Usually when we think of important figures of the American Civil War, we think of the proud generals -successful or maybe not-so-successful, the soldiers, well-known abolitionists or infamous pro-slavery view holders, and the African Americans who helped make a difference for America. They are all important, so of course they should be remembered. Who doesn’t usually come to mind, however, may have been some of the most secretly influential people in the Civil War.
Although the United States had no official military intelligence service at the time, during the Civil War, a few took it upon themselves to help their cause by gaining information from the other side and passing it along to their generals. Among them, many of the more famous ones were women, who could not physically fight the battles of the war but faced their own conflicts in their service.
Most would not suspect a woman to be conspiring their downfall, due to how most women were viewed in society at the time, but that only helped them to find out the secrets of the enemy. Here are a few famous examples of espionage done by women during the Civil War.
Undercover in the Union
- Harriet Tubman is probably more widely known as a former slave who was able to escape her bonds to freedom and help others do the same through the Underground Railroad. What you may not know is that she was recruited by Union soldiers to establish a spy ring made of former slaves who could easily go behind Confederate lines posing as servants of slaves to gather military secrets. She helped plan and lead raids that freed slaves and was very successful, despite never getting her full pay for this work.
- Pauline Cushman was Union Spy who entered the line of work when offered to toast to the Confederacy. Seeing it as a perfect opportunity to gather military information, she contacted the Union military and informed them of it. She was sent to work in Nashville and became a successful operative, she gathered information about enemy operations, identified Confederate spies and served as a federal courier. She came under suspicion by the Confederates and was arrested, but later saved by the Union forces at Shelbyville.
The Clandestine Confederacy
- “Wild Rose” Rose O’Neal Greenhow was an avid supporter of the Confederacy with powerful social connections. She used these connections to obtain military information from powerful politicians and diplomats from the Union to pass along to the Confederate side. She led a group of anti-Union spies and Confederate President Jefferson Davis later credited Greenhow for his army’s success at the First Battle of Bull Run.
- Belle Boyd was a prominent spy figure in for the Confederacy. She used her charms to get information from the officers, which she passed along to the Confederacy. She was warned to stop her covert activities by the Union. She did not and was sent by Union officials to Virginia, where she worked as a courier between Confederate Generals. Jackson credited the intelligence she provided with helping him win victories in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. She was caught and arrested, but later released.
There were many others who helped serve their county during the civil war this way, and many believe they had a great impact on the results of the war in total. Many were able to gain crucial information before major battles to pass along, which helped their side to gain an upper hand. Spies were important on both sides of the war, and events may have taken place differently without them.