12.12.13 / NSA of USA vs. CSA
This is a story not unlike the NSA today, but dates back to the Civil War. Scottish born Alan Pinkerton’s name is synonymous with private policing. He founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1850 and the company is still in operation as Securitas AB. Pinkerton’s business insignia was a wide open eye with the motto “We never sleep.”
In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln asked this Chicago-based detective, who proved his loyalty and bravery by saving him from an assassination attempt before Lincoln even took office, to organize a secret service in Washington. It was common knowledge that D.C. was rampant with spies working for the Confederacy’s central espionage unit, the Signal Bureau. “Washington, D.C., more a southern than a northern city, was virtually brimming over with Confederate sympathizers willing to supply intelligence to the South,” reports Alan Axelrod in The War Between the Spies. “At the outbreak of the war, (Signal Bureau Chief) Thomas Jordan took it upon himself to harvest the bumper crop of spies Washington yielded.”
When Pinkerton assigned himself the mission of ascertaining the strength of Memphis’ defenses, he disguised himself as a rich Southern gentleman about town who wined and dined local commander, General Pillow. Over bottles of burgundy, Pillow divulged the size of his regiment, the location of breastworks, even the names of his underground contacts from Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States.
For more of his thrilling exploits go here. Or read the book that gives first-hand accounts. Using the pseudonym of Major E. J. Allen, he headed an espionage organization that fed information bout the Confederate Army to Major General George B. McClellan. The Spy of the Rebellion, originally published in 1883, is a story full of “narrow escapes, violent episodes, nefarious schemes, and candid conversations with the most famous and powerful people of the time.” Pinkerton, whose agency went on to somewhat infamous anti-union/labor policing, discusses the villainous Secretary of war Edwin Stanton, the notorious Rebel spy Mrs. Rose Greenhow and countless others. The excerpts below are from an original publisher’s “dummy” used to sell the book to dealers.
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is the co-founder and the co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts. He writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review and the Graphic Content blog for T-Style. He is the author, coauthor, and/or editor of more than 120 books on design and popular culture, including the recent book Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig (Chronicle).