Female Spies and Gender-Bending Soldiers Who Changed the Course of the Civil War

Belle Boyd, teenager, “fast woman,” and Confederate spy.

Karen Abbott grew up in Philadelphia and then moved to Atlanta. She experienced culture shock when suddenly confronted with people who seem to still be fighting the Civil War. It piqued her interest in the conflict, and she wondered how women were involved. There are always women involved in war, even if they don’t make it into textbooks. Abbot became intrigued with the stories of Elizabeth Van Lew, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson, and Maria Isabella “Belle” Boyd. The stories of these spies and soldiers intersected with each other, and involved plenty of other women who left fewer accounts behind. They used the misogyny of the time to their own advantage.     

In this climate, women made great spies precisely because of the way 19th-century society underestimated them. During the Civil War, they “were able to take society’s ideas about the weakness of womanhood and brilliantly exploit them,” Abbott says. “Women were always supposed to be the victims of war, not the perpetrators. One of my favorite quotes in the book is from a Lincoln official, who was completely flummoxed when he said, ‘What are we going to do with these fashionable women spies?’ The idea that women are not only capable of treasonous activity, but they are also capable of executing it more deftly than men was something that had never occurred to these men. The women were either above suspicion, in the case of somebody like Elizabeth Van Lew, or below suspicion, in the case of somebody like Mary Jane Bowser. Nobody even knew she could read, and of course, she was probably the smartest one of them all.”

If they were caught, or on the verge of being caught, female spies could play dumb, helpless, or indignant, declaring “How dare you accuse me? I am a defenseless lady!” Abbott says men didn’t know how to handle it. “Another one of my favorite scenes in the book is the hearing where Rose O’Neal Greenhow is being charged with treason against the United States,” she says. “The prosecution is questioning and badgering her, and she’s turning the tables on them and putting them on the defensive brilliantly. Then one of her interrogators says ‘I don’t think you are bent so much on treason as mischief.’ And it’s like, ‘Mischief? I basically won the battle of Manassas for the South, and I’m up to mischief?’ Even when the evidence was clearly laid out right in front of the men, she was just guilty of ‘mischief,’ because what more could a woman be guilty of?”

Abbot’s research resulted in a book titled Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. The book will be available next week, but you can read an overview of those stories at Collectors Weekly.

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