Female Spies Changed the Course of the Civil War


By Lisa Hix 

After 150 years, America is still haunted by the ghosts of its Civil War, whose story has been romanticized for so long it’s hard to keep the facts straight. In our collective memory of the war, men are the giants, the heroes remembered as fighting nobly for their beliefs. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865, has achieved the status of legend, the moment a broken country started to reunite, even though that’s not exactly true.

What’s been largely lost to history is how remarkably influential women were to the course of the Civil War—from its beginning to its end. Without Rose O’Neal Greenhow’s masterfully run spy ring, the Union might have ended the months-old war with a swift victory over the Confederates in July 1861. Instead, the widow leaked Union plans to Confederate generals, allowing them to prepare and deliver a devastating Union loss at the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as the First Battle of Manassas, which caused the war to drag out for four more years. Elizabeth Van Lew, another woman running a brilliant spy ring who also happened to be a feminist and a “spinster,” was instrumental to the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, on April 1, 1865, leading to Lee’s surrender eight days later.

“Elizabeth Van Lew was probably the most valuable spy of the Civil War—male or female, North or South,” says author and historian Karen Abbott. “She basically won the war for Ulysses S. Grant, and it’s astounding that she’s not a household name.”

Top: Confederate spy Belle Boyd, 17, in her riding gear, with gun in her belt, circa 1861. Above: Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew, 43. (Photos from “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy”)

All the ways women directly engaged in the War Between the States—from posing as male soldiers, to seducing secrets out of politicians and generals, to operating as spies, couriers, and diplomats—are explored in Abbott’s engrossing narrative nonfiction book Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, which comes out in paperback September 8. Through these four women’s eyes, we see the whole behind-the-scenes story of the war unfold.

Abbott grew up in Philadelphia in the ’80s, where the Civil War had long faded from the public consciousness. When she moved to Atlanta as an adult, suddenly she was confronted with regular reminders of the Confederate States of America, an illegal government—formed by seven slave states and later joined by four others—that tried to secede from the United States between 1861 and 1865 because newly elected President Abraham Lincoln opposed the expansion of slavery into new Western territories. The Confederacy started a war with the states that stayed loyal to the United States government, known as the Union, on April 12, 1861, when its soldiers fired on the U.S. military-controlled Fort Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina.

“It was a culture shock,” Abbott remembers. “I saw Confederate flags on lawns and heard jokes about ‘The War of Northern Aggression.’ One day, I was stuck in traffic behind a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that said, ‘Don’t blame me. I voted for [Confederate President] Jefferson Davis,’ which drove the point home that the Civil War seeps into the daily-life conversation down South in a way it never does up North. It got me thinking about the Civil War, and my mind always goes to ‘What were the women doing?’ And not just any women, what were the ‘bad’ or defiant women doing?”

Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, 48, and her 9-year-old child, Little Rose, in the courtyard of Old Capitol Prison in D.C., where she was being held on suspicion of treason in 1862. (From “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy”)

So Abbott went on a hunt for female spies, and four names came up right away. For each woman, she found an abundance of primary source materials, such as personal archives and hand-written books. Elizabeth Van Lew and Rose O’Neal Greenhow were operating central spy rings for the Union and the Confederacy, respectively—and they both documented their experiences thoroughly. Abbott uncovered two other women who had engaged in Civil War subterfuge and recorded their personal histories in great detail: Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson, a Canadian expat who had served as a Union soldier as her male alter-ego, Franklin Thompson; and Maria Isabella “Belle” Boyd, a brazen teenager who operated as a Confederate courier and made a game out of stealing weapons from Union camps.

“Elizabeth Van Lew was probably the most valuable spy of the Civil War—male or female, North or South. She basically won the war for Ulysses S. Grant.”

“The more I read about these four women, the more I realized that their stories intersected in interesting ways,” Abbott says. “One woman’s behavior was always affecting another woman’s circumstances, and they were always running into the same people. Rose was watching Emma march on Capitol Hill, and her spying was affecting Emma. Belle had a great scene where she was telling off Union General Benjamin ‘Beast’ Butler, putting him in his place in this very Belle-like brash way. Then, in the next scene, Butler is recruiting Elizabeth to be a spy for the Union. So it was like a big puzzle, and I had a lot of fun figuring out where they all fit.”

