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Civil War Spies

In recent months my research has taken me down some fascinating roads.  I started out researching Civil War spies, in particular those who served the confederacy.  What would make someone risk their life for a cause, not in the brave, bold manner of a solider, but in the covert, dangerous role of spy? What I found were loyal Southerners. (Next time out I’ll try to come up with a storyline that features a Union spy, but this particular character came to me as a Southerner.)

When we hear the word “spy” most of us probably think of James Bond, or, if you’re a Burn Notice fan like me, Michael Weston comes to mind.  Fun, exciting stuff.

But the real life Civil War spies I studied really didn’t do anything as exciting as in the movies or on television.

Take Thomas Conrad, for example.  One of the Confederacy’s most effective spies.  He initially planned to kidnap President Lincoln and assassinate Union General Winfield Scott.  Conrad posed as a man of the cloth, a disguise that allowed him to easily make his way into Union territory where he was able to garner strategies and plans.  While his plan to kidnap Lincoln and assassinate Scott never materialized, he was briefly arrested after Lincoln’s assassination, mistaken—because he’d shaved his beard—for John Wilkes Booth.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow.  One of my favorite spy stories.  A Washington socialite and widow, before the war she had entertained international diplomats and members of Congress as well as President Buchanan.  These ties made it easy for the Southerner to collect covert intelligence for the new Southern government.  Rose is most famous for continuing her spy activities even while under house arrest surrounded by Union guards. Rose passed information along via her maid, who carried information in hollowed out pieces of fruit, her shoes, and even occasionally rolled up and tucked into her hair.

Antonia Ford.  Ford held parties for Union officers and soldiers in her home in Fairfax, VA.  Beauty and charm made it easy for her to collect information from her guests, who had no idea she was collecting information for the Confederacy.

Laura Ratclifee allowed Colonel John Mosby and his rangers to use her home in Squirrel Hill, PA for meetings.  She also allowed them to use a large rock on her property as a rendezvous point to exchange messages and information.

Belle Boyd.  One of the more colorful female spies, her story is a bit more exciting than the others.  Boyd first came to the attention of Union officers when she shot and killed a soldier trying to hang a Union flag from her home in Martinsburg, VA.  Since the chivalry of the time kept men from doling out harsh treatment to women, she was scolded for the crime, but not imprisoned.  Boyd soon began her career of carrying information about Union forces to Confederate officers and is credited for providing information helpful to Stonewall Jackson’s success in the Shenandoah Valley campaign in the spring of 1862.

Reading the stories of these real life spies has given me great insight into the mind of my fictional spy.  Even if I am a little disappointed that there were no fancy gadgets, high-speed chases or explosions.

Next month I’ll be talking about my visit to Elmira, NY, and my research into the prison camp known as Hellmira.

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5 Comments

  1. Helen Hardt says:

    Wow, interesting that so many women worked as spies! I really enjoyed the post, Nic!

  2. Isabel Roman says:

    I love a good spy story, especially when it’s a woman doing the spying! Great blog, Nic, thanks.

  3. I’m fascinated with spies too, Nicole! I did a lot of research on spies while writing my Civil War romance, Confederate Rose and, while the spy in that story is male, I did find a lot of stories of real life female spies, like those you mentioned.

    I think it was the chivalry of the period that allowed these women to carry on spying right under the noses of the enemy. And even male spies used disguises like that of a cleryman, a photographer or reporter to gain the confidence of the men they needed to obtain information from.

  4. Tanya Hanson says:

    Fantastic blog, Nic! Isn’t is amazing how much of our 19th century history we owe to brave, smart women?

  5. Thanks for stopping by, ladies! I definitely think it was easier for women to be spies at that time, which makes it really fun for those of us who write romance! *G*

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