Women's Motivations for Engaging in Espionage during the Civil War

(This paper was originally prepared for my U.S. History class, and has been reformatted and edited slightly for use on E2. I did, however, decide to include the endnotes used in the original paper, so that each specific piece of information cited can be located.) 


The Civil War took place because of rising conflict over the issue of slavery between the North and the South, though tension between the two had been increasing steadily for other reasons over the years before the war. Lincoln’s election, and what it presaged for the future of the country—slavery in particular—was the final straw. The war took place between 1861 and 1865, after the southern Confederacy had seceded from the northern Union. The Civil War differed from other wars in many ways, the most prominent of which was the phenomenon of brother fighting brother. Instead of an enemy with tangible, observable differences, neither side could determine on an individual basis against whom they were fighting. Both sides had the same background and beliefs, and each already knew the geography and habits of the other. This intimate knowledge of the enemy made espionage especially simple and effective for both sides.1

Though the United States had used spies at various other points in history, it wasn’t until the Civil War that the practice truly began to develop. Many techniques from this period, often developed by nothing more than intuitive amateurs, are still used by modern American spies. Spies were usually completely untrained, and age, race, and sex varied widely. For the first time groups such as newsboys, Negroes, so-called ‘telegraph spies,’ and women were given the opportunity to enter into the field of espionage.2 Women in particular contributed greatly to the war efforts of their respective sides, and many were, without any official training, extremely successful spies.

The Question.

Fact. During the Civil War, over 400 women fought for their country, on both sides. That entirely apart from the thousands who worked as nurses during that time.3 Many of those 400 were involved as either spies or couriers. They were directly responsible for the outcome of at least one major battle, and indirectly responsible for several others. And women of the time had another advantage; male chivalry. It was not gentlemanly to execute ladies, even if they were single-handedly responsible for a military defeat. In fact, only one woman was actually put to death during the entirety of the Civil War, a relatively unsuccessful spy named Mary Suratt.4 But the question remains; why? Going to war, enlisting and heading off to the front were all honorable activities for men of the period, but women were expected to serve as nurses, or stay home. Supporters of women's rights would have thrown back their heads and howled, but in 1861 they were still relatively few and far between. So why did so many women risk alienating their friends and loved ones, spending long periods of time in prison, and even potentially being executed?

For six reasons. The four most common of these were pure and simple loyalty to country, beliefs concerning slavery, a craving for adventure and notoriety, and desire for power or importance. Many also joined in order to get revenge for the death of a loved one, or because of familial obligations or expectations.

For King and Country. Or at least for Country.

Probably the single most common motivation women had for becoming spies was a powerful loyalty to either the Union or the Confederacy. During such a divided period in the country’s history, women were as patriotic as men; many were passionately devoted to their side, and espionage was one of the few opportunities they had to aid the war effort.5 One such woman, Pauline Cushman, was born in New Orleans in 1833 as Harriet Wood. She changed her name when she decided to become an actress, and after signing up as a spy for the Union she used her talents as a performer to help her out of difficult situations, once even posing as a boy.6 Though born in New Orleans, Cushman lost all identification with the South during her extensive travels as an actress. At the start of the Civil War, Cushman decided that “there was only one way for Cushman to serve her beloved country and that was as a spy—and she did just that.” Cushman stole important papers and took notes on everything she saw, hiding the documents between the inner and outer cork layers of her shoes. These techniques were not overly subtle, and she came close to being executed several times.7

Another woman inspired by loyalty to the Union to become a spy was Elizabeth Van Lew, otherwise known as ‘Crazy Bet.'8 She was the single most successful woman spy in the Civil War, and was also, incongruously enough, a “member of the old line of Virginia aristocracy” and the “daughter of a prominent Richmond citizen.”9 As such, she was perfectly positioned to spy for the Union, and did so with great success. She and the extensive spy ring she developed “represented all that was left of the power of the United States government in the city of Richmond for a long time,”10 and she set up a line of relay stations between her house in Richmond and the Union lines in order to keep General Sharpe and General Butler, her main Union contacts, informed.11

If I am entitled to the name of ‘spy’ because I was in the Secret service, I accept it willingly; but it will hereafter have to my mind a high and honorable signification. For my loyalty to my country I have two beautiful names—here I am called ‘Traitor,’ farther north a ‘Spy’—instead of the honored name of ‘Faithful.’12

Elizabeth Van Lew was the single best woman spy of the period and, though a high member of Southern society, she engaged in espionage against her hometown because of her deep, albeit unlikely, loyalty to the Union.

