Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War


“Stealing Secrets” opened my eyes to how passionate women were determined to help their “side” win the Civil War.  Until this book, I never knew how crucial the role of female spies was in helping the military.  The extent of deceit and trickery used by average women to spread information, hide prisoners, and foil plans was astonishing.  Winkler devotes each chapter to a different woman and explains her role in supporting either the Union or Confederate Army.

It was comical to read how women managed to transport secret messages in their hats, purses, and hair!  One woman even hollowed out eggs, and placed secret messages in them.  While trying to get across army lines to deliver a message, one woman was fearful she would be caught when a bulletin went out warning officers of a female spy.  Rather than submit to defeat, she walked up to a soldier and began to cry, saying she was afraid she would be mistaken for the spy.  The act was so convincing, the officer gave her a pass that ensured she reached her destination without any trouble!  

I was most impressed by the tales about Elizabeth Van Lew, a Southern woman with Union views.  She was determined the use her position of power as a Southerner to influence Confederate politicos.  She worked with a Confederate soldier, who was in charge of the Union prison and like her also had Union views, to create a complicated rouse where a Union prisoner would pretend to be dead, and would then be smuggled out of the prison and into her home.  Once there, she used a secret network of spies and Union allies to transport and hide the man until he could be reunited with the Union  army.  This was done several times before the Confederate Army realized that far too many Union prisoners’ bodies were “missing” and a new position was created to oversee all bodies to ensure that no such trickery would continue.

But Elizabeth’s most significant accomplishment was to educate one of her female slaves and place her in the White House as a maid.  There, the woman was frequently left among drawings and plans of the Confederate Army’s strategy.  Important documents relating to battles were commonly left in plain sight because many people did not see African-Americans as a threat, since most could not read or write at the time.  The woman managed to relay a significant amount of information to Elizabeth’s spy network.   The entire scenario is shocking!

The book was very well researched, but at times it provided a little too much information.  The chapters seemed a bit disjointed, some read like a gripping crime thriller, yet others were as boring as an essay for a history class.  I appreciated that the author included stories of women assisting both sides of the Civil War.  Overall, the material was interesting, although very dense.  I would recommend it to history buffs, because this is not a quick or easy read.

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