Photographic Intelligence: The Civil War

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

One of the mainstays of intelligence collection is photography.  Among the variety of images collected are overhead photography, aerial photography, and what can only be called regular photography.  All three types are represented in the holdings of the National Archives.  The overhead includes the images created as part of the CORONA satellite program; the aerial is represented by the imagery taken by the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft; and the Ground Photography collection consists of regular photography from various sources.

While the widespread use of photography for intelligence purposes began in the 20th century, it does have earlier antecedents.  As soon as the American Civil War, early in the existence of the photographic medium, photographs found a role in the acquisition of useful information.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy purchased numerous vessels overseas, many from British sources.  Most were used as blockade runners to bring valuable supplies through the U.S. blockade of the Confederate coast.  Others were armed and roamed the high seas raiding U.S. commerce vessels.  The C.S.S. Alabama is perhaps the most famous Confederate raider.

In order to learn about vessels for Confederate use, U.S. diplomatic and consular officials overseas kept tabs on shipbuilding activities.  The U.S. consulate in Liverpool, England, was particularly active observing the shipyards in that city and nearby.  For the most part, the information collected consisted of reports about shipbuilding activities and detailed descriptions of vessels.  That information was passed to the Navy to assist blockaders with identifying Confederate ships.  In at least in one case, the Consul in Liverpool sent a photograph.  The following is a photograph of the vessel Hercules sent to the Department of State in February 1865.[1]

HERCULES
Hercules, enclosed in Despatch No. 441 US Consulate Liverpool to Dept of State, 22 Feb, 1865

In an earlier despatch, the Hercules was described as “a double screw boat of about 500 tons  . . . one hundred and seventy feet long 25 feet breadth of beam and eleven and a half feet depth of hold, with a draught of water of nine feet marked; two engines combined one hundred and fifty horse power nominal, one funnel, two masts the fore one Brig rigged the last one schooner rigged, & the decks flush fore & aft.”  The rest of the description made it very clear – the vessel was intended to be a warship.[2]


[1] U.S. Consulate Liverpool to Department of State, Despatch No. 441, February 22, 1865, Despatches from Liverpool, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  Available on National Archives Microfilm Publication 141.

[2] U.S. Consulate Liverpool to Department of State, Despatch No. 434, February 7, 1865, Despatches from Liverpool, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  Available on National Archives Microfilm Publication 141.

 

2 thoughts on “Photographic Intelligence: The Civil War

  1. No, photography from a balloon was not possible, because a stable, unmoving platform was needed for the camera’s low shutter speeds. However, observers in balloons were sometimes used to locate enemy positions on the ground, with varied success.

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