The military officers and politicians who were targets of women spies were often unaware that they were in a battle, not with guns and swords, but a battle of wits; and many came half armed.
Both the Union and the Confederacy had women who supported their chosen side as nurses, couriers, and a few who actually disguised themselves as men so they could become soldiers. But each cause also had women who risked their lives to become effective and valuable spies while they lived among the enemy.
There were several southern belles who chose this road less traveled and left us with remarkable stories of courage, cunning, deception, and loyalty to the Confederate States of America.
While there were many women in southern states who, from time to time, provided useful information to nearby Confederate forces; there were three who were truly spies and who actively sought interaction with Union politicians and soldiers to gain information. Their unwitting “sources” failed to look past the ladies’ charm and talked, sometimes bragged, too much about troop strength and battle preparations. Washington DC, and most of the surrounding area, was Southern by culture with significant secessionist populations and legalized slavery; but Washington remained the Union’s capital despite constant threats of a Confederate invasion. The city bordered the Confederate state of Virginia and the entire area was a hot-bed (pun intended) of espionage by these lady operatives. However, most of the information was not necessarily gained from “pillow talk” but often just careless comments the men made in the presence of these women from whom they, mistakenly, perceived no threat.
Besides their beauty and charm, another advantage for these “spies in petticoats” was the common Victorian courtesy shown women at that time. They were frequently permitted to pass through Union lines into Confederate territory, and back again, with only non-invasive questions and with a nominal search. Usually the women simply stated, in their delightful southern drawl, that they were visiting family and often added a few tears as they claimed to be going to a funeral. It was inconceivable for many of the young Union soldiers, who guarded the lines, to suspect that the demure and soft spoken southern lady would be engaged in such “un-lady-like” behavior.
After all, they were the “fairer sex” weren’t they?
But Belle Boyd, Antonia Ford, and Rose O’Neal Greenhow were three women who were committed to the secessionist cause and who were willing to risk their freedom, and even their lives, in service to the Confederacy.
Belle Boyd lived in what is now West Virginia and became known to the Union military within days after the start of the Civil War when, at the age of 17, she shot and killed a Union soldier who had broken into her home. She was arrested but soon released. By all accounts, she was a beautiful and charming young woman who, despite her earlier arrest, continued to be able to gain sensitive information from Union soldiers in the area. She even began to act as a regular courier between Confederate Generals Stonewall Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard and both credited her with helping them win victories, or avoid defeat, in the Shenandoah Valley in early 1862. Belle’s frequent trips soon caught the attention of Federal officers, possibly due to a counter-intelligence operative in the South, and she was again arrested in July 1862 and sent to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington DC. She was released after one month and deported to Richmond, Virginia. They should have saved her room because she was arrested twice more crossing the battle lines and was sent each time to the Old Prison for thirty, then for sixty days. Upon her last release, she became a courier carrying secret Confederate papers to England. Again she was captured, this time by the Union Navy but was quickly released. As it turned out, she had secretly married one of the naval officers who had detained her and then Belle, and her new husband, fled to England. In 1865, soon after the war ended, Belle was widowed and spent a year writing her memoirs; which became a best-seller and the basis for a successful theatrical speaking career. She was eligible for a pardon to regain full citizenship in the United States but never applied. She died in 1900, an unrepentant defender of secession and slavery.
Antonia Ford was living in the cross-roads town of Fairfax, Virginia, not far south of Washington DC, when her community was over-run and occupied by Union troops soon after the war started. Only 23 at the time, she began to provide military intelligence to Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart who gave her a written, but unofficial, commission in his Army. She continued to act as a courier, for both General Stuart and for the Confederate Partisan leader John Singleton Mosby. In March 1863 she came under suspicion of being a Southern spy after Mosby’s Rangers captured Union General Edwin Stoughton, at a remote country inn. The local Union commanders soon learned that Antonia was known to keep the company of both General Stoughton and Mosby, but there was no proof that she had actually aided in Stoughton’s capture. (Stoughton, who was not highly regarded by other senior officers, was later exchanged for a Confederate prisoner and quickly forced out of the U.S. Army). To try to obtain proof of Antonia’s disloyalty, in an elaborate hoax the Union recruited a female from a Southern family, who lived in Maryland, to seek out Antonia and befriend her. The ruse worked when Antonia shared her written “commission” from General Stuart with her “new friend.” Antonia was arrested and, like Belle Boyd, was sent to the Old Capitol Prison where a female guard found that she was also carrying secret Confederate documents. In a turn of events similar to Boyd’s, Antonia was released at the order of a Union Major who was one of her captors; and they were quickly married. Unlike Boyd, Antonia Ford did regain U.S. Citizenship after the War; however she died at only 33 years of age in 1871. She left no memoir and only anecdotally mentioned her exploits in a few letters to friends and family. Her husband, the former Major who had been stripped of his commission, never re-married; and, for the rest of his life, he turned down numerous lucrative offers to write and/ or speak about his wife’s service for the Confederacy.
On the other hand there is ample record of the life, and activities, of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, perhaps the most famous and effective female spy for the Confederates. Mrs. Greenhow was a fixture in Washington DC society long before the start of the Civil War. She had married a wealthy doctor in 1835 but widowed in 1845. She was very well educated, attractive, and considered a great conversationalist by her many friends, both men and women; and all were aware that she was a devoted secessionist. Rose frequently shared her belief that, “The Southern states have been hindered, dishonored and wronged by the national government in power.” She expected that many of the senior U.S. Army officers would resign their Union commissions to join the Confederate Army when secession occurred. When the War broke out, she immediately offered to use her prominent social position in Washington to help the new Confederate Generals gain intelligence about Union troop movements for the initial battles; which most assumed would be just across the border in Virginia.
She did not have to wait long.
Mrs. Greenhow was credited by General Beauregard for providing him with correct Union force strength near Bull Run which gave him time to amass additional troops and win the first major battle of the Civil War. Because she had been so open about her support for secession before the War, Alan Pinkerton, who was in charge of the newly formed Union Secret Service, suspected that Rose might be a spy and/or a courier for the Confederates. Pinkerton placed Rose under house arrest, but was then astonished to see how many prominent Union officers and politicians still continued to visit her home. To restrict her contacts he had Rose and her eight year old daughter transferred to the Old Capitol Prison (evidently a favorite holding place). Rose immediately began a series of letters from prison to newspapers and to prominent Union politicians outlining her and her daughter’s “dreadful treatment and unproven charges by Mr. Pinkerton” and described the harsh condition of her confinement. Her plight was even brought to the attention of Abraham Lincoln, but there is no evidence that he interceded on her behalf. However, the general public, newspaper editors, and politicians erupted in outrage and Pinkerton was forced to release her; but determined to not allow her to remain free in Washington DC, he arranged for her to be “deported” to Richmond.
There, she was greeted as a returning hero!
Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, promptly gave her official credentials and asked her to go to London and Paris to help gain diplomatic and financial support for the Confederate government. With her poise, education, and social manner, she was quickly accepted among the aristocracy in Europe and served well in her position. While living in London, she wrote a best-selling memoir in early 1864 (in which she did not name any of her Union sources) and received substantial royalties by both European and American publishers. On September 15, 1864, Rose left her daughter at a finishing school in London and boarded a British ship, with plans to land in North Carolina, before making her way overland to Richmond. On October 1, her blockade runner ran aground while trying to escape Union gunboats and, against the Captain’s orders, Rose left the ship in a small lifeboat toward land; taking with her a bag of gold coins, presumably earnings from her book. The rowboat capsized before reaching shore and Rose O’Neal Greenhow, weighted down with the gold, drowned. She was buried with full military honors by a grateful Confederate government. She was fifty one years old.
Of course, there have been courageous women warriors throughout recorded history, and today we certainly have many serving our country in the armed forces and probably quite a few serving in intelligence agencies. Although these three women were committed to the “States in Rebellion” and tried their best to aid in the break-up of the United States, one cannot help but admire their courage and commitment to their cause.
Fairer sex, indeed!
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