Deadlier Than the Male - Female Spies During
the Civil War
By Steven Chabotte
Civil War coincided with the Victorian era, one of the most
morally repressive eras in history for
women. Everything from a woman's
dress to her education were tightly constricted by societal mores that
governed her every action.
These Victorian values that
women of the
Civil War era abided by were
certainly not set aside with the coming of war; a woman's contribution to
the war effort was supposed to begin - and usually end - at home. However,
as the war dragged on and more and more men left their jobs, homes, and
lives for the war effort,
women found themselves taking over farms,
working in shops, teaching in schools, and otherwise taking over for the
men who'd gone to war.
women refused to limit their
assistance to their country to what could be accomplished close to home.
These became nurses, worked to raise supplies for their troops, or even
worked in armories. A number of these
women supported their country in a
more dangerous - and scandalous way -- they became spies.
Espionage was considered a dishonorable pursuit for a man during the
Civil War era. For a woman, spying was tantamount to prostitution. However, as
the war escalated, women
of both the North and South flaunted the Victorian
morality of the time to provide their country the intelligence it needed to
make tactical and practical decisions.
Easily, the most infamous spy of the
Civil War or the 19th Century,
Belle Boyd. A Confederate spy, "La Belle Rebelle," as she came to be known,
Boyd's espionage activities during the war - not to mention her ability to
escape sticky situations unscathed - brought her fame and a modicum of
fortune both during and after the war.
Born Marie Isabella Boyd,
Belle Boyd began spying for the Confederacy when
Union troops invaded her Martinsburg, Virginia home in 1861. When one of
the Federal soldiers manhandled her mother, Boyd shot and killed him.
Exonerated in the soldier's death, an emboldened
Boyd managed to befriend
the Union soldiers left to guard her, and used her slave, Eliza, to pass
information confided in her by the soldiers along to Confederate officers.
Boyd was caught at her first attempt at spying - and threatened with death
- but she did not stop her activities; rather, she vowed to find a better
Boyd's chance presented itself at her father's hotel. She eavesdropped on
conversations the Union officers staying at the hotel conducted about
military affairs, and learned enough to inform General Stonewall Jackson
about their regiment and activities. This time,
Boyd delivered her
intelligence firsthand, moving through Union lines, and reportedly drawing
close enough to the action to return with bullet holes in her skirts. The
information she provided allowed the Confederate army to advance on
Federal troops at Fort Royal.
Boyd's daring acts of espionage were
drawn to a halt when a beau gave her up to Union authorities in 1862. She
was held in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington for a month, then
released, but found herself in the hoosegow again shortly. Once again, she
managed to be set free, and traveled to England, where she married a Union
Boyd wasn't the only
female spy operating in Virginia. In the Confederate capital of Richmond,
Van Lew, known as "Crazy Bet," was providing the Union with
intelligence while allowing her Confederate neighbors to consider her
Van Lew, born to a wealthy and prominent Richmond family, was educated by
Quakers in Philadelphia. She returned to Richmond an avowed abolitionist,
going so far as to convince her mother to free the family's slaves.
Her espionage activity began soon after the start of the war. To the
distress of her neighbors, she openly supported the Union; soon she
concentrated her efforts on aiding Federal prisoners at the Libby Prison,
taking them food, books, and paper. Then she began smuggling information
about Confederate activities from the prisoners to Union officers,
including General Ulysses S. Grant.
To hide her activities from her Confederate
neighbors, Van Lew
behaved oddly - dressing in old clothes, talking to herself, refusing to
comb her hair - oddly enough that people began to think she was insane,
and to call her "Crazy Bet." Far from insane,
Van Lew was hailed
by Grant as the provider of some of the most important intelligence
gathered during the war.
Steven Chabotte, August, 2008.
About the Author: Steven Chabotte is a
history buff himself, writing numerous articles on the topic, as well as
running two websites. Thank you Steven!
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