Colonel appointed Army of the Potomac’s intelligence chief
Feb. 11, 1863
During the first two bloody days of fighting in the decisive battle of Gettysburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces battered Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Shortly after nightfall on the second day, Meade assembled a Council of War.
The primary question was whether the Army of the Potomac should remain at Gettysburg or fall back to a position closer to its supply base. After little debate, Meade and his corps commanders unanimously agreed to stay and fight a defensive action the third day. The result was both a tactical victory, as an exhausted Confederate army retreated from Union territory and a strategic victory as it renewed northern support for continuing the war.
The Council of War’s decision to remain at Gettysburg was based on solid intelligence presented by Col. George Sharpe, the chief of the Bureau of Military Information formed only three months earlier. Sharpe’s assistant, John Babcock, was an expert in Order of Battle, and had developed detailed charts revealing enemy troop strength.
Babcock reported that, “prisoners have been taken today [July 2], and last evening [July 1], from every brigade in Lee’s Army excepting the four brigades of Picketts Division. Every division has been represented except Picketts from which we have not had a prisoner. They are from nearly one hundred different regiments.”
Sharpe used this information to present a clear and remarkably accurate picture of Lee’s remaining forces around Gettysburg. His figures depicted a Confederate army badly depleted with only four fresh brigades out of 37, approximately 15,000 men, to fight the next day. Conversely, the Army of the Potomac could field about 58,000 fresh troops, a nearly four-to-one advantage.
Sharpe was a natural, charismatic leader of many talents. He delivered the salutatory address in Latin during his graduation from Rutgers University at the age of 19 before moving on to Yale Law School. Passing the New York bar exam in 1849, he spent a few years in Europe, traveling, studying languages and serving in U.S. diplomatic positions in Rome and Vienna.
By the start of the Civil War, Sharpe had a successful law practice in New York and a rising reputation. Within weeks after the bombardment of Fort Sumpter, Capt. Sharpe was commanding Company B of the 20th New York militia regiment known as the “Ulster Guard.” The unit was only in service for three months, being mustered out shortly after the battle of First Bull Run.
But this was just the beginning of Sharpe’s military career. In the summer of 1862, Sharpe single-handedly raised 900 men to form the 120th (named by Sharpe in honor of the former 20th) with his own money and his family’s influence. But in February, 1863 he was called away from his beloved unit to serve as the intelligence chief for the Army of the Potomac and pull together an organization charged with getting information about the enemy.
The new organization was initially called the Secret Service Department but quickly became known as the Bureau of Military Information, or BMI. It was made up of soldiers and civilians, listed as “guides” for pay purposes, but commonly known as scouts or agents.
The BMI was a rare example of a business-like staff section created solely for the collection and dissemination of intelligence. It not only collected and coordinated information from its scouts, but it also cross-checked information with other sources, such as that derived from observation balloons, signal stations and open-source materials such as Southern newspapers, to compile a comprehensive intelligence report for the commander. Babcock, in addition to drawing maps and creating Order of Battle charts, developed an effective prisoner of war and refugee interrogation program. In essence, Sharpe created an all-source intelligence organization, arguably the first in the Army.
Following the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox nearly two years after the Battle of Gettysburg, the Army completely dismantled the intelligence organization that had contributed so much to the Union victory in war. Sharpe survived the war and was brevet promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers in 1864. He left Army service in 1865.
It would be another 20 years before another intelligence organization within the Army was considered. However, the enduring contributions of Brevet Brig. Gen. George Sharpe to Military Intelligence will be honored at Fort Huachuca when he is inducted into the Class of 2013 MI Hall of Fame this June.