Female Spies for the Union

Women Spies of the Civil War

Pauline Cushman
Pauline Cushman. Courtesy Library of Congress

Women were often successful spies because men didn't suspect that women would engage in such activity or have the connections to pass on information.  Confederate households were so used to ignoring the presence of enslaved servants that they didn't think to monitor the conversations held before those people, who could then pass the information along.

Many spies -- those who passed on information useful to the Union that they had gained surreptiously -- remain unknown and unnamed.

 But for a few of them, we have their stories.

Pauline Cushman, Sarah Emma Edmonds, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary Edwards Walker, Mary Elizabeth Bowser and more: here are some of the many women who spied during the American Civil War, helping the cause of the Union and the North with their information.

Pauline Cushman:
An actress, Cushman got her start as a Union spy when she was offered money to toast Jefferson Davis. Later caught with incriminating papers, she was saved just three days before her hanging by the arrival of the Union Army. With the revelations of her activities, she was forced to stop spying.

Sarah Emma Edmonds:
She disguised herself as a man to serve in the Union Army, and sometimes "disguised" herself as a woman -- or as a black man -- to spy on the Confederate troops. After her identity was exposed, she served as a nurse with the Union.

Some scholars today doubt that she carried out as many spy missions as she claimed in her own story.

Harriet Tubman:
Better known for her trips -- nineteen or twenty -- into the South to free slaves, Harriet Tubman also served with the Union Army in South Carolina, organizing a spy network and even leading raids and spy expeditions including the Combahee River expedition.

Elizabeth Van Lew:
An abolitionist from a Richmond, Virginia,  family that held slaves, under her father's will she and her mother could not free them after he died, though Elizabeth and her mother seem to have nevertheless effectively freed them.  Elizabeth Van Lew helped bring food and clothing to Union prisoners and smuggled out information. She helped some escape and gathered information she overheard from guards. She expanded her activities, sometimes using invisible ink or hiding messages in food. She also placed a spy in the home of Jefferson Davis, Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Mary Elizabeth Bowser:
Enslaved by the Van Lew family and granted freedom by Elizabeth Van Lew and her mother, she passed information gleaned in Richmond, Virginia, to imprisoned Union soldiers who then passed the word to Union officers.  She later revealed she had served as a maid in the Confederate White House -- and, ignored while important conversations were held, passed along important information from those conversations and from papers she found.

Mary Edwards Walker:
Known for her unconventional dress - she often wore trousers and a man's coat - this pioneer physician worked for the Union Army as a nurse and spy while she waited for an official commission as a surgeon.

Sarah Wakeman:
Letters from Sarah Rosetta Wakeman were published in the 1990s, showing she had enlisted in the Union Army as Lyons Wakeman. She speaks in the letters about women who were spies for the Confederacy.