Before the CIA, before the NSA, there was the Bureau of Military Information: The United States’ First Intelligence Chiefs

Brandy Station, Va. Col. George H. Sharpe, John G. Babcock, unidentified, and Lt. Col. John McEntee, Secret Service officers at Army of the Potomac headquarters

A commonly observed historical truism is that in many ways the United States and the rebellious Confederacy were equally prepared — or rather, unprepared — to fight what is often called the world’s first modern war. This was particularly true when it comes to military intelligence. Neither side had an institutional military intelligence capability, viewing the collection and analysis of information relevant to enemy intentions as more or less only another skill a commander needed to master. In other words, the effectiveness of intelligence operations and analysis rested almost completely on the talent of commanding officers. As one can imagine, this led to wildly different use, misuse, and often times no use of intelligence to enhance the achievement of military objectives, particularly in the first two years of the war.

A little background on early American military intelligence:

It is important to note that “intelligence” in the 19th century was not defined as precisely as today, which requires some analysis of data collected; otherwise, it is simply unrefined information. The words “intelligence” and “information” were used interchangeably, and was subject to use with little critical analysis. To muddy the concept further, the term “secret service” was also used to describe intelligence activities, to include the use of spy craft and counterintelligence.[1]

American training and doctrine of military officers during the 19th century provided some familiarity with aspects of military intelligence, but little direction to conduct operations. The United States established the Military Academy at West Point in 1802, but because of deep reservations within the political establishment, and the country at large, of a standing army, the school was designed to be more of a scientific institution than one that nurtured mastery of the art of war.[2] West Point’s training curricula and pre-Civil War US Army official training manuals (and subsequent CSA editions) provided some background on the need for intelligence in conducting war; however, with no institutional support for intelligence operations, military officers were left to their own drive and creativity in these matters.

Before the war, once a cadet graduated and entered the regular Army, he found that little in official publications built upon what West Point provided in establishing effective intelligence operations. The Regulations for the Army of the United States for 1835, 1846 and 1857 give only passing attention on intelligence matters, and these pertained primarily to assessing the military strengths and weaknesses of an outpost. This remained the case when war broke out in 1861.

The first years of the Civil War demonstrated some impressive successes in the use of military intelligence (e.g., the Union’s deployment of a Balloon Corps to collect aerial intelligence, and the Confederacy’s use of cavalry to stay ahead of numerically superior Union forces) as well as significant failures that arguably lengthened the war. A most notable example: Major General Robert Patterson misjudged then-Colonel Joseph E. Johnston’s intent and location, which allowed Johnston’s troops to slip away from the vicinity of Bunker Hill, Virginia, and to ultimately reinforce the breaking Confederate forces at Manassas just in time to turn the tide and repel the Union. The Confederate victory at Bull Run, the first major engagement of the Civil War, sent shock waves through the north and galvanized the nascent rebellion, and the outcome can arguably be traced the Union’s intelligence failure, and the Confederacy’s intelligence victory.

It would take two more years of conflict and uneven intelligence practices before the Army moved to organize their operations. The result: the Bureau of Military Information. The first such organization of its kind in a modern military, the BMI was established in early 1863 to provide the commander of the Army of the Potomac with contemporary all-source intelligence. Despite its rapid maturation and success, it was abandoned after the war. For a comprehensive history of the evolution of the Union’s intelligence capabilities, read Edwin C. Fishell’s excellent The Secret War for the Union, The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War.

What follows are the leaders of the new Bureau, the first intelligence chiefs of the United States military.

General Joseph Hooker:

Quickly after taking command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, General Hooker ordered the establishment of an organization to “organize and perfect a system for collecting information as speedily as possible.” The order was directed to General Marsena R. Patrick, the Provost Marshall.

As part of his duties as Provost Marshall, General Patrick was responsible for the disposition and interrogation of prisoners and defectors. Originally concerned specifically with the security of Washington, Hooker’s mandate to create a “secret service” was the first step toward creating an institutionalized intelligence service for the military.

General Hooker’s Chief of Staff. Butterfield’s vision and administrative skills were critical to establishing an efficient intelligence reporting system.

The first chief of the new military information bureau, Sharpe would oversee the coordinated intelligence operations of espionage, prisoner interrogations, cavalry reconnaissance, the Union Signal Corps, newspaper intelligence gathering, and balloon and signal tower surveillance. (See Fishell, The Secret War for the Union, p297)

John G. Babcock (pictured at top, in group photo)

While a private in the Union army, Babcock’s gift for cartography caught the attention of General McClellan. After a stint working for the infamous Alan Pinkerton, General Burnside offered Babcock Pinkerton’s job once the McClellan spy chief left with his former boss. Babcock accepted, and was hired as a civilian. He stayed on once the Bureau of Military Information was established. (See Fishell, The Secret War for the Union, pp 154, 257–258).

The talents of these leaders were instrumental in the creation of an efficient intelligence organ for the Union.The quality of the Bureau’s reporting was quickly evident. In this dispatch, dated June 7, 1863, sent to General Butterfield, then-Col Sharpe outlines Confederate force disposition, assessed intent, and enemy troop strength.

The above image is only the first page of a longer report, but within it Sharpe provides an updated threat assessment of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s forces since the battle at Chancellorsville (which ended 6 May, 1863). “I estimated them then at 4700 men in the aggregate, for duty. We now estimate the same at 7500 men for duty.” Equally as impressive is how Hooker sought to qualify other intelligence in the same letter, rather than present sketchy information as more credible than could be vouched for (as was often the practice by many a general before). “We have considerable reason to believe that two brigades of cavalry have recently arrived from the direction of North Carolina not heretofore connected with General Stuarts command. We can of course give no estimate of their force; but it would not be safe to put them down at less than 1500 men to a brigade.” The Bureau would make notable strides in making American intelligence operations more professional, more analytical, and more reliable.

[1] Edwin C. Fishel, “Mythology Civil War Intelligence,” 344–345.

[2] Stephen Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point (Baltimore: John’s Hopkins Press, 1966), 18.

Business analyst, former military intelligence officer, amateur historian, blogger/writer at DamperThree.com, satirist at times as a Duffel Blog contributor.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store