In the Confederate circles he navigated, John Scobell was considered just another Mississippi slave: singing, shuffling, illiterate and completely ignorant of the Civil War going on around him.
Confederate officers thought nothing of leaving important documents where Scobell could see them, or discussing troop movements in front of him. Whom would he tell? Scobell was only the butler, or the deckhand on a rebel sympathizer's steamboat, or the field hand belting out Negro spirituals in a powerful baritone.
In reality, Scobell was not a slave at all.
He was a spy sent by the Union army, one of a few black operatives who quietly gathered information in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with Confederate spy-catchers and slave masters who could kill them on the spot. These unsung Civil War heroes were often successful, to the chagrin of Confederate leaders who never thought their disregard for blacks living among them would become a major tactical weakness.
"The chief source of information to the enemy," Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, said in May 1863, "is through our negroes."