Real Life Lady Spies of the Civil War

Happy Last Day of Summer, Readers!!

Lady and the Officer, TheIn my historical romance, The Lady and the Officer, Madeline Howard had never intended to become a spy. But when military intelligence practically falls into her lap, how could she not serve her country behind enemy lines? While researching this novel, I discovered plenty of real-life spies whose lives of intrigue provided plenty of inspiration. Here are brief bios of 5 of them:

Harriet Tubman was a former slave known who led 300 people—including her elderly parents—to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She was also a Union spy. Tubman volunteered for the Union as a cook and a nurse before recruited by Union officers to establish a network of spies made up of former slaves. Tubman became the first woman in the country’s history to lead a military expedition. In June, 1863, Col. James Montgomery and Tubman led several hundred black soldiers up the Combahee River in gunboats, avoiding remotely-detonated water mines. When they reached the shore, they destroyed a Confederate supply depot and freed more than 750 slaves from rice plantations. After the war, Tubman tried to collect $1,800 for her service but was unsuccessful. Due to the service of her late husband, she did receive a widow’s pension of $8 per month beginning in June 1890 until the government authorized a payment of $25 a month beginning in January 1899. Following her death in 1913, she was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York. Born in New Orleans, Pauline Cushman was a struggling 30-year-old actress in 1863. While she was performing in Louisville, Kentucky, Confederate officers dared her to interrupt a show to toast Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. Cushman approached the Union Army with a plan to ingratiate herself to the Confederates and become a federal intelligence courier. The Union immediately sent Cushman to federally occupied Nashville, where she gathered information about enemy operations. She was arrested by the Confederates after identifying several Confederate spies and sentenced to hang. Saved by the arrival of Union forces at Shelbyville, Cushman was forced to stop spying due to her notoriety. After the war, Cushman tried acting again and gave monologues on the war, wearing her uniform with pride. Probably the most famous Confederate spies, Belle Boyd, had been born to a prominent slaveholding family near Martinsburg, Virginia. At age 17, Belle was arrested for shooting a Union soldier who had broken into the family’s home and insulted her mother. Though Union officers cleared her of all charges, they watched her closely. Young and attractive, Boyd used her charms to gain information, which she passed along to the Confederacy. After repeated warnings to stop covert activities, Union officials sent Boyd to live with family in Front Royal, Virginia. Soon after her arrival, she began working as a courier between Confederate generals “Stonewall” Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard. Jackson credited the intelligence Belle provided with helping him win victories in the Shenandoah Valley. In July 1862, Boyd was arrested and sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. She was released a month later and deported to Richmond, but she was soon caught behind federal lines and imprisoned for three more months. In 1864 she was arrested while trying to smuggle Confederate papers to England. She fled the country and a few months later married Samuel W. Hardinge, one of the Union naval officers who had detained her. Hardinge returned briefly to the United States and was imprisoned as a suspected Southern spy. He died soon after his release. Boyd, now a widow, wrote a book and embarked on an acting career, often telling of her clandestine experiences during the war.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a Washington socialite when she began spying for the Confederacy. Greenhow obtained information about Union military activity and passed coded messages to the Confederates. One of her most important messages, hidden in her hair, helped Gen. Beauregard win the First Battle of Bull Run. Suspicious of Greenhow’s activities, Allan Pinkerton, head of the federal’s new Secret Service, gathered enough evidence to place her under house arrest. But Greenhow continued her espionage. In January 1862, she and her daughter were transferred to Old Capitol Prison. Several months later she was deported to Baltimore where Confederates welcomed her as a hero. President Davis sent her to Britain and France to gain support for the Confederacy. In September1864, Greenhow was returning to the South on a British blockade-runner with $2,000 in gold. With a Union gunboat in pursuit, the ship ran aground on a sandbar near the North Carolina shore, and it ran aground on a sandbar. Against the captain’s advice, Greenhow tried to escape in a rowboat with two other passengers. The boat capsized and she drowned, presumably weighed down by the gold she carried. Her body washed ashore the next day and was buried in Wilmington with full (Confederate) military honors. Born to a wealthy Virginia family, Antonia Ford was 23 when she provided military intelligence to Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart. Ford gathered information from Union soldiers occupying her hometown, which was halfway between Washington, D.C. and Manassas, Virginia. In October 1861, Stuart gave Ford an honorary written commission as aide-de-camp and ordered that she “be obeyed, respected and admired.” In March 1863, that document was used to accuse her of spying for John Singleton Mosby. Mosby’s partisan rangers had captured Union general Edwin H. Stoughton in his headquarters—one of the most famous cavalry raids of the war. The Secret Service suspected Ford was involved in planning the attack because Stoughton and Ford had spent time together. When the Secret Service sent a female operative, pretending to be a Confederate sympathizer, to meet Ford, Ford showed her Stuart’s commission. Ford was soon arrested with smuggled papers hidden in her clothing. After months at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, Ford was released thanks to the efforts of Union major Joseph C. Willard—one of her captors. Willard resigned from the Union Army, and he and Ford married in March 1864, after she took an oath of allegiance to the United States.

Thanks to the Smithsonian Magazine for providing biographical information. Have a lovely fall, readers. My-oh-my, where did the summer go?? ~ Mary

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