The War Between the States was a conflict between family and friends and some of them were women. We know from military records that women served as nurses, spies and some were even soldiers. Historical records have verified the fact that over sixty women were either wounded or killed at various battles during the War. It is estimated that over 400 women served in the War on both sides, not counting the thousands who served as nurses. After the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 the bodies of two Confederate women in uniform were found and a Union flag bearer, also a woman in uniform, was killed on the hill near Pickett’s Charge.
This article will be a two part series with brief narratives of some of the most famous of these women.
Part One: The Ladies of the South
Rose O'Neal Greenhow (1817 – 1864)
As a teenager O'Neal moved from her family's Maryland farm to her aunt's fashionable boardinghouse in Washington. Personable, intelligent, and outgoing, she adapted easily to the social scene of the capital, and people in Washington's highest circles opened their doors to her. Regarded as a beautiful, ambitious, seductive woman, she disappointed an army of suitors by marrying Dr. Robert Greenhow, an influential, learned man under whose tutelage she flourished and to whom she bore 4 daughters.
Among her friends were presidents, senators, high-ranking military officers, and less important people from all walks of life, many of whom played knowing or unknowing roles in the espionage ring she organized in 1861. One of her closest companions had been John C. Calhoun, whose political instruction sealed Rose's identification with and loyalty to Southern interests.
A widow when war broke out, Greenhow immediately used her contacts and talents to provide Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard with information resulting in the Union rout at First Bull Run. Suspected of espionage and imprisoned Aug. 1861, she continued gathering and forwarding information vital to Confederate operations. News of her activities brought publicity and tremendous popularity among Southern sympathizers. After being brought to trial in spring 1862, Greenhow was deported to Richmond, where cheering crowds greeted her.
That summer Jefferson Davis sent her to Europe as a courier. She stayed there collecting diplomatic intelligence and writing her memoirs until recalled in 1864, apparently bearing dispatches urgent to the Confederacy. Sailing on the blockade runner Condor, she reached the mouth of the Cape Fear River just outside Wilmington, N.C., when a Union ship gave chase, forcing the Condor aground on a sandbar early on the morning of 1 Oct. Greenhow, fearing capture and imprisonment, persuaded the captain to send her and two companions ashore in a lifeboat, but in stormy seas the small vessel overturned. Rose drowned, dragged down by the $2,000 in gold she carried. Her body was found and identified a few days later and buried with honors in Wilmington.
Belle Boyd (1843 – 1900)
Known as Cleopatra of the Secession, Isabella Marie Boyd was a hotel operator and Confederate spy. She was born in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). She was considered a very well educated woman for her time and graduated from the Mt. Washington Female College in Baltimore, MD in 1861. Her career as a spy began that same year when Union soldiers in Front Royal allegedly tore down the Confederate flag that flew over her mother’s boarding house and replaced it with a Union flag. When the Union soldier insulted, or perhaps, pushed her mother, Boyd shot him dead. She was acquitted of any wrong doing.
Later that year Boyd became a courier for Generals Beauregard and Jackson. She obtained information by charming Union soldiers and officers passing through the area and relayed the information to the Generals. The information was relayed via Boyd’s servant, Eliza Hopewell in a hollowed-out watch case to escape detection. Once, Boyd learned valuable information about Union troop positions and formations after her the boarding house was seized by Union forces. She rode 15 miles through the wilderness and battle lines to relay the information personally to General Jackson. On the way, a bullet tore through her skirt. To show his appreciation, Jackson made the 17 year-old girl a Captain and Honorary Aid-de-Camp.
Belle Boyd was arrested six times and imprisoned twice. After the War she published a famous book about her life and became an actress. She died in Wisconsin in 1900 of an apparent heart attack. Today, the Belle Boyd House and Museum is located in Martinsburg, West Virginia and her birthday is celebrated there every third weekend of May.
Antonia Ford Willard (1838 - 1871)
Antonia was described as a "decidedly good-looking woman with pleasing, insinuating manners." Born in Fairfax Court House, Virginia in 1838, Antonia was able to obtain valuable information from Union officers who were staying at her father's home. She also served as a courier for Rose Greenhow.
After helping the Confederacy with critical information, she was given the following commendation by Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. It read: "Know ye, that reposing special confidence in the patriotism, fidelity and ability of Miss Antonia Ford, I, James E.B. Stuart, by virtue of the power vested in me, as Brigadier General in the Provisional Army of the C.S.A., do hereby appoint and commission her my honorary aide de camp to work as such from this date. She will be obeyed, respected and admired by the lovers of a noble nature."
Throughout her duties as a spy, she would frequently report Union activities to Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby. In March 1863, when Mosby kidnapped Union General Edwin H. Stoughton at Fairfax Court House, Antonia was investigated and found guilty of providing information to Mosby that led to the kidnapping. Ford was arrested and confined to the Old Capitol Prison. Colonel Mosby always continued to maintain that Ford played no part whatsoever in the kidnapping of General Stoughton stating "She was as innocent as Abraham Lincoln."
