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–by Joanna Hallac

In researching for a post I wrote last week on the Homestead Act, I came across the website for Smithsonian Magazine, which has a whole section dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Among the many interesting articles included there is an examination of women who served as spies during the war, on both the Union and Confederate sides. I found the stories of the women to be quite compelling and decided to do a little more research on the subject to see what I could find.

In many cases, the women had ties to very high-level military or government officials through which they could either steal information from or deliver secrets to, in some cases having a direct impact on the outcome of battles. In other cases, it was former slaves and slave holders working in concert to not only free others, but also smuggle secrets to Union officials. Most of the Confederate spies who came under suspicion would spend some time in the Old Capitol Prison, which is where the Supreme Court building now sits, and where members of Congress met while the repairs to the Capitol were being made after the British burned it in 1814.

Old Capitol Prison (Library of Congress)

The stories about the women featured on the website were very compelling and I encourage all of you to take a look for yourselves. Here are some pictures of the women spies that can be seen on the site:

Harriet Tubman was a spy for the Union Army in addition to her work on the Underground Railroad (Library of Congress)

Antonia Ford would be imprisoned at Old Capitol Prison for being a spy for the Confederacy, but ended up marrying one of her captors, Union major Joseph Willard, who subsequently had to take an oath of allegiance to the Union as did Ford (Photo by O.H. Willard, Library of Congress Philadelphia Manuscript Division, Gift of the Willard Family)

I have also included some interesting and informative websites that have all sorts of information about women spies from this and other American wars:

The National Women’s History Museum website
http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/spies/8.htm

Smithsonian Magazine
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Women-Spies-of-the-Civil-War.html

While these are merely a sampling, there is no shortage of available information on this topic and it is something that surprisingly few people know about; however, the importance that women played in every American war, whether as spies, soldiers, or otherwise cannot possibly be overlooked.

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