Elizabeth Baker sat at a small, burl walnut desk, frantically scribbling on thick sheets of paper. A silhouette of her image cast on the fabric covered walls showed her flipping through the sheets paper. She was inspecting a variety of crude drawings of ships. The flame from a lit candle on the desk next to her danced in harmony with a draft seeping in through a closed window. It was early fall in 1861 in Richmond, Virginia. The Civil War was in its infancy, and military leaders from the North and South had sent spies behind enemy lines to learn whatever secrets they could.
Allan Pinkerton directed Mrs. Elizabeth H. Baker to go to the Confederate capital to acquire information about the Rebel navy. She didn’t hesitate to abide by the detective’s orders. Elizabeth had been working as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency for a number of years. Although assigned to the Chicago office, she had traveled out of town on occasion, teaming with other agents to investigate robberies and missing person cases. Prior to moving to the Midwest, she had lived in Virginia and was well acquainted with the customs and the people of the region. When war broke out she relocated. Pinkerton referred to her as a “genteel woman agent” and considered her “a more than suitable” candidate for the assignment he’d selected for her.
Elizabeth wrote two sets of friends she had known from her days living in Richmond and informed them of her plans to visit. Claiming to miss being in Virginia, she told them she wanted to return and stay for a long visit. As luck would have it, Captain Atwater of the Confederate Navy and his wife invited Elizabeth to stay with them when she came to Richmond.
Elizabeth arrived at the Atwater’s home on September 24, 1861. The reunion was a happy one, and the three friends attended numerous receptions, balls, and fund-raisers together. Elizabeth met influential socialites, Confederate officers, and politically ambitious Southerners who claimed to possess the precise plans needed to defeat the North.
Drinks flowed at many of the soirees the Atwaters and Elizabeth were invited to attend. Tongues loosened at the events as the champagne and bourbon were consumed. One evening after having too much to drink, Elizabeth’s host decided to discuss the issues between the states and speculated on the tactics the Confederate navy would use to ensure the South would win the war. Elizabeth played her part well, agreeing with Captain Atwater about the North’s weaknesses and how much better life would be when the South defeated the Yankees.
When the three friends were not attending grand, social functions, they were touring the city. Elizabeth made mental note of the number of Confederate forces amassing in Richmond, the artillery being transported in and out of the city, and the fortifications being built around it. In the evenings before retiring to bed, Elizabeth jotted down everything she had seen and sketched the vital information on scraps of paper. She hid the notes and sketches in the crown of her bonnet.
One morning in late September, Captain Atwater made mention that part of his work day would be spent watching the demonstration of an unnamed submarine vessel referred to as the Cheeney, a two-man underwater vessel built by William Chenney. Elizabeth casually expressed an interest in seeing the demonstration, and Captain Atwater agreed that she and his wife could accompany him. “If you and Mrs. Atwater will be ready by nine o’clock,” the captain told Elizabeth, “we will have ample time to reach the place, which is some few miles below the city.”
Elizabeth contained her enthusiasm at the announcement. This was the exact area of warfare about which Pinkerton had instructed her to try and find out. The detectives had heard rumors that the Confederates were developing torpedoes and submarine vessels to battle against Union blockades.
According to the September 25, 1861, edition of the Janesville Daily Gazette, the submarine in question was “shaped like a cigar, drawing thirteen feet of water, while only seven are above the surface.” The article went on to note that “it was one hundred five feet long, covered with thick, iron plates, with spikes at the bow and the stern. This vessel cannot only break through blockades, but sink them.” The exhibition of the vessel was to take place in the James River. Designed by William L. Cheeney, a New York born, former United States Navy officer who later joined the Confederate Navy, the submarine held a crew of two or three men. Captain Atwater explained to Elizabeth that the vessel was operated using a series of gears and levers. She was also told the sub was “but a small working model of a much larger one; it would be finished in two weeks.”
Elizabeth carefully watched the submarine and the crew through a pair of field glasses Captain Atwater gave her. She was informed that the men inside the vessel wore diving armor which enabled them to work under water. The air they breathed was supplied from a hose affixed to a sea green floatation collar that rested on top of the water behind the submarine. Additional hoses were used by divers venturing outside the submarine. Divers worked underwater attaching a torpedo to the ship intended to be blown up.