While in Prison, a Union lieutenant named Willard fell in love with her. Through his relationship with her, he convinced her to sign a loyalty oath to the Union, and arranged for her release. While in prison her health had deteriorated greatly from the poor diet and treatment, and in 1871, she died at the young age of thirty-three. Southerners have always continued to assert that the North killed her due to this poor, inhumane treatment.
Nancy Hart Douglas (1846 – 1913)
In 1862, Nancy Hart began her career as a Confederate spy. She joined the Mocassin Rangers which was a pro-guerilla unit during the War. She served the Confederate army as a scout, guide and a spy. Hart would do all of her work at night and slept during the day. She was also an "underground worker" and saved the lives of many soldiers by hiding them with sympathizers and usually nursing them back to health.
Hart would travel behind Union lines with eggs and vegetables for the soldiers. This is how she would get the information from them. On one occasion she was captured for a short period of time but had "sweet talked" the Union soldiers and they released her. This was a mistake because Hart had learned a lot of information about their strength, their vulnerability and population. She would report all of this to General Jackson. The Union army became suspicious of Nancy and they placed a large reward for her arrest in 1862.
At the age of twenty, Hart was captured at a log cabin while she was crushing corn. She was held in a dilapidated house in Summersville with soldiers quartered on the downstairs portion of the house. In July of 1862, Hart had earned the trust of one of the guards who held her in the prison house. This started Hart’s plan to escape and she was able to get a hold of the gun of a guard then shot and killed him. She then jumped out of her window and stole Lt. Col. Starr's horse. Starr was the one who initially captured her. About a week after her escape she returned with two hundred men of Jackson's cavalry and led a raid, still riding Lt. Col. Starr's horse and set fire to three houses including the commissary store house. She and the men also took many prisoners. Starr was one of them.
Laura Ratcliffe (1836 – 1923)
There remains an old farmhouse in a beautiful setting near Frying Pan Church just south of Herndon. This was the home of Laura Ratcliffe, a daring Southern spy. Laura was known as the local beauty and friend of Major General Jeb Stuart. She provided important military intelligence to Stuart and Colonel John Singleton Mosby. And neither officer ever forgot his debt to her.
Laura saved Mosby's life by walking through snow and bitter cold to warn him of a Union ambush at Frying Pan and risked her own life and liberty defying Union officers to do so. She is said to have chosen Mosby's Rock at the top of Squirrel Hill near her house to serve as a secret meeting point.
Although it was obvious that her home was the center of Confederate activity, she was never arrested or formally charged for her activities. She married Milton Hanna in 1890.
Loreta Janeta Velazquez (1842 – 1897)
In late spring of 1861, a Cuban woman adorned herself with a Confederate uniform and fake facial hair, assigned herself the rank of lieutenant in the Confederate army, and adopted the name of Harry T. Buford. According to her own account, Velazquez embarked on a remarkable career as both a Confederate soldier and spy during the turbulent years of the War.
The youngest of six children of a wealthy sugar, tobacco, and coffee trader, Velazquez was born in Havana, Cuba, on June 26, 1842. Educated in New Orleans Louisiana and secretly harboring a desire for a military career, she had her first taste of military life on April 5, 1856, when she married a young military officer who was sent west to participate in army actions against the Mormons in Utah. In 1860, the anticipation of war between the Northern and Southern states further stoked her yearning for a military career. After war broke out, her husband left to fight for the Confederacy. Velazquez immediately had two Confederate-style uniforms made and began calling herself Lieutenant Harry T. Buford. She traveled to Hurlburt Station on the Mississippi River in Arkansas and stayed at the Giles homestead. She recruited a battalion of 236 men who called themselves the Arkansas Grays (CS).
Velazquez served the Confederacy as a soldier and spy throughout the war. Her memoir gives eyewitness accounts of the battles of Blackburn’s Ford, First Manassas (Bull Run), Fort Donelson, and Shiloh in Tennessee. Velazquez was wounded at Shiloh by a shell and an army surgeon discovered that she was a woman. She recovered in New Orleans, and though she never fought again as a soldier, she continued working as a spy and intelligence agent for the rest of the war. After the war, she remarried (her first and then second husbands had both died during the war) and traveled extensively throughout the American West.
Belle Edmondson (1840 - 1873)
Isabella Buchanan Edmondson was born in 1840 in Pontotoc, Mississippi. The family relocated in 1860 to a farm in Shelby County, Tennessee, outside of Memphis. Belle ardently supported the Confederacy during the War. She probably began smuggling supplies and funds to the Confederate army in 1862, after the fall of Memphis, and served as a Confederate agent throughout the war. In July 1864, she fled south, because the United States had issued a warrant for her arrest. Edmondson was engaged three times. Twice her suitors canceled their engagement, while the third was announced only two weeks before her sudden death in 1873.
