American Civil War Spies

There were many American Civil War spies serving their respective governments and armies during the war, but somehow I never really heard about any of them during any history class I ever endured!

Maybe you had better classes dealing with the Civil War, and have heard about the spies from this time period? 

If you have, I think you were lucky, but I wonder how much you learned about them, or if you just heard they existed... ...with your history teacher quickly rushing on before you might start thinking there was something exciting going on... 

I'm telling you, I think there is a conspiracy among teachers to keep folks from enjoying learning about history...

Anyway, back to the spies...

There were a number of spies who acted independently of any organization. These were often patriotic women trying to find some way to aid the war effort of their government. Both governments also recruited and organized their own spy rings to infiltrate and report on enemy activity.

Civil War Spies Quick Links:

LaFayette Baker

Belle Boyd

Timothy Webster

Mary Bowser

Sam Davis

Rose O'Neal Greenhow

One of the most famous independent American Civil War spies was Belle Boyd (above). She started her spying career only a couple months after her seventeenth birthday, and she was launched down that path by shooting a Union soldier for insulting her mother. True story!

Army scouts and rangers also have to be considered. Though these men usually served in uniform, they also at times took part in extensive espionage activities, such as the infamous Northwest Conspiracy. 

The Northwest Conspiracy was an espionage effort led by a Confederate cavalry Captain, Thomas Hines. This conspiracy was largely focused on freeing large numbers of Confederate prisoners in the North, and spread general panic with the hope that it would influence the 1864 U. S. Presidential election.

All American Civil War spies had to be very careful not get caught; because, the penalty for spying was death. There were a number of men on both sides who were caught and executed as spies during the war. The first was Union spy Timothy Webster, and one of the most well known - at least in the South - was Confederate "boy hero" Sam Davis...

Union and Confederate Spying

Union Spy Chief LaFayette Baker

At the outset of the war, neither side had an established means of gathering intelligence. The Confederacy obviously couldn't, since it hadn't really existed before, and the Union didn't really need spies gathering intelligence within the Confederacy before there was a Confederacy, now did it?

Both sides worked feverishly to figure out how to spy out their enemies, and both had some amount of success...

There were spy rings in each of the capital cities, Washington D. C. and Richmond, sending valuable information back to their respective governments, and each side had a  number of independent spies working for them. Some of these independent spies were under contract, but others did their dangerous work out of love for their country.

One very influential man in the Unions espionage activities was Lafayette Baker (right).

After some exhilarating escapades as a Union spy, Baker went on to head his own spying and counter-espionage network, working for the U. S. War Department. Baker is also the man who headed the successful manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. Due to power struggles and other conflicts, Baker fell out of favor in Washington after the war was over, but thanks to some accusatory testimonies he gave and the suspicious nature of his death, Baker has given rise to many conspiracy theories surrounding Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Both the Union and Confederacy saw success and failure in their espionage endeavors, but there can be no doubt that the stories of the American Civil War spies, who carried out the secret duties of their governments, are some of the most exciting stories of the Civil War era.

Civil War Spies

American Civil War spies were some of the most interesting characters of the war, and there were many different individuals, on both sides, who had their own impacts on the conflict. Hopefully, we will - over time - be able to bring their stories together here for the enjoyment of all...

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. As we add more pages the list will grow. Feel free to contact me with suggestions for American Civil War spies to write about in the future.

  • LaFayette Baker - Union spy chief, the basis of many stories and conspiracy theories.
  • Belle Boyd - Teenage Confederate spy, started career by shooting Union soldier.
  • Rose O'Neal Greenhow - Confederate spy in Washington and courier to Europe.
  • Timothy Webster - Union spy, and the first Civil War spy to be executed.
  • Mary Bowser - Former slave turned Union spy who infiltrated the Confederate White House.
  • Sam Davis - Boy Hero of the Confederacy.
  • Elizabeth Van Lew - Union spychief who ran an extremely successful spy ring in Richmond.

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