Female Civil War Spies

Six Female Civil War Spies Who Made Their Mark

While women were, obviously, not permitted to participate on an official level during the American Civil War, they did find ways to make their mark, as women have in numerous wars throughout history. There were specifically quite a few women who worked as spies for both sides during the conflict. From masters of disguise to former slaves, here are six female Civil War spies who fought with gusto.

1. Belle Boyd

Belle Boyd, sometime between 1855 and 1865 - Female Civil War spies
Belle Boyd, sometime between 1855 and 1865.

With names like Cleopatra of the Secession and Siren of the Shenandoah, this Confederate beauty could definitely hold her own. Situated at a hotel in Virginia, she was at the perfect spot to obtain information, which she would then turn over to the Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson. According to her own autobiography, her involvement in the war began in 1861, when Union soldiers came to investigate rumors that she was hiding Confederate paraphernalia. They hung a Union flag outside her house and then insulted her mother, to which Boyd replied with a deadly shot. She was put under house arrest for her actions, but she managed to charm one of her guards. While her contributions were varied, she won the Southern Cross of Honor as well as honorary captain and aide-de-camp titles. Over the course of her career, she was imprisoned several times, but always released. After the war, she became an actress, moved to England and married a Union officer.


2. Rose O’Neal Greenhow

Rose O'Neal Greenhow with her daughter in D.C., 1862.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow with her daughter in D.C., 1862.

Rivaling Boyd in fame, Rose O’Neal Greenhow was also a spy on the Confederate side. She lived in Washington, D.C., and was quite the social butterfly, enabling her to move through circles that would have been off limits to others. She received credit as the deciding factor in the South’s win at the First Battle of Bull Run, in addition to a captain’s position and her own spy network. In 1863, she discontinued her spy work after a brief imprisonment, and traveled to France and Britain on a Confederate diplomatic mission. She also wrote her autobiography at this time. When she was returning to the States, her boat overturned and she drowned.


3. Pauline Cushman

Pauline Cushman, sometime between 1855 and 1865.
Pauline Cushman, sometime between 1855 and 1865.

A penchant for acting runs in the veins of these Civil War agents. Cushman, like Boyd, worked as an actress, though Cushman’s career began a bit earlier. After one of her performances she was paid by two Confederates to make a toast to Jefferson Davis. She lost her job, but was given a new career opportunity. Tales of her dramatic gesture circulated and helped her to make her way into Confederate groups. She simultaneously offered herself as a spy for the Union. During her covert activities, she was caught by the Confederacy, as she attempted to hide battle plans in her shoes. Brought to trial and sentenced to death, she put on another grand show, acting deathly ill, until her execution was postponed. This alone saved her from death, as the Union invaded the area three days before her execution date. After the war, she toured the country speaking about her experiences, now known as Miss Major Pauline Cushman.


4. Elizabeth Van Lew

A portrait of Elizabeth Van Lew. Date unknown.
A portrait of Elizabeth Van Lew. Date unknown.

Van Lew began her work as a spy almost immediately after the war started. She lived near the infamous Confederate Libby Prison in Virginia, and, as a known charity worker, she was allowed to visit and pass along food, clothing and other items to the prisoners of war. She helped with escape attempts, but also gained information from the soldiers there on Confederate troop movements, which she then passed on to the Union. In addition, it wasn’t infrequent for escapees and Confederate deserters to take up residence in her own home. However, her overarching achievement was the operation of a spy ring, as she instructed clerks in the war and naval departments. Unfortunately, after the war, she was left near penniless (having spent a large amount of her fortune on her spy escapades) and the federal government would not reimburse her. The most they offered her was a postmaster position in Richmond for four years.


5. Harriet Tubman

One of the most recognizable images of Harriet Tubman, after the Civil War, in 1880.
Harriet Tubman, after the Civil War, in 1880.

While most know Tubman for her anti-slavery work, she actually was quite successful as a Union spy during the Civil War. She was put to work by Union forces scouting South Carolina, moving amongst the difficult terrain and providing intelligence regarding enemy movements. However, her military work did not end there. She was the first woman to lead an armed assault in the war. She guided three boats of troops around Confederate mines in the Combahee River, so that Union troops could launch an assault against a string of plantations, where they seized much-needed supplies and set fire to the area. While the Union accomplished their goal of seizing Southern property and regaining supplies, Tubman also accomplished her own goals, freeing more slaves, with the numbers from this singular raid reaching up into the 700s.


6. Sarah Emma Edmonds

Sarah Emma Edmonds in one of her disguises.
Sarah Emma Edmonds in one of her disguises.

Edmonds was truly a master of disguise out of her female counterparts during the time. Her first foray into battle began when she enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry, disguised as a man and naming herself Franklin Flint Thompson. She acted as a field nurse and was present during the First and Second Battles of Bull Run. When a spy opening for the Union became available, she applied as Franklin Thompson and received the position. Her various disguises used when she was a spy include transformations into a black man (using silver nitrate to dye her skin and a black wig), as well as an Irish peddler, attempting to sell apples and soap. She disguised herself as a slave again when she transformed into a black laundress and snatched papers from an officer’s jacket. Her spy career ended when she was diagnosed with malaria. Afraid her true identity would be discovered, she left the field and went to a private hospital. Frank Thompson was listed as a deserter and, if she had gone back after her recovery as her alter ego, she would have most likely been executed. She subsequently found a job as a female nurse in D.C.