Originally published in the Suffolk News-Herald, August 2005
At the close of the last column, Lieutenant Charles Henry Causey had received a rather favorable recommendation for promotion from Major General John Bankhead Magruder. This letter asked of the Secretary of War that Causey be given the rank of Major, and placed in command of a battalion of cavalry that was being mustered into Confederate service in North Carolina, where he was stationed at the time.
Yet, that was not to be the fate of Causey. Instead, he was promoted to the rank of Captain in November of 1862, and ordered once again to report to General Magruder, who was by then stationed in San Antonio, Texas. From the records available, it appears that Causey never made it to Texas as ordered, but managed to get his assignment once again changed. By the close of 1862, he was serving on the staff of Major General Arnold Elzey, Commander of the Department of Richmond, responsible for defending the Confederate capital. Causey’s scouting services were once again employed in his new position, but were quickly interrupted in January of 1863. Unfortunately, the records do not indicate how it occurred, but Causey was captured and sent to Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C. He spent about three months in prison, but was quickly exchanged and returned to Confederate service by April.
Upon his return, Charles Henry Causey was assigned to duty under Major William Norris, Commander of the Confederate States Signal Corps, and also a former staff officer under Magruder. For the most part, the signal service was a team of signal “flagmen” who used flags during the day and torches by night to replicate the Morse code system of dots then used with the telegraph system. Most importantly, this signal system found great use on the battlefield between distant units, as well as across large rivers that made the use of couriers or water-passage impossible. However, while the Signal Corps operated out of a modest office in downtown Richmond, in reality its back room was the home of the Confederate Secret Service office, where a much greater degree of intelligence was relayed. Here, valuable information was disseminated, usually in secret code, from operatives as far away as New York City and Europe.
Though assigned to service with the “Signal Corps,” it is more likely that Charles Henry Causey was as an agent with the more covert Secret Service. Specifically, his assignment was for duty on the lower James River, which by that point in the war was completely under the occupation of the Union army. His headquarters and rendezvous point was located across the James River, near Burwell’s Bay and Fort Boykin in Smithfield, a relative safe-haven given the nearby 20,000 Confederate troops involved in the Siege of Suffolk at the time. Each night, or as often as possible, Causey would cross the James River to meet with other agents and friendly Southerners within the Federal lines. On his first crossing on April 11 of 1863, Causey returned to Smithfield with valuable information as to Union troop movements on the Peninsula, including information as to whether reinforcements were being sent to Suffolk to block Confederate attempts to regain the city. By April 20, less than two weeks later, Causey had successfully breeched the enemy lines as far in as Fortress Monroe, and reported back to the Confederate War Department with copies of Yankee newspapers, troop strengths on the Peninsula and Suffolk, the number of rations being issued, and reports on the number of naval vessels in the James River.
Charles Henry Causey maintained this system of nightly trips across the James River up through fall of 1863. At that point, Causey fell out of favor with his Commander, Major Norris, and was told that his services were “no longer important.” However, Causey’s operations during the year had put him in contact with another important branch of the Secret Service, a group known as the Independent Signal Corps. This group, stationed exclusively in the Tidewater area was not under the command of Major Norris. Rather, it was led by Major James F. Milligan, who had actually taught Norris the signal codes & operations, but was passed over for appointment to the regular Signal Corps. Rather than create a rift between two powerful and important leaders in Signal Corps operations, the Confederate government allowed Milligan to maintain his Independent Signal Corps without ever having to report to Major Norris.
In his defense, Causey sought the support of Major General George Pickett, who he had worked with during the Siege of Suffolk campaign. In an October letter from his headquarters in North Carolina, Pickett stated that since April, Causey “has, with five assistants, organized a line of communication with the enemy’s line in vicinity of Fortress Monroe, and has to the present time obtained daily intelligence, the latest New York papers, and kept open mail communication with all parts of the North.” Ironically, the same day that Pickett issued this letter, he also appointed to his command Major James F. Milligan as his department’s chief signal officer. Not surprisingly, all of this opened up another bitter dispute between Major Norris, Major Milligan & the role of the Independent Signal Corps, and Major General Pickett. A week following Pickett’s letters, Norris again wrote to the Confederate high command that Causey’s services were no longer needed. Yet, this attempt to discredit Causey by Major Norris was in vain, as General Pickett made it clear in his last and final letter on the subject, stating that Captain Causey be ordered to report to him, that he was not in the Signal Corps, and that he be ordered to report for duty, “at these Hdqrs., irrespective of the Signal Corps and Major Norris.”
This ended any questions on the subject, and on November 6, 1863, Captain Charles Henry Causey was ordered to report to the famed leader Major General George Pickett at Petersburg for assignment to duty.
In my next column, read about Captain Causey’s last two years in Confederate service, his marriage, and his new life in Suffolk following the war.