Women Spies of the Civil War

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Women Spies of the Civil War

“ [At first] it was not deemed possible that any danger could result from the utterances of non-combatant females… That this policy was a mistaken one was soon fully proved…” - Allan Pinkerton, The Spy of the Rebellions, 1883 (Leonard 1).

In antebellum America there was little tolerance for autonomous women. Usually females, spanning all classes, were attached to households, dependent on males for status and wealth. Society demanded that domesticity be the woman’s domain, any deviations from this constricting edict was met with disdain. The cultural myth of the model genteel women permeated the fabric of 19th century life. However, with the advent of the Civil War women were required to assume new duties. The temporary shortage of manpower created new opportunities for women, transforming their existence. The vast majority of women met this challenge and mobilized on behalf of the war effort. A critical task women excelled at was espionage, the collecting of information on enemy activity; it utilized all the skills they had acquired maneuvering through a male dominated world. Ironically, the emphatic notions that women were innocent, passive, and vulnerable enabled them to more easily obtain and pass on military secrets during the Civil War. Intelligence was a necessary, vital component to the strategic planning of the war. Its’ contribution shaped decisions and actions of commanders in both armies. Gathering intel consisted of scouting, cavalry reconnaissance, interrogations, visual observation, interception of enemy flag messages, and espionage. Jomini, a military writer favored by American officers stated, “How can any man decide what he should do himself if he is ignorant of what his enemy is about?” (Fishel 9). Who better to discover confidential orders from officers of the opposing side than women? Who would deduce that the flirtatious daughter of the plantation owner was actually a cunning spy, or that the spinster administrating to the prisoners in a grimy Richmond jail was assembling classified information for the hated Yankee army? The youngest and most notorious Southern spy was Belle Boyd of Martinsburg, Virginia. She was only seventeen when she took up the cause. Taking advantage of Union soldiers’ gallantry toward a beautiful teenage girl, she served as a courier for the Confederate intelligence service and delivered information on troop size and placement she had picked up from admirers. Belle had excellent horsemanship skills and wide knowledge of the Shenandoah Valley. She was able to get through the Union lines and to deliver messages to the Confederate generals. Her acts of daring were often sensationalized by embellished reports in the newspapers. Belle was arrested twice by the Union for suspicion of spying and was sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington. Eventually they released her and dispatched her back down South with strict instructions not to return for the rest of the war. Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the “Wild Rose”, was the daughter of a wealthy landowner and the wife of Dr. Robert Greenhow, a distinguished Virginia lawyer. After her husbands death she took up residence in Washington, D.C. as a reigning socialite. Rose’s talent for scintillating conversation and her definitive political views attracted people of all kinds to her home. Politicians and society’s leaders all coveted invitations to her soirées. The charming hostess asked clever, leading questions and listened intently to obtain valuable information. When the war broke out, she joined the Confederacy’s spy efforts led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Jordan of Virginia. On July 10, 1861 before the Battle of Manassas, Rose passed critical intelligence to General Pierre Beauregard at Fairfax Court House near Bull Run. She encrypted the coded message on a tiny sheet of paper: “McDowell [General Irwin] has certainly been ordered to advance on...
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