If your family is from the South, you probably have some amazing and strong women in your ancestry. The records prove it.
A good woman to start with is Mary Boyd of Union Hill, Texas. A force of 11 Union soldiers came to her home at 10 o’clock at night to arrest her son Sam, accused of being a “notorious desperado.” When the Union captain stood at the door and asked for Sam, gunfire burst from every window, and a female voice was heard shouting, “Ma, I’ll load and you fire.”
The South had many women who cut Union telegraph lines. They had to be strong women, because first they chopped down the poles — or the trees used as poles — then they rolled up the wire and buried it. Sarah Jane Smith, a country girl from southwest Missouri, cut four miles of wire in one day, which is pretty hard work. She wasn’t just sitting on the veranda, drinking ice tea.
In West Virginia, Mag Murphy was arrested for cutting telegraph wires near Bulltown and was sent to jail at Wheeling. Six months later, she was out — cutting wires again. The Union officer, who re-arrested her, termed her “a perfect devil.”
Sarah Jane Smith and Mag Murphy were country girls, but the big city ladies did their part to bedevil the Union. The Union provost marshal in St. Louis wrote to his superior: “Many women here are in secret correspondence with the Rebels. I have been thinking about arresting them but the embarrassment is in knowing what to do with them. Many are the wives and daughters of Rebel officers. These women are wealthy and wield great influence.”
In Maryland, Bessie Perrine was in trouble for helping rob a Union train. Major Harry Gilmor, a partisan ranger, almost as famous as John Mosby, halted a train 12 miles north of Baltimore. He and his men captured a Yankee major general and a sack full of wallets and gold watches. One of the passengers was Mrs. Perrine. When armed men appeared at the train windows, she didn’t scream in terror like most of the passengers, she leaned out the window and greeted the rebel raiders by name, kissing them, and kissing the Confederate flag they brought with them. She then guided the raiders in finding the baggage with the most valuable contents. She told a bystander, “Those rebel boys are from the finest families of Baltimore.” Mrs. Perrine was tried for aiding the rebels.
Her principal defense was a plea of insanity. One of her witnesses was her dentist, who told the court that Mrs. Perrine needed a root canal but was too nervous for the procedure. Her bishop testified that after Mrs. Perrine’s mother had died that Bessie had gone down into the crypt and hauled her mother’s body out of the coffin.
The court ruled that she was not crazy, just devoted to the Southern cause, and gave her three years in prison.
Many of you-all have just finished buying back-to-school clothes for your children. Mary Terry was arrested for smuggling goods to the South. She told the court that her trunk contained just a few things for her little children in Lynchburg. The court requested an inventory of her trunk and found:
• 43 yards of muslin
• 25 yards of linen
• 25 yards of black silk
• 38 yards of worsted wool
• 18 yards of drab silk
• 24 yards of poplin
• 84 yards of calico
• 12 yards of cambric muslin
• 28 yards of paper muslin
• 14 pairs of shoes
• 17 ladies collars
• 8 ladies bonnets
• and 135 other items.
Well, it was a good try, anyway. The court decided that this collection exceeded the needs of two small children and sentenced her to a year in the female prison at Salem, Mass. Well, the story isn’t over.
A Lt. Skinner was assigned to escort her to Salem. After a two-day journey, they arrived, only to find — there was no female prison at Salem. Back to Baltimore they went, and then north again to Fitchburg female prison, also in Massachusetts, which did exist. And there with a dozen other Southern ladies, she did time behind bars.
Our next lady was truly extraordinary. Annie Johnson inflicted a 62 percent casualty rate on a Union cavalry company, certainly as good as the efforts of that gallant artillerist, Major Pelham. How did she do this?
Bolling Air Force Base is on the Potomac River, just across the water from National Airport. In 1864 the site was Camp Stoneman, a vast cavalry remount station, processing over 170,000 horses a year. (This might be a good place to dig for relics.) Just outside Camp Stoneman, Annie Johnson ran a four-girl cathouse. For a $200 fee, a man could get a drink, a trip upstairs with one of the girls, (Well these were MOUNTED troops) a suit of civilian clothes and a map of escape routes which would help the Union soldier to desert. Hundreds of men used Annie’s travel agency. The only men with $200 in their pockets ($8,000 in today’s money) were men who had just received enlistment bounties. It would seem that Annie’s total income was close a million in today’s dollars. She could probably have afforded a good lawyer. If she did, he wasn’t good enough to keep her out of Albany State Prison.
Was Annie a heroine of the Confederacy? Her motives were not purely patriotic, but she did more to impede the Federal cause than many Confederate commanders. Under the proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” she was an effective agent for the Southern cause.
