Rose O'Neal Greenhow, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule At Washington, by Rose Greenhow. London: Richard Bentley, 1863.

The Civil Disobedience of Women During the Civil War

Maryland State Archives
350 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, MD 21401

Phone: (410) 260-6400


During the American Civil War, women played a significant role by displaying acts of civil disobedience.  Civil disobedience is known as a blatant fight against the injustice from one's country.  Women during the 1860's were no exception to letting the government know how far they would be willing to go in order to support their cause.  While the Civil War was occurring most women did not see the action of the battlefield but they fought their war on the homefront.  Women showed their support for their troops by protesting the war, writing letters and breaking laws against the United States.  Historians have researched women who stepped out of their gender role to support their cause.  These women did not fear the repercussions of breaking the ultimate laws against their country. 

Women like Rose O'Neal Greenhow looked like any other woman, she was attractive and knew how to maintain social relationships, but she was a powerful spy for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Mrs. Greenhow was not alone in her civil disobedience towards the United States.  Other women were also proclaimed their opinions about the sectionalism occurring within the country.  Their opinions have been contained within letters sent to the government, connection to participation in a riot or being accused of treason.  All of these incidents caused a civil disobedience towards the Union but it was not only the Southern women who fought for their cause.  Union women were just as determined to participate in fighting their cause from the homefront.

Union women stood up to the Confederates in an uncompromising stance against slavery or the destruction of the Union.  They may have deliberately broke a law to help free the slaves in their own form of protest against the evils of slavery.  Their participation in the Underground Railroad was one of the most courageous acts to show the government how they would break the law for their own moral beliefs. 

What drove these women to commit crimes against their country can be discovered in their determination to support their side during a sectionalist period in American history.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 5:  Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)

Standard 2: The course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people.

Standard 2B:  The student understands the social experience of the war on the battlefield and homefront.  

5-12: Compare women's homefront and battlefront roles in the Union and the Confederacy. [Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: My imprisonment and the first year of abolition rule at Washington 
    AUTHOR: Rose O'Neal Greenhow
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE: Southern Voices: Texts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, American Memory

  2. DESCRIPTION:  Letter Rose Greenhow to Hon. Wm H. Seward
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  November 17, 1861
    COPYRIGHT: Statement on use and reproduction
    NOTES: News clipping of a letter to Seward, obtained by the Richmond Whig, and subsequently published in the newspaper as a true copy of the original. 
    SOURCE:  Rose O'Neal Greenhow Paper: An On-line Archival Collection
    REPOSITORY:  Special Collections Library, Duke University

  3. DESCRIPTION:    Letter Rose Greenhow to Alexander Boteler
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  August 13, 1863
    NOTES:  Letter describing her voyage to Bermuda, further travel and spying plans, and meeting with the Reverend and Mrs. Walker, Confederate sympathizers.
    SOURCE:  Rose O'Neal Greenhow Paper: An On-line Archival Collection
    REPOSITORY:  Special Collections Library, Duke University

  4. DESCRIPTION:  Poem, Barbara Fritchie
    NOTES: This story, now considered apocryphal, is the subject of a popular patriotic poem, "Barbara Fritchie" (1864), by John Greenleaf Whittier, and a play, Barbara Frietchie (1899), by Clyde Fitch.
    REPOSITORY:  Barbara Fritchie Museum

  5. DESCRIPTION:  Mary Surratt
    SOURCE:   Testimony related to Mary Surratt
    REPOSITORY:  Surratt House Museum

  6. DESCRIPTION:  Writ of Habeas Corpus for Mary Surratt
    SOURCE:  The writ of Habeas Corpus for Mary Surratt explaining the accusations of conspiring to commit murder.
    REPOSITORY:  Surratt House Museum

  7. DESCRIPTION:  Women and the Sanitary Fair
    SOURCE:  This is a collection of primary sources relating to the Pratt Street riots and the Sanitary Fair held in Baltimore during the Civil War.
    REPOSITORY:  Maryland Archives online

  8. DESCRIPTION:  Discharge Record of a Woman Soldier for being a "woman"
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Nov. 12, 1862
    SOURCE:  DeAnne Blanton, "Women Soldiers of the Civil War, Part 2" Prologue Spring 1993, Vol. 25, No. 1.
    REPOSITORY:  National Archives

  9. DESCRIPTION:  Belle Boyd:  Women spy in the Civil War
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Copyright 2000 by the Academic Affairs Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    SOURCE:  Belle Boyd was a Confederate spy who attended Mount Washington Female College in Baltimore.  There should would mingle with the Union soldiers protecting the city of Baltimore.  She would sweet talk secrets out of the young men to report back to the Confederates. She was arrested for spying in 1861 and detained in Baltimore.  She went on to warn General Jackson about the pending Union attack on Front Royal.  She was arrested 16 times for her civil disobediences. 
    REPOSITORY:  The University of North Carolina

Additional Media Resources

Belle Boyd (1843-1900)

The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War

Additional Instructional Resources

Resources on Incorporating Primary Sources and Historic Sites in Classroom Instruction

Mr. Donn's U.S. History Lesson Plans & Activities 

Internet Lesson Plan Activities: The Civil War

Lesson Plan: The Civil War

Secondary Resources

Bailey, Thomas A. "The Mythmakers of American History." The Journal of American History (Jun. 1968): pp. 5-21.

Blanton, DeAnne and Lauren M. Cook.  They Fought Like Demons:  Women Soldiers in the American Civil War.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

DeAnne Blanton, "Women Soldiers of the Civil War" Prologue Spring 1993, Vol. 25, No. 1.

Davis, William.  Look Away!  A History of the Confederate States of America.  New York: The Free Press: 2002

Hakim, Joy.  The History of Us:  War, Terrible War.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 

King, Lisa Y. "In Search of Women of African Descent Who Served in the Civil War Union Navy" The Journal of Negro History (Autumn, 1998): 302-309.

Rogers, William Warren.  Confederate Homefront:  Montgomery During the Civil War.  Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1999.

Ross, Ishbel. Rebel Rose: Life of Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy. New York: Ballantine, 1873. 

Seidman, Rachel F.  The Civil War:  A History in Documents.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Password Access to Journal Articles

Some journal articles linked to this site require password access due to copyright and other restrictions. Teachers participating in the Teaching American History in Maryland program with a valid University of Maryland (UMBC) Library card can access these materials through ResearchPort.

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Belle Boyd House
126 East Race Street
Martinsburg, WV

Copyright and Other Restrictions

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Password Access to Materials

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Tina Davis.

An Archives of Maryland Online Publication
© Copyright, Maryland State Archives, July 01, 2005