Women were so eager to fight for the cause they cross-dressed to enlist as soldiers — a flagrant flouting of the law, as both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women. About 400 women traded their bonnets and dresses for a cap and trousers, passed a cursory medical exam, and went off to war. One Northern woman was a staunch abolitionist who fought because “slavery was an awful thing.” A Southern counterpart was more bloodthirsty, yearning to “shoulder my pistol and shoot some Yankees.” People were so accustomed to seeing women’s bodies molded into exaggerated shapes with corsets and hoopskirts that no one could fathom what the female form might look like in pants, let alone an entire army uniform. Most of the ladies got away with their deception, with a few notable exceptions — including one corporal from New Jersey who gave birth while on picket duty.
2. Speaking of hoopskirts, they raised smuggling to an art form.
Fashions of the times included crinoline, the rigid, cage-like structure worn under skirts, that, at the apex of its popularity, reached a diameter of six feet. Ladies capitalized on this cumbersome piece, using it to conceal all manner of goods as they passed through enemy lines: opium, cavalry boots, rolls of flannel, cans of preserved meats, bags of coffee, and even weapons. A network of rebel women crept about Union camps, gathering thousands of unattended sabers and pistols and tying them to the steel coils of their hoopskirts. They also enlisted their daughters in their smuggling efforts, packing quinine in sacks of oiled silk and tucking them inside the hollowed papier-mâché heads of dolls.
Without the strike, the Confederate army would’ve been much smaller. One Alabama schoolgirl spoke for her many of her peers when she declared, “I would not marry a coward.” At balls and parties girls linked arms and sang, “I am Bound to be a Soldier’s Wife or Die an Old Maid.” One belle, upon hearing that her fiancé refused to enlist, sent her slave to deliver a package enclosing a note. The package contained a skirt and crinoline, and the note these terse words: “Wear these, or volunteer.” He volunteered.
4. They literally got away with murder.
On July 4, 1861, 17-year-old Virginian Belle Boyd fatally shot a Union soldier for threatening to raise his flag over her home — and told Union authorities she would gladly do it again. Washington was reluctant to turn the teenager into a Confederate martyr. When Belle claimed self-defense, they let her off with a warning.
5. They ran an all-girl game of Spy vs. Spy, operating in plain sight of the enemy.
Confederate agent Rose O’Neal Greenhow led a spy ring in Washington, D.C., from her home near Lafayette Square — “within easy rifle range” of Lincoln’s White House. Greenhow’s Union counterpart, Elizabeth Van Lew, formed her espionage ring in the Confederate capital of Richmond, even placing a former slave as a spy in the Confederate White House. No one knew that the spy, Mary Jane Bowser, was highly educated and gifted with an eidetic memory, capable of memorizing images in a glance, and recalling entire conversations word for word.
6. They manipulated the president of the United States.
When Belle Boyd’s husband, a formal U.S. naval officer, was arrested, she swiftly sent a letter to Lincoln. “I think it would be well for you & me to come to some definite understanding,” she warned, and vowed to reveal “many atrocious circumstances” about the federal government if he wasn’t released. He was.
7. They got their best information via pillow talk.
It’s easy to imagine an 1860s belle wheedling information over a genteel cup of tea, but these ladies were willing to forsake the parlor for the bedroom. Rose Greenhow’s reported lovers included a Union colonel, a U.S. senator from Oregon, and an abolitionist Republican who served as Lincoln’s chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. “You know that I do love you,” read one love letter to Rose. “I am suffering this morning. In fact, I am sick physically and mentally and know nothing that would sooth me so much as an hour with you.” Belle Boyd, according to a Northern journalist, was “closeted four hours” with Union general James Shields, and subsequently wrapped a rebel flag around his head to celebrate her conquest.
8. Victor/Victoria had nothing on them.
Emma Edmonds, who disguised herself as a man named “Frank Thompson” to fight for the Union army, also served as a spy — once infiltrating Confederate lines dressed as a male slave, and another time as an Irish peddler woman. Confederate sympathizer Loreta Janeta Velazquez, otherwise known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, was reportedly wounded in battle in February 1862 and fled to New Orleans to avoid discovery of her real identity. While there, and still dressed in male attire, Confederate officials arrested her — on suspicion of being a female Union spy.
9. They played high-stakes games against Allan Pinkerton.
The famed detective conducted stakeouts targeting Rose Greenhow, concluding that she used her “almost irresistible seductive powers” to aid the rebels. “She has not used her powers in vain among the officers of the Army,” he stressed, “not a few of whom she has robbed of patriotic hearts and transformed them into sympathizers with the enemies of the country which had made them all they were.” About Belle Boyd, he wrote, “She gets around considerably [and is] more efficient in carrying news to the rebels of our operations than any three men.”
10. Ironically, Pinkerton also considered them to be his best private dicks.
Kate Warne, America’s first female private eye and Pinkerton’s alleged mistress, held the title “Female Superintendent of Detectives” at the agency. She convinced Pinkerton that a woman could more effectively “worm out secrets” than a man. “She understood that rarer quality in womankind,” Pinkerton said, “the art of being silent.” Warne was part of the team that uncovered an alleged plot to assassinate Lincoln en route to his inauguration.
11. They weren’t afraid to fight dirty.
Union officials in charge of Southern towns were subjected to numerous indignities: Rebel women (some wearing brooches made of Union soldiers’ bones) pointed pistols at them, emptied the contents of chamber pots on their heads, and spat in their faces. “Men should be protected from the saliva of such a creature,” insisted one Northern newspaper, “for any man would sooner have on him so much vitriol or rattle-snake poison.”
During the battle of Front Royal in May 1862, Belle Boyd ran onto the field and into gunfire, bullets tearing the hem of her skirt, to deliver a message to General Stonewall Jackson (she was determined to “occupy his tent and share his dangers” and hoped to impress him with her valor). Union spy Pauline Cushman was caught in Kentucky with compromising papers, sentenced to be hanged, and rescued by federal troops in the nick of time. Elizabeth Van Lew received death threats from a group called the “White Caps,” who vowed to burn down her house and asked for “some of [her] blood to write with.” Returning home from Europe, where she lobbied for the Confederacy, Rose Greenhow vowed to die rather than return to a Union prison — even as the enemy ships closed in around her.
Karen Abbott’s book about female Civil War spies, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, is out now from HarperCollins.
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