Saturday, July 6, 2019

Capturing the Enemy, Capturing Information

Well, I'm currently diving into the Official Records of the Rebellion and reading through different correspondence and reports to find references to Union and Confederate prisoners of war captured during the Petersburg Campaign. I was hoping the indexes of the various volumes would prove helpful, but I'm finding they are not much assistance. Therefore, it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to scan through the numerous reports.

However, some of the details they impart are pretty amazing. One of the things that I've found particularly surprising is the amount useful information that captives gave their captors. For example, on June 22, 1864, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler reported the following to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant:
" A prisoner belonging to the Forty-eighth North Carolina, Cooke's brigade, Heth's division, of A. P. Hill's corps, was captured by General Foster to-day at Grover's house, on the north side of the James [River]. He states that his brigade, consisting of the Forty-eighth, Twenty-seventh, Forty-sixth, and Fifteenth North Carolina, numbering about 1,000 men, left their breast-works, five miles in front of Richmond, last night, on a scout. Some cavalry had preceded them by several days; that they moved there from before us, near Petersburg, on the south side of the Appomattox [River]; that it was currently rumored in camp that Ewell had gone up the Valley to meet Hunter. He also says that the rear line - his brigade being the last - withdrew from my front yesterday about 12 and that none but the front line remains. My signal officer reports that at 2 p. m. a train of twenty-five freight cars, five of them loaded with troops, passed Walthall Junction. This is the first train that has crossed since the tearing up of the track."

Gathering information about the movements of the enemy was partly the job of cavalry and army scouts. Supplementing the news that cavalry supplied by that freely given by the enemy's captured soldiers only added to the ability for army leadership to make significant strategic and tactical decisions. Knowing things like the soldier above provided, such as what brigade was in your front or how many men they had could be crucial to officers. And, while all of the information that this prisoner gave was not correct (i.e. Gen. Ewell going to the Valley, when it was actually Gen. Early) being partly right made a difference, too.

In another instance, on that same day, Col. George H. Sharpe, who served as the chief of military intelligence for the Army of the Potomac wrote to Gen. Andrew Humphreys:
"Four men from Thomas' (Georgia) brigade, Wilcox's division, A. P. Hill's corps, taken this a.m. in front of their division between the Weldon railroad and the Jerusalem plank road, say that yesterday they were on the extreme right of the enemy's infantry line at a point they cannot well indicate, nearer the city than now; that at 3 p. m. they were moved farther to the right, the division crossed the railroad, and they were put out on skirmish line toward evening; that yesterday p.m. when they came out on skirmish line there were no earth-works on our front (here); that some guns were put into position. One says he saw General Lee on Saturday on the Richmond road on the other side of Heth's division, of the same corps, being next on their left. They know nothing of Ewell, but can account of all of A. P. Hill's and Longstreet's being here except McLaw's division, of Longstreet's, which they have not seen for some days. They think, however, that it is here. The Third Division Cavalry sent in two officers (1 colonel) and 9 men during the night, taken yesterday p. m. down the Jerusalem plank road. I can get little out of them except that there are three North Carolina regiments of cavalry on our left commanded by General Barringer."

It is strange that Sharpe ended his report by saying he "can get little out of them," when they provided a significant amount of information to him. One wonders what type of interrogation techniques military intelligence used at this time. It seems that these captured men gave up the information rather freely. Perhaps the prisoners felt that now that they were out of the fighting for a while they had nothing to lose by giving up what they knew. Or perhaps, they felt they may gain a favor or two by supplying information.

Regardless of their reasoning, taking today's modern military practice of providing only one's "name, rank, and serial number" to one's captors, it seems strange to give an enemy information that could help them. 

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