Reading the book, however, you get a sense that these four recorded stories—all the perspectives of white women—are simply the tip of the iceberg in terms of women’s involvement in the war. In Washington, D.C., Greenhow recruited plenty of society women and girls as her scouts, including 16-year-old Bettie Duvall and even her own 8-year-old daughter, Little Rose. For years, Van Lew relied on a local seamstress and her paid African American employees, including Mary Jane Bowser, a well-educated 21-year-old who posed as an illiterate enslaved woman inside the Confederate White House in Richmond and gathered critical intelligence. Unfortunately, Abbott wasn’t able to unearth any of Bowser’s own accounts of her role in the spy ring.

The house where Belle Boyd and her family lived during the Union occupation of Martinsburg, Virginia. (2015 photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress)

“Mary Jane is really the other spy in my story,” Abbott says, “I scrounged and scrounged for every scrap of information I could find on her. Reportedly, Mary Jane kept a diary of her time as a spy in the Confederate White House. But one of her descendants in the 1940s or 1950s accidentally threw it out, not realizing what they had. When you hear that, of course, it’s just like a stake in the heart of every historian—to know that an invaluable diary is lost for good. But I put in everything I could about her and also about all the other African Americans that were instrumental to Elizabeth’s operation. If I had had more primary source material, I’m sure my book would’ve been subtitled Five Women Undercover in the Civil War, but as it was, I had to fit her under the umbrella of Elizabeth’s purview.”

Abbott says she would have loved to have featured African American women more prominently in the book, but by and large, she was not able to find enough source material revealing their perspectives. The one exception was Harriet Tubman, who also used her slave escape route known as the Underground Railroad, where African American hymns spread messages through coded lyrics, to operate a spy ring herself. But Tubman’s story was much too large to be contained within the scope of the Civil War.

The abolitionist Harriet Tubman, pictured circa 1860-1875, escaped slavery and helped others do the same. She also worked as a Union spy. (Via Library of Congress)

Even though it was the home base for Union soldiers, Washington, D.C., in many ways was a Southern city, and the U.S. government was riddled with Confederate sympathizers. For example, the brothers of President Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, were high-ranking Confederate officials. Much of the war was fought along the Potomac River, which forms the border between Maryland and Virginia, the two states that touch the District of Columbia. And those border states in particular were not monolithic in their support of the Union or the Confederacy—the political timbre often depended on which county you were in. Before the Confederate capital moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia, in May 1861, Richmond was home to a significant number of Unionists.

“Many of the Washington residents had come from Maryland, which, although it was a border state, had a lot of slave owners,” Abbott says. “The slave markets had been rampant in D.C. The nation’s capital was a porous, ambiguous place to be, and you didn’t know where anyone’s loyalties lay. All of these people who now worked for the Confederate government had once worked for the United States government and therefore knew a lot of the protocol, the policy, and the insiders who maybe could be turned. The fact that Lincoln’s White House was pretty much open to visitors was just astounding to me, too. Everybody was eavesdropping.”

In this climate, women made great spies precisely because of the way 19th-century society underestimated them. During the Civil War, they “were able to take society’s ideas about the weakness of womanhood and brilliantly exploit them,” Abbott says. “Women were always supposed to be the victims of war, not the perpetrators. One of my favorite quotes in the book is from a Lincoln official, who was completely flummoxed when he said, ‘What are we going to do with these fashionable women spies?’ The idea that women are not only capable of treasonous activity, but they are also capable of executing it more deftly than men was something that had never occurred to these men. The women were either above suspicion, in the case of somebody like Elizabeth Van Lew, or below suspicion, in the case of somebody like Mary Jane Bowser. Nobody even knew she could read, and of course, she was probably the smartest one of them all.”