Elizabeth witnessed a scow (a flat-bottomed boat with a front bow, often used to haul bulk freight) towed into the river and anchored several miles out from the docks. The submarine then set off after the vessel. The location of the underwater boat was easy to follow because of the floating collar. When the submarine reached a designated spot, divers carrying magazines or torpedo canisters were off loaded and swam to the target. The divers then attached the explosives to the scow and ventured back to the submarine. Once inside, the vessel backed away from the target (as evidenced by the movement of the floating collar) and moments later the scow exploded.
The crowd watching the boat blown to bits cheered and applauded. “Without any previous warning there was a concussion from the blast and it took us aback,” Elizabeth later wrote in her report to Pinkerton. “The scow seemed to be lifted bodily out of the water and thrown into the air. Her destruction was complete.” Captain Atwater explained to her that the larger submarine the Confederates would use on the North was specifically earmarked to protect the steamers the Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. Both steamers would be leaving Norfolk, Virginia, soon. Both would be loaded with cotton and bound for England. It was imperative that they reach their destination. Elizabeth was told the name of the submarine that would see the steamers through was called the Merrimack.
The Merrimack was a frigate, best known as the hull upon which the ironclad warship the CSS Virginia was constructed. Built and launched in 1855, she was decommissioned in 1860 after traveling through the Caribbean, Western Europe, and Central America. The Merrimack sat at the Norfolk Navy Shipyard until April 1861. The Confederacy, in desperate need of ships, decided to rebuild the frigate as an ironclad.
The October 5, 1861, edition of the Emporia Weekly News carried an article about the activity of the Confederate Navy and its plans for the Merrimack. The article also included news about the general condition of the Southern capital. “Dr. Wilson, Surgeon in the United States Army, and taken prisoner at Bull Run by the Rebels, was released on parole and reached Richmond,” the report began. “He says there is great distress and dissatisfaction in the Rebel capitol. All the hotels are fitted up as hospitals, and are filled with sick and wounded. There are four hundred men of the Florida regiments in the hospitals. Medicines of all kinds are costly. Quinine sells at eight dollars an ounce and is very scarce.
“All the necessaries of life are dear. Small change is very scarce. Confederate currency is depreciating, the best commanding fifteen percent premium. All the physicians of the city agree that there are at least two thousand influential citizens of Richmond that do not believe an attack will be made on Washington. Beauregard’s headquarters are at Fairfax Court House. Johnson’s headquarters are near Winchester. There are about four thousand troops at Norfolk. At the latter place the Rebels are converting the steamer Merrimack into a floating battery.”
Pinkerton was made aware of the article in the Emporia Weekly News and shared the information with Major General George B. McClellan. The two men looked forward to hearing from Elizabeth and hoped for more detailed news about the Confederate Navy’s activities. She had every intention of reporting her findings to Pinkerton, but not before she had a chance to visit the Tredegar Iron Works. The Tredegar Iron Works served as the primary iron and artillery production facility in the South. Before Elizabeth had made it back to the Atwaters’ after the submarine demonstration, the captain had invited his wife and their guest to tour the Iron Works facility.
The massive munitions factory was the largest of its kind in the South. The Tredegar Iron Works supplied half of the South’s total domestic production of artillery, including giant, rail-mounted, siege cannons, steam locomotives, and iron plating for the ironclad warships. Elizabeth saw two submarines being constructed as she walked through the facility. Captain Atwater told her the vessels would be completed and in the water by November.
The October 21, 1861, edition of the Fayetteville Weekly Observer reported that the Tredegar Iron Works would prove to be the key to the South winning the war. “There are more than fifteen hundred men employed at the Iron Works,” the article boasted. “They turn over ten cannons per day from five to one hundred and thirty-four pounders; Columbiads, howitzers, field pieces, rifles, shell, and shot and balls enough to supply an army of five hundred thousand men. The capacity of the establishment is immense and is essential for the Confederacy to reign victorious.”
Elizabeth was frantic to get the news of what was being produced at the factory and the capabilities of submarines to Pinkerton. “Unless something was done and quickly,” she would inform Pinkerton, “untold disaster would attend the Union cause.”
Captain Atwater escorted Elizabeth and his wife home, and that evening Elizabeth was busy drawing what she’d seen at the Iron Works, the submarines, floats, and ships moored at the location on the James River.
