Southern women in the Civil War – spies galore, nurses too

If the women of the North were best characterized by a famous nurse, the women of the South were exemplified with spies and nurses.

Part three — Southern women spies and nurses

VIENNA, Va. — Feb.  22, 2010 — If the women of the North were best characterized by a famous nurse, the women of the South were exemplified best by a renowned spy, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the lady who set the paradigm for covert operatives.

Rose was born into a well-to-do family in Montgomery County, MD in 1817, and from teenage years on was known as “Wild Rose,” an apt nickname. She was an ardent secessionist from the beginning, and when orphaned at a young age, went to live with her aunt in Washington, DC, in the Congressional Boarding House, on the site where later would be the notorious Old Capitol Prison. She would also reside there.

Being in Washington with her aunt gave her access to all of the best families, political and otherwise, as well as military figures that would prove of substantial benefit to her later on.  One of her best known results, was to surreptitiously deliver to General Pierre G. T. Beauregard the anticipated Union troop movements, which led to the Confederate victory at the Battle of First Manassas (or Bull Run.)  This success led President Jefferson Davis to give her the credit for the victory.

She was carefully watched by Allan Pinkerton, a Secret Service agent of the era, arrested in August of 1862 and placed in Old Capitol Prison, along with her eight year old daughter, Rose.  Even while in prison she sent notes to assist the Confederacy, one going out in the hair bun of a lady visitor.  She was ultimately released from prison and deported to Richmond, VA.

After Davis sent her to Europe to tour England and France while spreading propaganda favorable to the South, she published her memoirs, and was delighted to find great sympathy among the ruling classes of both countries. After a year, she boarded the Condor, a British blockade-runner, to return home. When the ship ran aground on a sand bar and with a Union boat in pursuit, she persuaded the ship captain to put her and two others into a rowboat so they could escape. Unfortunately the small craft was swamped by waves, and Rose who was carrying $2,000.00 for the Confederate Treasury sewn into her skirt, drowned.

She was buried in Wilmington, NC with full Confederate Military Honors and her marble cross marker carries the words, “Mrs. Rose O’N. Greenhow, a Bearer of Dispatchs [sic] to the Confederate Government.”

Young Sally Louisa Tompkins was born at “Poplar Grove” in Matthews City, VA on November 9, 1833, and moved with her mother to Richmond after the death of her father, just as the war was beginning.  Soon the government sent out a plea to the public to help care for the wounded men from First Manassas, and Sally went to work to open a private hospital in a house which had been donated to her by Judge John Robertson which carried his name.

Her small facility treated 1,333 soldiers from the day its doors opened until the last patients were discharged in June of 1865. Officials found it amazing that Sally’s hospital had a higher cure rate, and saw more of its patients able to return to service.  With those figures in her hand, she approached President Jefferson Davis to find a way to let the hospital continue, when all other private hospitals had been ordered closed.

Davis found the way to get around this regulation, and commissioned Sally Tompkins as a Captain in the Confederate Cavalry, unassigned, the only woman to receive a Confederate commission. Since she had a military rank, she could lawfully receive government rations as well as a small salary to help in some of the operating costs.  For a small hospital that was in business only 45 months, her record of only 73 deaths was amazing.

Even after Robertson Hospital closed, she was beloved in Richmond after the war, and continued with charitable work, active in her Episcopal Church and going to veterans reunions, until the bulk of her own money was gone.  She moved into the Confederate Women’s Home in Richmond as a “lifetime guest” until she died in July of 1916. She is buried at Christ Church Episcopal, on Williams Warf Rd. near Mathews VA.

Phoebe Yates Pember

Phoebe Yates Pember

Phoebe Yates Pember

was known as the “Angel of Chimborazo,” a hospital outside Richmond, on a hill, and apparently named after a volcano site in Ecuador.  It received over 77,000 men and of that number some 16,000 died there.  Medical attention was sadly lacking, medical supplies were hard to come by, and the initial supply of male nurses were inefficient at best.

After the death of her from tuberculosis, Pember moved from Savannah to Richmond, and it was there she approached Surgeon General Samuel Moore who gave her a senior position at Chimborazo, where she oversaw the Second Division of patients.

It was said that the stench of gangrene was overpowering; bed linens were rarely changed, and the male nurses did a poor job.  Pember promptly got rid of all the men, hired women to replace them, and instituted the practice of clean sheets and overall attention to cleanliness.

Much like “Mother Bickerdyke” in the North,  Phoebe Pember ran things her own way, saw to it that food was better prepared and presented, with the net result that the men adored her and the doctors and surgeons resented her rather forceful personality!  In both cases, the men learned to listen to the ladies and the results proved both to be correct.

She was able to maintain control of the hospital until the U. S. Sanitary Commission took over the facility later, making her probably one of the last individuals (not to mention the last woman) to hold a senior post in the now defunct Confederacy.  She died in 1913 at the age of 90, and is buried at Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia.

Perhaps a lesser-known spy was Antonia Ford who was born in the Fairfax (Va.) Court House vicinity, to wealthy parents.  When the War began, her brother Charles joined J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry and she was determined to do her best to assist him.  The lovely 23-year-old girl found it easy to make conversation with the Union soldiers in and around the area, as well as adults who might have troop movement information.

