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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Heroines in Hoopskirts
by Rhonda R. McClure

February 27, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

When we think of the Civil War, we think of our male ancestors trudging off to war while the women stayed behind waiting for their men to come home. Makes for a nice romantic tale, but it is usually pretty far from the truth. While they may have preferred an easier life, when it became necessary women rose to the challenge and took on traditionally male responsibilities.

Some of them even became soldiers and helped to fight for whichever side they believed in. Still others took on the dangerous task of spying on the enemy to try to give their army an advantage. It may surprise you to learn that there were a number of women spies on both sides of the Civil War.

Spying isn't just men's work.

Union Spies

No shrinking violet, Mrs. E.H. Baker not only spied on the Confederacy but was at the time working as a Pinkerton agent. She was apparently one of Pinkerton's better female agents, never losing her composure. In 1862 Pinkerton sent her south to spy on the Confederacy who, it was rumored, were building undersea boats. Mrs. Baker had lived in Richmond, Virginia and kept up correspondence with friends there. Her friends, the Atwaters graciously opened their home up to her for her stay and their son, a Captain in the Confederate Army, aided her in spying simply through his gallantry. Captain Atwater took her on a tour of the Tredigar Iron Works, at her request, where the undersea boats were being built. However, the day they were supposed to visit the iron works had to be postponed when Captain Atwater had to attend the sea trials for the actual boats. He invited Mrs. Baker along and she and the Atwater family took a picnic lunch with them. Shortly after seeing the trials and visiting the iron works she returned to the North and reported on what she had seen and learned. Her intelligence work helped save a U.S. Navy ship when it came upon one of the first underwater boats.

Pauline Cushman was born with the name Harriet Wood in New Orleans. She was a strong Unionist who carries the distinction of almost being hanged. Had she been, she would have been the only woman on either side who was hanged for spying. An actress by profession, she was given many assignments including the identification of Confederate spies, which she successfully carried out. In May of 1863 she was supposed to report the strength and location of the Army of Tennessee. Unfortunately she was caught and papers in her possession proved her real motives. General Bragg ordered her hanged immediately. Fortunately for her, Shelbyville, Tennessee had to be evacuated just after she was imprisoned. During the evacuation, the Confederates left her behind and she was rescued by the invading Union army. News of her rescue spread and the notoriety meant that her career as a spy was over. After her rescue, the Union honored her with the title of Major and when she returned to the stage after the war she had herself introduced as Major Cushman.

Elizabeth Van Lew was a member of Virginia's upper crust. She lived in Richmond and spied for the Union during the war. Despite the fact that she had no training whatsoever as a spy, she is considered to be one of the greatest female spies of all time. In fact, she understood the problems that would befall her if her messages to the North were ever discovered so well that she would rip them into many pieces and then send each piece by a different courier. An abolitionist at heart, she relied heavily on her freed slaves as her couriers. The slaves, though freed, were loyal to her family and in some cases had been sent north to be educated. She even had her own cipher, that is code, and she wrote her messages in a colorless ink that was only revealed when milk was put on it. She built a spy ring and set up relay stations. Perhaps it is just as well that she wasn't a formally trained spy. She seemed to do pretty well on her own.

These are just three of the brave women who put themselves in danger as they spied on the Confederacy for the Union army. Many of them did so on their own without having been formally requested (at least at first). Of course, the Union wasn't the only side to get intelligence through the clandestine activities of some of its women.

Confederate Spies

The most famous female spy of the Civil War would have to be Belle Boyd. This isn't because of her impressive abilities as a spy but instead due to her love of publicity. Apparently spying was a family pastime as she had two uncles and a cousin who were also spying for the Confederacy. Belle was the youngest of the family and was only 18 when she began. While not a rare beauty, she used her feminine wiles to work her magic on Union troops. Not as creative as the Union's Miss Van Lew, Belle got the job done although she was arrested many times. While she is the best known of the Confederate's female spies, there is still some question as to how important the information was that she managed to gather. Most of it was tactical in nature. Her flamboyant nature though would eventually make her more of a liability than an asset and she would spend the last two years of the war living in England. After the war ended she returned to America and the stage, an actress by profession, where she began to bill herself as the "Cleopatra of the Secession."

