Both sides of the conflict found a number of creative ways to pass information during the Civil War. The Confederacy definitely started out with an advantage as some agents such as Thomas Jordan had been preparing for at least a year before Sumter. He already had an impressive spy ring in place at the beginning of hostilities.
One of the more successful methods was known as the “doctor line”. Doctors frequently traveled out of town to treat patients. So, Dr. Bates might travel twenty miles south of town and Dr. Colin might travel twenty miles north to the same patient and pick up the information to forward on to the next station.
Although the method was highly successful, it wasn’t without peril. Doctors who were thought to be southern sympathizers could be arrested and thrown in Ft. McHenry without charges or recourse. It was highly illegal as the courts ruled, but Lincoln said he didn’t care and the people stayed in prison at the pleasure of whomever had decided they wanted them taken care of. It ranged from hundreds of prisoners to 6,957 at one point. Ft. McHenry became known as the American Bastille, but we’ll talk more on that later.
The code words to identify friendly agents were a series of phrases that became more unusual as the conversation went on. In this way, it would be nigh impossible for someone to accidentally say the given words. In the following passage, Lorena has come to Baltimore to check on her “dying” mother and complete her first mission as a Confederate operative.
We sat silently, aside from the small splashes of fish jumping for crumbs like well-trained dogs. Lilacs, paper whites and various other sweet-smelling flowers helped to cover the stench of the city. Mother had always favored fragrant flowers in her gardens, even in Virginia and Carolina. By summer, this would be butterfly heaven.
“I heard a rain crow earlier,” Dr. Frain said.
I dropped the crumb I had just broken off and stared at him. Shock rendered me mute, until he coaxed me with a smile like you would a frightened child. I shook my head. “Oh, uh, just one? They usually sing to their mates.”
“Just one, alas. Though a rain crow’s song usually portends a storm.”
I took my bearings and looked to the back wall. “A storm from the north, maybe.”
He chuckled. “Yes, well, you’ll need to work on that a bit so you don’t sound like you’re reciting catechism to Sister Mary Magdalen of the Holy Order of the Ruler. I’m your contact in case you didn’t guess.”