret agents abroad, conducted covert operations, devised codes and ciphers, funded propaganda activities, acquired foreign publications for use in analysis, established a courier system, and developed a maritime capability apart from that of the navy.

    On June 5, 1776, Congress appointed John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Edward Rutledge, James Wilson, and Robert Livingston "to consider what is proper to be done with persons giving intelligence to the enemy or supplying them with provisions." The same committee was given the responsibility for revising the Articles of War in regard to espionage directed against the Patriot forces. The first espionage act was enacted on August 21, 1776, which held that persons who "shall be found lurking as spies in or about the fortification or encampments of the armies of the United States... shall suffer death..." On February 27, 1778, the Continental Congress broadened the law to include any "inhabitants of these states" whose intelligence activities aided the enemy in capturing or killing Patriots.

    George Washington was a skilled manager of intelligence. His first experience in intelligence collection came in 1753, when he was just 21 years old. The British colonial government sent him into Ohio Territory to gather information about French military capabilities. He was instructed to observe French forts, determine troop strengths, and try to ascertain French intentions for responding to the expansion of British colonization into the region. One thing he did particulary well was to exploit drinking sessions and meals with French officers to acquire useful intelligence.

    George Washington's role as the first American intelligence chief has received far less attention in written history than his numerous exploits as a military and political leader. Yet, without his skillful management of American intelligence activities, the course of the Revolutionary War could have been quite different. During the war, Washington spent more than 10 percent of his military funds on intelligence activities. He utilized agents behind enemy lines, interrogated travelers for intelligence information, and launched dozens of agents on both intelligence and counterintelligence missions.

    Paul Revere

    The first Patriot intelligence network on record was a secret group of men in Boston known as the "Mechanics." The mechanics, or Liberty Boys, organized resistance to British authority, gathered intelligence, and stole and sabotaged British military equipment. Paul Revere, the most famous Liberty Boy, arranged for the warning lanterns to be hung in Old North Church to alert Patriot forces at Charleston, and then set off on his famous "midnight ride" in April 1775.

    In 1776, George Washington chose Thomas Knowlton to command the Continental Army's "Knowlton's Rangers." That unit was the first American military intelligence organization. The U.S. Army has characterized it as an historical precursor of the modern-day Army Rangers, and Delta Force. The ill-fated American spy Nathan Hale was recruited from the Knowlton Rangers. Hale is probably the best known, but least successful, American agent in the War of Independence. He embarked on an espionage mission into British-held New York as a volunteer with a strong sense of patriotism and duty. He was captured and hanged on September 22, 1776.

    The Founding Fathers, as well as other American leaders, their British opponents, and French allies, understood that victory hinged on rational political and military intelligence. They used a smart combination of espionage, counterespionage, propaganda, partisan warfare, code making, code breaking, sabotage, bribery, deception, and disinformation.

    Intelligence during the Civil War

    Black Dispatches was the term used among Union military men for intelligence on the Confederate forces provided by blacks. Black Dispatches were often provided by either runaways or those who were just coming under Union control. That source of information represented the most productive category of intelligence obtained and acted upon by Union forces throughout the Civil War.

    Black Dispatches resulted from tactical debriefings of slaves. Black Americans also contributed to strategic Union intelligence from behind-the-lines missions and agent-in-place operations.

    The value of the information that could be obtained by black Americans behind Confederate lines was plainly understood by most Union generals early in the war. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, wrote in May 1863 that "the chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes." Due to the culture of slavery in the South, blacks involved in domestic activities could move about without suspicion. Officials tended to ignore their presence as personal servants when discussing war-related matters.

    One of the first large-scale Civil War battles was the result of information provided by a runaway slave named George Scott. He furnished intelligence on Confederate fortifications and troop movements to General Benjamin F. Butler, commander of Fort Monroe, located on the tip of the Virginia peninsula. Shortly after the war began, Scott escaped from a plantation near Yorktown. While making his way toward Fort Monroe, he observed that Confederate forces had built up two fortifications between Yorktown and the fortress. Butler's officers were impressed with Scott's information but wanted to confirm it. Scott agreed to accompany a Union officer on several scouting trips behind Confederate lines to obtain more specific intelligence. Based on the knowledge gained from those missions, Butler determined that Confederate forces were planning an attack on Newport News, which, if captured, would isolate Fort Monroe from Union re-supply. He ordered a preemptive attack on the Confederate position, but the military operation was poorly conducted and ended in a Union defeat. Although the intelligence was sound, the military tactics were not.

    Allan Pinkerton

    As Union forces grew and better organization was required, Major General George B. McClellan was given command of the Army of the Potomac, with the responsibility of defending Washington. He brought with him his chief of intelligence, Allan Pinkerton. Pinkerton was in charge of collecting intelligence on the enemy, and for counterintelligence activities against enemy agents. Most of the information he collected resulted from an extensive debriefing program of people crossing over from Confederate lines, which included merchants, deserters, prisoners of war, and former slaves. Pinkerton soon discovered that the former slaves were the most willing to cooperate and often had the best knowledge of Confederate fortifications, camps, and supply points.

