Author and historian discusses role of female spies in Civil War
By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Ashford - posted Wed., Apr. 17, 2013
Connecticut author Matthew Bartlett was always interested in American history, particularly the American Revolution, but a visit to the famous Civil War battleground in Gettysburg, Penn., changed his life.
The experience compelled him to begin writing a historical fiction series about the Gettysburg campaign. He is now in the process of writing the fifth book in the “Gettysburg Chronicle” series.
On Friday, April 12, Bartlett provided a talk and slideshow presentation at the Babcock Library in Ashford, which focused on notable women who served as spies in the Civil War.
Arguably the most famous female Civil War-era spy was Kate Warne, who is credited as the first female detective in the country. Employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a forerunner of the Secret Service, Warne was a key person in foiling an 1861 attempt to assassinate President Lincoln. She also played an important role in military intelligence for the Union forces during the Civil War. It is believed that when asked why she would want to be a detective - a dangerous job, unheard of for a woman in the 1850s - she was said to have argued that women would be “most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective.”
Bartlett said women, especially those of greater social standing, could integrate themselves into society, befriend high-ranking officers and their wives, and gather information. Additionally, as the lady of the house in boarding houses, they could easily eavesdrop on the conversations of soldiers staying in their homes, write down information, and pass it along.
Bartlett said men would often talk freely about intelligence operations in front of women at that time, because they felt women could not comprehend military conversations.
Union sympathizer Elizabeth Van Lew found her own way to help out the cause. A Virginia native, she gained permission to visit Union soldiers held in a nearby prison to bring them food and clothing and help them write letters home. While visiting, she gathered the information they provided her about Confederate troop movements and passed it along to Union leaders, which eventually reached Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. She also helped to arrange the escape of many soldiers.
“Grant was getting so much information from her, he felt he needed to visit her when he came through Richmond [Virginia], and he ended up making her postmaster,” said Bartlett.
Women spies also aided the Confederacy, as was evidenced by Rose Greenhow, a prominent and influential Washington socialite and secessionist sympathizer who used her connections to gather and pass ciphered messages and reports on Union battle plans to Confederate officials. She has been credited with helping the south to win the Battle of Manassas. Eventually, Bartlett said, Greenhow was found out, arrested and served time in prison, but even from there she gathered information and sent out messages, which she hid in the extravagant hair buns that she styled for her lady visitors.
Another Confederate supporter, Belle Boyd, was awarded the Southern Cross for eavesdropping on a Union soldier who was holding a conversation in a hotel lobby. Her spy work resulted in foiling a plot against Stonewall Jackson. Caught several times but never arrested, Boyd eventually moved to England, where the climate was more sympathetic to the Confederacy. Years later, she returned to the United States and went on a lecture circuit sharing her spy experiences.
Bartlett said there were likely many more women and former slaves who served as spies in the annals of history, but their contributions were swept under the rug. “I expect we’ll begin to learn a lot more about their contributions as time goes on,” he said.