A third, highly successful example of a female spy inspired by loyalty was the Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, born in 1817 in Montgomery County, Maryland. Greenhow said of herself that she was “a Southern woman, born with revolutionary blood in her veins,” and her reason for becoming a spy was a true, passionate love of the South. It was Greenhow’s acquaintance with John Calhoun that gave her a “profound identification with the South,”13 eventually leading her in the spring of 1861 to become an official Confederate spy. Though she was not as successful as Van Lew, Rose Greenhow nonetheless gathered crucial information for the Confederacy, and even “helped make possible the victory at Bull Run, the war’s first major battle.”14 She was an extremely persuasive woman with an ability to influence others that she employed often, and in marrying the respectable Dr. Robert Greenhow, she made sure she was quickly accepted into Washington society.15

"Give us free."

Women during the Civil War took passionate stances on the question of slavery, and their beliefs led many to become spies. Elizabeth Van Lew, aside from her strong loyalty to the Union, was also a fervent abolitionist. The Van Lew family was originally from the North, and Elizabeth had been educated in Philadelphia, where she may have acquired her abolitionist tendencies.16 Her family had freed all their slaves when she was quite young, and sent many of them North to be educated. Elizabeth Van Lew later called some of them back to Richmond to act as couriers or part of the Richmond spy ring for her, and all of them agreed to return. “Miss Van Lew was not quiet about her feelings regarding slavery in Richmond,” but her open attraction to the North actually allayed suspicion—people felt that a spy would be more discreet and speak the opposite of what he felt.17 Finally, on her grave, Elizabeth Van Lew had inscribed the following epitaph: “She risked everything that is dear to man—friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself, all for the one absorbing desire of her heart—that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.” In order to reinforce her image as harmless and perhaps slightly insane, Van Lew also exaggerated her eccentricity, shuffling about and wearing tattered, old clothing. She was given the nickname ‘Crazy Bet,’ and was summarily dismissed as innocuous.18 She went to these lengths in order to avoid detection, so that she could continue to aid the North and bring about the end of slavery.

Rose Greenhow was also motivated by her feelings about slaves; she was very pro-slavery, and spent a large part of her life spying for the South in order to ensure that it would continue. Greenhow spoke of herself as “an avid anti-abolitionist.”19 She had many motivations to become a spy, and her strong belief about slavery was one.

'Just for kicks.'

A third, powerful motivation for women was boredom; they became spies for the thrill, or for the notoriety and fame it afforded them. Belle Boyd, a prime example, was born in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, part of a “well-known family having ties among the best in the clan.”20 She became the youngest spy in history at age 16, and though she loved the South, she worked mainly for the thrill it gave her. “Belle Boyd played the role of spy as if the war were a light-hearted game of charades,” making the acquaintance of several influential or informed men and allowing them to think that they were teaching her. It was an effective technique; “Boyd looked at men through her long lashes, assuring them that she had no intentions hostile to the North, while she stole whatever secrets were at hand.”21

Boyd was too high profile to be a successful spy, however, and she served more as a propaganda technique than an information-gatherer. She became a spy for the thrill of it, to shock people, and before she reached the age of twenty-one she had “been imprisoned twice, ‘reported’ nearly thirty times, and arrested six or seven.” Once she was altogether too famous to be of any use in the field of espionage, Boyd used her reputation to become an actress, often playing herself in portrayals of her own story.22

Lottie and Ginnie Moon were “women of the new day born in the old,” and they were restless. The two girls, born fifteen years apart, were called “the South’s most authentic sister spy act.” Ginnie was the beauty of the pair, using her appearance to charm Union soldiers into giving up military secrets; at one time she had over ten beaus, all sympathetic to the Union and convinced that she shared their sentiments. Both Ginnie and Lottie were forward-thinking women born years too early: “They traipsed around in wide skirts and flowered headgear; at the proper times they gazed soulfully at the boys.”23 They became spies because they craved adventure, and after developing her acting skills Lottie was quite successful. And while her sister was out spying, Ginnie was at home “helping her mother bandage wounded soldiers, and getting restless.”24

Few women had only one motivation for becoming spies, and both Elizabeth Van Lew and Pauline Cushman also craved the thrill that spying offered women; Cushman wanted “change and adventure, which she loved with an intensity that bore down every other feeling.”25 Van Lew, on the other hand, had an unusual idea of fun and actively went out to view the fighting. She felt that “no ball could be as exciting as her ride that evening. Only think of the bright rush of life, the hurry of death on the battlefield.” This danger-loving facet of her personality led Van Lew to seek thrills commonly unavailable to women, in the form of espionage carried out almost next door to the new Confederate government.26

Pure and simple love of power.

