Special Report

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

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

Harriet Tubman, Union Spymaster

Harriet Tubman
(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The former slave known for leading more than 300 people—including her elderly parents—to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad was also a Union spy. Born in Maryland around 1820, Tubman volunteered for the Union as a cook and a nurse before she was recruited by Union officers to establish a network of spies in South Carolina made up of former slaves.

Tubman became the first woman in the country’s history to lead a military expedition when she helped Col. James Montgomery plan a night raid to free slaves from rice plantations along the Combahee River. On June 1, 1863, Montgomery, Tubman and several hundred black soldiers traveled up the river in gunboats, avoiding remotely-detonated mines that had been placed along the waterway. When they reached the shore, they destroyed a Confederate supply depot and freed more than 750 slaves.

After the war, Tubman tried to collect $1,800 for her service but was unsuccessful. Due to the service of her late husband, she did receive a widow’s pension of $8 per month beginning in June 1890. The government authorized a payment of $25 a month to Tubman beginning in January 1899, but Tubman only received $20 per month until her death in 1913, when she was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

In 2003, after students at the Albany Free School brought the issue of Tubman’s remaining pension to the attention of New York Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton, Congress authorized a payment of $11,750 to the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn.


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