Today we continue looking at wartime exploits, this time of an even stealthier nature than the Night Witches—spies!

In this first edition, we will take a look at some of the bad-ass women that could be found sneaking around the Civil War. Then, in our next outing we’ll head into the twentieth century. It makes me sad that I am only learning of some of these women now, but one of the problems with the topic is that the stealth nature of espionage work naturally means the historical record is sparse, a problem that is compounded when spies are women and gender dynamics and sexism affect the reporting of their contributions. Frankly, it’s sort of bullshit that something as over-studied (that’s right, I said it) as the Civil War still has such blatant gaps in the historical record, but there it is.

Harriet Tubman (c. 1822–1913)
If, like me, you learned about Harriet Tubman via childhood tales of the Underground Railroad, you may not have realized that in addition to her incredible work to free slaves, she was also a Union soldier and spy. And, if you want the most humorous take possible on this story, you must watch the Drunk History episode on spies, featuring Octavia Spencer as Tubman (Warning: NSFW).

Harriet Tubman, photographed by Harvey Lindsley c. 1871–1876

Essentially, once the war started, Tubman moved down to South Carolina to continue her humanitarian work in the Sea Islands. While there, she acted in an official capacity as a nurse, but also (in an unofficial capacity) developed a network of scouts and spies. Her work on the Underground Railroad meant that she was uniquely suited to such tasks and she provided valuable intelligence to the Union Army, mostly working with Colonel James Montgomery. She is best known for the Combahee River Raid in June 1863, when she became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. During the raid, she used intelligence she had gathered on the placement of Confederate river mines to guide steamboats of Union troops safely to shore, where they set fire to plantations and seized valuable supplies and food. The boats were then used to transport escaping slaves to safety: Over 750 slaves were eventually rescued in the raid. Tubman later worked with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (aka Matthew Broderick) during the storming Fort Wagner, depicted in the movie Glory. Despite this service, she never received a government salary or pension until 1899. [Side note to Hollywood: Glory was great, but for the love of all that is holy, where is my Harriet Tubman movie?]

And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.

—Harriet Tubman on the Second Battle of Fort Wagner

Mary-Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew (1818–1900)
Another former slave to work for the Union cause was Mary-Elizabeth Bowser. Bowser worked in the spy ring of Elizabeth Van Lew in Richmond, Virginia. This network was incredibly elaborate and even included civil servants working in the Confederate military and government. Van Lew came from a wealthy Richmond family but had been educated in the North and held abolitionist sentiments. When the Civil War broke out, she became active in caring for Union prisoners in the Libby Prison. This allowed her cover to exchange information with them, including recently captured soldiers who passed her information on Confederate plans and troop movements, which she passed on to Union commanders through her network (via cypher systems, invisible ink, laundry codes, etc.). Van Lew also aided Union prisoners in escape attempts, sometimes even hiding prisoners in her home. In recognition, Ulysses S. Grant would later appoint Van Lew to be postmaster of Richmond, a position she held until 1877.

Elizabeth Van Lew

Bowser was likely born around 1840 as a slave in the Van Lew household, but had been granted her de facto freedom (they did live in Virginia after all) as a young girl. In addition to sending her to school in the North, Elizabeth Van Lew also arranged for her to participate in a missionary community in Liberia as a teenager. By early 1960, she had returned to work as a servant in the Van Lew household and soon Van Lew convinced Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, to hire Bowser (under a false name) in the Confederate White House. Bowser was thus able to spy on the leader of the Confederacy at his own dinner table. Even though officials knew there was a leak somewhere, Bowser was not suspected and Varina Davis maintained that none of her black servants were educated. [Side note: Seriously, this is white privilege, patriarchy, and racist obliviousness at its finest when you consider that someone with Bowser’s status and access wouldn’t even have been suspected of passing information.] Because records on the Richmond spy ring were destroyed at the end of the war to protect its members, the historical record is still very cloudy on the biographical details of Bowser’s life and even her exact name is in question. An interesting conference panel discussing the question can be found here.

I’m sorry to report that there are no verified images of the spy known as Mary Elizabeth Bowser.

Belle Boyd (1844–1900)
Also in Virginia, but working for the other side, was Isabella “Belle” Boyd. Boyd’s career in espionage began on the heels of her shooting a Union soldier in her own home when she was a teenager, a crime for which she was exonerated, but which led to Union troops closely watching her. The attractive Boyd took advantage of this interest to obtain information directly from Union officers. At first, she worked mostly as a courier in the Shenandoah Valley, an area where she could put her local knowledge and horsemanship to good use. On one occasion, she used her familiarity with a relative’s house to eavesdrop through a knothole whereby she gleaned important intelligence regarding Union troop movements. On May 23, 1862, Boyd learned that Union forces were planning to impede Confederate troops by burning the Front Royal bridges upon their withdrawal from the town. She tried to find someone to deliver the timely message to Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, and when she couldn’t, she rode behind enemy lines herself to deliver it. As a result, Jackson accelerated his attacked and saved the bridges. Boyd was caught numerous times, but always managed to avoid a death sentence, though she did end up in prison more than once. After the war, Boyd published an account of her wartime experiences called Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, became an actress, and toured the country speaking about her life as a Civil War spy.

Isabella Maria Boyd, “Cleopatra of the Secession”

Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841–1898)
Lastly, we come to Sarah Emma Edmonds. It is not verified that Sarah Edmonds was a spy, but she certainly served in the Civil War disguised as a man. Born in New Brunswick, Canada, she came to the United States in the late 1850s, eventually settling in Michigan. When the war broke out, she enlisted in the Union cause under the name Franklin Flint Thompson and serve as a field nurse and mail carrier for almost two years without anyone realizing she was a woman (physical examinations at enlistment were cursory at best). She participated in both the First and Second Battle of Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, and Fredericksburg, and was later referred to as a fearless soldier. In her autobiography, she claimed to have worked as a spy, but historians have not been able to confirm many of her claims, including that she disguised herself as a black man to infiltrate the Confederacy. Her military career ended when she contracted malaria—not wanting her secret to be discovered, she left to be treated in a private hospital and was mistakenly listed as a deserter. To avoid execution for desertion, instead of returning to her unit, she served out the war as a nurse in a hospital in Washington, DC. Over a decade later, Edmonds attended a reunion of the 2nd Michigan Infantry where she was welcomed by her former comrades-in-arms (once they realized who she was), some of whom helped Edmonds clear “Thompson” of the desertion charges on record and receive a pension. In 1897, Edmonds was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War Veterans association.

It is estimated that 250 to 750 women disguised their sex to serve in the Civil War.

Sarah Emma Edmonds in her disguise as Private Franklin Flint Thompson

And again I say, Hollywood, where is my movie of this?!?

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Karen Abbott, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
  • Belle Boyd, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison
  • Peggy Caravantes, Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War
  • Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom
  • S. Emma Edmonds, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields
  • Kate Clifford Larson, Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero
  • David D. Ryan, A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew
  • Elizabeth Varon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy

Podcast episodes:
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Civil War Spies: Belle Boyd
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Civil War Spies: Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Harriet Tubman, Union Spy

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches

For the next post in this series, see Soldiers and Spies in World War II.