Mr Lincoln's Secret Service

General L. C. Baker, whose portrait is shown above, was Chief of the National Detective Police, 1861-1865

Mr Lincoln's Secret Service was not today's Treasury Department Secret Service that guards the President and harasses counterfeiters, nor the political secret police of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but an arm of the War Department; to be precise, the Office of the Provost-Marshal in Washington, D.C. After a mission as a spy for General Scott to Richmond at the beginning of the war, Mr Baker, as he was then, became a secret agent for the Department of State under Secretary Seward. On 15 February 1862 his office was transferred to the War Department under Secretary Stanton, and he received a commission as Colonel Baker. He later described his experiences in a book [see References].

Lafayette Curry Baker was born in Stafford, Genesee County, New York on 13 October 1826. In 1839, his family moved to a farm near Lansing, Michigan, where he grew up. At the age of 22 he was employed as a mechanic in Philadelphia and New York. In 1853, he moved to gold-rush California in the same occupation, but made a name for himself with the Vigilance Committee in 1856. He went to New York on business in 1861, and on the outbreak of war offered his services to the government in Washington. His career as a detective is described here. He died in Philadelphia on 2 July 1868, but just how is not recorded. From his early age, it may well have been service-connected.

Baker was by no means a bureaucrat fighting the war in an office, but was the most prominent agent of the organization himself, personally taking part in most important operations, and placing himself in personal danger time after time. A secret police is one that is not uniformed, and may even be disguised, the better to detect nefarious activity. Baker took his inspiration from the French secret police, especially the notorious agent Vidocq, who made a specialty of disguise and deception to uphold the law and defeat villainy. In his book, Baker is at great pains to point out the important service done by secret agents and detectives, in spite of a general public distaste for detectives, especially in the United States and Britain.

Baker reported directly to Secretary Stanton, and often to Mr Lincoln himself, since he dealt with sensitive matters. He gratefully acknowledges the constant support of Mr Lincoln in particular. Although undertaking certain critical military missions as a courier, his main efforts were against subversive activities in the vicinity of the District and in the large cities of the east coast. These included trading with the enemy, fraud by government contractors, enlistment fraud, disloyalty by postmasters, Confederate spies and sympathizers, disloyal organizations, arrest of fugitives, the most important of which was John W. Booth, and, rather surprisingly, vice in the Capital. He shows himself a policeman at heart in minor exploits such as the detection of a woman smuggling quinine to the South, and another smuggling sewing silk under her dress, as they board the steamboat at the end of Long Bridge in Washington.

In his personal views, he reveals an evolution that was very common with people in similar positions. Before he arrived in Washington, his life had been spent in Michigan and California. A Black was an exotic creature, slavery a theoretical, foreign concept, and Abolition an extremist position. Upon contact with the realities of the South, he became strongly anti-slavery, and glad to be considered an Abolitionist. Once, on finding a wagonload of shackled slaves being returned to their owner in Maryland, he notices a technicality that allows him to ignore the Fugitive Slave Law and free the group. One of the women has a new baby, so there are now seven slaves, whereas the necessary legal paper said only six! He mentions some other examples of the effects of this hated law, such as beating to death one of a group of returned slaves in front of the others as a warning. He states that he could mention many more examples of cruelty and barbarism, but probably the reader is already familiar with them. He makes it plain that "Slavery is the soul of the rebellion" [p. 206].

Before describing some incidents of hate towards Blacks in the Capital, Baker says [p. 215]:

In this connection, one or two incidents will present in bold relief the unparalleled malignity of feeling cherished by the rebels and their friends toward an unoffending race, because it was the providential occasion of their troubles, and true to the instincts of humanity in its desire for freedom; a malignity intensified by the despotic possession and control of the body, and, so far as possible, of the soul of the enslaved."

"Contraband" consists of illegal goods that are seized when detected. This name was informally given to the slaves that escaped from their owners when the U. S. Army was passing through the neighborhood. Before the Emancipation Proclamation, these people were not technically free, though in fact they were, provided they could stay with the Army or escape to the North. There was very little effort to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law during the rebellion. In fact, this was only done rather unwillingly when an owner in, say, Maryland, brought suit. Many "contrabands" were hired by the Army at private's pay to provide very useful labor, and others were enlisted in the Army for active service. Slaves, which made up about a quarter of the Southern population, were a disloyal element more dangerous than the disloyal element in the North. Baker says that Southern women and churchmen were the most rabid slavers. The poor white element that made up most of the Confederate army was brave and eager to fight, although they had little to gain from the war. Most of these men were illiterate; Baker notes that whenever he was apprehended by Confederate soldiers, they could not read the letters and papers he had on him.

