History is filled with mysteries, clues and what-might-have-beens. Falling into the cracks are people who did extraordinary things; who played major roles in incredible events, yet are forgotten by history, for many and sundry reasons. Many of these unsung heroes worked in the U.S. Secret Service or for the Central Intelligence Agency, where famously their mistakes make front page headlines, but their successes are kept hidden.
One of these people is my ancestor on my father’s side, a man named Jason Edgerly, one of the first Secret Service agents. In fact, the service was not even known by that name yet, but Jason Edgerly’s accomplishments equal any of his successors. In fact, it is highly possible that this man won the Civil War!
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln campaigned for the Presidency. One of his strongest supporters was an abolitionist in Massachussetts whose last name was Edgerly. He had a son named Jason, probably not much more than 19 or 20 years old at the time. Young Edgerly was put into service on behalf of candidate Lincoln. What he did I cannot say for sure, but I can speculate that he did for Abe Lincoln what Donald Segretti did for Richard Nixon. Perhaps he placed flyers around town advertising an appearance by Lincoln’s opponent at a date other than when the actual event was to take place. Maybe he planted some false stories in the press. One can only really speculate, but whatever he did, Jason was effective enough to capture Lincoln’s attention. Abe knew if he were to be elected President he would make use of Jason Edgerly’s talents at that time.
As we all know, “Honest Abe” was elected in November of 1860 and took office in March of 1861. Immediately the Civil War began. As anyone who understands a little geography knows Washington, D.C. is basically a Southern city. Virgina to its south was the capitol of the Confederacy. Maryland was on the verge of secession, as well. President Lincoln was surrounded by his enemies. Amid the confusion of these early days were constant plots swirling around the capitol; of Confederate troop movements, of assassination and kidnapping plots, of acts of treason and espionage. Seemingly all alone, in the middle of this tempest, sat a newly elected President with seemingly few allies, even in his own Republican Party, within the Union, or even in the Army.
One of those few allies was a man named Allan Pinkerton, from Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. Pinkerton helped formulate an agency dedicated to protecting the President of the United States. This agency would come to be known as the Secret Service, but it was in its infancy in 1861.
Pinkerton needed men he could rely one, not secret Southern sympathisers. One man Abe Lincoln knew could be relied on was my ancestor, Jason Edgerly, who by this time had joined the Massachussetts 101st Infantry. An order came to young Edgerly that he likely scarcely believed to be true: report to President Lincoln at the White House post haste. The order came with a caveat: tell absolutely nobody you are coming to D.C.
Young Edgerly informed his commanders that he was leaving, although he could not tell them why, and made his way to Washington. There President Lincoln warmly embraced him, told him he remembered the excellent work he had performed while campaigning in Massachussetts, and along with Pinkerton, gave him his secret orders.
Those orders were to make his way, by foot, by horseback, by train, or any other means, in and around the city of Washington, the surrounding Maryland countryside, as well as the area of northern Virginia which was something of a “no man’s land.” Federal troops had outposts in the northernmost sections of Virgina, ostensibly to protect the capitol, but this only extended a limited number of miles. Beyond that lay Richmond and the rest of Virginia, where Jefferson Davis presided over the secessionist movement aided by his famous general, Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. A formidable man in charge of a formidable force, at a time in which the Union Army underperformed and was beset by weak leadership, not to mention lukewarm public support.
In the early days of the War Between the States, many battles were fought in which an aggressive Confederate force, led by General Lee, took the war to the Union north. The goal was to surround and lay seige to Washington, D.C. There was little appetite for outwardly winning the war; that is, take and capture the northern state capitols, and change the United States into the CSA, complete with legal slavery.
The Southern plan was to make life so difficult for Lincoln and his supporters that they would give up, and agree to terms agreeable to the South. This of course meant secession from the Union and slavery.
In 1861 General Lee’s army attacked at Bull Run, so close to D.C. that Union supporters came out to watch it complete with picnic baskets. What they saw was a route of Federal forces. In 1862 Lee attacked again at Antietam near Baltimore. In one of the bloodiest battles in American history, both sides suffered monumental casualties, but the Union managed to hold Lee’s army from effectively laying seige to Washington.
By 1863, it was well known that General Lee was planning a return attack, but where? Perhaps even closer to Washington proper than Antietam. But where? This was where Jason Edgerly came in. He was told to “keep your ear to the ground,” to go to bars and listen to “loose talk,” to rumors of troop movements, of assassination plots, of kidnappings; to ride out into the countryside and look for Confederate troops; where and how many, and if possible, under whose command?
