Inpower Institute Insights

Black August

Written By: Lorren Z. Buck  |  September 1, 2019

From the plantation field to the White House, black women took an active role in the Civil War.  These women were the chief source of information.  In fact, free and enslaved black women who were operating as spies, scouts, couriers and guides were willing and able to offer enormous support to Union military personnel and operations. 

The activities of Harriet Tubman are a case in point. Tubman returned to the South early in the war.  She would disguise and lead local Blacks in dangerous missions behind enemy lines to gather information on rebel troop location, movements and strength. She even accompanied, and by some accounts led, troops in daring raids into enemy territory which destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of Southern property and liberated hundreds of blacks from plantations.

Other intelligence work involved black women working as domestic as did Mary Elizabeth Bowser.  This brilliant black woman worked with a spy ring in the confederate capital and was said to be “the most productive espionage operation” in the Civil War.

And finally, there was Mary Touvestre, a free black woman who obtained a copy of confederate engineering plans to inform Union construction of its own ironclad warship.

Let’s be clear, these women did not pledge their loyalty to the Union out of a sense of patriotism.  White Northerners still regarded African Americans as objects, unworthy of respect, and unintelligent to participate in the public sphere. These embolden black women did it for their own self-interest and liberation.  For free Black Women is was a matter of maintaining freedom in the midst of an uncertain war.  For them who were enslaved, I imagine it was a strategy to use the chaos of war to secure their freedom.  Freedom of self and community was the ultimate motivator.  In a culture which fosters the false image of Black women as vengeful, envious, spiteful or hateful, let us reclaim our fierceness by rejecting the fatality of womanhood. We have and will always be forces of nature whose mass improves culture and its outcome for future generations.