Cloaks, daggers…and petticoats

Cloaks, daggers…and petticoats
The White House of the Confederacy, where Mary Bowser spied while working as a servant, is located at 1201 E. Clay St. in Richmond. Photo/Library of Congress

How American women spies ‘gave the slip’ to the enemy (Part II)

By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller

Due to the destruction of records and the clandestine nature of their work, the identities of most women spies remain unknown, including the former enslaved and free Black women bravely involved in Union espionage in and around Virginia during the American Civil War.

There were a few exceptions. Last month, we shared the story of former enslaved house maid Mary Elizabeth Bowser of Richmond, who was hired at the Confederate White House where Jefferson Davis and his guests reportedly openly discussed military plans. Bowser could secretly read and write. She spied during her time at the Richmond mansion and was never discovered. In 1995, the U.S. Army described Bowser as “… one of the highest placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.”

In late 1861-early 1862, Mary Touvestre, a freed African American in Portsmouth, Virginia, overheard her employer discussing the refitting of the frigate “Merrimack” into the ironclad CSS “Virginia.” Touvestre stole a set of plans and fled to Washington, D.C. Her warning convinced the Navy to speed up construction of the Union’s own ironclad, the USS “Monitor.”

On March 8, 1862, in a Confederate effort to break the Union blockade of Southern ports, the “Virginia” was able to destroy two Union frigates, before the “Monitor” arrived the next day. Without Touvestre’s alert, the “Virginia” might have foiled the blockade, allowing the Confederacy to receive critical supplies from Europe.

Maryland’s Harriet Tubman, of Underground Railroad fame, was one of the Civil War’s most significant spies. Early in 1863, Union officers on the coast of South Carolina asked Tubman – who had escaped bondage in 1849 – to work as a covert operative and military commander. In June 1863, she led a raid by guiding three U.S. gunboats carrying African American soldiers through the Confederate mine-infested Combahee River, rescuing 750 enslaved people and destroying Confederate estates. This success of the mission was due to a survey of the Confederate mines by Tubman’s espionage troops.

As Long Island’s Anna Smith had done almost 100 years before, a Fredericksburg, Virginia woman used her clothesline to provide intelligence to the Union in 1863. We know her married name was Dabney. She and her husband worked out their own signaling system using laundry that she hung out to dry. Whenever she saw troops moving through the area or overheard Confederate soldiers discussing plans, she would rush to the clothesline and hang items in particular formations, sending her husband a coded message, which he decoded for Union commanders. For example, a white shirt stood for General A. P. Hill, while pants hung upside down indicated the direction of troop movement.

Hoop skirts and petticoats proved to be effective hiding places for all manner of contraband. Confederate spy Belle Boyd smuggled guns and sabers out of Union camps in Virginia. In Washington, Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow often sewed secret messages into her petticoats, corset and underclothes.

Some spies on both sides of the Civil War quite literally cooked up ways to send covert messages: tucking written information inside empty eggshells, baking sections of handguns into bread loaves and hiding medicine in jars of jams and preserves.

World Wars I and II, the Cold War and recent conflicts have put women on the forefront of the spy game. Today, almost half of the CIA’s work force are women.

Gina Haspel served as the first female director of the CIA from May 21, 2018 to Jan. 19, 2021. During Haspel’s tenure, Elizabeth Kimber served as the first female deputy director for Operations – the branch responsible for the agency’s worldwide spy network – and Dawn Meyerriecks became the deputy director for Science and Technology, marking the first time the overall director and two of the primary directorates were headed by women.

To read part one of our spy series, which appeared in the May 26, 2022 edition of the Alexandria Times, please visit alexandria celebrates women Archives – Alexandria Times (

The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that highlights influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at