22 September 1861: “I cannot explain what my place is exactly because I don’t know but one man I can trust and because this letter might get in the wrong hands…”

Item description: Letter, dated 22 September 1861, addressed to Union General George McClellan from an unnamed correspondent. According to a note penciled at the bottom of the letter, this letter was in fact a piece of counterintelligence employed by Confederate officer, Edward Porter Alexander (who was at that time a major), to attempt to deceive Federal authorities into thinking that the Confederates had established “sham forts” on the Potomac. The letter also reported on other apparently false military movements.

According to Alexander, he had the letter prepared by someone on his staff, then sent an African American woman to attempt to deliver it to a Federal picket. As she traveled, the woman was intercepted by a Confederate guard, searched, the letter was found and subsequently returned to the Confederate headquarters for analysis. Thus, Alexander’s epistolary ruse failed to reach Federal lines.

Item citation: From folder 8 of the Edward Porter Alexander Papers, #7, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Item transcription:

Fairfax Sept 22nd 1861

General McClellan


I have a position where I can learn a great deal which most people do not know and which I think you would be willing to make it worth my while to tell you. I cannot explain what my place is exactly because I don’t know but one man I can trust and because this letter might get in the wrong hands and as this first letter is a speculation I would prefer not to risk my neck on it too much. I will just tell you exactly what I can do in the way of informing you I can tell you of everything that is going to be done which some pretty high officers talk to each other about. The only trouble is how to get the news to you. I don’t much like to put my self in any body’s power. I can get to the post office in this town nearly every day and the man I can trust goes out on picket about once a week but if we can work it without him I would rather do it because I think he would just double my risk and want part of my pay. If you are willing tell me how you want me to communicate with you and how much you will give me and I will only say that I think I can satisfy you if I get my pay down right in gold and now to show you what sort of things I can inform you of I will give you what I know now and have known for two weeks. They are building masked batteries to fire at your ships on the Potomac at a place they call Evansport and they had sevan cannons there a week ago and were making carrages for them and expected more. Col. Hampton commanded and he is now making a sham fort at another place Freestone Point only to deceive you and to keep you away from the other one which is further down the river. they have got the long [tom?] there that was taken at Manassas. Another General is coming here named G.W. Smith who used to be in the U.S. Engineers and had charge of the streets in New York. He is going to take command of Genl. Johnson’s Corps and Genl. Johnson will be commander in cheif. If you will make it worth my while I will make it worth yours and by trying a little I can find out a great deal. Try and answer this by the Post office and direct to Mr. Barney McFadden[?] as soon as possible.

PS They say its a pretty strong place at Evansport. It is up in the cedars that their port is. I can tell you all about Manassa and when the regiments here get orders to be ready to march Wigfall’s regiment is now ready to go to the sham port I told you of.

[the following note was written in pencil in Edward Porter Alexander’s hand, at the bottom of the letter]

This was prepared for me to given by a picket to a negro woman outside of the lines to be conveyed to the Federal lines as a trap to catch Federal spies & mail carriers in our neighborhood. A citizen saw the picket speak to the negro woman however & suspecting something searched her & thought he had a Mare’s nest & sent the letter up to our HdQrs. with the earnest prayer that we might catch & hand Barney McFadden.


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