Civil War: Women faced danger in roles as spies


Second of three parts

When one thinks of a Civil War soldier, a male image usually comes to mind. And, the war was fought largely, but not exclusively, by men.

Long ago, someone arrived at a ballpark figure of about 300 women who actually fought in either blue or gray. That figure cannot be documented or even confirmed, but the truth of the matter is that no one really knows just how many women on either side bound their bosoms and fought along side their male counterparts. Some accompanied their husbands or sweethearts into battle.

And, many of them were never even discovered. It certainly must have been a shock to an attending physician on the battlefield when one of these women was wounded and their true identity discovered.

Sarah Edmonds, aka Frank Thompson, had a varied wartime experience and was a nurse and a spy, as well as a soldier. In later life, she drew a pension of $144 per year for 14 years as a Civil War veteran.

Sarah was a 16-year-old who had run away from her abusive father and was working in a millinery shop in Flint, Mich. trying to earn a living when she heard the call for volunteers to “help whip the slaveholders of the South.”

Being both an excellent shot and skilled rider, this sounded like a great way to have a lot of fun for the next 90 days. She decided to become “Frank Thompson” and offered her services.

Although told that “at only five feet six inches he was too short and too delicate”, “he” was none the less accepted into Company F of the Second Regiment of Michigan Volunteers as a private.

Because of his size, he was assigned to the hospital as a nurse and was soon caring for men suffering from severe dysentery, or “bloody flux”, mumps, and typhoid fever. Then came the Battle of Manassas and there were more wounded and mangled soldiers than Frank ever though possible.

Shortly afterward, Frank was told that his “skull had the proper configuration to indicate that he would make a proper spy.”

Word reached his superiors and Frank was told to go behind enemy lines and gather as much information as possible. With blackened exposed body parts and wearing a woolly wig, away “he” went. Thompson returned in a few days “with blistered hands and a head full of hastily gathered information about Rebel positions and plans.

Just before the Battle of Antietam, Thompson again donned female clothes and went behind Rebel lines several times to gather information. It was sometime during this period that he was involved in a skirmish and was actually “engaged in hand-to-hand fighting” for the first time in his short military career. She noted that when back on nursing duty after the “bloodiest day of the war” he was greatly distressed while ministering to a casualty and discovered that the wounded soldier was also a female in disguise.

The 2nd Michigan was sent to Louisville, Ky. where Frank contracted malaria. Knowing that malaria required medical treatment, and hospitalization meant an examination of his body, Frank deserted.

Fearful of arrest if he returned to his regiment after his bout with malaria, Frank took another drastic step, and resumed both female attire and true identification as herself, Sarah Edwards, where she spent the remainder of the war in St. Louis as a worker for the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

Nancy Hart was known without a doubt to be the best shot with either a rifle or a pistol in Capt. Perry Conley’s band of pro-Confederate rangers operating in and around western Virginia. In addition, she was an excellent horse “man”, and her skill at being able to hit a moving target from the saddle was known far and wide. She was known to be both an influential and prominent partisan in the territory that would become West Virginia. Although only about 17, she was described as “a handsome girl with coal black eyes who rides and shoots with the best.” She could neither read nor write, but made up for her lack of book learning with her keen mind and the ability to keep going when many men were ready to stop. When she wasn’t busy making targets out of Yankees, she would wander into small towns and pick up military information. She was known to have a photographic memory, which proved extremely valuable in describing the number of pickets the enemy had, the layout of the land or village, and the types of weaponry the enemy held.

Women were spies and prisoners of war

Whether you were male or female, spying was dangerous business. If caught, the punishment could be imprisonment or worse — such as, banishment or hanging!

