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Civil War Spies: Good Intell Knows No Gender

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2001 – Historians agree that World War II changed life for American women in the 20th century.

The Civil War had just as great an impact on the lives of American women in the 19th century.

When the South fired on Fort Sumter, S.C., in 1861, American women wanted to do more than just wait at home for their brave menfolk to come home. North and South, women wanted to help the war effort.

In the North, women organized sanitary fairs to ship medical aid, food and suitable reading material to the boys in blue. Many Northern women found themselves running farms and small businesses as their men left for the front. Still other Northern women went to work in factories.

In the South, women also found themselves rolling bandages and making clothes for the boys in gray. They, too, took over farms, plantations and small businesses and went to work in armories providing the weapons of war.

In both areas, there were women who wanted to do more, and they went off to nurse those wounded in action. Some women actually enlisted using mens names and fought with Union or Rebel armies.

Finally, women aided the war effort as spies. Espionage was considered disreputable for men at the start of the war. The idea of one of the fair sex engaging in such activity would have been greeted by horror. But the need for good intelligence was crucial, and men overcame their revulsion when good, accurate information began coming in from women spies.

In the South, one of the most celebrated female spies was Belle Boyd. She was called "La Belle Rebelle" during stage appearances after the war. She was born Isabelle Boyd in Martinsburg, Va. (now West Virginia), in 1844. A beauty, she was presented to society in Washington, D.C., in 1860.

When Virginia seceded, Boyd threw her lot in with the Confederacy and moved back to Martinsburg. At first, she helped in more traditional roles of rolling bandages and raising money for the Confederate forces, but that changed when Union soldiers occupied Martinsburg in July 1861. Boyd mixed with Union officers and picked up tidbits of troop moves and future plans. She passed those along to Confederate forces.

Her most famous exploit was passing along the plans of Union Maj. Gen. James Shields to Gen. T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson in l862. Learning that Shields intended to destroy Martinsburg's bridges, Boyd undertook a hazardous journey through the Union lines and is said to have urged Jackson to move quickly. He did and, though outnumbered, drove Shields' troops from the Shenandoah Valley.

After her return to Martinsburg, Boyd continued to spy openly for the Confederates and served also as a courier and scout with Maj. John S. Mosby's guerrillas. She was arrested by Union forces and held in Washington. She contracted typhoid and was paroled in a prisoner exchange.

In 1864, Boyd was on a mission to England bearing letters from Confederate President Jefferson Davis when the Union Navy intercepted her blockade runner. She fell in love with Lt. Samuel Wylde Harding Jr., the Union officer placed aboard the rebel ship as prize master. He allowed her and the Confederate skipper to escape. Court-martialed and discharged, Harding sailed to England and married La Belle Rebelle.

After the war, she wrote an account of her life as a spy and also became an actress. She toured the United States and married again in 1869. Belle Boyd died in 1900.

Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew was a lot more effective. A Richmond, Va., native, Van Lew was schooled in the 1850s at a Philadelphia Quaker school and came to despise slavery. Before the war, she wrote, "Slave power crushes freedom of speech and of opinion. Slave power degrades labor. Slave power is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic, not only over the slave but over the community, the state."

She freed all the family slaves. Hearing that the children or relatives of Van Lew slaves were to be sold by other owners, she bought and liberated them as well.

When the war broke out, she did not disguise her Union sympathies. She asked to visit Union prisoners held in Richmond and began taking them food and medicines.

Many of the prisoners noted Confederate defenses and troop movements after they were captured. Van Lew set up a network of couriers and devised a code to get that information through the lines to Union forces.

Richmonders called her Crazy Bet, and she cultivated that image. In public she mumbled and hummed to herself. She held conversations with herself. She combed her curls less carefully and wore her oldest clothes and most battered bonnets. All Richmond thought Crazy Bets sympathy for the Union was part of her mental illness.

But Van Lew did more than just pass along tactical information she picked up from captured Union soldiers. Among the slaves she had liberated before the war was Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Van Lew got Bowser a job as house servant for Confederate President Jefferson Davis and, together, the two collected and passed information to the North.

She was among the first people Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant visited upon the taking of Richmond. When Grant became president, he appointed Van Lew as postmaster of Richmond. Once the people of Richmond realized the scope of the aid Van Lew provided the Yankees, they shunned her.

Van Lew also died in 1900. The people of Massachusetts erected a marker on her Richmond grave that read, "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."

Other female spies -- North and South -- followed their convictions during the war. They include Confederate Rose ONeal Greenhow and Union spies Pauline Cushman, Sarah E. Thompson and Harriet Tubman.

All these women truly expanded the range of acceptable activities for women in the 19th century.

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