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A Spy for the Union: The Life and Execution of Timothy Webster

By Corey Recko, McFarland & Co., 2014, $35

As was the case with Mata Hari in World War I, Timothy Webster has suffered from being  too famous—never an asset for a spy,  which in his case comes from being the  first of his profession to be executed for  espionage during the American Civil  War, in April 1862. Besides being vilified by every newspaper in Richmond,  his exploits were equally distorted by his spymaster, Allan Pinkerton, whose  penchant for exaggeration is equally  famous. In A Spy for the Union, Corey  Recko delves into primary sources to  reconstruct a more accurate recounting  of Webster’s life, which turns out to be  interesting enough.

Born in Sussex, England, in 1822  and moving to Princeton, N.J., at age 8,  Webster became a naturalized citizen and a New York City police officer. He  subsequently worked for Pinkerton’s  National Detective Agency on a variety  of notable criminal cases and was among  President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s  bodyguards before the war led Pinkerton and Webster into the world of espionage. In that capacity Webster, using his  British citizenship, managed to conduct  intelligence-gathering operations in  Maryland, Memphis, Tenn., and Richmond, where the Confederate capital’s  Brig. Gen. John H. Winder thought him  “a noble fellow, a most valuable man to  us.” Only when Pinkerton dispatched two men to check on him—only for them to end up being captured—did one of  those men give Webster away.

Profusely illustrated, A Spy for  the Union should set some records straight and provide Civil War buffs  with an intriguing change of pace.


Originally published in the September 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.