Power was something not often readily available to women of the time, but a woman spy had the power to change the outcome of the war. Many spies, female and otherwise, received official recognition in the form of a letter of thanks from the government for which they fought, and some women valued highly the importance they could have in the field. It was one of the motivating forces in the decision of Rose Greenhow to become a spy, and she said herself that she “worked for the sheer love of power.”27 Women were generally thought to be harmless, an advantage that almost all of them made use of whenever possible. Van Lew was not a beautiful woman, and she “accomplished her ends without the help of charm or a lush figure or a coquette’s air.”28 Because of this, she was motivated by a desire for other types of power to develop some of the most advanced spying techniques of the time period. These techniques included ciphers, invisible ink that could be revealed only with the application of milk, a spy ring composed of ordinary citizens of Richmond, and the sending of a single message in pieces by different couriers.29 The last was particularly important because any one piece of the message, if the courier were intercepted, would not be useful to the Confederacy.

Don't get mad, get even.

As there was a war going on, another common motive women had for becoming spies was a simple desire for revenge. Husbands, brothers, and sons were lost in battle, and some women didn’t feel that nursing was an active enough contribution to make to the war effort in retaliation. Sometimes, they became spies. An example already mentioned is Rose Greenhow, inspired by her anti-abolitionist sentiments to become a Southern spy. Her support of slavery, however, is the result of her father’s murder at the hands of a slave early in her life. In order to get revenge, years later, she became a spy to help preserve slavery.30

Nancy Hart, née Price, was a relatively unknown and only mildly successful spy for the Confederacy who joined the Moccasin Rangers and reported on federal troop activity near her home. She also led rebel raiders to their positions.31 Her hatred of Union soldiers was inspired by a strong desire for revenge for her brother’s death. William Price, a Confederate soldier, had been killed in battle against the North early on in the war, and Nancy joined the war effort as a Confederate spy soon after.32

Sarah Thompson, née Lane, was born in Tennessee in 1838. She initially worked with her husband to organize and assemble Union sympathizers in Tennessee, but his death spurred her to “continue his work for the Union, delivering dispatches and recruiting information to Union officers.”33 In order to get revenge for her husband’s death, Sarah Thompson worked with some success in the latter part of the war to gather information and bring it to the Union troops.34

It's what dad would have wanted.

The sixth and final main reason that women had for becoming spies during the Civil War was familial connections or expectations. Many women were raised in families in which several members were spies, and others took over for male family members who were wounded or killed while spying. One such woman was Sarah Emma Edmonds, who first enlisted in the army and then served as a spy, all the while masquerading as a man named Franklin Thompson.35 Her true gender was not discovered until later, when she took ill and had to desert temporarily to avoid detection. Her story was sorted out later, and she was the only female member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union war veterans organization.36 She joined the army, and later became a spy in order to live up to her father’s expectations; he had wanted a son, and had treated her badly during her childhood as a result. In order to prove to him that she was, “underneath her femininity, as brave as any son,” she had become a Union spy. Another example, Belle Boyd, had become a spy mainly for the notoriety it afforded her, but she had also had family members who were spies. “At least three of her Boyd’s relatives had served as Confederate spies.”37 Her close relationship with the field of espionage, and familial expectations, had inspired her to her career as a successful Confederate spy.

And so, in conclusion...

Women during the Civil War became spies for a wide variety of reasons; the most common motivations were a fierce loyalty to their country, a strong opinion either for or against slavery, a desire for both fame and adventure, or for power and importance. Women also joined in order to get revenge for the death of a loved one, or to live up to familial expectations or traditions. They were still considered primarily as “beautiful objects without a real brain in their heads,”38 and espionage afforded them an opportunity to take advantage of this miscalculation. Because of their gender, most military commanders refused to execute women convicted of espionage, releasing them and allowing them to continue gathering information. Women spies at the time were quite willing to use these benefits to their own advantage, and that combined with a wide variety of powerful motivations made them an influential force during the Civil War.



