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Military intelligence operations for the Army of the Potomac

In recent years, there has been much attention paid to the formal (and informal) intelligence-gathering capabilities of the Union army during the Civil War, including during the Gettysburg Campaign. Edward Fishel pioneered the cadre of recent authors who have explored this subject. Thomas Ryan further refined Fishel’s work with an excellent book on spies, scouts, and secrets during the Gettysburg Campaign. Now, along comes Lt. Col. (ret.) Peter G. Tsouras, a long-time military analyst for various U. S. government agencies. Written with the skilled hand of a career soldier and analyst, Tsouras focuses his attention on Major General George H. Sharpe and the Creation of American Military Intelligence in the Civil War in a lengthy but fascinating new book from Casemate.

George Henry Sharpe did not start out as a military man or as a spymaster. Born in Ulster County, New York, in 1828, Sharpe graduated from Rutgers and was a practicing attorney before the Civil War. He spent more than a year in Austria working for the U. S. State Department in the early 1850s, giving him exposure to international politics. When the war erupted, Sharpe received a commission as a captain in the 20th New York State Militia (the “Ulster Guards”).

By the time of the Gettysburg Campaign, with the rank of major, Sharpe was in charge of the newly-created Bureau of Military Intelligence (BMI). Early in the war, famed private detective Alan Pinkerton and several of his Chicago-based operatives had come east to assist Major General George B. McClellan in assessing enemy strength, locations, movements, and intentions. Pinkerton had largely overestimated Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s manpower. That played into McClellan’s already cautious approach to engaging Lee and played a role in the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.

Frustrated, the Federal government decided it needed its own military intelligence service, one that reported to the War Department and followed accepted military practices, including corroboration of evidence, multiple inputs, and accountability. Sharpe was just the man to oversee such an operation. The Bureau of Military Intelligence began operations in February 1863. In his fine book, Tsouras examines the challenges that Sharpe faced, how he built a team of highly-skilled operatives and informants, his communications methods, and the overall importance of the BMI to the Union war effort. This is more than a mere biography of Sharpe; instead, it is a sweeping look at how George Sharpe and his wartime bureau paved the way for later, more permanent formal U. S. Army intelligence operations after the Civil War.

Tsouras is to be commended for his outstanding contribution to the historiography of intelligence operations in the Civil War. His personal knowledge and experience as an intelligence analyst give him a unique perspective as a military officer to dissect Sharpe’s decisions, organizational skills, and the overall impact of the Bureau of Military Intelligence on the strategic and tactical field operations of the leading Eastern armies. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the “story behind the story” of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign, and the other great battles of the Eastern Theater of the Civil War from 1863 onward. It is also a keen, insightful biography of the New York attorney-turned-general who was the driving force behind the BMI. Sharpe, who died before writing his memoirs, nevertheless left enough material (coupled with many other first-person and primary accounts) for Tsouras to weave into a credible, satisfying book.

Peter G. Tsouras, Major General George H. Sharpe and the Creation of American Military Intelligence in the Civil War (Casemate Publishers, 2018). 582 pages, annotated. First edition hard copy with a dust jacket. ISBN 978-1-61200-627-2. MSRP $34.95.