Real Civil War Spies

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by Mary Ellis

While researching my latest romance, The Lady and the Officer, I discovered several real-life spies whose lives provided plenty of inspiration.
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Probably the most famous Confederate spy was Belle Boyd. At 17, Belle was arrested for shooting a Union soldier who had broken into the family’s home. Though Union officers cleared her of all charges, they watched her closely. Young and attractive, Boyd used her charms to gain information, which she passed along to the Confederacy. After repeated warnings to stop her activities, Union officials sent Boyd to live in Front Royal, Virginia. Soon after her arrival, she began working as a courier between Confederate generals. Stonewall Jackson credited Belle with helping him win victories in the Shenandoah Valley. In July 1862, Boyd was arrested and sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. She was released a month later and deported to Richmond, but was soon caught behind federal lines and imprisoned for three more months. In 1864 she was arrested while smuggling Confederate papers to England. She fled the country and a few months later married Samuel W. Hardinge, one of the Union naval officers who had detained her. After her husband’s death, Belle wrote a book and embarked on a speaking career, often describing her clandestine wartime experiences.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a Washington socialite when she began spying for the Confederacy. Greenhow obtained information about Union military activity and passed coded messages to the Confederates. One of her most important messages, hidden in her hair, helped Gen. Beauregard win the First Battle of Bull Run. Suspicious of Greenhow’s activities, Allan Pinkerton, head of the new Secret Service, gathered enough evidence to place her under house arrest. But Greenhow continued her espionage. In January 1862, she and her daughter were transferred to Old Capitol Prison. Several months later she was deported to Baltimore where Confederates welcomed her as a hero. President Davis sent her to Britain and France to gain support for the Confederacy. In September1864, Greenhow was returning to the South on a British blockade-runner with $2,000 in gold. With a Union gunboat in pursuit, the ship ran aground on a sandbar near North Carolina. Against the captain’s advice, Greenhow tried to escape in a rowboat with two other passengers. The boat capsized and she drowned, presumably weighed down by the gold she carried. Her body washed ashore the next day and was buried in Wilmington with full (Confederate) military honors.

Born to a wealthy Virginia family, Antonia Ford was 23 when she provided intelligence to Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart. Ford gathered information from soldiers occupying her hometown, halfway between Washington, D.C. and Manassas, Virginia. In October 1861, Stuart gave Ford an honorary commission as aide-de-camp. He ordered that she “be obeyed, respected and admired.” In March that document was used to accuse her of spying for John Singleton Mosby. Mosby’s rangers had captured Union general Edwin H. Stoughton in his headquarters – one of the most famous cavalry raids of the war. The Secret Service suspected Ford was involved because Stoughton and Ford had spent time together. When the Secret Service sent a female operative, pretending to be a Confederate sympathizer, to meet Ford, Ford showed her Stuart’s commission. Antonia was soon arrested with smuggled papers hidden in her clothing. After months at the Old Capitol Prison, she was released thanks to Union major Joseph C. Willard – one of her captors. Willard resigned from the Union Army, and he and Ford married in March 1864, after she took an oath of allegiance to the United States.

Mary Ellis JulylMary Ellis has written twelve bestselling novels set in the Amish community. Before “retiring” to write full-time, Mary taught middle school and worked as a sales rep for Hershey Chocolate. She has enjoyed a lifelong passion for American history and is currently working on several historical romances. The Lady and the Officer is her latest release. Please visit her at Thanks to the Smithsonian Magazine for providing biographical information.

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