Library archivist's original research is now tell-all book on Civil War government spying

  • March 3, 2016


INDIANAPOLIS -- While he's no Edward Snowden, IUPUI University Library archivist Stephen Towne has blown the whistle on little-known facts about government surveillance of civilian activities -- during the Civil War.

Towne's book, "Surveillance and Spies in the Civil War: Exposing Confederate Conspiracies in America's Heartland," presents original research on a topic that few others, if any, have studied.

"I show that government officials were concerned about subversion and perceived disloyalty in the North and wanted to investigate it," Towne said.

But with no state police forces, or the FBI, civilian resources for surveillance during the Civil War were nonexistent, according to the IUPUI researcher.

"But the Army, which did have the resources, got into the business of spying on civilians in the North during the Civil War," Towne said. "The Army was successful in breaking up plots to create unrest and to release Confederate prisoners of war housed in POW camps around the Midwest."

Towne and his book are the subject of a segment of the PBS podcast "The Good Stuff."

"The Origins of Government Surveillance," one of several videos in the PBS "Civil War Time Capsule" group, was posted earlier this year and features an on-camera interview with Towne.

Towne says "The Good Stuff" hosts got a few facts "a bit wrong." And he dismisses their comparison of him to Snowden -- his book "blew the whistle on spying in the Civil War, the Army spying on its people," a host said -- as "fanciful." But the librarian approves of the video's approach.

"Their M.O. is to educate by entertaining," Towne said. "If they educate people and lead them to ask questions and think about the past, I'm fine with that. Maybe it'll sell a few books, too."

Towne's interest in the topic grew out of his research into the suppression of opposition newspapers and the Army's arrests of civilians during the Civil War, mostly those who opposed the war effort and criticized Lincoln.

"I went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and started reading records that most historians have overlooked and ignored," Towne said. "I started seeing references to the Army hiring detectives and keeping a watch on people, etc.; I concluded that there was enough there to make a book on the subject. I made many visits to the National Archives and other repositories to assemble the evidence of the Army's surveillance."

The book, published in paperback last year, was a decade in the making.

"I applied for and won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant in 2005 to support my research," Towne said. "I continued researching, and in 2009-10, I took a sabbatical to write the first draft. I revised it significantly before publication last year."

Towne, who has visited a couple of Civil War battlefields, has done extensive research on Civil War topics, particularly related to what was happening in the Midwest during the rebellion.

"A lot happened in the Midwest during the war. I've written other books and articles on Civil War-related subjects, things like the suppression of the press in Indiana and military arrests of civilians. I edited the letters of an Indiana officer who commanded an Indiana regiment in the war and published them as a book."

Towne has worked in the Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives of IUPUI University Library since 2001. As archivist, he collects IUPUI's important records and preserves them for future use. Records on file include those of legal, administrative or historical value, such as meeting minutes; correspondence of chancellors, deans or other administrators; reports; photos; and audio and video recordings.

Towne suggests that Civil War enthusiasts might want to check out the wartime diary of William Vincent Wheeler, which is available in the Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives. Wheeler, the founder of the Wheeler Mission Ministries in Indianapolis, served in an Indiana cavalry regiment in the war under the command of Col. Eli Lilly.

Archivist Stephen Towne and student Amna Awad review campus records in Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives. IUPUI University Library File Photo.

Archivist Stephen Towne and student Amna Awad review campus records in Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives. IUPUI University Library File Photo.

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Diane Brown