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Women in Intelligence, Part 1

By DIA History Office

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In celebration of Women’s History Month, the DIA History Office provides the following history of women in intelligence. This is part one of a two-part series.

American Revolutionary War

Nancy Morgan Hart disguised herself as a deranged man and entered Augusta, Ga., to obtain intelligence on British defenses during the American Revolution. In retaliation for her success, a group of Tories attacked her home, but Hart captured them all and later witnessed their execution.

American Civil War

Pauline Cushman, an actress in New Orleans, was devoted to the Union and was one of the most successful Civil War spies. The Federals employed her to hunt for Southern sympathizers and spies in Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., to learn how they conveyed information and supplies into Confederate territory. Her accurate knowledge of the roads of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi proved to be of immense value to the North. President Abraham Lincoln made her an honorary major. When captured, she was found guilty by court-martial but escaped and regained the Union lines before she could be hanged. The “major’s” fame spread throughout the country when it was learned she had survived.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a prominent Washington, D.C., socialite during the Civil War and an accomplished spy for the South. She provided timely information that materially affected the first battle of Bull Run, which resulted in a Confederate victory at Manassas, Va. Although suspected of being a spy, her house on 16th Street was the scene nonetheless of visits by many important VIP’s. She was successful passing on her contraband even when she was locked up in the Old Capital Prison. In a prisoner exchange, she was sent to Richmond, Va., where Jefferson Davis, the confederate president, sent her on a secret mission to England. On the return, her ship attempted to avoid a Federal gunboat, and she drowned while attempting to escape in a lifeboat.

Belle Boyd sympathized with the South and began her espionage activities by quartering Northern officers in her home in Martinsburg, Va., to obtain information for Stonewall Jackson. Unable to persuade anyone to carry the information to Jackson, she took it herself through Northern lines and heavy fire. The intelligence changed defeat into victory for Jackson and brought her notoriety in the North for her spying activities. Continued success made her careless and she was caught and taken to Washington. Returned to Richmond in a prisoner exchange, she was received with bands playing and flags flying.

Elizabeth van Lew lived in Richmond, but became one of the North’s most important spies during the Civil War. Moving freely within Richmond’s society circles she collected information from civil and military leaders, even Union prisoners, before passing the intelligence north – often by ingenuous means. She even placed in the house of Confederate President Jefferson Davis a black woman whom she had educated and trained to repeat all she heard. Following the war, Gen. Ulysses Grant summed up her achievements in these words: “From her I received the most valuable intelligence that ever came from Richmond throughout the entire conflict.”