A daring woman tried to save a Confederate major from being hanged. In the vicious guerrilla warfare of Missouri, a Confederate major, Tim Reaves, had shot a captured Union major, James Wilson. In retaliation, the Union selected one of their prisoners, Confederate Major Enoch Wolfe. They sentenced him to die, even though he had no connection with acts of Tim Reaves. Major Wolfe’s imminent hanging was made public.
As he sat in his death cell, he received a visit from his wife. But it was not his wife. It was not a woman he had ever seen before. Witnesses described her as a “very pretty little woman, with beautiful curly hair, dressed like a butterfly.” She rushed into his cell, embraced him passionately and whispered into his ear: “Pretend I am your wife. Their sympathy for our love and devotion will cause them to spare you.”
Major Enoch Wolfe was either a perfect gentleman – or a bit slow in the head. He jumped back and shouted to the guard, “Who is this woman? I’ve never seen her before in my life!” The guards hauled her off the condemned man and hustled her to a cell of her own.
There, under orders from the ferocious Col. Joseph Darr, she was placed in a cell without windows, with a heavy ball and chain riveted tightly to her ankle and heavy iron cuffs securing her hands. There she stayed,in the dark, her stocking soaked in blood as the iron circle bit into her ankle, for sixty days. Even her jailers were appalled at this treatment, ordered by the colonel. No other woman prisoner in that jail was hand-cuffed or forced to wear a ball and chain.
At her trial, she was found guilty of trying to help Wolfe to escape and was sentenced to one more month in jail. The officers trying her went on record in justifying the light sentence, citing her harsh confinement while awaiting trial. Major Wolfe had to face his fate without the beautiful woman of mystery. In the end, he was saved by the Masons, but that is a different story.
Earlier, we heard of the St. Louis provost marshal and his despair in dealing with the Southern ladies. His understanding was correct. A St. Louis socialite, Augusta Bagwell, wrote, in an intercepted letter, the way she treated Union officers: “I never ask a favor of a Yankee that is lower than a colonel.” Truly, one of the original steel magnolias.
Equally uppity in her country way was Rachel Haynie, who was arrested for feeding bushwhackers in central Missouri. She told the arresting officer: “I’ve fed bushwhackers before and I’ll do it again. I glory in bushwhackers.”
Earlier, we met Mary Terry, who was smuggling fabrics. Other smugglers were more military in their wares. Elvira Mitchell had four Navy revolvers under her hoop skirts. Rebecca Thompson had smuggled 50,000 percussion caps into the South, enough for 63 volleys by a Confederate regiment of average strength. Rebecca apparently enjoyed being a loyal Yankee, since she had taken the Oath of Allegiance eight times. Her Yankee captors had some doubts about her sincerity, since she had taken the oath under the following names:
• Jane Franklin
• R. F. Giles
• Martha James
• Martha Sharpe
• Fanny Logan and
• Mary Link
The champion smuggler was probably Ann Trainor, who was arrested just before she delivered 1,000 ounces of quinine and 200 pounds of opium. The quinine was enough to treat over 2000 men with acute malaria. The opium was enough to treat half the Confederate army for diarrhea. Her arrest in the mid-South may have been a major factor in the sicknesses that impaired the Army of Tennessee.
But, perhaps the most amazing of these women was a teen-ager, Sallie Pollock. It was early Spring, 1864. Grant had been called east to be the new Union commander. He had been sent to succeed where McClellan, Burnside and Hooker had failed. In high security staff meetings at Washington, DC, Grant had worked out Union strategy for the coming year. Copies of the plan were few and distribution was tightly controlled. The North had not counted on the highly efficient network of women spies and couriers, all loyal and devoted Confederate heroines.
Just two weeks after the secret meetings, Sallie Pollock was arrested, carrying not one, but two copies of Grant’s secret plans for 1864. Each copy was neatly marked: one for Jefferson Davis and one for General Lee. This was a greater breach of security than Lee’s lost order, used as cigar wrapper. It was on a par with breaking Nazi Germany’s Enigma code. Another hour and teen-age Sallie Pollock would have been across the Potomac, and American history might have been very different.
In some ways, the conflict between Southern women and Northern soldiers was an unequal struggle. Imagine a Yankee soldier meeting a Southern girl, a woman who — in her very DNA — understood the art of flirtation, a woman who, with a batted eyelash and a sideways glance could promise everything — and nothing. The Yankee was doomed.
Sallie Pollock had been stopped many times over three years by Union sentries but was never searched. The court asked her how she had gotten away with it for all those years. “Why, it was nothing,” she said, “I just talked sweet to those Yankee boys.”
The St. Louis Southern boys treated the Yankee officers with amused contempt – and the men came back for more. Even years later, the Northern men most likely thought that the Southern women were laughing with them, when in reality, they were laughing at them.
-By Thomas Lowry