VIENNA, Va., November 29, 2012 — They were just teenaged girls from Pulaski County in southwestern Virginia, but their bravado and dedication stood as a marker to many. Mary and Mollie (or Molly) Bell were cousins, living on the family farms and working hard outside, as did everyone, particularly in wartime.
While the whole family had always been Confederate-inclined, at some point the uncle with whom they lived lost his allegiance to the Confederacy and enlisted in a Union regiment.
This appears to have infuriated and inflamed the two girls, who decided they would join the Confederate Army, and they did. They cut their hair fairly short in the manner adopted by most young men of the time, and using cloths to bind their chests and working to “walk like a man” while employing a lower voice to speak, they were able to give the appearance of adolescent boys. (Unfortunately, no photographs remain to show the cousins as themselves or teenage boys.)
“Bob Morgan” and “Tom Parker” Appear
Mary became known as Tom Parker, and Mollie assumed the identity of Bob Morgan (or Martin). Most of the men who served with them had no reason to question the validity of their gender, and all stated that they fought hard and were “never known to straggle or shirk duty.”
The cousins joined a cavalry unit led by Gen. Jubal Early and served in it for two years, fighting like a man and living like the male soldiers while apparently arousing no suspicion in those they encountered.
As many girls similar serving had done, they told their secret to their captain, who kept it for them until his capture in 1864. It was he who gave the information to Gen. Early.
During their time with the troops, Mary was promoted to Sergeant and Mollie to Corporal. This did not matter to Early when he learned their true gender, and they were falsely accused of being “camp followers” or prostitutes and were put in prison.
When they were captured, the Richmond Daily Examiner painted the two brave women in less than flattering terms, but when the Richmond Dispatch got the story, the treatment was extremely positive and the girls were described in better terms. The story read as follows:
“The central [rail] cars, on Friday night, brought down two girls, namely Mary Bell and Mollie Bell, who were dressed in soldier clothes. They claim to be cousins, and state that before the war they lived with their uncle in Southwestern Virginia; but about two years since he left them and went over to the Yankees.
They then attired themselves in male apparel and were admitted into a cavalry company, attached to the Confederate service. A few months after their enlistment they encountered a force of Yankees, were defeated and captured with the rest of the company; but subsequently, General John H. Morgan, with reinforcements, overtook the Yankees who had them in charge, causing such a precipitate retreat that they were compelled to abandon their prisoners.
After three months; service in the cavalry, they joined the Thirty-sixth Virginia Infantry, and have been with it up to the present time. On one occasion, Mollie killed three Yankees while on picket, and on her return to the brigade was promoted for gallantry to corporalcy [sic]. The corporal has missed but one battle – that of Cedar Creek – she having been sent off on duty at the time. Once she was slightly wounded in the arm by a piece of shell.
From the time these girls entered the service up to the day of the fight which took place between Early and [Union General Phil] Sheridan on the 19th [October 1864] instant, the secret of their sex was only known to the captain of the company to which they belonged….”
Gen. Early Takes Action
At this time, the captain himself was taken prisoner and so the girls had lost their protector. It was then that the lieutenant who took over his duties saw fit to report it to the General, and Early promptly ordered them to be transported to Richmond.
Though no details are given, it was said that when Early began to question the girls, Mollie volunteered the information that there were six other girls in disguise in his army, but she drew the line at telling him either who they were or where they were.
Their original dispositions apparently showed in the interrogation, as Mollie (Bob Morgan) was the more communicative of the two, and appeared to be a refined, educated lady, while Mary (Tom Parker) was quieter and had a moody temperament.
The girls were sent to Castle Thunder, until further arrangements could be made “for their welfare,” it was said. It was located on Tobacco Row on Cary Street in Richmond, fairly near the famous Libby Prison facility.
This was a filthy, unspeakable prison, designed to hold 1,400 but usually holding 3,000 men and women. Diseases such as dysentery and smallpox raged there, and the conditions were made worse by a cruel, inhuman commandant, Capt. George W. Alexander.
Finally the Confederate Congress authorized an investigation of the prison because of its conditions. Stories of severe and unauthorized lashings were frequent and Alexander patrolled holding a large dog-named Nero on a leash, which he threatened the inmates with. However, the investigation had no effect and Alexander remained until Dennis Callahan replaced him a year later.
As to Mollie and Mary, they were ultimately released, and no charges were brought against them. Wearing the same “soldier clothes” in which they had been arrested, they returned home to resume their former lives, with many tales of the war with which to regale their friends and neighbors.
The moral of this tale: Never underestimate the dedication and ferocity of Southern females!
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