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Union scouts and guides serving with the Army of the Potomac

[Source: Atlas Editions; Civil War Cards]

During the Civil War, infantry units in both the Northern and Southern armies occasionally engaged in scouting, but the activity was primarily the duty of cavalry units. Individual soldiers and patrols acted as the "eyes and ears" of their army's commanders, operating much like spies to determine the positions, movements, strengths, weak points, and plans of enemy forces. Scouts were operating daily on the fringes of the opposing army and even behind the enemy's lines to gather the crucial information their commanders needed to plan operations.

R.B. Anderson, who commanded a body of scouts in Confederate General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee, wrote: "I have often heard officers in high command express wonder as to how our commanders knew the posistion and strength of the enemy. In most cases we knew every brigade commander's name and where he was stationed in the opposing army. We knew after each battle what loss the enemy had sustained almost as well as their own commanders."

As the no-man's-land between enemy armies was fraught with danger, scouting duty called for a special type of soldier. "It is not every man that can make a good private scout," continued Anderson. "I have taken men with me on these excursions that were as brave and fearless as men ever get to be, but the nervous strain would so work on them that it would unman them completely. I had one man tell me that he would rather ten times over stand up in line of battle and fight than engage in private scout duty. But those whose nerves could stand it loved the duty and the danger and held to it to the last."

While on scouting duty, a soldier was free of the constraints of regular army life and able to operate as he pleased in the performance of that valuable service. During their missions, scouts frequently wore the uniforms of the enemy to increase their access to areas and information. If caught in such a disguise they would often be summarily executed as spies.

Scouts in the enemy's uniforms would often ask for help from families that lived between the lines. If aid was given, the scouts would often return the next day in their proper uniforms, accompanied by a force, and burn the homes.