Civil War

family at a civil war campsite
A family at a Civil War army camp
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
LC-B811- 2405 [P&P]
Click on image for larger view

Union and Confederate military leaders actively recruited women for undercover operations.  Their familiarity with particular regions made them valuable assets.  Because of this, many operatives in the South stayed on the family farm or in the family townhouse, supplying critical information about the daily activities of soldiers, military leaders, and even other undercover operatives.  Those with social connections threw parties, inviting enemy officers, who often let slip some tidbit of information that the hostess reported back to her contact.

As the Civil War unfolded, there was a major shift in how women operatives were viewed and utilized.


At the beginning of the conflict, women were considered as their ancestors in the Revolutionary War had been: innocent and non-threatening.  Such thinking slowly gave way as commanders on both sides began to truly understand and appreciate the immense value of women operatives.  Because of the intelligence data they routinely procured and the harsh conditions under which they obtained it, political and military leaders no longer looked upon women in general as above suspicion. This changing perception of gender roles made Civil War intelligence gathering much more dangerous for females, especially those serving undercover.

During the Civil War, both male and female operatives found themselves working within something of a more formalized intelligence gathering system than at any other time in U.S. history. Field agents reported to designated handlers—military or civilian case officers responsible for a particular agent and his or her activities. Recruitment and what passed for training also became more structured.  Elaborate clandestine networks were established and managed by each side across the country, with women serving at all levels, including as scouts, encryption specialists, agent handlers, and spies.

Civil War woman
Unknown woman from Civil War era
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
LC-B811- 2300
Click on image for larger view









Copyright © 2007 National Women's History Museum.