Aaron Van Camp (June 23, 1816 – September 15, 1892) was an espionage agent for the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. He was a member of the Rose O'Neal Greenhow Confederate spy ring, which in 1861 was broken up by Allan Pinkerton, head of the newly-formed Secret Service.

Van Camp was a well-known dentist in Washington, D.C., and, after his arrest and imprisonment in the Old Capitol Prison, was paroled in early 1862. During the remainder of the Civil War, he continued his spying activities for the Confederacy. He also served as Commercial Agent for the United States in the Navigator Islands (now American Samoa) from 1853 to 1856 and as Commercial Agent in Fiji from 1881 to 1884.

Early life and career[edit | edit source]

Van Camp was born in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. He married Maria L. Bestor of Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in about 1837. A son, Eugene B. Van Camp, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1838 and later assisted the elder Van Camp in his espionage activities for the Confederate States of America.

Aaron Van Camp practiced dentistry in Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., and then migrated with his family to California during the California Gold Rush period.

In 1851, Van Camp went on a voyage into the South Pacific and became interested in supplying whaling ships, with the Navigator Islands as his base. He established a whaling resupply outpost in Apia, Samoa, in 1852. In 1853, Van Camp was appointed as Commercial Agent to the Navigator Islands (Samoa) and to the Friendly Islands (Tonga) by the U. S. Secretary of State. He held that position until 1856, when he returned to the United States to resume his dentistry practice in Washington, D.C.

Espionage during the Civil War[edit | edit source]

File:Old capitol prison 2.jpg

Old Capitol Prison in 1863

In April 1861, shortly after the Civil War began, Van Camp's son, Eugene, enlisted in a Confederate cavalry unit and became an orderly for General P.G.T. Beauregard before the First Battle of Bull Run. Aaron and his son Eugene then assisted Rose Greenhow in smuggling information pertaining to Union troop movements prior to that battle. The elder Van Camp and Rose Greenhow were then imprisoned as suspected spies in downtown Washington in the Old Capitol Prison. Van Camp was released from custody in March 1862 after signing an oath of allegiance to the Union.

However, in January 1864, both Van Camps are reported to have been engaging in spying activities for the Confederates in the Vicksburg, Mississippi, area, according to a confidential letter sent to U. S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton by a Union sympathizer. They were alleged to be conducting such espionage under the cover of trading in cotton. No arrests are made, however.

In April, 1864, Van Camp arranges to secure a trading permit for Eugene to open a store at Union controlled Fort Pillow. In an attack by Confederate cavalry under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest a few days later, Eugene is badly wounded by a Confederate minie ball and is evacuated by Union forces to Illinois and then to New York.

In January, 1865, Van Camp sends a letter to President Abraham Lincoln seeking that Eugene be "protected from the draft" which request is denied, but Eugene is permitted to return with Van Camp to their family home in Washington, D.C..

Postbellum activities[edit | edit source]

Between 1881 and 1884, Van Camp served as U. S. Commercial Agent at Levuka, Fiji. He died in Washington, D.C., where he was buried.

References and further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Bakeless, John. Spies of the Confederacy. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970.
  • Blackman, Ann. Wild Rose: Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-6118-0.
  • Kane, Harnett T. Spies for the Blue and Gray. New York: Doubleday & Co.
  • Markle, Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War. New York: Hippocene Books,1994. ISBN 0781807611
  • NARA Personnel Records of the State Dept. M588, M587, Consular Dispatches, Samoa and Fiji, T25 and T27.
  • Richards, Rhys. Samoa's Forgotten Whaling Heritage, American Whaling in Samoan Waters 1824-1878. Wellington, New Zealand: Lithographic Services, Ltd. 1988. ISBN 0-473-01607-9.
  • Ross, Ishbel. Rebel Rose, Life of Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy. New York: Harper & Bros.
  • Ward, Andrew. River Run Red. The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War. New York: Viking Penguin Press, 2005. ISBN 0-670-03440-1.
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