As a freed slave, Mary Bowser was utilized by the Union as a spy during the Civil War. She was sent to work in the Confederate White House and as a servant there, she discovered and overheard many secret plans and military strategies that she passed on to Union spies. Jefferson Davis knew that there was a spy in the household, but could never discover who was leaking his military plans to the Union. Since Mary was merely a servant in the household, one whom the Confederates thought of as less than a person because of the color of her skin, they severely underestimated her skills and intelligence. Her devotion to the Union cause and bravery serving in the belly of the beast won the Union untold amounts of vital information. She was one of the highest-placed and most successful, productive spies of the Civil War.
Mary Edwards Walker
Mary earned a medical degree during the Victorian Era when it was positively scathing for a woman to have a career outside the home. When the Civil War broke out, she volunteered as a surgeon for the Union Army. At first, she was only allowed to practice as a nurse because she was a woman, but later acted as an unpaid surgeon on the front lines in battles such as Fredericksburg and Chattanooga. In 1863, she was finally employed as a surgeon, making her the first female surgeon to to be employed by the U.S. Army. She frequently crossed into enemy territory to treat soldiers and civilians alike. In 1864, she crossed into Confederate territory to assist a Confederate surgeon in performing an amputation and was captured and arrested as a spy. She was later released in a prisoner exchange and then continued her work until the end of the war. After the Civil War, she devoted her life to the women's rights movement. She is the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
Women were allowed to be nurses and spies, but were forbidden from enlisting as soldiers. However, many women fought for what they believed during the Civil War as well. Historians estimate that anywhere between 400-1,000 women disguised themselves as men and enlisted in the army for both the Union and the Confederacy. It's impossible to know the true number for sure because, out of necessity, these women had to fiercely guard their true identities. Here are the stories of several of those courageous women.
Frances Clalin Clayton (Jack Williams)
Frances enlisted in the Union Army alongside her husband, Elmer, in 1861 because she couldn't bear to be separated from him. In order not the be discovered, she perfected soldierly habits like drinking, swearing, smoking, and walking like a man. She was deadly with a sword and her superiors revered her as a model soldier. During the Battle of Stones River, she saw her husband shot and killed just a few feet in front of her. Even through her agony, she stepped over his body and continued the charge when she was given the order. By the end of her military career, she had fought in 18 battles, was wounded 3 times, and was even taken prisoner once.
Sarah Emma Edmonds (Franklin Thompson)
Sarah enlisted in the Second Michigan infantry and, disguised as a male, served as a nurse and dispatch carrier. She also spent some time serving as a spy, occasionally "disguising" herself as a woman. At one point, she contracted malaria and knew that she would be discovered if she went to a military hospital, so she checked into a private hospital to receive treatment. Once she was better, she went to return to the army under her male persona, but found out that Frank Thompson had been listed as a deserter. So, she served as a nurse in Washington D.C. under her true identity. She is one of the very few women who were given a government pension for her service in the war. She later wrote, "I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep."
Jennie Hodgers (Albert Cashier)
Jennie, an Irish-born immigrant, enlisted in the Union Army, specifically the 95th Illinois Infantry, when she was 19 years old. Her regiment fought in approximately 40 battles under the command of Ulysses S. Grant over a four year period. Her fellow soldiers just thought that "he" was a small soldier who liked to keep to himself. Regardless of her size, she was incredibly strong. She was once captured by the Confederates but was able to escape by overpowering a prison guard. After her military career was over, she returned to Illinois and spent the rest of her life living as her male persona. Because she lived as a man, she was allowed to vote, own land, and receive a veteran's pension. After her death, she was buried in her Union uniform and her tombstone lists her under both of her names.
The Unnamed New Jersey Soldier
A "young and good-looking" corporal from New Jersey fought fiercely and bravely during the battle of Fredericksburg and was promoted to the rank of sergeant for it. Honored by fellow soldiers as a "real soldierly, thoroughly military fellow," the soldier had fought in other battles like Antietam and the Seven Days Battle. The newly promoted sergeant shocked the entire regiment when, a month later, she gave birth to a baby boy in the middle of camp. This brave soldier's name has been lost to history, but what an inspiration to know that this incredible woman, great with child, fought for what she believed, against unthinkable odds, and survived.