Dressed in street clothes, Jason Edgerly was now a spy, and the rules of war then and now are clear: captured spies are usually shot on sight. That is, after torture.
Edgerly did as he was instructed and at some point found himself in “no man’s land,” beyond the protection of Union forces, close to Confederate camps. Then he saw the Army of Northern Virginia, led by none other than Robert E. Lee. Surreptitiously, Edgerly somehow saw General Lee’s tent, and against all odds, managed to sneak into said tent, where he found battle plans, which he swiped up and rode off with to the safety of the Federal lines. There he told the Union commanders he was a “personal attache” of President Lincoln, and requested a security detail to accompany him to . . . the White House!
No doubt met with much skepticism, as Edgerly refused to inform his Union comrades precisely what he had, he managed to find himself at the White House, where according to family rumor he met the civil rights leader Frederick Douglass.
Then he met with Lincoln, again according to family lore, alone. So sensitive was this arrangement that the President did not let other members of his staff know about it, maybe not even Pinkerton. That was when Edgerly presented the battle plans to the President.
They were General Lee’s plan to attack a Federal outpost at Willow Springs, Virgina, some 40 miles from the White House. The reason was obvious; an attack meant to weaken Union security surrounding Washington, and finish what they had started at Antietam; a full seige of the Unior capitol. In a worst case scenario, capture of the White House and Lincoln himself. Eventually, politics and public opinion would be swayed, forcing Lincoln to agree to the South’s terms, or even surrender.
Of course, now those plans were dead. General Lee knew the plans had been stolen and had to assume the worst, which was that they had found their way to the Union High Command. President Lincoln knew that General Lee knew the plans were stolen, and it would force him to change strategy.
What would that strategy be? This is where the importance of Jason Edgerly’s role in history comes to light, because this change in strategy would result in the Union winning the Civil War.
Lincoln and his genereals realized Lee would no longer attack Washington with a direct frontal assault. He would look for good high ground in the hinterlands, from whence he could attack the Army of the Potomac, weakening it enough to allow his army to advance on an undefended capitol.
So in the spring and early summer of 1863, General Lee’s armies trod north, some 40 miles west of D.C. Flanking them, moving at the same speed, was General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. In between were couriers, spies, riders; from both sides men on horseback reporting to their commanders on the movement of their opposition.
These wary countermovements continued inexorably northward, until in late June Lee decided he had his “high ground,” nestled among trees offering cover, in a town called Gettysburg, Pennsyvania.
Of course, in our “woke” schools, and in colleges where gender and ethnic studies dominate the landscape, the young and the “educated” only know Gettysburg to be a town where some famous battle, or something, was fought, but they do not understand its significance. Over the course of several days, from July 2-4, 1863, Confederate and Union forces fought viciously. At one point, a Maine college professor named Joshua Chamberlain, aided by his younger brother and stalwart volunteers from the Pine Tree State, managed to deny the rebels the very high ground Lee so desperately needed: the Little Round Top.
Shortly thereafter, a Confederate general named George Pickett led a suicidal charge into the teeth of Union artillery, his men were slaughtered, Gettysburg was a Union victory, and the war was now in the hands of the Union.
Ostensibly, after Gettysburg, the rebels no longer possessed the ability to attack Washington or in the north. The war shifted to the South, where the Confederates fought to keep their land from occupation by Federal forces. It took two more years, but Lincoln was re-elected and the Union won, holding the United States together.
But if my ancestor Jason Edgerly had not found the battle plans of Willow Creek, Virginia, Lee might have attacked and prevailed, allowing him to encircle the District of Columbia. Had this happened, history would be mighty different.
Edgerly was not entirely forgotten but the death of Lincoln in 1865 meant there would not be a second term, greatly downgrading his place in it. He ended up in Chicago, most likely given some patronage job in the “land of Lincoln” out of gratitude. He died in 1931, and was given an obituary in the New York Times, who wrote that Lincoln called him “the flea,” the headline reading, “Jason Edgerly, the flea: Stole Battle Plans From Under the Nose of Lee.”
I heard his name growing up. My dad’s middle name was Edgerly. He was mentioned in Gore Vidal’s novel, Lincoln, and in Lincoln Talks, but that is about it. Books and documentaries about Civil War spies fail to credit him.
I have contacted some scholars and not gotten very far. At the home of Lincoln’s son in Vermont last summer, none of the docents knew of him. But he very well may have won the Civil War.
Steven Travers is a former Hollywood screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under film development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsman and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.
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