NSA of USA vs. CSA

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Thumbnail for 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 trademark 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, Pinkerton headed an espionage organization that fed information about the Confederate Army to Major General George B. McClellan. The Spy of the Rebellion, originally published in 1883, is a story replete with “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 visual excerpts below are from an original publisher’s “dummy” used to sell the book to dealers.


Regional Design Annual 2014: Accepting EntriesIf you’re reading this year’s Regional Design Annual, you can see that there’s plethora of award-winning design work. Don’t miss the chance to receive your accolades. Enter your work in the 2014 RDA competition.

RELATED POSTSPhotographs Question Civil War HistoryEditorial Cartoonist Thomas Nast: Anti-Irish, Anti-Catholic Bigot?Four Score and Seventy Years Ago

About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →