Spies played important role in Civil War


Spying, the second oldest profession, has sustained many people and inspired many tales in history. The very nature of spying is shrouded with a layer of secrecy and is often distorted in accuracy.

Spying is big business in peacetime and war. During the Civil War, there were spies who gathered information by ground observation, special relationships, scouts, cavalry, prisoners and signalmen with telescopes, individuals taking French leave and balloonists attached to a rope.

The civilians usually did spying out of a sense of loyalty to a cause. Most spies have gone unrecognized in history for any number of reasons while others have been romanticized in books, movies and television programs.

Big Five

This was true for the Civil War, but there were some who warrant being remembered because of their service to the Union or Confederate cause. They are the “Big Five:” Belle Boyd, Pauline Cushman, Antonia Ford, Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew.

Spying was dangerous work, even for determined and stout-hearted women, and the mores of the time would not have prevented some authorities from executing a hoop-skirted agent if captured.

Because women were trusted and rarely searched when they passed through enemy lines, they smuggled information, guns, medicine and other items under their apparel. Because of the secretive and dangerous nature of the work, only a few left to history their activities during the Civil War.

Belle Boyd

Belle Boyd (Confederate) is probably best known for her work in the early months of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley campaign. She was 19 years of age when the war began and a resident of Martinsburg, Virginia (West Virginia today).

The young southern partisan was extremely attractive and beguiling to men, and she made shrewd use of her charms to serve the southern cause. She had a bold and uncompromising attitude that would gain legendary status and behavior that kept her detractors off balance.

Boyd began her spying career by shooting a Union soldier in Martinsburg attempting to hoist a Union flag on her parent’s property. While not arrested, she was placed under house arrest for several months.

Boyd soon began a regular routine of gathering and transmitting information to Confederate authorities on Union troop movements, battle plans and fortifications.

Her best-known espionage work was crucial information that she provided General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during his Valley campaign in May 1862, to contain the valuable “breadbasket” in the Shenandoah Valley.

Boyd did not avoid arrest during the Civil War. Twice she was taken in custody, but only very briefly because enduring traditions of chivalry made it difficult to hold her, but more practically because of the conditions of prison facilities for women. But federal authorities reached a breaking point in dealing with Boyd who seemed to be able to travel with complete freedom and spy on Union activities.

In late July 1862, she was captured and sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. for about a month. Released, Boyd resumed her spy work only to be arrested again the following summer and imprisoned for three months. When released this time, she decided to enter a new job and became a courier for the Confederacy to England.

In May 1864, she boarded a blockade runner registered as Greyhound. Trying to escape to England, the blockading fleet captured her and her spying career came to an end. After the Civil War, Boyd took her adventures to the stage, performing in England and America.

She wrote her memoirs, married three times, raised children, spent a short time in a California mental hospital and died in 1900.

Pauline Cushman

Pauline Cushman (Union) was born in New Orleans in 1833 and was a professional actress at the beginning of the Civil War. She is described as a woman of “entrancing form, flashing eyes and most wondrous beauty.”

Raised on the Michigan frontier, she developed a taste for adventure and equestrian skills that would serve her well during her spying activity.

When the Civil War began in the summer of 1861, Cushman was performing in Louisville, Kentucky. She consulted with Union authorities and volunteered to “banish herself to Nashville, Tennessee, to spy on Confederate troops.” She was employed as a courier riding through Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

In the course of her travels, she assumed a variety of disguises, including that of a Confederate soldier on several occasions. Her travels in the spring of 1863 got her arrested by the guerrilla fighter John Hunt Morgan near Shelbyville, Tennessee. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest sentenced her to death by hanging.

Fortunately for Pauline, Union troops rescued her, but her public exposure and notoriety ended her spying activity. Cushman returned to the stage, in the north and east, relating her wartime experiences. She ended her life sewing clothing for income and living in San Francisco until she died in 1893.

Antonia Ford

Antonia Ford (Confederate) was a daring, independent girl of 23 when the Civil War started. Born to wealthy merchant parents in 1838, she wasted no time in choosing sides and declaring her support for the South.

Already by the fall of 1861, Confederate military authorities began to reward her for her efforts and patriotism in gathering military information. Gen. James E.B. Stuart made her an unofficial member of his staff, and that immediately placed a price on her head.

Her spying activities were initially linked to First and Second Bull Run battles, but her fame sky-rocketed when she helped guerrilla fighter John Mosby capture a Union General Edwin Stoughton in March 1863.

The U.S. Secret Service, such as it was, arrested Ford and sent her to Old Capitol Prison for three months. While incarcerated, she fell in love with one of the guards, obtained her freedom in the fall of 1863, talked her lover into resigning from the Union army and got married. She died delivering her third child in 1871.

Rose O’Neal

Rose O’Neal Greenhow (Confederate) was a Maryland native, 44, a widowed mother of four daughters when the Civil War called her to spy for the South. Rose is probably the most famous of the Southern spies and the most dangerous because of her accessibility to information in the nation’s capital.

She had strong social connections to various governments, military and social elites that attended her social assemblies and probably talked too freely after a drink or two.

One of her close friends was New Hampshire Senator Henry Wilson, a strong Unionist and chair of the Military Affairs Committee. Early in the war, Greenhow established an elaborate Confederate spy network between Washington, D.C., and Richmond that crossed the Potomac River unmolested.

Her initial work was at the time of first Bull Run. She obtained and sent messengers to Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard apprising him of the plans the Union Gen. Irvin McDowell had for the July 21, 1861, battle. President Jefferson Davis sent her a letter of appreciation for her valuable service on the South’s behalf.

Allan Pinkerton, an early Secret Service agent, placed her under house arrest along with other individuals and named her dwelling “Fort Greenhow.” But she continued to funnel important information to the South and Union authorities, weary of trying to secure the house, Rose and her “Little Rose” daughter were sent to the Old Capitol Prison.

In the summer of 1862 she was dispatched to the Confederacy to a hero’s welcome. Within months, she was traveling to England and France hoping to raise funding and support for the Confederate cause.

Returning from one of these trips on the blockade runner Condor, she was carrying a large amount of gold on her body. When the Candor ran aground, she attempted to get ashore in a lifeboat. The lifeboat sank and she drowned in the rough waters. Her body washed ashore the next day minus the gold.

Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew (Union) was born in 1818 to affluent merchant parents in Richmond, Virginia. Her mother sent her to Philadelphia in 1830 for a formal education. During this adventure, she was introduced to abolitionism and developed strong anti-slavery sentiments.

Her hatred for the institution of slavery became the underpinning for her support of the Union cause. At the beginning of the Civil War, she provided information to Union officials regarding activity in Richmond.

The elegant family mansion-style home on Church Hill Street soon became a polestar of resistance, by entertaining unsuspected individuals and plying them of information.

Van Lew also spent large amounts of time visiting the Union prisoners in Libby and Belle Isle. She was interested in obtaining information as well as in their well-being. She provided nursing for their wounds, food for their hunger, and clothing for their comfort.

For those who escaped Confederate prison, the Van Lew house was hiding space until she could find escorts to safety. “Babcock,” the code name for Van Lew, even placed one of her former slaves, Mary Bowser, in President Davis’ household to spy.

She hid her openness for the Union behind a persona clearly designed to make her appear an individual whose mental stability was not worth questioning. She wandered through the streets of Richmond wearing unconventional clothing and singing nonsense to herself. She was viewed by many Richmond residents as “crazy bet.”

In the years after the war, the bulk of the town folk saw Van Lew only as a traitor to the fallen South. President Ulysses S. Grant viewed her as an asset to the spy system and rewarded her with several government positions during Reconstruction.

When she died in September 1900, she was poor and alone, but celebrated by former Union prisoners for her courage and support. In recent years, the aftermath of the civil rights reorganization (1960s), the role of women in American history has been somewhat redeemed.

The advent of women’s history being established as a field of inquiry has led to efforts by public and professional historians to recover the experiences of women like the “Big Five.” That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.



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