Even those who do not recognize her name, recall the event of March 9,1863 when 29 of Col. John Singleton Mosby’s men were able to quietly slip into the area at 2:00 a.m., and into the house where both General Edwin H.  Stoughton and his cavalry commander, Col. Percy Wyndham, were asleep.  It is said that Mosby came silently into Stoughton’s bedroom, tore off the bedclothes, with the question, “Do you know Mosby?” and the bewildered Stoughton answered,  “Yes, have you caught that [–] Mosby?” The quick reply was, “No, but he has caught YOU.”

Interestingly enough when the NY Times reported on it, it left the distinct impression that Stoughton and Antonia had been very close friends. In point of fact, he had stayed in the Ford home, and the young officer was the same age as Antonia Ford.

Ford was subsequently investigated by the Secret Service, ultimately arrested and sent to Old Capitol Prison, where Rose Greenhow was being held. In one of those bizarre tales of war, Antonia fell in love with one of her guards, Major Joseph Willard (as in the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC) and they were married after her release. Her death in 1871 was attributed to the poor care and conditions at the Old Capitol Prison.  Her role as a lady spy is indeed well rooted in history.

One outstanding lady in that period is seldom mentioned in the annals of history, because of her station and her race.  Selina Norris Gray was a second-generation slave, born at Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House, where she served for many years as maid and general housekeeper for Mrs. Lee.  She and Mary Custis Lee were very close, and shared a kinship and a friendship, as did their children. Mrs. Lee had taught the adults to read, taught the children little songs, and saw to it that they were fairly literate.

Selina and her husband, Thornton Gray, had been married in the same room at Arlington as the Lees had; the marriage (very irregular at that time between slaves) performed by an Episcopal minister whose services were requested by Mrs. Lee.  Their home was a very nice brick one adjacent to the main house, so that she was always available to Mrs. Lee.

When General Lee left Arlington House to lead the Confederate Army and the Lee family had to leave their beloved home, it was to Selina Gray that Mrs. Lee entrusted the keys to the house, as well as getting her assistance in removing some special items.

When the Union troops arrived, Selina Gray stood in the doorway and handed over the keys, telling them that they were NOT to take any items that belonged to “Miss Mary.”   While she was not totally successful in keeping all the belongings, she went a long way in protecting many artifacts, and thus Selina Norris Gray may be remembered as one of the first preservationists.

In later years her daughters returned a table that had been in the family but belonged in Arlington House.  Selina Gray died in 1917, but I’ve been unable to find where she is buried. Her son, Harry Gray, used the skills he used in brick work at Arlington House to build the first Italianate row house built by a black man, in Arlington, Va.  The house on Quinn Street, is on the Register of Historic Places and still stands.

The last of our list of outstanding Southern women during the war is Varina Howell Davis, the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  The Davis family moved into the White House of the Confederacy on Clay Street in Richmond in the summer of 1861 and Varina settled readily into her role as first lady, hosting social events and the requisite small dinner parties. 

A striking lady with an olive complexion, she tended to dress in rather conservative clothes, as opposed to the extravagant wardrobe of Mary Todd Lincoln, some 140 miles to the North!  She was a good friend of diarist Mary Boykin Chestnut, whose writings contain many observations of Varina.

She worked hard to support the troops, visiting the wounded both North and South in the hospitals, as well as knitting articles of clothing and comfort for them, sending warm rugs to be used as blankets and even putting together slippers for them from the remnants.  President Davis approved her volunteer work with the patients, but did not want her acting as a nurse.

The Davises had four children, one dying from a fall from the upper porch of the home.  Her last child was named for her, Varina Howell Davis, who would come to be known as “Winnie,” and was the acknowledged “Daughter of the Confederacy.”

Their post war marriage years were interesting.  Following their speedy departure in hiding from Richmond, he went ahead alone while she and the children followed by train to Charlotte, NC which seemed safer.  The two finally were reunited at the small town of Milledgeville, Georgia.

A few weeks later, Davis was apprehended and arrested and spent considerable time at Fortress Monroe, part of it in chains, in a small cell.  It was September of 1865 before she was allowed to receive a letter from her husband, and a year later was allowed to visit him.

After his release, there were periods of turmoil for the couple.  He fell in love with Virginia Clay, the wife of a friend; the legal system of the time made divorce difficult, and he and Varina lived apart for several years.

Finally in 1877 he visited a widowed heiress, Sarah Dorsey, who owned a home in Biloxi, MS.  Varina and Sarah finally became friends, and Sarah Dorsey sold the home, Beauvoir, to them in 1878, where they and Winnie lived for a number of years.  After his death, she left Beauvoir to the state of Mississippi and went to New York with Winnie.

Varina then worked toward reconciliation of North and South, and became friends with Julia Dent Grant, President Grant’s widow. When she realized that her own death was near, Varina turned to her daughter, Margaret, and said, “My darling child, I am going to die this time but I’ll try to be brave about it.  Don’t you wear black. It is bad for your health and will depress your husband.”

She died on October 16, 1906 and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, next to her husband and near Winnie.

Women of the North and the South played our their lives in various ways and over an extended period of time, but it was not all “balls and bullets and bacon.”   Theirs were lives of struggle, turmoil, joy and grief, and dedication to their families and country.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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