“The next day, being Sunday, she remained at the residence of the Captain,” Pinkerton noted in his report about Elizabeth’s actions. “On Monday morning, having procured a pass, she bade farewell to her host and his amiable spouse, and left Richmond for Fredericksburg. From thence she made her way to Washington and lost no time in reporting to me the success of her trip. She had made a hasty, though quite comprehensive sketch of the vessel which showed the position under the surface of the water and explained its workings.”
Pinkerton wasted no time in submitting the information to General McClellan and the secretary of the navy. The officers forwarded the intelligence on to the commanders of the squadrons, instructing them to keep a careful eye for float collars and to drag the water for the purposes of grabbing the air hoses connecting the float with the vessel below. The United States Navy used the intelligence collected to enhance their anti-submarine measures which, until this point, consisted of nets weighted down with chains hung around the ships. These crude items were used to keep any submarine from getting close enough to attach explosives to destroy the ships.
“Nothing was heard about locating collars or vessels for weeks after Elizabeth’s information was delivered,” Pinkerton remarked in his writings. “Then came the day I was informed that one of the vessels of the blockading fleet off the mouth of the James River had discovered the float, and putting out her drag-rope, had caught the air-tubes and thus effectively disabled the vessel from doing any harm, and no doubt drowning all who were on board of her.
“This incident, and the peculiarity of the machine, was discussed in the newspapers at that time, who stated that ‘by a mere accident the Federal fleet off James River had been saved from destruction,’ but I knew much better, and that the real credit of the discovery was due to a lady of my own force.”
The information Elizabeth was able to acquire helped in another wartime incident known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, occurring March 8 and 9, 1862. “About eleven o’clock a dark looking object was described coming around Craney Island through Norfolk channel, and proceeded straight in our direction,” the March 31, 1862, edition of the Fayetteville Weekly Observer reported about the conflict. “As she came ploughing through the water onward toward the port she looked like a huge half submerged crocodile. Her sides seemed of solid iron, except where the guns pointed from the narrow ports, and rose slantingly from the water like the roof of a house or the arched back of a tortoise.
“At her prow one could see the iron projecting straight forward, somewhat above the water’s edge, and apparently a mass of iron. Small boats were strung or fastened to her sides, and the Confederate flag floated from one staff while a pennant was fixed to another at the stern. There was a smoke stack or pipe near her middle, and she was probably a propeller, no-side wheels or machinery being visible. She was probably covered with railroad iron.
“We fired constantly, and the Merrimack occasionally, but every shot told upon our wooden vessel and brave crew. Her guns being without the least elevation, pointed straight at us along the surface of the water, and her nearness, she being much of the time within three hundred yards, made it an easy matter to send each ball to its exact mark. Probably her guns would be useless at a considerable distance, as it appears impossible to elevate them.
“Immediately on the appearing of the Merrimack the command was given by the Union officers to make ready for instant action. All hands were ordered to their places, and the Cumberland was sprung across the channel, so that her broadside would bear on the Merrimack. When the Merrimack arrived within about a mile we opened on her with our pivot guns, and as soon as we could bear upon her our whole broadside commenced. Still she came on, the balls bouncing from her sides like India rubber, apparently making not the least impression, except to cut off her flag-staff, and thus bring down the Confederate colors.
“It was impossible for our vessel to get out of her way and the Merrimack soon crashed her iron horn or ram into the Cumberland just starboard the main chains, under the bluff of the port bow, knocking a hole in the side near the water line, as large as the head of a hogshead and driving the vessel back upon her anchors with great force. The water came rushing into the hole. The Merrimack then backed out and discharged her guns at us, the shot passing through the main bay and killing five sick men.
“And then there was the Monitor which fired 178-pound cast iron shot. The wrought iron shot was not used, because their great weight and peculiar construction render the guns much more liable to burst. The Merrimack fired about forty shots on the Monitor, which replied as rapidly as possible; but so far as is known, neither vessel is damaged. Those on board on the Monitor say the balls rattled and ran upon both vessels and seemed to bounce off harmless.
“The fight between the Monitor and the Merrimack continued and they eventually arrived side by side and engaged one another for four hours and twenty minutes. Once the Merrimack dashed her iron prow quarterly against the Monitor but did not injure that vessel in the least. The Monitor in turn determined to try her force in a similar operation, but in some unaccountable manner the wheel or other steering apparatus became entangled, it is said, and the Monitor rushed by, just missing her arm. In the end the Monitor was victorious.
“The efficient manner in which this work was performed was of great service to the nation, and sustained the reputation of the Secret Service Department, as being an important adjunct in aiding the government in its efforts to suppress the rebellion.”
