During the American Civil War, spying was common(at one point, all you had to do to find out what the other side was doing was to read the local newspapers!). Some of the top spies for the North were African Americans, both those who had escaped and those still in slavery. It even had a name, Black Dispatches. Southern slave owners who didn't think their chattels were human didn't think to avoid talking secret stuff in their presence. (Mitch Vane did a wonderful illustration for my book Your Cat Could Be A Spy in which a couple of white men are talking secrets. "Is it O.K to talk?" asks one. "Yes, there's nobody here," the other agrees...in the presence of several slaves.)
There were not too many spy couples, though. One slave couple, the Dabneys, escaped and joined a Union camp on the banks of the Rappahanock river in Virginia. Mr Dabney got a job in the camp and, while there, admired the telegraph system, asking for the details of how it worked. He and his wife put their heads together and came up with a simple but devious plan.
Soon after, Mrs Dabney announced that she was going to cross the river to Confederate territory, where there were military bigwigs and the woman she had previously worked for. She doesn't seem to have had much trouble, though it was a huge risk. She got a job as a laundress - even Generals need their clothes washed.
Not long after this, Mr Dabney started reporting rebel plans to the Union leaders. The plans were completely accurate, though he never left the camp for rebel territory. He even knew when fake plans were being made to fool the Union leaders.
Finally, they asked him how he did it and he took them to a high spot where they could look across to the houses on the other side. He pointed at a cabin in the suburbs, where a line of washing hung. Each shirt, he told them, represented a different Confederate General. Its position on the line told you where that general was going. One shirt, pinned like a fish trap, said, "Fake plan! Trap!"
Yes, simple but cunning, this washing telegraph. If Mrs Dabney had been caught, that would have been the end of her, but who would think to stop discussing military plans just because the washerwoman has come in to collect the dirty clothes? And even if they did get suspicious of her for listening, what evidence did they have? Their drying clothes? She never left. She didn't even have to look across the river.
So the plot worked, and beautifully. Hats off to the Dabneys!
Anyone got any other stories about actions this clever?
Tomorrow: E Is For Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Female Soldier And Spy