Forgotten Heroines of the Confederacy

Millions know Scarlett O’Hara’s fictional story. Yet few among even the staunchest Southerners know the true stories of Confederate heroines like Molly Tynes, Lola Sanchez, Lottie and Ginnie Moon, Erneline Pigott, Robbie Woodruff, Antonia Ford, Nancy Hart and Alice Thompson. Some of these women en¬joyed a measure of local recognition, but others had to cloak their deeds in secrecy for their own safety. In general, historians have overlooked or minimized their contributions to the Lost Cause. Nevertheless, their true adventures are often as daring and romantic as Scarlett’s fictional fife.

Take the case of Mary Elisabeth “Molly” Tynes, for example. Tynes lived near Wytheville, Virginia, which was strategically important because both salt and lead mines were located in the vicinity. Despite their value to the Confederacy, these mines were lightly guarded since the mountainous terrain made a large-scale Union attack unlikely.

Nevertheless, on July 13, 1863, Colonel John Toland with 1,000 Federal infantry men mounted as cavalry plus a detachment under Colonel William Powell left Brownsville, West Virginia, headed to-ward Wytheville. Because the steep terrain tired the horses, the troops stopped to rest at Jeffersonville, Virginia. Word of their arrival and ultimate destination quickly spread throughout the community.

When Tynes heard the news, she knew there was no time to waste. After throwing a saddle on her bay mare, the young woman galloped away. As the evening shadows crept across the countryside, she dashed from cabin to cabin, calling, The Yanks are coming! Rally on Wytheville!”

For 12 hours she rode, her horse sometimes stumbling in the tangled underbrush as she cut through the woods. Low hanging branches lashed her face and tore her clothes. She coaxed her tired mount onward, ignoring the danger posed by the wild animals that roamed through the tall timber. As dawn broke, the disheveled and exhausted Tynes rode into Wytheville, waving her bonnet to rally the force of about 50 young boys and old men who had assembled to defend the town because their able-bodied brothers were away at war.

When the Union troops rode into range, the Confederates opened fire, killing Toland and severely wounding Powell. Although the defenders had the advantage for a time, the Union’s larger numbers seemed destined to outlast them. Suddenly, the whistle of an approaching train pierced the air. The Union troops, fearing that Confederate reinforcements were aboard, hastily withdrew. The mines, the railway, and villagers were saved.

Lola Sanchez also made a daring moonlit ride to carry an important warning. Mauritia Sanchez, a Cuban immigrant, lived with his invalid wife and three daughters—Lola, Panchita, and Eugenia—on the east bank of St. John’s River near Palatka, Florida. Information about Yankee plans often percolated through the lines in this area and the evidence pointed to Mauritia Sanchez, who then was arrested and imprisoned.

Despite his incarceration, information continued to reach the Confederates. So, the Yankees periodically searched the Sanchez house, looking for spies who might be hiding there. Union officers also found their way to the Sanchez hacienda merely to enjoy the company of the three exotic sisters. One Saturday evening a trio of Federal officers came to visit and accepted an invitation to stay for dinner. While preparing the dining table, Lola overheard the men talking on the front porch. They spoke of plans for the next morning when a Union gunboat would steal up the river at dawn for a surprise attack and a foraging party would leave St. Augustine. Lola trembled because she knew the value of the information she had overheard. In a soft voice, she urgently told Panchita to entertain their guests while Eugenia cooked dinner. Meanwhile, she would carry the message to the Confederate camp.

As quietly as possible, she saddled her horse and disappeared under the cover of darkness. The camp was only a mile and a half away, but it lay on the other side of the river. As fast as she dared, she rode through the forest, dense with water oak, pine, scrub palmetto and jasmine vines. When she reached the ferry landing she discovered that the ferryman was gone. Borrowing a skiff from his wife, she paddled swiftly across the calm water.

On the other shore, she immediately encountered a Confederate picket. Luckily, he was a local boy who recognized her. After she convinced him that she had important business, he let her pass and even lent her his horse, although that was against regulations. Then she retraced her route, satisfied that the South would be ready, but mindful that she was still in danger. She returned home to the familiar, comforting aromas of chicken olla catalina, olla podrida and strong coffee.

The next morning, as the gray mist rose off the water, the Union gunboat and an accompanying transport were surprised by a Confederate battery at a bend in the river. The gunboat was disabled; the transport was captured; and the Yankees were taken prisoner. Meanwhile, the foraging party encountered a Rebel force that fought valiantly. A Union general was killed, and many of his soldiers were captured.