While operative Baker was visiting the factory where Confederate submarines were being built, another operative was working on acquiring a set of plans for the rebuilding of the steamer the Merrimack. Free slave Mary Touvestre (some historical accounts list her name as Louvestre) was employed as a seamstress and as a housekeeper for one of the Rebel engineers restoring the steam-powered frigate. She overheard the engineer discussing the importance of the vessel as a weapon against the Union and decided to offer her services to her country. Her association with Pinkerton was through the Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles.
With the help of civilian railroad builder William Mahone, the Gosport Shipyard in Portsmith, Virginia, was captured by Confederate forces in April 1861. A substantial volume of war material was seized in the process, including more than a thousand, heavy guns and the U. S. Navy ship the Merrimack. Union forces tried to sink the ironclad rather than let her fall into Rebel hands, but she did not go down all the way. The ship’s lower hull and machinery were intact. The Confederate Navy managed to raise the ship out of the water and began making plans to rebuild her.
According to the June 19, 1861, edition of the Times-Picayune, there was a great deal of confidence in her ability to join the fight for the South. “The Merrimack has gotten up, and repairs are to be made on her forthwith,” the article noted. “The Lincolnites burned this noble frigate down to the copper. Two or three months, however, will suffice to make her whole again. Three or four steamers are being fitted out at the Navy Yard, after the man-of-war style, to cruise in the sounds of North Carolina and to run out to sea and pick up the merchant marine of the North. This will be glorious fun, and the gallant officers who command these vessels will doubtless reap a rich harvest from the Yankee Doodles.”
Mary Touvestre overheard several conversations about the frigate turned ironclad which was being renamed the CSS Virginia. She heard that the “steamer was being turned into a floating battery” and that it was “shot-proof.” Rumor had it the only way to prevent the vessel from leaving Norfolk was to fill the mouth of the Elizabeth River with heavy blocks of granite.
The CSS Virginia, with more than forty plus guns on either side of the vessel, posed a major threat to northern blockades. Mary saw the gravity of the situation and sought to intervene. The engineer she worked for brought the plans for the ship home with him nightly. Mary decided she would steal the plans and turn them over to Union forces. In late September 1861, she sewed the vital information into the hem of her dress and set out for Washington.
The journey from Portsmith, Virginia, to the federal capital was more than a hundred ninety miles. Mary made the trip on foot. When she arrived in Washington, she immediately set out to meet with the secretary of navy. Secreting the plans out of Virginia past enemy lines was difficult enough, but gaining an audience with a high ranking, military official also proved to have its challenges. Mary had to talk her way around members of Secretary Welles’ staff in order to see him. When Mary was finally able to speak with Welles she explained where she came from and presented him with the plans for the ironclad the CSS Virginia. The secretary commended Mary’s bravery and dedication; had she been captured by the Confederates, she surely would have been put to death.
In reviewing the plans, Secretary Welles and his staff learned that the CSS Virginia had a seven-inch, pivot-mounted rifle at each end of the ship and a broadside battery of two, six-inch rifles and six, nine-inch smooth bores (a gun with an unrifled barrel). Affixed to her bow was an iron ram, allowing the ship herself to be employed as a deadly weapon. Every wooden warship in every navy in the world was totally obsolete against it. The Union was already at work on their own ironclad, the Monitor. The information Mary supplied prompted them to speed up production on the vessel.
It was imperative that the Union blockades set in Norfolk and Hampton Roads hold their positions, if not, Confederate ships carrying much needed supplies from Europe to the South would get through.
Mary remained in Washington and waited for the day there would be news about the CSS Virginia. She anticipated the Rebels would plan a course of action once the engineer realized Mary and the plans were missing.
In early March 1862, word that the USS Cumberland, a former patrol ship that was once used to cruise the coast of Africa with orders to stop vessels carrying slaves, was stationed at the Gosport Navy Yard and commanded to stop any Confederate ship from getting in and out of the area. The USS Cumberland was a fifty gun, sailing frigate that had managed to capture several Rebel ships since she had been stationed in Virginia. The USS Congress was also a sailing frigate that had served in the Mexican-American War in 1847. More than four hundred sailors were assigned to the vessel.
