During the Civil War, spies were often used. Men served as soldiers. As for women, they could become spies. Providing crucial intelligence, female spies like Harriet Tubman, Pauline Cushman, Belle Boyd, and Rose O’Neal Greenhow were a critical part of the Civil War.
Harriet Tubman, former slave, known for leading more than 300 people to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, was also a Union spy. During the war, Tubman volunteered for the Union as a nurse, and a cook before she was recruited by Union officers to establish a network of spies made up of former slaves. Tubman became the first woman in the nation's history to lead a military expedition. She helped Col. James Montgomery plan to free slaves from plantations along the Combahee River. On June 1st, 1863, Tubman, Montgomery, and hundreds of African-American soldiers traveled up the river in boats, avoiding mines that had been strategically placed along the way. When they reached land, they demolished a Confederate supply repository and released more than 750 slaves. After the war, Harriet tried to convene $1,800 for her assistance, but was not successful. The government commissioned a payment of $25 per month, but she had only obtained $20 a month until her decease in 1913.
Pauline Cushman was a struggling 30-year-old actress in 1863. While performing in Kentucky, Cushman was challenged to interrupt a show to toast Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. She contacted the Union Army’s local provost marshal and proposed to perform the toast as a way to ingratiate herself to the Rebels and become a federal intelligence officer. The marshal complied and she gave the toast the next evening. The Union instantaneously sent Cushman to Nashville, where she commenced her work with the Army of Cumberland. She accumulated information about enemy operations, distinguished Rebel spies, and served as a federal courier. Cushman came under suspicion by the Confederacy and was arrested. She was sentenced to hang but was saved by the unheralded arrival of the Union forces. Due to the attention brought forth, Cushman was unable to continue her work. After the war, Pauline tried acting again and performed monologues on the war. As she grew older, Cushman financed herself as a seamstress but unfortunately became addicted to morphine. At 60 years-old, she died of an overdose.
Belle Boyd, perhaps the most famous Confederate spy, was born near Martinsburg, Virginia in 1843. Boyd was born to a prominent slaveholding family. When Belle was 17, she was arrested for shooting a Union soldier. He had broken into her family’s home and insulted her mother. Though Union officers investigated and cleared her of all her charges, afterward, they observed her closely. Attractive and young, Boyd used her charisma to get information from the Union officers, in which she passed along to the confederacy. After repeated warning to disengage in such surreptitious activities, Boyd was transported by Union officials to live with relatives in Front Royal, Virginia. Promptly after her arrival, Belle began working as a courier between Confederate generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson Credited the information Boyd provided with helping him win in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. In July of 1862, Boyd was arrested by Union forces. She was sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington D.C. Belle was released a month later but soon, was caught behind federal lines and was imprisoned for 3 more months. In 1864, whilst trying to smuggle Confederate papers to England, Boyd was arrested again. She absconded the country. Belle remarried 3 times and eventually wrote her two-volume memoir Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison in 1865. She embarked on an acting career, often telling of her clandestine experiences. The rest of her life was tranquil until her death in 1900.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a popular Washington socialite, was a widowed impassioned secessionist when she began spying for the Confederacy in 1861. Due to her powerful social connections, Greenhow gathered information about Union military activity and passed coded messages to the Rebels. One of her most vital messages hidden in her courier’s hair, helped General P.G.T. Beauregard amass enough forces to win the First Battle of Bull Run. Skeptical of her activities, Allan Pinkerton, head of the federal government’s Secret Service, collected enough evidence to place her under house arrest. However, Greenhow continued to get information to her contacts. In 1862, Greenhow and her 8-year-old daughter were transferred to Old Capitol Prison. Several months later, she was deported to Baltimore, where the Confederates greeted her as a hero. Soon thereafter, Greenhow was sent on her next mission to Britain and France to help accrete support for the Confederacy. Whilst in Europe, she published her memoir, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington. In September of 1864, Greenhow returned to the south aboard the Condor. The Condor, a British blockade-runner, carried $2,000 in gold. A Union boat pursued the ship as it advanced the shore, and it ran aground on a sandbar. Greenhow attempted to escape in a rowboat with 2 other passengers, counteracting the captain’s advice. The boat capsized and she drowned, seemingly weighed down by the gold she toted around her neck. Her body washed ashore the next day.
All of the women mentioned, whether she was a northerner or a southerner, played an important part in the war. Harriet Tubman, Pauline Cushman, Belle Boyd, and Rose O’Neal Greenhow, all inspiring women. Although they were not recognized as much as they deserved to be, they were equally important in the war as the men who fought in it. What these women did over 100 years ago, still influence many people today. These brave, intelligent, role models proved that anyone can do anything that they set their mind to.
“Women Spies of the Civil War.” Smithsonian. Smithsonian. 8 May 2011. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.