American women also played other, less visible, roles in the Civil War—for example, by helping their side gain information as spies, scouts, and couriers (messengers carrying information). "Many spirited girls and imaginative women were challenged by the opportunity to perform daring deeds for their cause," Massey noted. Some women became spies out of strong feelings of patriotism—they wanted to do their part to help their own side win the war. Others became spies for the opposite reason—they wanted to help the other side win. For example, the wife of one Confederate officer had been born and raised in the North, and she passed informa
tion about the South's plans to her father and brothers in the Union Army.
Since many women in both the North and the South had friends or family fighting for the other side, rumors about spying activities circulated from the earliest days of the Civil War. Newspapers often printed such rumors, which forced some women to live under clouds of suspicion. In some cases, neighbors turned on women whose loyalty they questioned. Women accused of spying were often banished from the region where they lived and forced to make dangerous journeys to the other side of the battle lines. Many of the women accused of spying were innocent, but some women actively gathered and carried secret information during the war. Most women who became involved in these activities counted on receiving less severe punishment if they were caught because of their gender.
In general, the Union did a better job of detecting and punishing enemy agents than did the Confederacy. Even before the Civil War began, the Federal government had taken steps to silence people who favored secession in Washington, D.C., and other areas. Many Southern sympathizers and suspected spies were either arrested and put in prison or banished from the Union. However, officials on both sides were reluctant to believe that women would act as spies. They often refused to consider women dangerous until after they had transmitted secret military information to the other side.
There were many successful women spies on both sides of the Civil War. One of the most effective Union spies was Elizabeth Van Lew (18181900) of Richmond, Virginia, who became known as "Crazy Bet." Throughout the war years, she pretended to be an eccentric (odd character) so that Confederate officials would view her as "crazy but harmless." In the meantime, she helped Federal prisoners escape from Richmond and provided Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822-
1885) with information that helped him capture the Confederate capital city. After the war ended, Grant arranged for guards to protect Van Lew's house and later appointed her postmistress of Richmond.
Black women also made effective spies during the war. In fact, Van Lew received much of her secret information from her former slave, Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Van Lew had sent Bowser to Philadelphia for schooling prior to the war. Once the war started, she arranged for Bowser to become a servant to President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) in the Confederate White House. Bowser pretended that she could not read, then stole glances at confidential memos and orders while she was cleaning. She also eavesdropped on conversations between Confederate officials while she served dinner. Bowser passed information about troop movements and other Confederate Army plans along to Van Lew, who sent it on to Union officials. Bowser's activities as a Union spy went undetected throughout the war.
An early Confederate spy was Rose O'Neal Greenhow (1817-1864), a Washington socialite who used her prominent position to extract information from Union officials. The secret messages she sent to friends in the South helped turn the First Battle of Bull Run (also called the First Battle of Manassas) into a Confederate victory in 1861. Afterward, she was placed under house arrest, and her home was turned into a prison for other women spies. Greenhow still managed to send messages outside, however, so after a brief stay in a Federal prison, she was sent behind Confederate lines in 1862. President Davis greeted her warmly and told her, "But for you there would have been no Battle of Bull Run."
Many other women acted as couriers during the war, smuggling money, weapons, or messages in their hair or in the lining of their hoop skirts. Still others committed acts of sabotage in support of their cause. For example, one Southern woman and her daughter destroyed several bridges in Tennessee to slow a Union advance. Other women helped prisoners escape, destroyed enemy property, and cut telegraph wires.
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