The March 15, 1862, edition of the Weekly Sun described the disaster that occurred to the USS Cumberland and USS Congress. The Cumberland was run down, and the Congress was forced to surrender. “About noon today, March 8, the rebel steamship Merrimack and two gun boats were seen coming around Craney Island headed for Newport News. Half an hour after, the Naval lookout boat in the Roads signalized the fact to the Minnesota and Roanoke, the latter being the flagships….
“The Merrimack was making good time for Newport News, where the sailing frigates Congress and Cumberland were the only naval vessels. As the Minnesota passed within range at Sewell’s Point, that battery opened on her. Its fire was returned vigorously. The firing being at long range, no perceptible effects were produced. In a little more than one hour from getting underway, the Merrimack was now within half a mile from Newport News, the firing commenced. Simultaneously with these movements, the Yorktown and Jamestown (Rebel steamers) came down the James River, and joined their fire with that of the Merrimack upon the Congress and the Cumberland.
“The Merrimack seemed to proceed past the Congress and engage the Cumberland, which was also under fire of the Yorktown and the Jamestown. In about half an hour the masts of the Cumberland, which were visible over the point of land, were seen to list and finally go over, proving that she had sunk. About that time the Congress, with sails spread, was seen to come down a short distance and stop on the Point, apparently aground.
“Soon after, the Merrimack reappeared and engaged her at short range; and, after keeping up the contest fifteen or twenty minutes, the white flag of surrender was seen to float over the Congress’s deck.
“The Cumberland had a crew of five hundred men, nearly one half of whom perished when she went down. As yet, the Congress has not been boarded, and it is supposed that soldiers on shore prevented the Rebels from doing so.”
The initial reports about what took place at Hampton Roads were discouraging to Mary, the secretary of the navy, Pinkerton, and every other defender of the Union. Circumstances changed for the North when the USS Monitor arrived at the battle. Six months after Mary had delivered the news to the head of the Navy and Pinkerton was subsequently informed, the Federal ironclad was ready to go to war against the Confederate’s ironclad.
“Before daylight on Sunday morning [March 9, 1862] the Monitor moved in and took a position alongside of the Minnesota, lying between the Fortress, where she could not be seen by the rebels, but were ready, with steam up, to slip out,” an article in the March 17, 1862, Indianapolis Indiana State Sentinel noted.
“Up to noon on Sunday the rebels gave no indication of what were their further designs. The Merrimack lay up toward Craney Island, in view, but motionless. At one o’clock she was observed in motion, and came out followed by the Yorktown and Jamestown, both crowded with troops.
“As the rebel flotilla came out from Sewell’s Point, the Monitor stood out boldly toward them. It is doubtful if the rebels knew what to make of the strange looking battery, or if they despised it. Even the Yorktown kept on approaching till a thirteen shell from the Monitor sent her right about. The Merrimack and the Monitor kept on approaching each other, the former waiting until she would choose her distance, and the latter apparently not knowing what to make of her funny looking antagonist.
“The first shot from the Monitor was fired when about one hundred yards distance from the Merrimack, and the distance was subsequently reduced to fifty yards, and at no time during the two hours of furious cannoning that ensued were the vessels more than two hundred yards apart.
“The officers of the Monitor at this time had gained such confidence in the impregnability of their battery that they no longer fired at random or hastily. The fight then assumed its more interesting respects. The Monitor run around the Merrimack repeatedly, probing her sides, looking for her weak points and reserving her fire with a coolness that must have been intensely aggravating for the officer of her enemy, until she had the right spot and exact range, and made her experiments accordingly. In this way the Merrimack received three shots which must have seriously damaged her. The first went in about at the smoke stack. The next shot was put low down on her side, near the edge of the iron roofing, which overhangs her sides somewhat like a penthouse. The next shot was placed nearly in the same position. Neither of these shots rebounded at all, but appeared to cut their way through iron and wood into the ship. Soon after receiving the third shot the Merrimack turned toward Sewell’s Point and made off at full speed.
“The Monitor followed the Merrimack until she got well inside Sewell’s Point and then returned to the Minnesota. It is probable that the pursuit would have been continued still further, but Lieutenant Worden, her commander, had previously had his eyes injured, and it was also felt that as so much depended on the Monitor it was important not to expose her unnecessarily.”
Historians speculate if Mary Touvestre had not warned the navy of the Confederate’s plans, the Merrimack would have been allowed to roam the James River for a longer period of time and ships from Europe would have been able to reach their Southern destinations with supplies. The outcome of the war might have been different if not for the work of female spies.