Union Private Frank Thompson, who was born Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson in New Brunswick, Canada. (From “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy”)

If they were caught, or on the verge of being caught, female spies could play dumb, helpless, or indignant, declaring “How dare you accuse me? I am a defenseless lady!” Abbott says men didn’t know how to handle it. “Another one of my favorite scenes in the book is the hearing where Rose O’Neal Greenhow is being charged with treason against the United States,” she says. “The prosecution is questioning and badgering her, and she’s turning the tables on them and putting them on the defensive brilliantly. Then one of her interrogators says ‘I don’t think you are bent so much on treason as mischief.’ And it’s like, ‘Mischief? I basically won the battle of Manassas for the South, and I’m up to mischief?’ Even when the evidence was clearly laid out right in front of the men, she was just guilty of ‘mischief,’ because what more could a woman be guilty of?”

The elaborate fashion of Victorian society ladies gave these women plenty of places to hide messages and other contraband—from their big updo hairstyles to their huge hoop skirts to their corsets laced tight against their skin. And according to the decorum of the day, a proper gentleman would never try to peek under a woman’s skirt or ask her to strip. Even taking down one’s long hair was seen as a sexual act and requesting a woman do so was considered highly improper.

Rose Greenhow’s silk purse and part of her encrpyted message to Confederate General Beauregard. (From “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy”)

Before the Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew, her mother Eliza, and her brother John—the family of a late wealthy hardware-business proprietor in Richmond, Virginia—allowed their family’s 15 slaves to work to buy their freedom and then offered to hire them all back as paid employees. Elizabeth even spent some of her inheritance, about $200,000 in today’s money, to buy slaves at auction, just to set them free. While the Van Lews were unusual in their treatment of enslaved people, they initially weren’t alone in wanting Virginia to remain a part of the Union: Before the war, two-thirds of the Virginia Convention of 1861 voted against secession. But from the battle of Fort Sumter on, the city became progressively more pro-Confederacy, making it a dangerous place to openly express Unionist sentiments.

Keeping her allegiance to the Union undercover, never-married 43-year-old Elizabeth used her social standing to gain permission to minister to Union prisoners of war being held at an old tobacco warehouse in Richmond. With the help of her African American employees, she provided important prisoners an escape, even using a secret room in her mansion to hide them. When she visited the prison, she often carried contraband in a French plate warmer, but when she overheard the guards say they planned to search it next time, she returned to the prison with the warmer filled with scalding water. She also relied on the prisoners for updates from the front lines and what they overheard from prison guards. She taught them how to use straight pins to puncture a sequence of holes near specific letters in the books she lent them, which would spell out secret messages.

“Elizabeth would bring books and clothing to the prisoners, anything she could get away with bringing them,” Abbott says. “She would take a pin and punch out letters in sequence in these books. The letters would form words, and the words would form sentences. At first, she was asking questions like, ‘What Union soldiers are imprisoned there?’ But then she got more sophisticated with it and started asking about infantry positions and what gossip they were hearing among the Confederate guards. She would ask ‘Do you hear anything about what General Lee is up to?’”

Belle Boyd, a 17-year-old shopkeeper’s daughter from Martinsburg, Virginia, who offered her spying services to the Confederates regardless of whether they wanted them, was far less discreet than Greenhow or Van Lew. She employed a wide range of costumes and identities—from a Confederate private to a demure Southern maiden to a flamboyant warrior for the South—and often brought her little black lapdog on courier missions. She even made a costume of a white-hair dog skin that fit over her pet so she could carry messages on his back.

“Belle could become whoever she needed to be in the moment,” Abbott says. “It’s one of her great gifts. She was also incredibly charismatic. I love that she made her dog sort of complicit in all of her spying. She also had a pet crow that she taught how to talk, and the bird said ‘Stonewall’ referring to General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, whom Belle was obsessed with. I mean, come on! I think one reporter said she wanted to ‘occupy his tent and share his dangers.’ If I were Stonewall Jackson, I think that would’ve frightened me more than anything that the Union Army had in store. Belle was just somebody you could not make up.”