Cannonball

Part of the USA Today Network

New book covers the role of women spies during the Civil War

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed reading Civil War books from my local library. Among them was a book that covered the life of Belle Boyd, one of the South’s more colorful characters. Her exploits in deceiving Union officers and providing intelligence to Confederate operatives became legendary. However, she was only one of many spies and agents employed or utilized by the Confederacy and the Union during the conflict.
H. Donald Winkler has penned a new book that provides a “deep dive” into the covert world of espionage and ruses, focusing on those “little -known deceptions that changed the course of the war.” The 334-page paperback is entitled Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War. A fascinating read that opens new insights into the secret world behind the military operations, WInkler’s treatise is first rate and enjoyable. Cumberland House is to be commended with this latest in its long line of interesting Civil War titles.

Portrait of Rose O’Neal Greenhow created by the studio of Matthew B. Brady at Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C., 1862. Library of Congress.


Winkler, of course, spends considerable time covering the better known operatives, including Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Harriet Tubman, Belle Boyd, and Pauline Cushman, but he also introduces many lesser lights whose exploits are not widely known to the casual Civil War reader. such as Laura Ratcliffe who saved famed Confederate partisan ranger John S. Mosby from possible capture or death. She learned of a trap Union soldiers had set for Mosby and then set out across muddy fields to warn him. Mosby himself later wrote that had it not been for Ratcliffe and her sister, “My life as a Partisan would have ended that day.” Ratcliffe then went on to provide intelligence for Mosby, and served as his unit’s “banker,” hiding money in the rocks on her family’s farms and disbursing it as needed to the Rangers.
There are nineteen chapters in the book, each one focusing on a different woman or pairs. Some of the material is well established in the standard historiography, but there is new material included that WInkler has derived from a fresh look at letters, journals, memoirs, and period newspaper articles. In several cases, he provides information that will be new to the reader already familiar with the spies in question. Each chapter is a mini-biography that paints a sweeping overview of the particular subject’s Civil War activities, and through an extensive bibliography, Winkler enables the reader to locate more in-depth coverage of each woman.
The major characters are Rose Greenhow, Sarah Slater, Olivia Floyd, Elizabeth Van Lew, Elizabeth Baker, Ginnie and Lottie Moon, Pauline Cushman, Rebecca Wright, Harriet Tubman, Nancy Hart, Antonia Ford, Laura Ratcliffe, Roberta Pollock, Belle Boyd, Emma Edmonds, Clara Judd, Sarah Jane Thompson, Loreta Velaquez, and Mary Surratt. Winkler includes a catch-all chapter entitled “Beyond the Call of Duty: More Heroines,” in which he brings to light some of the daring deeds of unsung women who are not as widely known.
The illustrations and portraits are appropriate and quite numerous, although more maps might have been appreciated to help the reader find key locations mentioned in the text. WInkler’s writing style is lucid and entertaining, and the reader will come away satisfied with a good, solid overview of each woman’s career as a spy or operative. The book is not annotated, but the bibliography provides clues where Winkler sourced his material.
The book retails for $18.99 in the U.S. and is available in Canada and the UK as well for international Civil War buffs. It is available on-line from amazon.com and other leading Internet dealers, as well as at major retail booksellers and specialty Civil War shops.
Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War
H. Donald WInkler, author
Cumberland House, 2010
334 pages, illustrated, paperback
ISBN 978-1-4022-4274-8