Motivations for Engaging in Espionage during the Civil War
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.)
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
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.
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?
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.
King and Country. Or at least for Country.
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
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
and simple love of 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.
get mad, get even.
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
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
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
what dad would have wanted.
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.
so, in conclusion...
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.
J. Ransom. Women Spies. Ohio, 2001.
Webb. Amazing Women of the Civil War. New York, 1999.
Harnett. Spies for the Blue and Gray. New York, 1954.
Sharon, and Drew Faust. Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. Louisiana, 1998.
Elizabeth. All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies.
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>
Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War. New York, 2000.
Nathan. Spying For America. New York, 1989.
Mary, David Katzman, Paul Escott, Howard Chudacoff, Thomas Paterson, and William
Tuttle, Jr. A People & A Nation. Boston, 1994.
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,
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,
15 Clark, <http://intellit.muskingum.edu/civwar_folder/civwarunwomen.html>,
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,
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.
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>,
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,
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,
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>,
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>,
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.