Other than working in the labor force and taking care of wounded soldiers, women served in the war more directly in terms of military. Southern women could travel more freely near armies than male civilians. These women would sometimes bring important information to confederate commanders. One of the most famous female Confederate spies was Maria Isabella Boyd known as Bell Boyd. After the start of the Civil War, Boyd helped to organize parties to see troops. It was said that she killed a Union soldier for assaulting her mother. She became a courier for generals Pierre G.T. Beauregard and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson during his Shenandoah Valley campaign and at the Battle of Front Royal in 1862. She would carry information and medical supplies to the fighting fronts. Belle Boyd also made a few heroic rides through battlefields to get her information across the lines to the South. She would be imprisoned three times for her efforts. Rose O’Neal Greenhow was also a Confederate spy who used her charm in Washington and in Europe to relay information, for propaganda, and to win sympathy.
Perhaps the most interesting spy work came from Mary Elizabeth Bowser. She was a servant-slave for Elizabeth Van Lew. When Van Lew’s father died, she freed Bowser and sent her to Philadelphia to get an education. Van Lew, who was already a spy for the Union government, recommended Bowser as a servant for the Confederate White House in Richmond. While she cleaned and waited on Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his advisors, she read military dispatches and eavesdropped on conversations about Confederate military strategy and its movement. Said to have a photographic memory, she would memorize document details and then pass them along to other Union spies who would get the information to generals U.S. Grant and Benjamin Butler. Bowser would do the Union great services and was regarded in the United States Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. This courageous woman would be a mystery after the war because the Union destroyed much of her details for her protection.
Many women were not above enlisting themselves in the army and fighting in battles for both sides. The average ages of soldiers were from late teens to early twenties along with an average height of 5’8’’ and weight between 125-145. This would help cover up a female’s voice by appearing to be changes in puberty and to be close to the size of the other soldiers. The heavy wool layers of military uniforms also helped to hide women’s breasts making it rather difficult to spot a woman trying to pose as a soldier. It is estimated that around 400 women served in both Confederate and Union armies as soldiers and many accounts of that time say that the number is much higher.
Cartoon image of
Mary E. Bowser
Spying in the
This page was created by Todd Gentry.