    Equally valuable intelligence was provided to the Union Navy by black Americans. One example of strategic importance occurred during late 1861 to 1862. Mary Touvestre, a freed slave, worked as a housekeeper in Norfolk for an engineer who was involved in the refitting and transformation of the USS Merrimac into the Virginia, the first Confederate ironclad warship. After overhearing the engineer talking about the importance of his project, she recognized the danger this new type of ship represented to the Union Navy blockading Norfolk. She stole a set of plans for the ship, that the engineer had brought home to work on, and fled north. After the arduous trip, she arrived in Washington, D.C., and arranged a meeting with officials of the Department of the Navy, where she submitted the plans and discussed what she had heard.

    Harriet Tubman, another black woman involved in intelligence collection for the Union, is much more famous for her activities with the Underground Railroad. Her intelligence activities, however, are well documented. In the spring of 1863, Union forces in South Carolina badly needed information about Confederate forces opposing them, including the strength of enemy units, location of encampments, and designs of fortifications. All of that intelligence could be gathered by sending out short-term spies behind enemy lines. The job of organizing former slaves and leading those expeditions fell to Tubman. She participated in several spy missions herself, while directing others from Union lines. She reported her intelligence to Colonel James Montgomery, a Union officer commanding a black unit. The intelligence Tubman provided to Union forces during the war was frequent, and used effectively in many military operations.

    No discussion of intelligence activities by black Americans during the Civil War would be complete without mention of a popular story about a black couple who provided intelligence on Confederate troop movements to the Union during the fighting around Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1863. The story involves a runaway slave named Dabney, who crossed into Union lines with his wife and found employment under General “Fighting Joe" Hooker. It was apparent to Dabney's superiors that he knew the geography of the area very well. After several weeks, Dabney’s wife asked permission to return to Confederate lines as a personal servant to a Southern woman returning to her home. A few days after his wife’s departure, Dabney began to report Confederate movements to members of Hooker’s staff. His reports soon proved to be extremely accurate, and he was questioned about the source of his intelligence. Dabney explained that he and his wife had worked out a signaling system based on the laundry that she hung out to dry, which was easily observed from Hooker’s headquarters. As Dabney’s wife observed Confederate troop movements, she would hang the laundry in a particular sequence to signal Dabney of the day's activity. That system produced useful intelligence on Confederate movements until Hooker moved his headquarters. Following the war, the intelligence contributions of black Americans became obscure. Racial prejudice more than likely played a part in this, as it did in many areas of the military contributions of black American Union military units, but several other factors added to the lack of recognition as well. Historically, most successful spies do not want their identities made public. Even individuals who may have provided only one-time pieces of useful intelligence usually prefer anonymity. This was particularly true in the emotional period after the Civil War, when many of those black Americans lived near people still loyal to the South.

    Intelligence during World War I

    Intelligence first achieved permanent importance in World War I. The first large-scale use of Army radio intelligence was during that conflict.

    When the war broke out in 1914, Russia attacked Germany with a northern and southern army. The Russian army communicated in part by radio, with messages sent mostly uncoded because their cryptosystem had been distributed to only a few units. The Germans overheard those radiograms, one of which revealed that the northern Russian army was advancing so slowly that the German commanders could safely attack the southern army first. They did this, aided by additional intercepts of Russian messages. It can be said then that the Battle of Tannenburg was won in large measure with the help of intelligence. Soon, all the major participants in World War I would go on to use more encompassing communications intelligence with varying degrees of success.

    Although signals intelligence was in its infancy, and radio was the new communications technology, the U.S. Army’s Radio Intelligence Section used their newfound capabilities to spy on enemy conversations. Signals could be intercepted without being in close proximity to transmission lines and could provide critical information about enemy tactics and strategy. That information was used for tactical planning by the American Expeditionary Forces.

    Arthur Zimmerman

    One of the most important intelligence coups of all time came in 1917 when the British cracked a German diplomatic message. The German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, was faced with the presumed hostility of the United States after Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare. To distract the United States, Zimmerman proposed to Mexico that they declare war. As a reward, he promised Mexico the territory it had lost in the 1830s and 1840s — namely Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Zimmerman transmitted his proposal to Mexico in a coded telegram, which Britain intercepted, solved, and disclosed to the Americans. Six weeks later, an enraged U.S. Congress declared war on Germany, which helped to end the stalemate in the West, assist in the Allied victory, and secure the United States as a world power.

    The race between code-maker and code-breaker accelerated in World War I. The war also led to the development of the cipher, the "one-time pad" that was impossible to crack by analytic methods. Code-breaking ended up having a strong influence on the course of the war. In fact, code-making and code-breaking proved so important that by the end of the war, cryptologic organizations were no longer small groups working in back rooms, but large bureaucracies increasingly integrated into normal military practice and operations.

    The success of signals intelligence in World War I led to the creation of a peacetime unit called the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS), established with 25 cryptologists and 30 support staff members. The school studied the methods of cipher communication used by foreign powers and also served as an advisor on the security of British ciphers and codes. As well as examining worldwide coding methods and practices, it was committed to the maximum extraction of information from signals intelligence. In 1922, the school was put under control of the Foreign Office. Navy, army and air sections were added in the following years as Europe began to backslide into war once more.

    - - - Books You May Like Include: ----

    The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War by Edwin C. Fishel.
    It's rare for a modern writer to make a genuinely new discovery about the Civil War, but former intelligence officer Edwin C. Fishel pulls it off in T...

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