Clark, J. Ransom. Women Spies. Ohio, 2001. <http://intellit.muskingum.edu/civwar_folder/civwarunwomen.html>

Garrison, Webb. Amazing Women of the Civil War. New York, 1999.

Kane, Harnett. Spies for the Blue and Gray. New York, 1954.

Kennedy-Nolle, Sharon, and Drew Faust. Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. Louisiana, 1998.

Leonard, Elizabeth. All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies. Chicago, 2001.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. Female Spies for the Confederacy and Female Spies for the Union. <http://womenshistory.about.com/library/misc/cw/bl_cw_spies_confederate.htm> and <http://womenshistory.about.com/library/misc/cw/bl_cw_spies_union.htm>

Markle, Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War. New York, 2000.

Miller, Nathan. Spying For America. New York, 1989.

Norton, Mary, David Katzman, Paul Escott, Howard Chudacoff, Thomas Paterson, and William Tuttle, Jr. A People & A Nation. Boston, 1994.


1 Norton et al.,  A People & A Nation, Chapter 15.
2 Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, pp. 55-66, 78.
3 Lewis, <http://womenshistory.about.com>, Women Spies in History.
4 Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, p. 93.
5 Garrison, Amazing Women of the Civil War, pp. 19-21.
6 Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, pp. 173-175.
7 Kane, Spies for the Blue and Gray, pp. 178; Garrison, Amazing Women of the Civil War, p. 74.
8 Leonard, All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, p. 56.
9 Both quotes from Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, pp. 179-182.
10 Miller, Spying for America, p. 99.
11 Garrison, Amazing Women of the Civil War, p. 76.
12 Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, p. 186.
13 Kane, Spies for the Blue and Gray, pp. 18-20; Miller, Spying for America, p. 109.
14 Miller, Spying for America, p. 97.
15 Clark, <http://intellit.muskingum.edu/civwar_folder/civwarunwomen.html>, Woman Spies.
16 Lewis, <http://womenshistory.about.com/library/misc/cw/bl_cw_spies_union.htm>, Female Spies for the Union; Leonard, All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, p. 93.
17 Miller, Spying for America, p. 148.
18 Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, p. 181.
19 Garrison, Amazing Women of the Civil War, pp 122; Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, p. 159.
20 Kennedy-Nolle and Faust, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, p. 16.
21 Kane, Spies for the Blue and Gray, p. 129; Clark, <http://intellit.muskingum.edu/civwar_folder/civwarunwomen.html>, Woman Spies.
22 Kennedy-Nolle and Faust, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, p. 74.
23 Kane, Spies for the Blue and Gray, pp. 263-266; Lewis, <http://womenshistory.about.com/library/misc/cw/bl_cw_spies_confederate.htm>, Female Spies for the Union.
24 Kane, Spies for the Blue and Gray, p. 272.
25 Kane, Spies for the Blue and Gray, p. 179; Miller, Spying for America, p. 151.
26 Garrison, Amazing Women of the Civil War, p. 183; Kane, Spies for the Blue and Gray, p. 240.
27 Kane, Spies for the Blue and Gray, p. 18.
28 Leonard, All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, p. 116; Kane, Spies for the Blue and Gray, p. 232.
29 Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, p. 182.
30 Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, p. 159.
31 Clark, <http://intellit.muskingum.edu/civwar_folder/civwarunwomen.html>, Woman Spies.
32 Lewis, <http://womenshistory.about.com/library/misc/cw/bl_cw_spies_confederate.htm>, Female Spies for the Confederacy.
33 Lewis, <http://womenshistory.about.com/library/misc/cw/bl_cw_spies_union.htm>, Female Spies for the Union; Miller, Spying for America, p. 88.
34 Leonard, All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, p. 235.
35 Clark, <http://intellit.muskingum.edu/civwar_folder/civwarunwomen.html>, Woman Spies.
36 Lewis, <http://womenshistory.about.com/library/misc/cw/bl_cw_spies_union.htm>, Female Spies for the Union.
37 Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, pp. 156 and 175.
38 Garrison, Amazing Women of the Civil War, p. 63; Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, p. 173.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.