The Role of Women Spies in the Civil War
Hundreds of women posed as spies for the Civil War, on both the Confederate and Union sides. These women are arguably some of the bravest people in American history, who took great risks to do anything they could to stand up for what they believed in. What they went through was terrifying and difficult. Women who acted as spies in the Civil War played big roles throughout the war, and aren’t credited enough for how much they’ve done.
One of the most famous and well known women spies in the Civil War was Belle Boyd. She was born into a family with strong southern ties in May 1844. She was only 17 years old when the Civil War started, and soon after the Union army captured her hometown of Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia) on July 2nd 1861. They treated many citizens, namely women, badly and forced them to go around armed. On July 4, Union soldiers raided her home, destroying things, bringing in a federal flag, and, as she said in a memoir written after the war, “addressed my mother and myself in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive.” She had had enough with them and drew out her pistol and shot one of the soldiers. It was through this event that she acquired her career as a “rebel spy.”
On hearing that she had shot and killed someone, soldiers were often sent to her to see if their behavior was tolerable. These frequent interactions abled her to learn about important plans and positions of the Union army. She wrote them down on paper and sent someone trustworthy to give them to a Confederate camp 7 miles away. However, at some point she was betrayed, or someone had identified the letters to be hers. She was brought before a colonel where she was “threatened and reprimanded” and then was read the “Article of War,” which stated that if she was to give any help to the Confederate army again, it could be punishable by death. She then took a bow and sarcastically thanked them for their help. She then wrote, “I departed; not in peace, however, for my little ‘rebel’ heart was on fire, and I indulged in thoughts and plans of vengeance”. After this encounter, any relations with the confederate army that revealed anything of the Union plans were planted on her.
Another very important woman who played an important role as a spy was Rose O’Neal Greenhow. She became a widow in 1854, when her husband died in an accident. In 1961, when the Civil War broke out, she was recruited to join a spy network for the Confederates. Her most well known accomplishment was helping the Confederates win the First Battle of Run, or the First Battle of Manassas, in July 1961, which was one of the first battles of the Civil War. She was able to persuade a Union military official to give her information about the attack. With the help of another spy, Betty Duval, she was able to send encrypted messages to a Confederate officer about the Union’s plans and whereabouts., which she did by “hiding the message in a small piece of silk and secured it in Duvall’s hair bun before sending her off”. The Confederates sent reinforcements and won a “decisive victory”. Soon after this, the president of the Confederate states, Jefferson Davis, sent her a personal letter thanking her for her assistance.
Rose was suspected of being a spy, and was constantly being monitored by a secret service. She learned that a guard had been standing outside of her house at night, and that she was followed when she went on walks or outside her house. Then on August 23, 1961, two men came up to her before she entered her house, and declared that she was under arrest. She then said, as put in her memoir, “I have no power to resist you; but had I been inside of my house, I would have killed one of you before I submitted to this illegal process.’”. She was immediately put under house arrest. Officers swarmed around her house. The officers arrested anyone, “casual visitors”, as she called them, who came to the house. After the house had been searched, every drawer and cabinet turned upside down, the chiefs of the detectives left, leaving the rest of the men alone with the “prisoners”. Several of them “possessed themselves of rum and brandy, which added in developing their brutal instincts; and they even boasted, in my hearing, of the ‘nice times’ they expected to have with the female prisoners”. Officers and soldiers often acted like this after searching someone’s home, leaving many unsuspecting women to fend for themselves. In the following year, she was still able to send her messages, and even once she was moved into a prison, she was still in contact with the generals. She died a few years later, and recieved full military honors from the Confederates.
The final important and significant woman spy is Harriet Tubman, perhaps the most well known woman in the Civil War. While she is most famous for helping slaves escape to Free states, she was also a spy. Her smarts and ability to remember large quantities of information at once made her a valuable addition to the Union army. One of her main contributions was when she went to Hilton Head to assist newly free black people in adjusting to living on their own. While she was there, “She selected and paid (out of ‘secret service money’) nine reliable black scouts, riverboat pilots who knew every inch of the local waterways, and trained them in methods of gathering intelligence.” With her leading them, she and these scouts mapped out shorelines and islands in South Carolina. They found Confederate plans and vulnerabilities. “Her team sneaked up and down rivers and into swamps and marshes to determine enemy positions, movements, and fortifications on the shoreline beyond the Union pickets.”
These women played crucial parts in winning battles, and helping whenever they could, no matter what side of the Civil War they were on. Whether they were willing to be arrested, or risk their lives, they did so much for the war, and they are important figures in our history.
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