Monthly Archives: October 2012

Spies and Espionage

by Shuan Butcher, JTHG Director of Communications

john champe

 The new Argo movie that hit the big screen recently is based on the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez (who lives in Washington County, Maryland).  He isn’t the first person within the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area that has engaged in espionage activities.  Here are a few other examples and lessons from the past as well.

John Champe, born in Loudoun County, Virginia in 1752, was a Revolutionary War soldier in the Continental Army. He was handpicked by George Washington and Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee for a mission, to capture the American traitor Benedict Arnold.  Champe “defected” to the British side where he was introduced to Arnold.  There, he formulated a plot to capture Arnold and he came very close to succeeding, but plans changed and the whole endeavor had to be called off.  After that, it took Champe several months before he could return back to the Continental Army.  In his honor, the Confederate rifle company from Aldie, Virginia named themselves “Champe’s Rifles” during the American Civil War.

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In 1773, Philip Mazzei led a group of Italians to Virginia to introduce the cultivation of vineyards and other agricultural practices. Mazzei became a friend and neighbor of Thomas Jefferson, and started one of the first commercial vineyards in the state.  Jefferson, along with Patrick Henry, George Mason, and others thought Mazzei might be of help to their patriotic cause oversees.  Therefore, Mazzei returned to Italy as a secret agent for the State of Virginia.  He gathered useful political and military information for Governor Jefferson, and purchased and shipped arms to Virginia as well. The state paid him six hundred luigi a year between 1779 and 1784 for his services.  Afterwards, Mazzei continued to promote Republican ideals throughout Europe.Men aren’t the only ones known for espionage.  During the American Civil War, several women played important roles as spies for both sides.  Maryland native Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a leader in Washington society and a passionate secessionist, was one of the most renowned spies in the Civil War.  During the first battle of Bull Run, she sent secret messages to General Pierre G.T. Beauregard which ultimately caused him to win that engagement. She spied so successfully for the Confederacy that Jefferson Davis credited her with winning the battle of Manassas.  She was imprisoned for her efforts but still continued to send cryptic notes.  After being released, she traveled Europe as a propagandist for the Confederate cause.  She died on her return trip to this country while trying to flee a Union gunboat.  Her rowboat capsized and she drowned.

Although not from this region, it was the actions of Henry Thomas Harrison within the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area during the Civil War that made him known.  He became a spy for Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and then General Longstreet in 1863.  On June 28th that year, he shared with Longstreet the news that Federal forces were located around Frederick, Maryland and advancing north, as well as the information that Union General George Meade had replaced Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

With Confederate troops being stretched thin along a wide swath of land in south central Pennsylvania, so alarmed was Longstreet by the news that he sent Harrison to relay it to General Robert E. Lee, who then made the decision to concentrate his troops at Gettysburg. The move prevented the Union from being able to take on smaller groups of the enemy, but it also resulted in the epic three-day Battle of Gettysburg, where over 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or missing in action.

NOTE:  Also check out the student-created vodcast about Jack Sterry, a Union spy in a Confederate uniform, as part of the Of the Student, By the Student, For the Student™ program at: