Ryan offers talk focusing on female spymasters during the Civil War


“Let’s go back in history,” is a phrase Tom Ryan often says at the beginning of his presentations about the Civil War.

The local Civil War enthusiast and author Ryan will soon present, “Women Spies during the Civil War: Elizabeth Van Lew and Rose O’Neal Greenhow,” hosted by the Bethany Beach Cultural and Historical Affairs Committee. He will be joined by two reenactors, portraying Lew and Greenhow, who will be dressed in period garb and speak briefly about their lives.

“I introduce each one of them separately and then they talk to the audience separately about who they are and what they did,” explained Ryan.

The program will be held on Thursday, Nov. 13, at Bethany Beach Town Hall, beginning at 7 p.m. Light refreshments will be served. The talk, which lasts approximately an hour, will be done with the help of a PowerPoint presentation and feature many photographs and illustrations.

“These two women were not only spies, but spymasters,” said Ryan. “They were the head of a spy ring. They had people working for them — men, women, young girls because they needed a variety of people not only collecting information, but delivering information.”

Ryan said one story he will discuss is how Greenhow, a Washingtonian, was supplying information to a general in Manassas, Va.

“She had to have couriers,” explained Ryan. “One of them was a 16-year-old girl who dressed up as a farm girl and rode in a horse and wagon and got through the sentries — because at that time you couldn’t go back and forth without going through the guards.

“She would blink her eyes, smile at the young boys who were guarding and would get through.”

Greenhow, Ryan said, had a knitted pouch that she would put messages in.

“She would roll it up in the back of her hair, and inside the hair was the pouch,” he explained. “That’s how she would taken it to the Confederate military outposts.”

In the past, Ryan has given presentations on presidents’ wives Mary Lincoln and Varina Davis, and generals’ wives, Mary Lee and Julia Grant.

Ryan spent 35 years working for the Department of Defense in intelligence operations, and thought this discussion on female spies would be a great follow-up presentation.

“It just seemed natural to gravitate to women spies,” he said. “Especially in recent years, there’s been a lot more scholarship about women during the Civil War.”

Often Ryan speaks to area historical and social clubs in the area, almost always to a full house.

“Anything about spies is popular,” said Ryan. “Of course, the Civil War itself is a pretty popular topic. I think the audience comes from a variety of people who are active in organizations, well to read or to learn. There are educational-type groups too.”

Ryan’s interest in the Civil War started while he was still working in intelligence, after attended class at the Army War College, where they spent the day at Gettysburg.

“They explained all the strategy and tactics that the commanders went through in the fighting over the three days. I found it pretty fascinating. I started reading more about the Civil War and traveled extensively all over the country to almost every battlefield I could find.”

He has previously been published in the Washington Times and Civil War magazine. He is the former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover, and a member of the Delaware Historical Society, Fort Delaware Society, Civil War Trust and Gettysburg Foundation.

Ryan said he hopes many members of the community will be able to attend the talk and learn something new about the Civil War, and the important role women played.

“I think it will show that women had an important role. They certainly did in many respects, but for the most part, women’s roles were behind the scenes as nurses and other support roles. Organizations that visited camps to help provide for the needs of the soldiers. Not a lot of recognition was given for all those different roles.

“As a spy, you’re directly involved in the military aspects of the war. It’s a key role, a crucial role, and women had an advantage in those days.”

His latest book, “Spies, Scouts and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” is scheduled to publication later this year by Savas Beatie. Ryan had previously published “Essays on Delaware During the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective,” is available at Bethany Beach Books or from www.tomryan-civilwar.com. He can be contacted at pennmardel@mchsi.com.