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Female Spies and Gender-Bending Soldiers Changed the Course of the Civil War



After 150 years, America is still haunted by the ghosts of its Civil War, whose story has been romanticized for so long it’s hard to keep the facts straight. In our collective memory of the war, men are the giants, the heroes remembered as fighting nobly for their beliefs. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865, has achieved the status of legend, the moment a broken country started to reunite, even though that’s not exactly true.

What’s been largely lost to history is how remarkably influential women were to the course of the Civil War—from its beginning to its end. Without Rose O’Neal Greenhow’s masterfully run spy ring, the Union might have ended the months-old war with a swift victory over the Confederates in July 1861. Instead, the widow leaked Union plans to Confederate generals, allowing them to prepare and deliver a devastating Union loss at the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as the First Battle of Manassas, which caused the war to drag out for four more years. Elizabeth Van Lew, another woman running a brilliant spy ring who also happened to be a feminist and a “spinster,” was instrumental to the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, on April 1, 1865, leading to Lee’s surrender eight days later.

“Elizabeth Van Lew was probably the most valuable spy of the Civil War—male or female, North or South,” says author and historian Karen Abbott. “She basically won the war for Ulysses S. Grant, and it’s astounding that she’s not a household name.”

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