Edmondson's diary documents her daily routine from January through November 1864. Most of her short entries are simple reports about daily events, while occasionally she expresses her devotion to the Confederate cause. Edmondson also records contemporary news from the front, the activities of her family and the family's slaves, and a trip to Mississippi, where she visited Generals Forrest and Chalmers.
Mary Kate Patterson (1838 – 1931)
Mary Kate Patterson was one of Coleman's Scouts, the company made famous by Sam Davis. The Patterson home served as an underground quarters for Confederate Scouts. Mary Kate was a bold and daring smuggler for the Confederate cause, riding through the Union lines to carry medicine, supplies and information many times. If she could not use her buggy with the false bottom, she would tie the supplies around her waist under her skirts and ride on horseback. Mary Kate used her charm and beauty to obtain information from Union soldiers and maintain good relations with the Federal officer in charge.
Her first husband was John Davis, brother of Sam, killed February 27, 1867 in an explosion of a steamboat on the Mississippi River. Her second husband died not long after they married. She married and survived her third husband, Col Robert G Kyle of Texas who was a CSA vet. She never had any children.
Mary Kate remained devoted to the Confederacy until her death. She never missed a meeting of the UDC except when ill. To the end of her life she visited veterans in rest homes, and contributed to their upkeep, to the extent that her own financial situation became difficult. In 1929, she applied for a pension.
Mary Kate died in the home of her niece. She was the first woman to be buried in Confederate Circle at Mount Olivet.
Elizabeth Carraway Howland (1836 – 1864)
Elizabeth Howland of New Bern North Carolina combined undercover activities and doctoring. After studying medicine with her father, Elizabeth tended rebel soldiers taken prisoner in New Bern. Her home remedies often proved more successful than the conventional methods. With easy access to the men, she smuggled in much needed food and clothing.
In one episode, Elizabeth secretly took specifications of a Union fortification. She took the paper, rolled it up and slipped it inside the hollow bone of a ham. Elizabeth wisely sent her young son and daughter, carrying the ham along with a bouquet of flowers to the Federal official and they were allowed to pass, still clutching the fugitive ham.
Eugenia Levy Phillips (1819 – 1902)
Eugenia Levy Phillips was born to a prominent Jewish family in 1819 in Charleston South Carolina. After marring Philip Phillips they moved to Mobile Alabama, where her husband became a US Congressman in 1853. After his term the family stayed in Washington where he practiced law. Unbeknownst to her husband who was against secession, Eugenia’s loyalty lie with the south and she was suspected to be working for Rose O'Neal Greenhow’s spy ring. In August 1861 the whole Phillips house hold was placed under arrest for spying. With help from friends the family including Edwin M Stanton the family were released and moved south, first to Richmond and then onto New Orleans Louisiana.
New Orleans at this time was occupied by General Benjamin Butler and his Union troops. It was here that she ran into trouble by laughing out loud at a Union funeral procession, which was in violation of Butler’s Women’s Order which read, “As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subjected to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans, in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered, that hereafter, when any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.” General Butler had her arrested and placed on Ship Island in the Gulf of Mexico on June 30th 1862, where she was held until September 11th 1862. By the time her husband was able to gain her release Eugenia was quite ill with fever.
Emeline Pigott (1836 – 1916)
Emeline Pigott was born and raised in Harlowe Township of Carteret County North Carolina. When she was 25, she moved with her parents to a farm at Crab Point on the North Carolina coast, just across the creek from where soldiers of the 26th North Carolina were stationed. The sensitive and compassionate young woman took it upon herself to help the troops in many ways. She tended to the sick and wounded soldiers, even bringing some to her home to nurse. Working throughout three counties, Pigott collected mail along with food, clothing, medicine, and other needed items, and left the goods in designated hollow trees and logs for the Confederates to collect.
Pigott also was brave enough to gather intelligence for the Confederates. By entertaining Union soldiers she gleaned some information and while she was distracting the enemy her brother-in-law Rufus Bell dispensed food from her pantry to hungry Rebel soldiers. Local loyal fishermen also gathered information about Union boats' cargoes and destinations as they sold the Yankees fish. They then reported to Pigott who carried the valuable information hidden in big pockets under her hoop skirt. With mail and other items combined, Pigott sometimes carried as much as 30 pounds of hidden goods. The 26th North Carolina left for Virginia, and Pigott tended to wounded in New Bern North Carolina. In 1862 she left on the last train out with wounded before the Yankees occupied the town. She fled to Kinston and then to Concord with wounded before returning home.
With the Northerners occupying the area, Pigott came under suspicion in early 1865. One day while she and Bell were on their rounds they were arrested and sent to jail. While officials were looking for someone to search the lady, Pigott ate some incriminating information and shredded some of the mail, but many other items were found beneath her skirt and she was imprisoned in a New Bern residence. Though she faced the death penalty she was inexplicably released. She was however watched and harassed until the end of the war.
The colorful Miss Pigott loved to recount her War adventures, but to the day she died in 1916 she would never reveal how she came to be released from prison.