Female Spies of the Confederacy

An antique cannon outside the United Daughters of the Confederacy Building

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Belle Boyd, Antonia Ford, Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Nancy Hart Douglas, Laura Ratcliffe, and Loreta Janeta Velazquez: these women spied during the American Civil War, passing information to the Confederate States of America. Some were captured and imprisoned, while others 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 posed for a photograph

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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.

Fast Facts: Isabella Maria Boyd

  • Born: May 9, 1844 in Martinsburg, (West) Virginia
  • Died: June 11, 1900 in Kilbourn City (Wisconsin Dells), Wisconsin
  • Also known as: Maria Isabella Boyd, Isabelle Boyd

Living in Martinsburg, Virginia, Belle Boyd passed information on Union army activities in the Shenandoah area to General T. J. Jackson (Stonewall Jackson). Boyd was captured, imprisoned, and released. 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, and she divorced Hammond and married a young actor, Nathaniel Rue High. In 1886, they moved to Ohio, and Boyd began to appear on stage in a Confederate uniform to talk about her time as a spy.

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 Civil War.

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Antonia Ford

Antonia Ford in an oval frame

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.

Fast Facts: Antonia Ford Willard

  • Born: July 23, 1838 in Fairfax, Virginia
  • Died: February 14, 1871 in Washington, D.C.

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 Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C.

Major Joseph C. Willard, a co-owner of the Willard Hotel in 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. Ford 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, son of President Teddy Roosevelt.

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Rose Greenhow

Rose Greenhow in prison at the Old Capitol, with her daughter

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A popular society hostess in D.C., 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.

Fast Facts: Rose O'Neal Greenhow

  • Born: ca. 1814 to 1815 in Montgomery County, Maryland
  • Died: October 1, 1864 near Wilmington, North Carolina

Maryland-born Rose O'Neal married the wealthy Virginian Dr. Robert Greenhow and, living in D.C., 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. There, Dr. Greenhow died of an injury.

The widow Greenhow moved back to D.C. and resumed her role as a popular social hostess, with many political and military contacts. At the start of the Civil War, Greenhow 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 Greenhow 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 Capitol Prison in D.C., 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.

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Nancy Hart Douglas

Nancy Hart after her 1862 capture

Francis Miller / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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

Fast Facts: Nancy Hart Douglas

  • Born: ca. 1841 to 1846 in Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Died: ca. 1902 to 1913 in Greenbrier County, North Carolina
  • Also known as: Nancy Hart, Nancy Douglas

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, Hart 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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Loreta Janeta Velazquez

As Harry Buford on the left and Loreta Velazquez on the right

The Woman in Battle / Bettmann / Getty Images

The highly dramatic autobiography of Loreta Janeta Velazquez 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.

Fast Facts: Loreta Janeta Velazquez

  • Born: June 26, 1842 in Havana, Cuba
  • Died: January 26, 1923 in Washington, D.C., by some accounts
  • Also known as: Harry T. Buford, Madame Loreta J. Velazquez, Loretta J. Beard

According to "The Woman in Battle," a book published by 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.

Velazquez also claimed 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 Velazquez apparently also used.

Richard Hall, in "Patriots in Disguise," takes a hard look at "The Woman in Battle" and analyzes whether its claims are accurate history or largely fictionalized. Elizabeth Leonard in "All the Daring of the Soldier" assesses "The Woman in Battle" as largely fiction, but based on real experience.

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Laura Ratcliffe

John Singleton Mosby, called Gray Ghost, posing in his Confederate cavalry battalion commander uniform in 1864, who used Ratcliffe's home as a base

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

Fast Facts: Laura Ratcliffe

  • Born: March 28, 1836 in Fairfax, Virginia
  • Died: August 3, 1923 in Herndon, Virginia

Ratcliffe's home in the Frying Pan area of 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, 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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More Women Confederate Spies

A Civil War era drawing shows a personified Virginia, a woman upon whose back the soldiers fight

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

Resources and Further Reading

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Female Spies of the Confederacy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/female-spies-of-the-confederacy-4026015. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 29). Female Spies of the Confederacy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/female-spies-of-the-confederacy-4026015 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Female Spies of the Confederacy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/female-spies-of-the-confederacy-4026015 (accessed May 30, 2023).