A Beginning Point

Edwin C. Fishel

Fishel died 11 February 1999 at his home in Arlington, VA, at the age of 84. He began his career in intelligence with the Army Signals Intelligence Service during World War II as a cryptographic analyst, and served with NSA from 1947 until 1972. Jonkers, AFIO Weekly Intelligence Notes 8-99 (24 Feb. 1999).

Fishel, Edwin C. "Civil War Intelligence: A New Perspective on Command Decisions." American Intelligence Journal 17, no. 1/2 (1996): 79-84.

The author capsulates the conclusions of his heroic research on the role of intelligence in the Civil War. The full version -- at least to Gettysburg -- appears in his seminal work, The Secret War for the Union (1996). The main thrust of Fishel's conclusions about Civil War intelligence had been known for over 30 years, but this article provided the reader a clear and succinct rendition. The article reproduces a speech made by the author to the 16 June 1996 meeting of the NMIA Potomac Chapter.

Fishel, Edwin C.

These two articles are early versions of what would become Fishel's majesterial The Secret War for the Union (1996).

1. "Military Intelligence 1861-63 (Part I: From Manassas to Fredericksburg)." Studies in Intelligence 10, no. 3 (Summer 1966): 81-96.

"Not surprisingly, the war for which each side was ill prepared opened with blundering application of intelligence on both sides." The intelligence operations of McClellan and Pinkerton "must go down to posterity ... as an essentially corrupt activity consciously aimed at justifying inaction and failure." (footnote omitted)

2. "Military Intelligence 1861-63 (Part II: Chancellorsville and Gettysburg)." Studies in Intelligence 10, no. 4 (Fall 1966): 69-93.

The intelligence that was pursued by both sides in the Civil War "was almost altogether military, and even the military sector was not fully covered: strategic intelligence was severely subordinated to the tactical." Gen. Joe Hooker's Bureau of Military Information, headed by Col. George H. Sharpe, "was an improvement over its predecessors.... Sharpe's bureau was not only the most highly developed intelligence activity on either side; it had a modernity about it that parallels the war's numerous other military innovations."

Fishel, Edwin C.

1. "The Mythology of Civil War Intelligence." Civil War History 10, no. 4 (Dec. 1964): 344-367.

Pforzheimer calls this article "an invaluable starting point for ... reading of the mass of Civil War intelligence literature, most of which is hardly credible."

An updated version of the article is listed below.

2. "Myths That Never Die." International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 2, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 27-58.

From Editor's Note: "[T]his article, originally published in the quarterly Civil War History in December 1964, is recognized as the most authoritative study of the whole broad field, Federal and Confederate. Thus it is the only article, listed among 259 books, in the Defense Intelligence College's Bibliography of Intelligence Literature, edited by Walter Pforzheimer. This update includes several emendations of the original text, silently inserted, and a supplementary essay on recent developments in Civil War intelligence mythology."

Fishel, Edwin C. The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Clark comment: This is a truly monumental work -- a feat of intellectual persistence of the first magnitude. Building on the discovery at the National Archives in 1959 of the operational files of the Army of the Potomac's Bureau of Military Information, Fishel has produced the first true "intelligence history" of the American Civil War. However, without subtracting in the least from the importance of this work, it is fair to say that Fishel's findings will not lead to an immediate and wholesale rewriting of the history books.

In the first place, despite the title, the military intelligence included here is predominantly related to the Union side of the conflict, and only with regard to the eastern campaign through Gettysburg. There is precious little mention of the fact that other major campaigns were underway in the West, and no attention is paid to the role of intelligence in that arena on either side of the conflict. Second, Fishel's views on the dominance of Union over Confederate intelligence have been long established, and are clearly stated here. The question remains, nonetheless, of whether the Confederates' apparent lack of appreciation of the role of intelligence reflects the true state of affairs or simply the absence of the kind of documentary evidence Fishel has mined with such effect in producing his narrative.

Tidwell, WIR 15.6, stresses both the importance of Fishel's work and its limited scope: "It is a description of tactical intelligence as it was handled in one Union army." To Troy, IJI&C 9.4, "Ed Fishel's scholarship is breathtaking. His writing is logical, lucid, witty, and stimulating.... His narrative, so fact-filled, is not 'an easy read,' but it is certainly rewarding." Wicker, Library Journal, 1 Jun. 1996, calls the book "very detailed and well written"; it "gives an excellent overview of the use of military intelligence in the Civil War."

The reviewer for the Virginia Quarterly Review 73.1 believes the work "should change the known history of Civil War campaigns ... [and] should delight Civil War buffs." Jamieson, Air Power History, Spring 1997, says that this "path-breaking work ... provides a fuller understanding of the Eastern campaigns of 1861-1863." At times, Fishel sharpens previous ideas; and in other instances, he "presents material that is altogether new." While chiding Fishel for ignoring the importance of codes and ciphers, Kruh, Cryptologia 21.1, nevertheless concludes that "their absence does not diminish his enormous contribution to Civil War history."

Return to Union Table of Contents

Return to Civil War Table of Contents

[*Graphic from: http://www.geocities.com/EnchantedForest/Dell/2645/clipart.htm]