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Army Pvt. Babcock With Pinkerton Secret Service
by U.S. Army Lori S. Stewart, USAICoE Command Historian
March 3, 2022

On March 1, 1862, Pvt. John C. Babcock joined Allen Pinkerton’s organization. At the request of Maj. Gen. George McClellan, Pinkerton, a civilian detective, had joined McClellan as head of his “secret service”. Private Babcock quickly became an indispensable member of Pinkerton’s team and key to intelligence operations in the Union Army throughout the war.

Army Pvt. John Babcock conducted most of his Union Army "secret service" Civil War scouting missions on his trusted horse, Gimlet. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)
Army Pvt. John Babcock conducted most of his Union Army "secret service" Civil War scouting missions on his trusted horse, Gimlet. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)

Born in Rhode Island in 1836 but relocated to Chicago, John Babcock was a 25-year-old architect when the Civil War began. He volunteered for the Sturgis Rifles, an Illinois sharpshooter unit performing special missions, including bodyguard duty, for General McClellan. Babcock was first assigned duty at the overcrowded Central Guard House, a temporary prison for disorderly soldiers in Washington, D.C. A few months later, he became a pass examiner in the office of the provost marshal general.

On 1 March 1862, Private Babcock received his next and most pivotal assignment: special duty with Maj. E. J. Allen’s Secret Service Department of the Army of the Potomac. Maj. Allen was none other than Allan Pinkerton. As McClellan prepared for his peninsular campaign, Pinkerton needed Babcock to sketch enemy fortifications from descriptions provided by deserters, prisoners, and returned spies.

Babcock, the only soldier in Pinkerton’s organization, soon took on a larger role during the campaign, one that earned him significant attention. Maps of the terrain between Fort Monroe and Yorktown proved dangerously inaccurate. McClellan found Babcock’s mapmaking skills superior to those of his topographic engineers. Babcock personally scouted and mapped small sections of terrain and then pieced them together and overlaid them on existing maps. With the help of a photographer friend, Babcock reproduced these maps, which were then distributed down to brigade level. Babcock’s scouting missions also developed his keen talent for capturing the Confederate order of battle.

When General McClellan was replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862, Pinkerton resigned as intelligence chief and absconded with all the reports compiled on the Confederate army over the past eighteen months. Mustered out of the service with the rest of the Sturgis Rifles, Babcock prepared to return to architectural pursuits in Chicago. Burnside, a friend from Chicago, however, asked Babcock to take over Pinkerton’s position, an offer Babcock accepted but as a civilian contractor at a salary of $250 per month.

Given an honorary title of “Captain,” Babcock remained with Burnside two months, until the latter was replaced by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Babcock wrote a report, at the new commander’s request, detailing the duties of the “secret service department.” Hooker forwarded the report to Maj. Gen. Marsena R. Patrick, his provost marshal general, with orders to establish what would become the Bureau of Military Information (BMI) under the leadership of Col. George Sharpe on 11 February 1863. [See This Week in MI History #27 9-15 February] Babcock, with his continuity of knowledge on the Confederate army, then served as one of Sharpe’s most trusted subordinates throughout the rest of the war, honing his already spectacular order of battle, mapmaking and interrogation skills.

Postwar, Babcock moved to New York City and returned to architecture. Long an avid rower, he helped found the New York Athletics Club, for which he was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 1981, and invented what may have been the first indoor rowing machine. “Captain” John Babcock passed away on 20 November 1908.

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