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Spy Stories

Tom Ryan's new book from Savas Beatie LLC
Tom Ryan’s new book from Savas Beatie LLC

Savas Beatie LLC has just published Tom Ryan’s excellent new book on Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North. June-July 1865. It is a well crafted book which more than ably fills a glaring hole in the historiography of the campaign. I was privileged to have helped somewhat with this book with some editing and suggestions, and it indeed is well worth a read.

Tom’s new book prompted me to look through my files and notes on spies and scouts with ties to York County.

Here are a few spy stories from this area.

Postcard of the National Hotel / Tremont House in downtown York (author's postcard collection)
Postcard of the National Hotel / Tremont House in downtown York (author’s postcard collection)

In late June 1863, Union Colonel William B. Thomas, a well known Republican political operative and wealthy miller from the Philadelphia area, came to York as commander of the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia. He had hastily organized the “emergency men” from among government workers and volunteers from the Customs House, Corn Exchange, U. S. Mint, area post offices, the Navy Yard, and other government places in the City of Brotherly Love. They were to serve in the militia for the “duration of the emergency” until the Confederate threat to Pennsylvania had subsided. Thomas, a good friend of President Lincoln, scattered his almost 1,000 men at various locations along the Northern Central Railway from York Haven down to Glen Rock and established his headquarters in the National Hotel (also at times in its history known as the Tremont House).

The problem was the hotel was owned by a man from Baltimore with known Confederate sympathies, and as such it was a frequent haunt of Maryland businessmen and other Southern travelers to the North. Long before the war, slave catchers from the South had used it as a base for their operations. Tales exist that in late June 1863 certain strangers sitting at the downstairs tavern paid particular and unusual attention to the discussions of Union officers at nearby tables. Later, when Jubal Early’s CSA division marched into York County, the veteran Rebel soldiers easily drove off the scattered militia from targets such as the railroad intersection at Hanover Junction and the twin bridges over the Conewago near The Gut and York Haven, but declined attacking the heavily defended rifle pits guarding the Howard Tunnel.


Speaking of taverns, another tale, often told but without much documentation, mentions an incident in a downtown bar. The inns and groggeries had long been popular with soldiers based at Camp Scott and the recuperating patients at the sprawling U.S. Army Hospital on Penn Common. Naturally, these public drinking establishments would attract the attention of Southern spies. According to the tale, a man partaking freely of the alcoholic beverages became tipsy. He began bragging that he was from Alabama and was a colonel in the Confederate army. Robert E. Lee had personally sent him into Pennsylvania to scout potential invasion routes. Onlookers kept plying him with copious quantities of liquor until authorities could come arrest him. He sobered up in the local jail, but no proof exists to support his claims of a Confederate colonelcy. There is an account of a deserter from an Alabama regiment in the Rebel army who came into York and later joined a state unit; perhaps that is the origin of the spy story?


Yet another story, again without sufficient evidence from military records, tells of a one-armed Bible salesman and two young assistants who traversed York County in the early spring of 1863 taking orders for future delivery. They asked about the leading merchants and businessmen, the location of the most prosperous farms, nearby military establishments and their leadership, military traffic on the nearby railroad, where certain roads led, and other seemingly innocent questions which would help them target potential Bible buyers. They reportedly said they would come back in the summer with their friends and bring the holy books. The story concludes that when elements of Jubal Early’s powerful division marched into York that summer, the one-armed “salesman” was in the uniform of a Confederate officer. Some accounts suggest he brought a box of Bibles with him to fulfill his promise.


Local lore aside, there are several documented instances of Confederate espionage and intelligence gathering in the Susquehanna Valley in advance of the invasion. Famed Rebel Lt. General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had in February ordered mapmaker Jedediah Hotchiss to prepare a map of Pennsylvania to the Susquehanna River, sternly warning him to keep the effort a “profound secret.” Hotchkiss, who was very familiar with the region from travels before the war, likely sent out teams of agents to acquire local maps, scout the region, make observations of distances and routes to military targets, defensive measures, etc. His resultant map, now in the National Archives, is very detailed but surprisingly omits several topographical features such as elevations and some watercourses which an invasion force might have to cross.

One man, a likely agent, was arrested by authorities near Harrisburg as he was sounding the depth of the Susquehanna River. He was taken to Fort Delaware and incarcerated. Another spy, Will Talbot, came under suspicion in Gettysburg. When accosted by authorities, he was found to have hand-drawn maps tucked in his boots. Talbot, who claimed to have been a member of the 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, who had been left behind when that unit passed through Gettysburg, was executed in Maryland. Another spy named Richardson famously was hung near Frederick by Union General John Buford, who ordered the body to remain dangling from the tree for three days while the Army of the Potomac passed the execution spot. Any civilians who cut down the corpse would share a similar fate, Buford warned.

