Female Spies of the Confederacy

Belle Boyd
Belle Boyd. APIC/Getty Images
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About Women Spies for the Confederacy

United Daughters of the Confederacy Building
United Daughters of the Confederacy Building. Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

Belle Boyd, Antonia Ford, Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Nancy Hart, Laura Ratcliffe, Loreta Janeta Velazquez and more: here are some women who spied during the American Civil War, passing information to the Confederacy.

Some were captured and imprisoned, some escaped detection. They passed along important information that may have changed the course of battles during the war.

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Belle Boyd

Belle Boyd
Belle Boyd. APIC/Getty Images

She passed information on Union army movements in the Shenandoah to General T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson, and was imprisoned as a spy. She wrote a book on her exploits.

Dates: May 9, 1844 - June 11, 1900

Also known as: Maria Isabella Boyd, Isabelle Boyd

Belle Boyd Biography

Living in Martinsburg, Virginia, Belle Boyd passed information on Union army activities in the Shenandoah area to General T. J. Jackson (Stonewall Jackson). Belle Boyd was captured and imprisoned -- and released. Belle Boyd then went to England, followed by a Union officer, Capt. Samuel Hardinge, who had guarded her after an earlier capture. She married him, then in 1866 when he died, leaving her with a small daughter to support, she became an actress.

Belle Boyd later married John Swainston Hammond and moved to California, where she gave birth to a son. Fighting mental illness, she moved with Hammond to the Baltimore area, had three more sons. The family moved to Dallas, Texas, and she divorced Hammond and married a young actor, Nathaniel Rue High. In 1886, they moved to Ohio, and Belle Boyd began to appear on stage in a Confederate uniform to talk about her time as a spy.

Belle Boyd died in Wisconsin, where she is buried.

Her book, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, is an embellished version of her exploits as a spy in the American Civil War.

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Antonia Ford

Antonia Ford
Antonia Ford. Courtesy Library of Congress

She informed General J.E.B. Stuart of Union activity near her Fairfax, Virginia, home. She married a Union major who helped gain her release.

Dates:  1838 - 1871

About Antonia Ford

Antonia Ford lived at the home owned by her father, Edward R. Ford, located across the road from the Fairfax Courthouse. General J.E.B. Stuart was an occasional visitor at the home, as was his scout, John Singleton Mosby.

Federal troops occupied Fairfax in 1861, and Antonia Ford passed along to Stuart information on troop activity. Gen. Stuart gave her a written honorary commission as an aide-de-camp for her help. On the basis of this paper, she was arrested as a Confederate spy. She was imprisoned in Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C.

Major Joseph C. Willard, a co-owner of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., who had been a provost marshal at the Fairfax Courthouse, negotiated for Ford's release from prison. He then married her.

She was credited with helping plan the Confederate raid on the Fairfax County Courthouse, although Mosby and Stuart denied her help. She has also been credited with driving her carriage 20 miles past federal troops and through rain to report to General Stuart, just before the Second Battle of Manassas/Bull Run (1862) a Union plan to deceive Confederate troops.

Their son, Joseph E. Willard, served as lieutenant governor of Virginia and U.S. minister to Spain. A daughter of Joseph Willard married Kermit Roosevelt.

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Rose O'Neal Greenhow

Rose Greenhow in prison at the Old Capitol, with her daughter.
Rose Greenhow in prison at the Old Capitol, with her daughter. Apic/Getty Images

A popular society hostess in Washington, DC, she used her contacts to gain information to pass to the Confederacy. Imprisoned for a time for her espionage, she published her memoirs in England.

Dates: about 1814/1815 - October 1, 1864

About Rose O'Neal Greenhow

Maryland-born Rose O'Neal married the wealthy Virginian Dr. Robert Greenhow and, living in Washington, DC, became a well-known hostess in that city as she raised their four daughters. In 1850, the Greenhows moved to Mexico, then to San Francisco where Dr. Greenhow died of an injury, leaving Rose widowed.

The widowed Rose O'Neal Greenhow moved back to Washington, DC, and resumed her role as a popular social hostess, with many political and military contacts. At the start of the Civil War, she began supplying her Confederate friends with information gleaned from her pro-Union contacts.

One important piece of information that Greenhow passed along was the timetable for the Union Army's movements towards Manassas in 1861, which allowed General Beauregard to gather enough forces before the forces joined battle in the First Battle of Bull Run / Manassas, July 1861.

Allan Pinkerton, head of the detective agency and of the federal government's new secret service, became suspicious of Greenhow, and had her arrested and her home searched in August. Maps and documents were found, and she was placed under house arrest. When it was discovered that she was still managing to pass information to the Confederate espionage network, she was taken to the Old Capital Prison in Washington, DC, and imprisoned with her youngest daughter, Rose. Here, again, she was able to continue to gather and pass along information.

Finally, in May, 1862, Greenhow was sent to Richmond, where she was greeted as a heroine. She was appointed to a diplomatic mission in England and France that summer, and she published her memoirs, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, as part of the propaganda effort to bring England into the war on the side of the Confederacy.

