Book Review: Major General George H. Sharpe and The Creation of American Military Intelligence in the Civil War


by Peter G. Tsouras

Philadelphia: Casemate, 2018. Pp. x, 582+. Illus., maps, tables, append., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1612006477

Spymaster of Lincoln's Army 

Building on the pioneering work of Edwin C. Fishel, Tsouras, a retired military intelligence officer and military historian, has written a very comprehensive account of the life and military career of George H. Sharpe (1828-1900). An attorney and sometime U.S. foreign service official, he entered the Army at the onset of the Civil War he did a tour as a militia officer and then raised the 120th New York, which first served on garrison duty in Washington, and then joined the Army of the Potomac, seeing action at Fredericksburg. Early in 1863, Joseph Hooker, newly appointed commander of the Army of the for the Potomac, appointed Sharpe to form and head the Bureau of Military Information. This became the premier intelligence agency for the Army during the Civil War.

This work is more than a just biography of the General (albeit by brevet). Tsouras uses Sharpe’s life and work to give us a picture of the intelligence world during the Civil War in great detail, although focused on the Eastern Theatre. When Sharpe formed the BMI, the Army’s information collection and processing decentralized; there was no systematic intelligence gathering plan, no process by which information gathered by corps or division or even lower ranking commander could be passed up to high authority, and no one was responsible for seeing all the information, in order to make a reasonable analysis. Sharpe changed this, introducing a process by which information could flow from those who gathered it to those who could analyze it and then to those who needed it. Rather quickly the Army of the Potomac began getting well vetted intelligence, which great facilitated its operations.

The book is full of many case studies and anecdotes, well seasoned with scouts and spies, daring escapes, codebreakers, and even order-of-battle analysts. Tsouras also gives us many men and women who had some role in gathering, organizing, and synthesizing reams of information that Sharpe used to help his commanders – Joe Hooker, then George G. Meade, and finally U.S. Grant – make better decisions, assuming they accepted his analysis.

Although Sharpe’s work was excellent, and made significant contributions to bringing the war to successful conclusion, during the post-war reduction in the Army, the BMI was abolished; a dedicated intelligence agency within the army would not be reestablished for a generation.

Tsouras might have made more references to intelligence operations some of the Western armies, most notably James Garfield’s set up in the Army of the Cumberland until he left the service, which would have allowed him to offer some thoughts on why the best intel officers in the war were citizen soldiers

This is an outstanding work for anyone interested in the Civil War or the craft of intelligence.


Note: Major General George H. Sharpe is also available in several editions

StrategyPage reviews are shared with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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