The Sanchez girls weren’t the Confederacy’s only sister act. Without a doubt, the most flamboyant spying siblings were Charlotte (Lottie) and Virginia (Ginnie) Moon. The daughters of a Virginian who had moved to Ohio and freed his slaves but never lost his love for the South, the two women were Confederates through and through. Both were excellent equestriennes, crack shots and independent thinkers who were willing to defy social convention when it was an obstacle to doing something really fun or really important.

Although Ginnie, who was 15 years younger than Lottie, was prettier, both were lethal flirts who broke the hearts of many beaux. In a determined effort to single handedly improve the morale of the Confederate army, Ginnie was at one time engaged to marry 16 soldiers. After the war she explained her rationale: “I thought if they died, they would die happy, and if they didn’t I didn’t give a damn.”

Because the Moons were the type of women people love to talk about, the stories of their spying careers have almost certainly been embellished. Moreover, they were both good storytellers, and it would have been in character for them to exaggerate a little. Nevertheless, there are a few surviving, reliable reports that at least hint at the facts.

According to legend, Lottie once left Ambrose Burnside standing at the altar. Although both sisters knew Burnside, this story seems improbable when the facts of Burnside’s military assignments are taken into consideration. Whether or not Lottie jilted the Yankee General, she married James Clark, a lawyer who soon became a judge. Her husband shared her political views and was a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a group of Confederate sympathizers involved in underground activities.

Sometime in 1862, Confederate agent Walker Taylor visited the Clark home. He was carrying important dispatches from General Sterling Price to General Edmund Kirby Smith, who was leading the vanguard in the Kentucky campaign. Because Taylor was too well known to deliver the dispatches himself, Lottie volunteered. Disguised as an Irish washerwoman, she crossed the river from Cincinnati to Covington, Kentucky, where she persuaded some soldiers to give her a ride to Lexington to be reunited with her sick husband. When they arrived in Lexington, she thanked the men and walked along the pike, wondering how to find the general. Luckily, she soon encountered a trustworthy Confederate acquaintance, Colonel Thomas Scott, who promised to deliver the documents. She found her way to the railway station, befriended Union General Leslie Coombs on the train ride to Covington, took a ferry across the river and walked the rest of the way home.

Later Lottie fled to Canada, because she had been warned that the Federals planned to arrest her. In Canada, she assumed another disguise, pretending to be a British traveler in need of medical treatment, and set out for Richmond to take a message from the Knights of the Golden Circle to Jefferson Davis. On her way to the Confederate capital, she stopped in Washington, D.C. to secure a pass through Union lines. She convinced Secretary of War Stanton that she was a British tourist going to the warm springs of Virginia for her health. When President Lincoln went to inspect General McClellan’s troops after the battle of Sharpsburg, Stanton allowed the invalid British lady to join the group. Then she traveled on to Richmond.

Although details of her mission there are scant, a Confederate newspaper called her “The ambassadress of the Northwest” and editorialized about the prospects for an alliance between the South and the Northwest. A Cincinnati paper reprinted that article and indicated that the emissary was Ohio’s own Mrs. Clark, who made no secret of her secessionist sentiments.

Early in 1863, after a visit to Jackson, Mississippi, Ginnie returned to Ohio, bringing a message from the Confederate government to the Knights of the Golden Circle. Ginnie and her mother, who had joined her at Memphis, were welcomed by James Clark alone because Lottie had not yet returned from Richmond. By this time, the Federals were more than a little suspicious of the Clarks and sent a personable young man to infiltrate the household.

With their usual hospitality, the Moon women entertained the young man but were careful not to tell him anything incriminating. When they mentioned that they were leaving for Memphis via steamboat, he passed the information along to the proper authorities. Soon after the women boarded the vessel, Ginnie was informed that she was being arrested for carrying contraband goods and documents. When a man tried to search her, she whipped out a Colt revolver and threatened to shoot him. He decided it would be better to let someone else handle the Rebel spitfire and retreated. She hastily dipped the most important message in a pitcher of water and then swallowed it. The next day a Cincinnati newspaper reported that she had been carrying 40 bottles of morphine, seven pounds of opium, camphor and 25-50 letters.

Ginnie and her mother were turned over to Captain Andrew Kemper, an old family friend. After some negotiating, they were paroled and most of Ginnie’s personal possessions were returned. Later Ginnie had a personal interview with General Burnside, another old friend, who told her that she would be tried in a military court but her mother could go free. After three weeks, Ginnie was allowed to travel to Memphis on condition that she report daily to General Stephen Hurlbut’s headquarters. She remained a passionate Southern Patriot until the end of the war and was never tried.

Burnside also showed leniency to Lottie, who tried to fool him with her English invalid disguise when she returned to Cincinnati and found it necessary to appeal to him for a pass through Union lines. Although he had her arrested, she was allowed to stay in a fashionable hotel under surveillance for a time and then permitted to go South. By this time the Clarks felt that they should relocate. Surprisingly, they chose to stay in the North, moving to New York City, where Clark practiced law and Lottie became a newspaper reporter.

The Moon sisters were certainly not alone in their smuggling efforts. Many civilians aided the Confederate cause by transporting mail, medicines, uniforms, weapons and currency to Southern troops. Women were particularly useful because they were not likely to be searched, and they could hide even bulky items beneath their hoop skirts. Another favorite stratagem was stuffing drugs or messages into hollow cavities, such as a doll’s head or a watch with the works removed.

Betty Duval, who was part of an espionage ring headed by Rose O’Neal Greenhow, delivered a message to General M.L. Bonham by concealing it in her hair and securing it with a decorative comb. And she wasn’t the only woman to try this tactic. In North Carolina, Emeline Pigott hid pieces of thin paper underneath her chignon. For concealing larger items, Pigott sewed pockets onto her petticoats. She was once arrested carrying toothbrushes, pocket knives, a shirt, two pairs of pants, gloves, candy and a pair of boots underneath her skirt!

The press called Louisa Buckner the “quinine lady” after she was discovered with “a secret cipher document” and 127 ounces of quinine concealed under her dress. Buckner’s arrest presented an embarrassing problem for the Lincoln administration because the Confederate smuggler was the niece of the Union Postmaster General, who had lent her $500 that was used to buy contraband drugs—without his knowledge, of course.

Kate Patterson and Robbie Woodruff were two young women who aided a very active smuggling and espionage ring in Tennessee. After the war, Patterson wrote, “I smuggled medicines such as quinine, morphine, etc. I have brought $500 and $600 worth of medicine out at one time around my waist.”

While Woodruff was staying at Patterson’s home, a group of Union soldiers surrounded the house and threatened to burn it—perhaps because they suspected that the women were doing more than knitting socks for the troops. When Woodruff appealed to the men’s honor, the lieutenant in charge ordered them to stop. Then he fell head-over-heels in love with Woodruff, who unfortunately for him, did not reciprocate. In fact, she felt that he was repulsive and beneath her socially. Nevertheless, she encouraged his advances, endured his odious company, and extracted every bit of information possible from him. Even though he knew that she was using him and even threatened to have her hanged, he kept giving her information to insure that she would continue to see him. It is not known how long this love-hate relationship lasted, but it is certain that Woodruff married another man after the war.

While Woodruff hated the attentions of her Yankee, Antonia Ford fell in love with a Union soldier on her way to prison. Ford’s arrest followed a daring raid on her Virginia hometown, Fairfax Courthouse, by Mosby’s Rangers. In the early morning darkness of March 9, 1863, Mosby and his men slipped through Union lines, making their way past sentries and sleeping troops to the center of town where several officers were quartered. While Mosby sent his men in different directions to accomplish various objectives, he entered the house where Brigadier General Edwin Stoughton was sleeping. With a whack on the general’s bare bottom, Mosby roused him out of bed and into ignominy. Meanwhile, Mosby’s men rounded up the officers’ best horses and took several prisoners, although two of their main targets eluded them. The South was jubilant while the North fumed. The press demanded to know how Mosby had managed to capture a general well within Union lines. A major newspaper printed a letter that had been written by one of Stoughton’s soldiers before his capture, complaining that the general was spending too much time with a local belle named Antonia Ford.

Lincoln’s Secret Service decided to investigate the affair and sent a female agent to Fairfax Courthouse. The woman, who pretended to be a Southerner in need of help, was befriended by the Ford family and invited to spend a few days at their home. Soon Antonia and the agent were exchanging confidences. One night as they were preparing for bed, Antonia confided that she was a Confederate courier and had delivered crucial information to Generals Beauregard and Stuart. She also showed the agent her greatest treasure, a commission from Stuart appointing her as an honorary aide-de-camp.

A few days later, Antonia Ford, her father, and several of the town’s leading citizens were arrested. She was separated from the others, placed in a railroad boxcar with a single guard, and transported’ to Washington, D.C. where she was taken to the head-quarters of General Samuel Heintzelman. She barely noted what transpired there, because she was hypnotized by the intense gaze of one of the general s aides—the handsome, young Major Joe Willard.

Because some Federal officials felt that female spies had been treated too leniently in the past, they were determined that Ford would be shown no favors. While they demanded harsh punishment, the South proclaimed her innocence. Meanwhile, Ford languished in her dreary prison cell, cheered only by the arrival of flowers and sweets from the Union major she had seen at Heintzehnan’s headquarters.

Soon Willard began paying her visits and even suggested a means of gaining her freedom. All she had to do was take the oath of loyalty to the Union. This, of course, she refused to do. She countered by asking him to resign from the Union army. Willard did resign, but he fought hard for her release, using all the political influence he could muster.

After seven months of emotional turmoil, the two reached the breaking point. Ford agreed to take the oath, and Willard resigned his commission. Following her release from prison, they were married, but their happiness was marred by the complications of war because Ford was not allowed to cross Union lines to visit her family. Moreover, the deprivations of prison had ruined her health and she was often ill. After only seven years of marriage, she died.

Ford had taken a peaceful route to getting out of prison, but Nancy Hart was not as patient. She broke out. Hart was a female bushwhacker—an untamed, rough-hewn mountain woman who rode with Perry Conley’s Moccasin Rangers in West Virginia. By mid-1862, the Yankees had put a price on her head. Although the exact circumstances of her capture, imprisonment, and escape are disputed, there is no doubt that she was taken prisoner and detained in Summersville, West Virginia. Historians also agree that she shot one of her guards and galloped away on the favorite horse of Lieutenant Colonel William Starr, who had claimed the reward for capturing her. But losing his prisoner was not the final indignity for Starr.

On the morning of July 25, 1862, Hart returned to Summersville with 200 Confederate soldiers, who quickly overpowered the pickets and the sleeping troops. Only about 10 shots were fired, but the Rebels captured four Union officers, including Starr, who were on their way to prison in Richmond.

Although Hart was unusual, she was not the only Confederate woman involved in military operations. Lila Gret of Alabama was part of a demolition squad that destroyed a railroad bridge over the Tennessee River. After the war, she wrote, “I applied the torch . . . and we thus detained the supplies for a whole division of the Yankee army.”

Historians estimate that 400 women disguised themselves as men in order to fight in the War Between the States. Little is known about these women because secrecy was vital to their success. Some were discovered when they were injured or killed in battle. A few revealed their identities because they found army life too hard and wanted a discharge.

Mary and Molly Bell, another sister act, enlisted as Tom Parker and Bob Martin, respectively. After they had served for about two years, a captain decided they were “common camp followers” and had them arrested. They were imprisoned at Castle Thunder but were released after three weeks and allowed to return home.

Two unknown women dressed in Confederate uniform were found among the casualties at Gettysburg. A Confederate officer being held as a POW on Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay, Ohio, gave birth to a baby in December 1864. After the war Loreta Janeta Velazquez wrote a biography claiming that she had been a double agent and had fought, disguised as a man. Although there is some evidence to substantiate her assertion that she was involved in espionage, there is little to support her claim that she fought at First Manassas and other battles.

Some women went to war to be near their husbands or sweethearts. Most stayed on the sidelines, helping out as nurses whenever they were needed, but a few became combatants. Malinda Blaylock disguised herself and enlisted as Samuel Blaylock in the 26th North Carolina Infantry, in order to be with her husband. When he received a medical discharge, Malinda revealed her ruse to her startled commanding officer, who immediately discharged her too. Lucy Matilda Thompson, disguised as a man served with her husband in the Bladen Light Infantry. Amy Clarke, using the name Richard Anderson, joined the 11th Tennessee infantry with her spouse and continued to serve after he was killed at Shiloh.

On occasion, women who were merely bystanders were caught up in the furor of battle. At the fourth Battle of Winchester, when Confederate troops were compelled to retreat before a much larger Union force, a local woman named Lizzie Yonley tried to rally with the Confederates. When it became obvious that the battle was lost, she saved hundreds from being captured by showing them a safe line of withdrawal. At the battle of Nashville in December 1864, when General Hood’s army was in full retreat before Union forces, Mary Bradford begged the soldiers to stop and fight. But it was too late.

At the Battle of Thompson’s Station in March 1863, the Third Arkansas’ commanding officer and color bearer were both shot, throwing the regiment into disorder. A 17-year-old girl, Alice Thompson, who had been watching from a nearby house rushed onto the field, raised the flag and lead the Arkansas troops to victory.

Countless other Southern women were bona fide heroines during the war. Regrettably, for the most part, their names and deeds have been forgotten.

This piece was originally published in Southern Partisan magazine in 1994.

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