On July 12, 1864 an anonymous letter was forwarded to the military commander of the Union forces around Nashville, Tennessee, and then on to Colonel A. Anderson, the General Superintendent of the United States Military Railroad (U.S.M.R.R.) in that district. Because the U.S.M.R.R. was such an important link to General William T. Sherman’s army as it fought its way south and east toward Atlanta, and because southern guerrillas were constantly endangering the vulnerable rail lines, Anderson and his superiors could take no chances. He was directed to “have the loyalty of all his employees tested.”
Loyalty to the Union was declared through an oath and the swearer simply signed a statement, but the idea that loyalties were not only tested but also monitored in the Ciivl War is one that we have sometimes lost sight of. The boundaries between North and South seem to us so clear and incontrovertible that such measures would appear unnecessary. Yet, in the Civil War, especially in East Tennessee, the boundaries were blurred. Huge armies fought in the war, but at the local level the conflict was more personal.
The anonymous letter seemed to include plans for spying on the Union Army, and outlined the “best way to get to the rebels news.” Specifically, the recipient was directed to go to the “Huntsville Depot” and contact the letter writer’s mother. Because the Union Provost Marshall boarded with her, she had never been denied a pass–or one for her friends. From there the spy was directed to go 7 miles where there “lives a woman who permits the rebels to go to and from her house at will.”
He also provided directions on “how to save self when the guerrillas shoot into the Rail Road trains.” The man worked on the railroad and generally “knows when they [the guerrillas] are about.” Through signals and some advance warning, he knew when the attacks would occur. So, his protocol was to fill the engine furnace full of wood then lay down “behind the wood in such a way as to be safe.” Whenever he saw a guerrilla he recognized but does “not want to speak” for fear he would be exposed, he would shake his head.
Angry and tired of working on the railroad for the Union forces, this man expected to run off and join a Confederate cavalry unit. He cheered the work of the guerrillas, especially John Hunt Morgan, and was pleased to report that “there is scarce a nightbut what there are more less union men killed along the railroad.” As for the woman who provided the safe house for spies: “Mrs. Holman is a true woman of the Confederacy,” the man noted.
The Union Army faced a significant counterinsurgency challenge in large parts of the Confederacy. The railroads, however, because of their size and complexity were run by thousands of civilians rather than controlled directly by military commanders. The railroads were quasi-military operations, necessary to control and manage but beyond the capacity or expertise of any given regimental officer. Few men in the Union Army needed loyalty testing, but the civilians associated with the railroads were another matter. So, the response to this intercepted communique to test the loyalty of the employees on the railroad was not unexpected, but the use of the rail system in war brought a new dimension of scale, reach, and vulnerability and made the conflict a more modern one.
[The letter is from: National Archives and Records Administration, Letters Received by A. Anderson, Gen. Sup. Record Group 92 subgroup 1674 Box 2.]