The Civil War – Spies played a role on both sides

Submitted by C.J. Johnson

Neither the Union nor the Confederate governments had elaborate, structured espionage departments set up as the war began, although each had spies reporting information before The War officially started.

According to, “From early in the war, the Confederacy set up a spy network in the federal capital of Washington, D.C., home to many southern sympathizers. The Confederate Signal Corps also included a covert intelligence agency known as the Secret Service Bureau, which managed spying operations along the so-called “Secret Line” from Washington to Richmond.

As the Union had no centralized military intelligence agency, individual generals took charge of intelligence gathering for their own operations. General George B. McClellan hired the prominent Chicago detective Allan Pinkerton to set up the first Union espionage organization in mid-1861.” But neither side could have dreamed the crucial role women would play during the War Between the States.

Spying was not advanced in the 1860s. There were no training schools or handbooks. One source stated, “Union spies were more numerous, but it was Southern spies that were interesting, if not effective.” Both sides were aware of spies from the other side. Both sides found it relatively easy to move across lines between the North and South. And both sides had plenty of problems with coordination and consistency.

On July 29, 1862, one of the most famous Southern spies, Belle Boyd, was captured for the first time. Marie Isabella “Belle” Boyd would be arrested three times during the war. The daughter of a well- known, slaveholding family from the Shenandoah Valley, in 1861 seventeen year old Boyd was cleared by a Union investigation when she shot and killed a Union soldier for insulting her mother and trying to search their home.

Shortly after that episode, she started spying for the Confederacy. In the spring of 1862, during Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign, Boyd personally delivered key information about Union movements and actions that enabled Rebels to win at the Battle of Winchester.

Other well-known Rebel spies included Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a widow in her 40s who was a strong secessionist and a popular Washington socialite. She initiated her spy career in 1861. Greenhow was buried with full Confederate military honors after her death in September 1864, when she drown, supposedly from the weight of gold she was bringing from Europe

Twenty-three year old Antonia Ford was another Virginian who spied for the South, gathering intelligence for J. E. B. Stuart in 1861 and John Singleton Mosby in 1863.

Union female spies included Harriet Tubman, of Underground Railroad fame; New Orleans born actress Pauline Cushman; Mary Elizabeth Bowser, likely born Mary Jane Richards, a slave of the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia; and Elizabeth Van Lew, daughter of the same family and member of Richmond society.

Educated in the North, “Crazy Bett” Van Lew, in her mid-40s, lived with her widowed mother in a large three-story mansion in Richmond. While she was proud of her Southern roots, she was strongly opposed slavery and secession. Her spying made her an outcast in Richmond the rest of her life.

Counter-intelligence came of age during the Civil War, as both the Federal and Confederate government and military leaders realized its importance and usefulness.