I first started researching female spies when writing Sam’s Legacy, book 4 in my MacLarens of Boundary Mountain series. The subject was so fascinating, I decided it deserved a blog post of its own.
During the turbulent, bloody years of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865, hundreds of daring ladies risked their lives as spies. Here are a few of their stories.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow
Confederate spy, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, nicknamed Wild Rose, was a darling of Washington, D.C. society. As a charming hostess to politicians and diplomats, she made a great spy and became the ringleader of a network of anti-Union spies, who forwarded coded messages. Rose even hid one message in her courier’s hair. This intel enabled Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to gather enough forces to win the First Battle of Bull Run.
In 1861, Allan Pinkerton, who was head of the secret service, raided Rose’s home and held her and her eight-year-old daughter, little Rose, under house arrest. Later, Rose went to prison, but after her release in 1862, Jefferson Davis sent her on a diplomatic mission to Europe. While there, Rose not only charmed Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, she became engaged to a British aristocrat, and also published her memoirs.
As she sailed back to America in 1864, Rose’s ship encountered Union forces and her boat went down off the coast of North Carolina. She tried to escape in a rowboat but it was weighed down by gold for the Confederate treasury. Rose drowned when her lifeboat capsized.
Union spy, Harriet Tubman started an espionage ring of former slaves, who sneaked behind Confederate lines, posing as servants or slaves to gather military intelligence. Tubman was also the first woman in US history to lead a military expedition. In 1863 Tubman and several hundred black soldiers traveled upriver in gunboats, destroyed a Confederate supply depot, and freed over 750 slaves.
Later, Tubman was a key figure in the suffrage movement. Tubman tried to collect $1,800 for her spy services but the government only paid her $20 a month.
Pauline Cushman was the stage name of actress Harriot Wood, who became a Union spy. In 1863, while she was on tour in Kentucky, some Confederate officers dared her to interrupt her show to toast Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. Pauline contacted the Union’s local provost marshal and offered to perform the toast as a type of initiation for spying for the Union. The marshal agreed. Pauline gathered intel on enemy operations, identified Confederate spies and served as a federal courier before she was caught with General Braxton Bragg’s battle plans tucked in her shoe. Pauline was sentenced to hang but was saved by the arrival of Union forces at Shelbyville. She received commendations and the rank of Brevet-Major from President Lincoln and James Garfield, a Union general at the time.
After the war, Pauline returned to her acting career, performing monologues on her exploits during the war.
Confederate spy, Belle Boyd was born to a prominent Virginia family in 1843. At the age of 17, she was arrested for shooting a drunken Union soldier who broke into her family home and insulted her mother, but she was cleared of all charges. Belle used her beauty and charm to beguile union officers into divulging information she then passed on to the Confederacy. To put a stop to her covert activities, Union officials sent Belle to live with relatives in Front Royal, Virginia in a hotel taken over by Union officers. She eavesdropped on the officer’s meetings through a hole in a door. The intel she provided enabled Stonewall Jackson to win battles in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
Belle was arrested by Union forces and sent to Old Capitol Prison, but she was released a month later and was deported to Richmond. Soon, she was caught behind federal lines and imprisoned for three more months. Belle then tried to sail for England in 1864 to serve as a Confederate courier, but she was intercepted by Union naval officer, Samuel Hardinge, who fell in love with the alluring spy. He helped her escape to London, where they wed, but he died shortly afterward. Belle remained in England to compose her memoirs and launch a successful acting career. She later returned to America, where she continued acting, married twice more, and delivered lectures across the country on her clandestine experiences.
Elizabeth Van Lew
Union spy, Elizabeth Van Lew, was raised in a wealthy slave-holding family in Richmond, Virginia. She developed strong abolitionist sympathies after attending a Quaker school in Philadelphia. When her father died in 1843, Elizabeth convinced her brother to free their slaves. When war broke out, Elizabeth and her mother visited Union prisoners of war in Richmond’s Libby Prison. She helped men escape, smuggled letters for them, and gathered valuable information about Confederate strategy from both prisoners and guards.
In late 1863, Union General Benjamin Butler recruited Elizabeth as a spy. She ran an entire espionage network based in Richmond. With the help of her servants, Elizabeth sent coded messages using invisible ink and hid the dispatches in hollowed-out eggs and vegetables. When the war ended, General Ulysses S. Grant appointed Elizabeth postmaster of Richmond. She had spent her family’s entire wealth on espionage activities, so the family of a Union officer she’d assisted during the war, the grandson of Paul Revere, provided for her until her death.
Confederate spy, Antonia Ford, was born to a wealthy Virginia family. At 23, Antonia gathered information from Union soldiers occupying her hometown. She provided intel to Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart, who rewarded Antonia with an honorary commission as aide-de-camp.
In 1863, Antonia was accused of spying for John Singleton Mosby, whose rangers captured Union General Edwin H. Stoughton in his headquarters. The Secret Service suspected that Antonia was involved in planning the attack because she and Stoughton had spent time together. The Secret Service sent a female operative, pretending to be a Confederate sympathizer, to meet with Antonia, who showed her Stuart’s commission. Antonia was arrested and they found smuggled papers on her.
After several months in prison, Antonia was released due to the petition of Union Major Joseph C. Willard—one of her captors. Willard resigned from the Union Army and married Antonia, who took an oath of allegiance to the United States. The couple’s son, Joseph Edward Willard, later became lieutenant governor of Virginia and the US ambassador to Spain.
Sam’s Legacy, book 4 in the MacLarens of Boundary Mountain series is available at these online retailers.
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