While Belle was flamboyant, Rose O'Neal Greenhow was stately. She was a wealthy socialite in Washington, DC and the daughter of a man who was murdered by one of his slaves. The murder of her father left a lasting impression on her. Before Lincoln took office, Mrs. Greenhow was a close friend of President Buchanan and had hosted many parties attended by diplomats and congressmen. An invitation to one of her parties was highly coveted. Rose was vocal about her feelings on the Confederacy and it wasn't long before she was recruited to spy for the South. She not only acted as a spy herself but she headed a major spy ring in Washington, DC. All of this was set up before the first shots of the war were even fired. Her most impressive spying activities helped General Pierre Beauregard prepare for the first battle at Bull Run and earned her a letter of thanks from Beauregard. Encouraged by her success, she did more spying and was eventually arrested on August 23, 1861. She was sent South in an exchange of prisoners and further helped the Confederacy by going to Europe to drum up financial support for the Confederacy. On a return trip home in 1864, the blockade runner she boarded ran aground and she escaped to a small boat. The small boat capsized and she sank because she had gold sewn into her dress that she was bringing back to the Confederacy. Daughters of the Confederacy continue to honor her each year by placing a wreath on her grave on the anniversary of her death.

As elusive as a ghost, Sarah Slater vanished into thin air after the war, never to be seen again by family or friends. She was born in Connecticut to parents of French descent. In 1858, her father took her and two of her siblings South. She married in North Carolina in 1861 and her husband soon went off to war. She apparently did not begin spying until 1865, when after requesting a passport to go north to visit her mother, she was invited by Secretary of War Seddon to act as a Confederate courier. Her command of the French language would allow her to move about the north and go into Canada where she delivered papers and money to Confederate operatives there. She made three known trips, the last one in April, 1865 in which she was to take messages to the Canadian supporters directing that money be taken to Europe. During this trip, she stopped in Washington, DC and visited friends, including John Wilkes Booth. As she headed north to New York on April 4th, though, she disappeared. Some speculate that she made it all the way to Canada and helped herself to the money.

For all that is known of some of these spies, there is much that isn't known. Some of it is speculation, including why some of them elected to put themselves into such danger and their stories read like a good mystery novel.

Finding Proof?

There are a few written accounts by those who spied during the Civil War, but most of the evidence about spies is found in the military records or the trial records of those who were caught and sentenced. Some of the repositories with manuscript or other collections include

  • Iowa Historical Society
  • Kentucky Military History Museum
  • Maryland Historical Society
  • Museum of the Confederacy
  • New York Historical Society
  • Surratt House Museum
  • United States Army Military History Library
  • Virginia Historical Society

Many published books and articles by third person can also be found, including Donald E. Markle's Spies & Spymasters of the Civil War (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2000).

Some of the first person accounts of woman spies include

  • Boyd, Belle, Belle Boyd in Camp and Written by Herself. South Brunswick, New Jersey: Thomas Yoseloff, 1968.
  • Edmonds, Sarah Emma, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army/Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps and Battlefields. Hartford, Connecticut: W.S. Williams, 1865.
  • Greenhow, Rose, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule in Washington. London: Richard Bently, 1863.
  • Velazquez, Loreta Janeta, The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Valazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Henry T. Buford, Confederate States Army. Hartford, Connecticut: T. Belknap, 1876.

In Conclusion

So often we forget that our ancestors were embroiled in the events of their day just as we are embroiled in the events of our present day. Spying during the Civil War had little to do with perks and money and more to do with upholding the ideals the individual believed in. Regardless of politics, all of these women were brave to become directly involved the way that they did and should be remembered.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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