The Civil War Connections Blog

Women in the War, pt. 2

Hello faithful Connections readers! Today covers part two of my series on women during the war, and discusses women spies! During the Civil War, women received a substantial amount of power as a result of the men being required to leave home and engage in battle. The lack of a male presence within the household forced women to assume responsibilities they were unfamiliar with prior to the war. One of the ways in which women helped the Civil War effort and therefore stepped out of their traditional female roles was through spying. Women with strong views of the war often utilized their femininity to encourage officers or soldiers to share information with them. In this sense, women took the previously established female role and played upon it in order to benefit their country. Women were thought to be simple minded and silly, and therefore made effective spies whom men would not question their intentions when potentially sharing information with ladies present.


Belle Boyd, accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Belle Boyd, accessed through the Library of Congress online.


In Martinsburg, VA, now part of West Virginia, lived one of the most influential Civil War spies named Belle Boyd. A wealthy and intelligent Southern belle, Boyd began collecting information and spying for the Confederacy, specifically providing information to General Stonewall Jackson, at the age of seventeen.[1] When the Federal troops first arrived in her town, Boyd refused to remove the Confederate flag from outside her house. A Federal soldier arrived at her front porch to force her family to remove the flag and instead hang the Federal flag, but when he attempted to approach her house, Boyd is said to have shot and killed him.[2] Not only did Boyd avoid being charged with murder, she also avoided punishment of any kind and continued to flirt with the Federal troops in order to gain information about the movement of the Union army. Boyd also worked as a nurse, and continued passing information to Confederate leaders such as P.T. Beauregard, Jackson and J. E. B. Stuart. Boyd was arrested multiple times for her involvement, yet managed to avoid remaining within prison for an extended period of time.  After finally being captured on a boat trying to take information abroad, Boyd married the Union ensign in charge of her fate. In multiple instances, Boyd was capable of using her feminine traits to excuse her from her masculine role within the war. Men underestimated her because she was a woman, and it allowed Boyd to greatly impact the successes of the Confederate army by manipulating men.


Rose Greenhow,  accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Rose Greenhow, accessed through the Library of Congress online.


Rose Greenhow, another Confederate spy, was a prominent woman in the social scene of Washington, and had an abundance of both Union officials and Southern sympathizers in her social circle. Similar to Boyd, Greenhow’s charming personality enabled her to acquire information from influential Northern officials, which she promptly sent to her old friend Jefferson Davis. One of Greenhow’s most notable achievements as a spymaster within Washington was alerting the Confederate army of the planned Union surprise attack that would result in the overwhelming Union defeat at the Battle of First Bull Run. Once captured by the Union Army, Greenhow continued to manage her information network while on house arrest, and from prison while being held under the charge of treason. She was soon exiled from the Union, “promising to not return north of the Potomac River without permission of the Secretary of War after having being set at liberty beyond the lines of the U. S. Army.”[3] From Richmond, she was sent abroad by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and became prominent within the British social scene in an attempt to both increase support for the Confederacy and publish her own book. Even more impressive in her untraditional role within the war was her ability to impress and enchant her supporters in Britain as well as Washington, D.C. Greenhow opened the doors to her own personal success with an international book deal of her experiences, capitalizing on her involvement with the war.


Both of these women are fascinating examples of how women stepped out of their private roles in order to help the war efforts. It shows not only were women willing and capable to make a difference, it also shows that they understood the larger political themes and danger of their involvement. For one of the first times in history, larger numbers of women were able to help outside of the home and really make an impact. The Civil War was a unique conflict for the United States, in that it not only tested the relationships of the states and the power of the government, it also tested traditional family roles and the power of social constraints.

[1] Web Garrison, Amazing Women of the Civil War: Fascinating True Stories of Women Who Made A Difference, (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1999), 123.

[2] Garrison, Amazing Women of the Civil War, 124.

[3] Garrison, Amazing Women of the Civil War, 160.