Confederate officers thought nothing of leaving important documents where Scobell could see them or discussing troop movements in front of him. Whom would he tell? Scobell was only the butler or the deckhand on a rebel sympathizer's steamboat or the field hand belting out Negro spirituals in a powerful baritone.
In reality, Scobell was not a slave at all. He was a spy sent by the Union army, one of a few black operatives who quietly gathered information in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with Confederate spy-catchers and slave masters who could kill them on the spot. These unsung Civil War heroes were often successful, to the chagrin of Confederate leaders who never thought their disregard for blacks living among them would become a major tactical weakness.
“The chief source of information to the enemy,” Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, said in May 1863, “is through our negroes.”
Little is known about the black men and women who served as Union intelligence officers, other than the fact that some were former slaves or servants who escaped from their masters and others were Northerners who volunteered to pose as slaves to spy on the Confederacy. There are scant references to their contributions in historical records, mainly because Union spymasters destroyed documents to shield them from Confederate soldiers and sympathizers during the war and vengeful whites afterward.
“These kinds of spies and operatives come up over and over again, many of them unnamed and rarely do they receive glory,” said Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, who lectures on the Civil War's African-American spies.
Jones and other experts are hoping the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will include some measure of remembrance for these officers, some of whom are included in exhibits at the museum's new facility which will hold its grand opening on July 16-18.
Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service at the onset of the Civil War, detailed his recruitment of black spies in his autobiography, including a couple of successful missions by Scobell and the extraction of valuable papers from a Union defector.
Harriet Tubman is the most recognizable of these spies, sneaking down South repeatedly to gather intelligence for the Union army while also leading runaway slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Often disguised as a field hand or poor farm wife, she led several spy missions into South Carolina while directing others from Union lines.
Another spy, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was born a slave to the Van Lew family, who freed her and sent her to school. Bowser then returned to Richmond, where Elizabeth Van Lew was running one of the war's most sophisticated spy rings.
Somehow, Van Lew got Bowser a job inside the Confederate White House as a housekeeper. Bowser then proceeded to sneak classified information out from under Confederate President Jefferson Davis' nose.
Stories about Bowser, who is also known as Ellen Bond, Mary Jones or Mary Jane Richards, show up as early as May 1900 in Richmond newspapers and her name was revealed in 1910 in an interview with Van Lew's niece, according to Elizabeth Varon, author of a book about Van Lew.
There is no proof that Bowser existed beyond these recollections. Van Lew, like Pinkerton before her, requested that Union forces turn over all her intelligence records at the end of the Civil War and destroyed them, leaving no proof of her vast network.
Union forces weren't the only ones operating a black spy network in the South. Black abolitionists also ran a vast private network called the “Loyal League,” “Lincoln's Legal Loyal League” or the “4Ls,” which spied for the North and spread word about the war among the black slaves. Scobell was a member of the 4Ls, Pinkerton said, and used the network to get information to Washington, D.C.