John Scobell: The Untold Story of One Union Army Intelligence Officer


The story of John Scobell is an extraordinary one that not too many people have heard. Scobell, so many people thought, was just another illiterate slave from Mississippi. Like many slaves did during that time, he would shuffle along, sing songs, and appear to be oblivious to what was going on in the world around him. He especially appeared ignorant to the Civil War.


Confederate officers would leave important documents just lying around where Scobell could see them; they often discussed important details of their plan of action. They never gave a second thought to Scobell being smart enough to use the information against them.

Scobell served as the butler or deckhand on a rebel sympathizer’s steamboat. He was often heard singing Negro spirituals in his powerful baritone voice.

But little did the Confederates know, Scobell was not a slave at all. He was actually a planted spy by the Union army. He was one of the few black operatives who quietly stole information in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with Confederate spy-catchers and slave masters who could kill them on the spot.

There is not much known about the many black men and women who were Union intelligence officers, but most of them at some point were slaves or servants who had escaped from their owners. There were also a few from Northern Blacks who volunteered to pose as slaves to spy on the Confederates.

Harriet Tubman is the most recognizable of these spies, sneaking down South repeatedly to gather intelligence for the Union army while also leading runaway slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Often disguised as a field hand or poor farm wife, she led several spy missions into South Carolina while directing others from Union lines. Just like John Scobell, there are many other stories like his about former slaves working as intelligence officers for the Union Army.



  • Dwight Love July 29, 2016 - 9:36 am

    Wow would love to see this man’s lifestory on film!!!!!!

  • Leslie July 29, 2016 - 1:05 pm

    It never ceases to amaze me how we as a people have contributed to the United States of America. This and so much more unknown facts should be taught in ALL schools. By not doing this it keeps valuable and important information from the world, but more importantly our people!

  • Karen Lee June 17, 2019 - 9:27 pm

    I came across this because I have been watching The Pinkertons TV show. When I found out many things on the show were true, I decided to check out the character. On the show John Scobell is called John Bell. On the show he works with Kate and Will. That part isn’t true. Instead, he worked with Alan Pinkertons two top agents. He was one of Pinkertons best agents along with Kate Warne. This is a description of his talents as an agent. I hope someday a complete history will be taught in schools.

  • […] a lot of people at the time; he was an abolitionist and hired the first female detective as well as John Scobell, the first Black member of what later became the U.S. Secret Service—and likely the first Black […]