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Special Report
Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Confederate spy (The Granger Collection, NYC)

Women Spies of the Civil War

Hundreds of women served as spies during the Civil War. Here’s a look at six who risked their lives in daring and unexpected ways

Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy

Belle Boyd
(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

One of the most famous Confederate spies, Belle Boyd was born to a prominent slaveholding family near Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), in 1843. At the age of 17, she was arrested for shooting a Union soldier who had broken into her family’s home and insulted her mother. Though Union officers investigated and cleared her of all charges, they watched her closely after that. Young and attractive, Boyd used her charms to get information from the officers, which she passed along to the Confederacy.

After repeated warnings to disengage in covert activities, Boyd was sent by Union officials to live with family in Front Royal, Virginia. Soon after her arrival, she began working as a courier between Confederate generals Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard. Jackson credited the intelligence she provided with helping him win victories in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.

In July 1862, Boyd was arrested by Union forces and sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. She was released a month later and deported to Richmond, but she was soon caught behind federal lines and imprisoned for three more months. In 1864 she was arrested again while trying to smuggle Confederate papers to England. She fled the country and a few months later married Samuel W. Hardinge, one of the Union naval officers who had detained her. Hardinge returned briefly to the United States and was imprisoned as a suspected Southern spy. He died soon after his release.

Boyd, now a widow, wrote her two-volume memoir, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, in 1865 and embarked on an acting career, often telling of her clandestine experiences during the war. She remarried twice and died in Wisconsin in 1900.

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