The Black Spies in a Confederate White House

Roundup
tags: Civil War, Black History



Christopher Dickey, a veteran foreign correspondent, is The Daily Beast’s World News Editor. He is the author of seven books, including Securing the City and, most recently, Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South.

The servants knew. The Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia, was not a happy home. The coachman had heard Varina Davis, the first lady of the South, wondering aloud if the rebellion her husband led had any prayer of success. It was, he heard her say, “about played out.” Less than a year into the war, she had all but given up hope. And the president himself, Jefferson Davis, gaunt and sere, was under tremendous strain, disheartened and querulous, complaining constantly about the lack of popular support for him and his policies.

What the servants at the dinner table heard could be even more interesting: insights into policy, strategy and very private lives. They could glimpse up close the troubled emotions of Varina, who was much younger than her husband. She was in her mid-30s, he was in his mid-50s, and her energy, even her sultry beauty, were resented by many in that small society. She had a dark complexion and generous features that led at least one of her critics to describe her publically as “tawny” and suggest she looked like a mulatto.

Varina’s closest friend and ally in the cabinet was Judah P. Benjamin, the cosmopolitan Jewish secretary of war and then secretary of state. He was a frequent visitor to the Davis residence. He shaped Confederate strategy around the globe. And over port after dinner, what intimacies might have been revealed about this man, whose Louisiana Creole wife lived in self-imposed exile in Paris, and whose constant companion in Richmond was her beautiful younger brother?

As in any of the big households of yesteryear (one thinks of Downton Abbey, to take a popular example), what the servants knew about the masters was a great deal more than the masters knew about them. And in the Davis household the servants were black slaves, treated as shadows and often as something less than sentient beings. The Davises knew little of their lives, their hopes, their aspirations, and they certainly did not realize that two of them would spy for the Union.

History is almost equally oblivious. When it comes to secret agents, or servants, or slaves, all learned to tell the smooth lie that let them survive, and few kept records that endure. When it comes to the question of the spies who worked in the Confederate White House, where solid documentary evidence has failed, legend often has stepped in to fill the gaps and, to some considerable extent, to cloud the picture. ...




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