The Brave Black Women Who Were Civil War Spies

From the field and slave cabin to the Confederate White House, black women took an active role in assisting the Union military in winning the Civil War. Contemporaries recognized their service, and on the occasion of the upcoming 150th anniversary of the start of the war (April 12) and the close of Black History Month today, it’s a good time for us to recall and recognize it as well.

A story appeared in the Northern journal Harper’s Weekly in 1864 describing how Southern blacks were assisting Union soldiers who escaped from prison camps. An illustration which accompanied the story featured a black woman hiding ragged, injured Union soldiers. Such Northern assertions were joined by those of Confederate General Robert E. Lee who declared that southern blacks were the “the chief source of information to the enemy.”

In fact, Southern black women operating as spies, scouts, couriers and guides were willing and able to offer enormous support to Union military personnel and operations. With a deep devotion to a war which they pushed to be one of emancipation, and often relying upon Southern prejudices which ignored the intelligence of black women, they were able to provide invaluable covert assistance to the Union military.

The activities of Harriet Tubman are a case in point. Tubman returned to the South early in the war to assist liberated slaves in Port Royal, South Carolina. By 1863, serving as a scout for the Union, she would don disguises and lead local blacks in dangerous missions behind enemy lines to gather information on rebel troop location, movements and strength. She even accompanied, and by some accounts led, troops under Colonel James Montgomery in daring raids into enemy territory which destroyed thousands of dollars worth of Southern property and liberated hundreds of blacks from plantations.

Other intelligence work involves black women working as domestics. The story of Mary Elizabeth Bowser [PDF], less well-documented than Tubman’s but no less intriguing, is a fascinating tale of a brilliant woman who worked with an urban spy ring in the Confederate capital said to be “the most productive espionage operation” in the Civil War.

Bowser is said to have had a photographic memory. When she assumed the identity of an illiterate slave women and found a place as a house servant in the Confederate White House, she was able to gain access to lists of troop movements, reports on the location of Union prisoners, military strategies and treasury reports. She passed the information along to Union forces until she was discovered and fled Richmond near the end of the war.

And finally, there was Mary Touvestre [PDF], a free black woman working for a Confederate engineer in Norfolk, Va., who overheard plans for building the C.S.S. Virginia. After obtaining a copy of the plans, she daringly crossed enemy lines to take this information to Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, which caused the Union to crank up construction of its own ironclad warship, the U.S.S. Monitor.

After the war, the brave exploits of these black women spies were mostly forgotten, whether from prejudice, loss of records or desire for anonymity. They certainly don’t need to remain hidden any longer.

Image of Harriet Tubman with rescued slaves from Wikimedia Commons


  1. Lori Ruff says:

    My mother took me to see the Movie The Help. We both cried in some spots of the movie. I was very moved and now my eyes are opened up now on what took place then.

    I felt in the end of the movie more that what I saw was wrong and became very upset.

    I t made me me proud that the black maids in the movie were corageous,strong enough

    to tell their stories. I hope this movie will became a Academy Award Movie because there are alot of people out there that no thing of Balck History like myself. I Now will be reading anything I can get my hands on so I am educated better. It’s sad that Martin Luther King never got his chance to be a President Of The United

    States. He could of educated many people. Thankyou for opening up my eyes and heart now that I have a real chance to learn all I can and read all I can.


    Lori Ruff

  2. donnadara says:

    Please don’t use The Help as any version of Black History. That is a Disneyfication of racism and Black History from a white woman’s perspective. Please read a real history book.

    • Some people are so negative about everything. The book and the movie, “The Help” showed the struggles and racism that black women had to endure even in the sixties, not only from a white women’s perspective. If you had truly read the book or watched the movie, with an open mind, you would have gotten the message that not only the writer, but also the actresses were trying to convey.

    • Amanda Borchansky says:

      The movie was a way of showing us what it was like. I have researched some of the history and so on and so fourth. I deal with terrible racists in my own family, and I hate it. I was raised to accept others how they were, skin color and sexuality aside. Do not bash someone for having their eyes opened with the horrific injustice those men and women faced. Seeing it versus reading it are two different things.

    • Marilyn Jackson says:

      Most white people especially the ones that try to understand the poor pitiful negroe are always the one that wants a pat on the back for not being a racist. To go and see the help was a disgrace. Many Black people thought that was a disgusting movie written by 99.999% white men who are racist, sexist and just down right tyrant. If you want to help Black people, fight against Policemen who are slaughtering our Black boys or the racist criminal justice system or better jobs and housing for Black folks. The help and movies like the help only makes white folks feel good. The only pay back the Black woman got in the movie the help was to pee in her drink. Please, we want real justice not filth like that!!

  3. hello and peace unto you. I enjoyed reading this share, for I am a Girl Raised In The South aka GRITS! Living in this confederate state, where tradition runs deep. In my experience, not many in this area seriously entertain some of these facts you share. I believe in the honorable actions of the women of color during the Civil War! Honor being, taking pride in one’s work and doing a great job inspire of the challenges and restrictions! Having historical records would be wonderful but in their absence, women such as First Lady Michelle Obama, Ms Maya Angelou and Ms Condeeleza Rice provide real visual confirmation of where I come from and where women are headed.

  4. I am old enough to have expperienced the tail end of this era. I have an appreation for the contributions of the black female in particular since many black males were castrated so to speak. However,most black youngster of this era are not able to fully understand the humiliation and other pain endured. This is no fault of theirs for the world is moving too fast for many of them to partcipate in their own world. Perhaps some will be able to read or see it portrayed and have a litle appreaiation for the past. For negative statements about this generation will be unfair for its a struggle for them to stay afloat now days.

  5. Milton L. Hudson says:

    I am putting together a bio. to honor the veterans in the church.. well it’s several sisters in the church that are retired veterans, so my approach was to start from the very start of African American serving in the civil war. I felt that it would be very unfair not to high light the untold dedication of the African American ladies that served in silent. It’s very unfortunate that we do not have many documents to support the dedication of the ladies that served unofficial, however; the strength of the black is male is very much present through the African American female.

    • Hello Mr Hudson I am so happy that I visited this site because I would not have found your post I too am researching black women during the Civil War specifically black female spies I believe this is such a rich history and there is more to be uncovered than meets the eye and what we’ve been told historically. If you are open to this I would love to speak with you at some point to see if there’s anything that you and I can do together to bring this project to the masses?

  6. i need to learn more interesting things about them. and i want to learn about more then 40 spies. see i’m doing a big project in school about african american spies and its very important. and fyi i am in the 6th grade.

  7. robert brooks says:

    Enlightening story that has to be told everyday instead of waiting for Black History month.

    • So true it needs to be in the forefront and told to our kids everyday. It does not have to be a Feb. ( Black History ) thing, it can be year around in our homes. Not to hound the kids with the hatred of the other race but letting them understand where we’ve come from and what we have to do to keep the Dream Alive and looking forward. Because with all the other things out here corrupting our children and all the killings, they need positive things such as the REAL HISTORY not the stuff in the so-call history books in the schools.

      • K. J. Wicker says:

        Hello my sister- your reply was “right on target!”
        I am writing a book on my family tree which
        I have recounted through my late ancestors in
        oral history. I made tape recordings and written
        notes dating back to the early 1960’s.
        Wow! Indeed it is a rich and noble story to tell!

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