Returning to America in 1864, Greenhow was on the blockade runner Condor when it was chased by a Union ship and ran aground on a sandbar at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in a storm. She asked to be put into a lifeboat, along with $2,000 in gold sovereigns that she was carrying, to avoid capture; instead, the stormy sea and the heavy load swamped the boat and she was drowned. She was given a full military funeral and buried in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Print Bibliography

  • Johnson, George Johnson, jr. Rose O'Neale Greenhow and the Bolckade Runners.
  • Leonard, Elizabeth D. All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies. 1999. (compare prices)
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Nancy Hart

Memorial to Nancy Hart at Manning Knob cemetery
Memorial to Nancy Hart at Manning Knob cemetery. Wikimedia Commons, user "Bitmapped:": CC BY-SA 3.0

She gathered information on federal movements and led rebels to their positions. Captured, she tricked a man into showing her his gun -- then killed him with it to escape.

Dates: about 1841 - ??

Also known as: Nancy Douglas

About Nancy Hart

Living in Nicholas County, then in Virginia and now part of West Virginia, Nancy Hart joined the Moccasin Rangers and served as a spy, reporting on federal troop activity in her home's vicinity and leading rebel raiders to their position. She was said to have led a raid on Summersville in July 1861, at age 18. Captured by a band of Union soldiers, she tricked one of her captors and used his own gun to kill him, then escaped. After the war she married Joshua Douglas.

There was also a Revolutionary War woman soldier and spy named Nancy Hart.

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Laura Ratcliffe

John Singleton Mosby, "Gray Ghost,"' Confederate cavalry battalion commander, 1864
John Singleton Mosby, "Gray Ghost,"' Confederate cavalry battalion commander, 1864. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

She helped Colonel Mosby, of Mosby's Rangers, elude capture, and passed information and funds by hiding them under a rock near her home.

Dates: 1836 - ? 

About Laura Ratcliffe

Laura Ratcliffe's home in the Frying Pan area, Fairfax County, Virginia, was sometimes used as a headquarters by CSA Col. John Singleton Mosby of Mosby's Rangers during the American Civil War. Early in the war, Laura Ratcliffe discovered a Union plan to capture Mosby and notified him of it so that he could elude capture. When Mosby captured a large cache of federal dollars, he had her hold the money for him. She used a rock near her home to conceal messages and money for Mosby.

Laura Ratcliffe was also associated with Major General J.E.B. Stuart. Although it was obvious that her home was the center of Confederate activity, she was never arrested or formally charged for her activities.  She later married Milton Hanna.

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Loreta Janeta Velazquez

As Harry Buford and Loreta Velazquez
As Harry Buford and Loreta Velazquez. Illustrations from The Woman in Battle by Velazquez. Modifications © Jone Johnson Lewis

Her highly dramatic autobiography has come into question, but her story is that she disguised herself as a man and fought for the Confederacy, sometimes "disguising" herself as a woman to spy.

Dates: (1842 - ?)

Also known as: Harry T. Buford, Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Madame Loreta J. Velazquez

About Loreta Velazquez

According to The Woman in Battle, a book published by Loreta Velazquez in 1876 and the main source for her story, her father was the owner of plantations in Mexico and Cuba and a Spanish government official, and her mother's parents were a French naval officer and the daughter of a wealthy American family.

Loreta Velazquez claimed four marriages (though never took any of her husbands' names). Her second husband enlisted in the Confederate army at her urging, and, when he left for duty, she raised a regiment for him to command. He died in an accident, and the widow then enlisted -- in disguise -- and served at Manassas/Bull Run, Ball's Bluff, Fort Donelson and Shiloh under the name Lieutenant Harry T. Buford.

Loreta Velazquez also claims to have served as a spy, often dressed as a woman, working as a double agent for the Confederacy in the service of the U.S. Secret Service.

The veracity of the account was attacked almost immediately, and remains an issue with scholars. Some claim it is probably entirely fiction, others that the details in the text show a familiarity with the times that would be difficult to completely simulate.

A newspaper report mentions a Lieutenant Bensford arrested when it was disclosed "he" was actually a woman, and gives her name as Alice Williams, which is a name which Loreta Velazquez apparently also used.

Richard Hall, in Patriots in Disguise (see bibliography), takes a hard look at The Woman in Battleand analyzes whether its claims are accurate history or largely fictionalized. Elizabeth Leonard inAll the Daring of the Soldier (also see bibliography) assesses The Woman in Battle as largely fiction, but based on real experience.

Loreta Vazquez Bibliography:

  • Hall, Richard. Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War. 1994.
  • Leonard, Elizabeth D. All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies.

More About Loreta Velazquez:

  • The Woman in Battle - etext of Velazquez' first-person account (the veracity of this account has been questioned by scholars)
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More Women Who Spied for the Confederacy

Civil War envelope: Virginia depicted as a woman with Confederate and Army troops fighting on her back
Civil War envelope: Virginia depicted as a woman with Confederate and Army troops fighting on her back. The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

Other women who spied for the Confederacy include Belle Edmondson, Elizabeth C. Howland, Ginnie and Lottie Moon, Eugenia Levy Phillips and Emeline Pigott.