Several men loitering about the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, the only bridge south of Harrisburg all the way to the Maryland border, found themselves locked up in the Wrightsville jail until they could prove they were harmless and not in the employ of the Confederate secret service. However, later when Confederate Brigadier General John B. Gordon rode through York on Sunday morning, June 28, a little girl he estimated to be 10 to 12 years old emerged from the crowds on the sidewalks along E. Market Street and handed him a bouquet of red roses. Inside, written in a “woman’s flowery handwriting,” were detailed drawings of the Union militia’s defenses at Wrightsville. Gordon claimed that when he arrived with his 2,000-man force on that evening he found that the note accurately described the Federal position.

Ironically the above article is from a local newspaper entitled the Columbia Spy!
Ironically the above article is from a local newspaper entitled the Columbia Spy!

On Saturday, June 27, young York businessman A. B. Farquhar had impetuously ridden out to Abbottstown. There, after unexpectedly encountering an old college classmate who now commanded Gordon’s picket line, he met with General Gordon ostensibly to ensure the safety of the women and children of York. He perhaps was also worried about his fledgling farm implement company, because rumors had circulated the Rebels might ransack or destroy industry in the area.

The Georgia general, a pre-war lawyer and businessman, peppered Farquhar with questions about the force that guarded York. Farquhar answered the best he could, but Gordon soon cut him off, stating that he already knew their size and composition. A shocked Farquhar sat in silence as Gordon rattled off how many men were in the defenses at York and Harrisburg and who commanded them. Gordon further amazed his young adversary by mentioning the names of York’s important persons, where they lived, and even their political leanings. He started describing the local road structure and then “took a little map of York County out of his pocket which had everything on it.” Having seized the initiative, Gordon pressed home his requirements. York must not put up any opposition. In return, he would spare the town the kind of destruction that the Federal army had brought to Southern towns. The Confederates would not take any private property or molest anyone, but they would requisition necessary supplies. York would have to comply in full. Gordon made it clear that there would be no further discussion of this point.

No further details of this “little map of York County” are known. The best known commercially available map of the day (the Shearer & Lake map produced in 1860) were quite large in size. Perhaps the popular tale of the one-armed Bible salesman has some historical credence, and he and his two assistants really existed and drew up a now lost special map which General Gordon had in his possession? Farquhar was not known to exaggeration, and his friend Cassandra M. Small related the map story in a letter to her cousin later that week within days of meeting with John Gordon.

A newspaper reporter from the Baltimore Sun filed a story from Columbia, Pa., on July 3. He had covered the burning of the Columbia Bridge back on June 28 by Union militia bent on keeping Gordon from crossing over to Lancaster County. Now, he was reporting on sounds of the distant multi-day battle which raged well off to the west (first presumed to be fought at Dover, then at New Oxford. In reality, it was at Gettysburg some 45 miles west of Columbia). He included this interesting tidbit, of which little else is known: “This morning the firing is more distant than it was yesterday. Yesterday two citizens of York were arrested in our lines as spies. Their names are Faigher and Wiley, old citizens of the place.” Nothing else is known of the fate of the two alleged enemy spies.

While some of the activities of the Confederate agents operating in York County are shrouded in mystery and conjecture, their movements through other parts of south-central Pennsylvania are better known and documented. So are the efforts of Union Colonel George Sharpe and his Bureau of Military Intelligence, who provided the War Department and the Army of the Potomac with information on the movements of Confederate forces.

Author Thomas J. Ryan has researched this fascinating topic for many years, and his new book on the subject is extremely interesting and germane to anyone interested in this fascinating aspect of the Gettysburg Campaign. Of the typical high quality of Savas Beatie books, Spies, Scouts, and Secrets of the Gettysburg Campaign is a must read. Ryan tells the complete story of the Union efforts to locate Rebel columns and ascertain their strengths, commanders, and intended destinations.

This included using networks of civilian “scouts” including a company raised in Gettysburg by local attorney David McConaughy to shadow the oncoming Rebels. In turn, CSA Lt. General James Longstreet used an agent named Harrison, an actor by trade, to keep tabs on the Union forces as they moved northward in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia after leaving their camps near Falmouth, Virginia.

Ryan tells these stories, and many more, in this well researched, well crafted new book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested on the covert activities on the shadowy fringes of the Gettysburg Campaign; espionage and intelligence gathering which both helped and hampered Lee and Meade.

Autographed copies of Tom’s new book can be ordered directly through publisher, Savas Beatie LLC.

What spy stories have you heard concerning the Civil War in York County? Feel free to comment.