Belle Boyd, “La Belle Rebelle,” began her career as a spy and a courier for the Confederacy, when she was only 17. By the time she was 20, she had achieved lasting fame and was considered to be a great heroine. She was known throughout the United States, the Confederacy, and Great Britain as “Cleopatra of the Confederacy” and to the readers of French-language publications, she was known as “La Belle .Rebelle.” Born into an aristocratic and prosperous Virginia family, the fearless teenager was known to have provided valuable information to such well-known Confederate leaders as Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, Col. Turner Ashby, and Brig Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. Arrested several times for her activities, the “beautiful adolescent spy” was exchanged, paroled and imprisoned again where she contracted typhoid fever. She was finally banished from Federal soil forever and told that she would face a death sentence if ever caught on Federal soil again.

Pauline Cushman, while operating as a Union spy in Middle Tennessee in early 1863 after the Battle of Stones River, came under suspicion for her constant “visits” between Shelbyville, Wartrace, Manchester, Tullahoma and other towns. She was captured by cavalrymen under Gen. John Hunt Morgan, who was not exactly sure what to do with her, so he turned her over to Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest very quickly sent the Creole woman from New Orleans to Shelbyville, where the provost marshall, Alexander McKinstry, ordered a court to be convened. Based upon evidence found on her person, Cushman was found guilty and ordered to be hanged.

Upon hearing the verdict, almost immediately the former actress became “dreadfully ill.” As Bragg’s army was occupied with defending itself from the assault on Rosecrans’ men in June 1863, and Pauline so “dreadfully ill.” there seemed no real hurry to hang her.

So, when Bragg’s men left the area, they simply “forgot” about her. Their “forgetfulness” was just what the doctor ordered, and her health improved quite rapidly. She headed to the safety of Nashville, and once behind Federal lines, her short career as a spy came to an abrupt end.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow, herself an inmate of a Washington prison, somehow managed to relay valuable information to an adjutant general on the staff of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard when he visited her on Dec. 26, 1861. Rose, a widow and social queen of Washington at age 40, listened very attentively to the many politicians and influential men of the government, among them, John C Calhoun, James Buchanan, and Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts.

Union General George B. McClellan had commented “that looking back in retrospect at the debacle at Bull Run partly resulted from non-military events … the rebels knew our plans as soon as we did.” McClellan suspected that someone in Washington was giving away military secrets and hired private detective, Alan Pinkerton, to find them.

After several months and sifting through many records, the trail led Pinkerton to Greenhow. The detective and some of his best men began surveillance of the 43-year-old socialite, but were so suspicious in their actions, that it was they who were arrested by the local police. They were freed after an assistant secretary of state came to their rescue the next day. A few hours later on this Aug. 23, Rose, was arrested and remained in prison for nearly eight months without a hearing.

Although threatened with being charged with treason, she refused to incriminate herself. The authorities were not sure just what to do with her as no federal charges had been levied. Finally, on Feb. 15, 1862, by order of the War Department, Rose Greenhow, was transferred as a political prisoner from the Old Capitol Prison in Washington to Fortress Monroe, her new place of detention.

Then, on June 2, after much protest, she signed a document promising not to return north of the Potomac River without permission of the secretary of war after having been “set at liberty beyond the lines of the U.S. Army.” This was the first time in U.S. history that authorities had banished a resident from the nation’s capitol – and this resident just happened to be a woman!

Not every one was caught, including Rutherford County’s own Mary Kate Patterson. Her involvement in the activities of the Coleman Scouts is well known. Not only was she a close friend of young Sam Davis, but also she would later marry his brother, John.

The lovely, vivacious, brunette had no problem crossing Federal lines and in a letter to the Confederate Veteran magazine, she wrote:

“I always kept on the good side of the Commanding General and could get passes when I desired to do so.” The unpleasant task of discovering Sam Davis’ fate apparently fell to 20-year-old Mary Kate, who approached Union Maj. Gen. L. Harrison Rousseau for a pass to Pulaski. “Kate pleaded that a dear aunt there was nearing death and that she had to rush to her bedside. Major General Rousseau advised Mary Kate to wait until morning to begin the journey, but she would not be stopped. She and Willie Woodruff, a 9-year-old cousin, set out immediately for Pulaski in a horse and buggy, hoping against hope that it was not Sam who had been hanged,” wrote Marion Dunn in an article entitled, “The Unsinkable Mary Kate.”


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