Vice in the Capital flourished extraordinarily. There were 163 "gambling hells" where cards were played, 3700 "drinking establishments" where a tin cup of whiskey could be had for a dime, and an unstated number of "houses of ill repute" for the recourse of the nearby Army and Congress. Midnight raids in the summer of 1863 shut down many of these establishments, no doubt only temporarily. In the case of the brothels, he could only raid what he calls some representative establishments, most apparently being greatly appreciated by officers and gentlemen. Photography, then a new science, had made possible the appearance of pornography, which Baker also enthusiastically repressed. "Vile books, photographs and woodcuts" were distributed through the mail, which served as the internet of the day. He and Mr Lincoln watched a bonfire of $20,000 worth (street value) of confiscated material on the White House lawn one evening. One can begin to see why detectives were not clasped to everyone's bosom.

In time-honored American tradition, contractors became wealthy defrauding the government when the war necessitiated expensive purchases. For example, one businessman pushed a new horse feed consisting of a mixture of oats and corn, 60% expensive oats (90 cents a bushel) and 40% cheap corn (40 cents a bushel). When paid for and delivered to the Army, the mixture was 60% cheap corn and 40% expensive oats, and the businessman pocketed 10 cents on every bushel in addition to the normal profit. One contractor supplied 3,000,000 bushels.

Enlistment bounties, quotas and the draft brought forth entrepreneurs in great number, who cooperated with recruiting sergeants and officers to exploit this bonanza. Fraudulent or counterfeit enlistment warrants were sold to people with quotas to meet; each warrant represented a soldier enlisted, but one that did not really exist. It was estimated that as few as one in four men apparently enlisted ever reached the front. Bounty brokers found substitutes for drafted men, who paid the brokers handsomely. The brokers then obtained the substitutes as cheaply as possible, perhaps by drugs or the occasional idiot abducted from an asylum, but often in the form of the bounty jumper. A bounty jumper might enlist several times a day, usually escaping by collusion with the enlistment authorities. Baker was on the job with stings and disguises combatting this lucrative business in New York when Mr Lincoln was assassinated.

Baker's book gives a very complete account of the assassination and its aftermath. The search for Booth takes place in the Maryland Western Shore location that figures often in the book, since it was a notably disloyal region. Incidentally, the terms Western Shore and Eastern Shore relate to Chesapeake Bay, where the earliest settlements in Maryland took place. The Patuxent flows through the center of the Western Shore, and tobacco cultivation ruined much of the land. Considerable clandestine traffic with the Confederacy took place in this area, crossing the Potomac by night in small boats. The many creeks and patches of swamp and thick brush provided concealment. This was the main route for Confederate mail with sympathizers in the North, of which there were many. The conspiracy was larger and more desperate than generally realized. Booth decided to kill the President when the more elaborate schemes unraveled. He was taken in Virginia, where he killed himself. Baker and an assistant buried the body secretly under the paving stones of a fortress. The name of conspirator D. C. Herold is variously spelled Harold and Harrold in the book.

Baker describes the plot to intercept Mr Lincoln on the way to the inauguration in 1861 by destroying a bridge (the Gunpowder River bridge of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore) in front of his train and assassinating him in the resulting confusion when the train stopped. Lincoln was hurried along through the night, and was already in Washington when the plot was sprung. This story is told elsewhere, but it is interesting to have the view that Baker quotes. Unfortunately, none of the men involved is mentioned, but we know who they were (Alan Pinkerton and Samuel Felton, for example). Baker is an earnest writer, but not a masterful one, so the book is uneven, but full of interest anyway. Alas, it does not contain much on spying, nor on secret police and detectives in the South--these were not the main areas of Baker's involvement, so the lack is understandable. It does, however, give a vivid first-hand account of the times.


L. C. Baker, The Secret Service in the Late War (Philadelphia: John Potter & Co., 1874). The first edition of the book was published in 1868. The later edition may have additional material contributed by his associates.

National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 5:331.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 15 March 2001
Last revised