Famous Women Spies of the Civil War

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022-2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the April 2023 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

General Longstreet, a corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, was well known for having dependable intelligence from Southern spies, for example, in the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg from perhaps his most famous spy, Henry Thomas Harrison, or simply “Harrison” as known in Civil War folklore. Harrison’s work helped crystallize the Confederates’ understanding of Union corps positions and shaped General Lee’s strategic thinking at the Battle of Gettysburg. This led Lee to have his own forces converge in the vicinity of the town of Gettysburg. Longstreet’s use of spies at that battle is arguably even more important, since Jeb Stuart’s cavalry had failed General Lee on his knowledge of Union troop positions. That said, because the May 2023 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable featured a presentation that focused on the exploits of women during the Civil War, that meeting was an appropriate time to recall the work of women spies in both the North and South, who were plying their spy craft with sometimes dramatic results. This history brief examines three such famous women.

Belle Boyd

The first is Maria Isabelle Boyd, perhaps the most well-known woman spy. She was born to a prominent Shenandoah Valley slaveholding family in Martinsburg, then part of Virginia but soon to become part of West Virginia. Maria Isabelle Boyd became known simply as “Belle Boyd” and was renowned for her beauty. Indeed, one of her many nicknames was “Cleopatra of the Secession.” Her education took place at Mount Washington Female College, a “finishing school” in Baltimore, Maryland where she began at age 12 and graduated soon thereafter.

When the war began, Boyd plied her trade mostly from her advantageous position at a family-owned hotel in Front Royal. It was ideally located to eavesdrop on Union officers staying there during the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns. She was a master of manipulation and knew how to appeal to an officer’s sense of military chivalry. She and other southern belles exploited Victorian era males’ deference to womanhood. Her memoirs, written shortly after the war’s end, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, tell of how she began as a spy.

The house in Martinsburg in which Belle Boyd lived for part of her childhood

Union soldiers heard that Boyd had Confederate flags in her room at her mother’s house and went to investigate. The Union troops then hung a Union flag outside of the home. One of the soldiers blasphemed her mother, and Belle Boyd mortally shot him with a pistol. At legal proceedings, Boyd, incredibly, was found not guilty of murder, but the angry Union troops posted guards at her house.

Subsequently she charmed at least one of them, Union Captain Daniel Keily, who apparently gave her, among other things, flowers and “a great deal of information.” Boyd transmitted this information to Confederate officers through a family slave. Boyd especially helped Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign by spying on Union generals meeting in the hotel parlor supposedly through a knothole in the wall. James M. McPherson, in his famous book Battle Cry of Freedom, states, “In all of these swift, deceptive movements, Jackson was aided by local…spies who knew every foot of the country. Moreover, Valley residents such as Belle Boyd of Front Royal kept Jackson informed of Federal troop dispositions…(who) had to contend not only with Jackson’s army but also with a hostile civilian population.” Boyd’s revelations, used by Jackson to ascertain the number of Union troops, earned her a note of commendation from Jackson, and she was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor.

The cottage in Front Royal in which Belle Boyd lived during her heyday as a spy
The cottage was located behind the hotel where Boyd did most of her spying.

Arrested numerous times, the lovely Belle Boyd ended up in prison in Washington, DC and was then freed as part of a prisoner exchange. Similarly imprisoned in 1863, she was released when she fell ill with typhoid fever. In 1864 Boyd was arrested trying to smuggle Confederate documents to England, but ended up marrying, perhaps not surprisingly, one of the naval officers who had arrested her, Samuel W. Hardinge. They lived in England for a couple of years while Belle Boyd pursued an acting career. After the Civil War, they returned to the United States, and Hardinge was in turn arrested and imprisoned as a Southern spy! He was later released and died shortly thereafter. Boyd had a further postwar career as an actress, remarried a couple of more times, and passed away at the famous Wisconsin Dells in 1900.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow

Another Southern spy, known as “Wild Rose,” was born Rose O’Neal Greenhow. She married a prominent Washington, DC doctor. However, in the 1850s she endured an awful turn of events; her husband fell from an elevated sidewalk and died. Just prior to the Civil War, Greenhow became a Southern-leaning activist and helped organize a group of likeminded women. Greenhow’s connections from her deceased doctor husband, her grace, and her engaging personality helped her to garner crucial military and political information early in the war.

A coded message in Greenhow’s cipher

Before the First Battle of Bull Run, Greenhow had passed much important information to General P. G. T. Beauregard. Specifically, in July of 1861, she sent one of her spy ring associates on a journey of 20 miles through Northern territory with a written coded message tucked in her hair. Says McPherson, “Beauregard had been forewarned of McDowell’s advance by his espionage network in Washington, headed by Rose O’Neal Greenhow, …(in the form of) coded messages carried by southern belles riding fast steeds brought word of Union plans.” None other than Southern president Jefferson Davis later publicly recognized Greenhow’s help in the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run.

On the Union side of the ledger, Elizabeth Van Lew became one the North’s most fascinating spies. She was born in 1818 to a wealthy slaveholding family that owned a prosperous hardware business in Richmond, Virginia. Her grandfather had been the mayor of Philadelphia, so it was natural for Van Lew to be sent by her parents to attend a Quaker School in that city, where Van Lew came to view slavery as repugnant and became a strong abolitionist. Upon her father’s death in 1843, she convinced her mother and family members to free their slaves, many of whom decided to stay on as Van Lew’s paid servants.

Elizabeth Van Lew

When the Civil War began, Van Lew and her mother decided to come to the aid of Union prisoners housed at the disgusting Libby Prison in Richmond. Tapping a large portion of the family wealth, they brought Union prisoners food, clothing, and medicine. Additionally, Van Lew assisted with numerous escapes, smuggled out prisoner letters to the North, and gleaned knowledge from prisoners and their guards about Confederate strategy. By the end of 1863, Van Lew was noticed by General Benjamin “Spoons” Butler while in command of the Army of the James. The wily “Beast” Butler recruited Van Lew as a spy, and she quickly had a ring of spies under her direction in Richmond. Later she convinced some of the official leadership at Libby Prison to join her spy ring. Their efficient efforts sent coded messages with invisible ink in hollowed out food items such as eggs. Incredibly, their methods were so efficient that during General U. S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, Van Lew was able to send Grant Richmond newspapers along with fresh flowers from her garden!

Libby Prison

Van Lew flew the United States flag over her home after the fall of Richmond, earning her the wrath and scorn of the local population, which she endured for most of her postwar life. Conversely, her meritorious efforts were appreciated by the Union leadership and recognized by General Grant. On his first visit to the fallen city, Grant appointed her postmaster of Richmond, which she held for most of the postwar years through 1877.

Van Lew died in 1900 and was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1993. This Hall of Fame is operated by the Military Intelligence Corps of the U.S. Army and located at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The Hall of Fame honors soldiers and civilians who have made exceptional and extraordinary contributions to military intelligence, of which Van Lew certainly was one.

Belle Boyd, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, and Elizabeth Van Lew are proof that women made essential contributions to the war effort on both sides.

Click on the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.