Spies in Hoop Skirts

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.





3 thoughts on “Spies in Hoop Skirts

  1. I found the mention of spies intriguing while reading the chapters and I’m glad you researched about them. The first spy story with Harriet Tubman wasn’t exactly shocking, as it wouldn’t be hard to imagine an underground railroad worker a Union spy, but it was a side of her I didn’t know. It felt like unmasking a layer from her similar to how I felt with Pocahontas’s true story. However after reading this, I’m still curious if Pauline Cushman would have been tried and convicted after her arrest if the Union didn’t save her in time. Also, I wonder how many innocent people were arrested under suspicion of being a spy and if their stories are released somewhere.

  2. I really love that you chose to write about this topic. No one ever talks about the spies, but you can’t have a war without them! They are also quite interesting to learn about. It’s strange to think about how these people really did impact the outcome of the war. The spy network was kind of like a behind the scenes battle. However, the job of the spy was probably really dangerous, almost as dangerous as being out on the battlefield.

  3. I thought this was a really cool topic! I mean, I have heard about Harriet Tubman’s spy work before but I hadn’t heard about any of the others at all. It’s kind of sad, because they deserve some recognition as well. They were very brave to go behind enemy lines and to continue with their activities even through threats of being arrested. Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Pauline Cushman were arrested, which just shows that being a spy is extremely dangerous and emphasizes the bravery of these women.

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