Book Review: The Secret War for the Union ( Edwin C. Fishel) : ACW

8/11/2001 • Civil War 1863, Gettysburg, Mag: America's Civil War Reviews

The Secret War for the Union, by Edwin C. Fishel, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, $35.

This book provides the serious reader of Civil War history with another overlay through which to study the events of the war. In this case, the addition is the dimension of military intelligence, or lack thereof, in the battles that were fought in northern Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The author bases this comprehensive and highly detailed narrative of Union intelligence activities on a cache of records he discovered in U.S. government archives in 1959 that had apparently lain undisturbed for nearly a century. This book serves to clear up many Civil War events that, until now, were thought to be simply matters of bad or good luck.

More than 130 years after the event, Edwin C. Fishel has uncovered information that clearly indicates, for example, why the Battle of Gettysburg took place where it did –it was not just a matter of armies blundering into one another. The book also points up the fact that in the Civil War, as in every other war, good intelligence did not always guarantee success. Even though Union Maj. Gen. George Meade knew from his intelligence officers that every unit in Robert E. Lee’s army had seen action and was therefore depleted, he did not pursue Lee during his withdrawal from Gettysburg.

Fishel notes that the concept and practice of “all source” intelligence analysis by a staff dedicated to that purpose was reinvented by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker when he was commander of the Army of the Potomac (George Washington had used the concept, but did the analysis himself). This idea disappeared again from American military thought after the war and was not seen again until World War II.

John I. Witmer