It came to my attention that the book cover wasn’t attached to my blog post yesterday, so I’m re-sending it out. Please let me know what you think! Thanks so much for all your support.
Old Douglas’s Memorial Marker, Cedar Hill Cemetery, Vicksburg, MS
(Almost) Confederate Camels
As preposterous as it seems, Jefferson Davis believed that camels would be beneficial to the army. While serving under President Franklin Pierce as Secretary of War, Davis devised a plan to mount cavalry troopers on camels. The reasoning behind it was to replace horses and mules in the southwest, which were dying in vast numbers because of dehydration. In an experiment encouraged by an enthusiastic public, the U. S. Army imported camels from Africa and the Middle East in 1856 for use in mounted operations in the Southwest. But when the animals arrived in Texas, differences between camels and horses became apparent. Loading and unloading the beasts took practice, and the camels’ loads often ended on the ground.
Because camels have good memories, they remember people better than horses do. So if a handler grew angry or irritated and mistreated one, the camel would later react by hissing, biting, and spitting at the man. Not only that, but camels have a unique aroma, which horses don’t generally take to. One soldier who had the misfortune of being assigned to care for the camels, James Washington “Okra” Walker, complained that the camels “seemed much given to malingering, held grudges for any perceived mistreatment, and had the habit of spitting on those they didn’t like. They also frightened the mules and horses and generally looked mighty out of place.”
Therefore, the horses would react to their new counterparts by bucking, rearing, and bolting. The camels proved adequate for desert country, but they “scared the daylights out of the horses” and the men who had to handle them. In one instance, 86 camels broke loose in Galveston, Texas, which threw the town into a tizzy.
Military leaders were confused about how to appropriately utilize the animals: should they be ridden, used to transport artillery pieces, or serve as pack animals? They decided on all three, and were also used for packing supplies on numerous boundary and road survey expeditions. More than 100 camels were imported by the government. Others were shipped for private use as livestock on farms and plantations.
In 1856, Robert E. Lee wanted to show his support for Jefferson Davis’ experiment, so he sent for two dozen camels from Africa. Known as “The Great Texas Camel Drive,” Charge d’ Affaire, Major Henry C. Wayne, gave the order on June 6, and the dromedaries were herded from Indianola, Texas to San Antonio, where Lee was stationed. Wherever Wayne decided to camp, the people of the area came to see the camels for themselves. The big hit of this free circus was usually the one lone baby camel. The camel caravan arrived on June 18, and a permanent home, Camp Verde, was established for them.
The camels, by performance, had proven themselves to be superior to horses and mules in the desert, but dreams of a U.S. camel cavalry, a true camel corps, faded as the dedicated men involved in the evaluation were divided by the Civil War.
However, one particular camel became a legend. In 1862, the 43rd Mississippi regiment acquired a camel. It is believed that the camel, which was nicknamed “Old Douglas,” was actually a privately-owned animal, and one of scores of camels who were privately imported and “broken to the plow.” Douglas was owned by the Hargrove family, and used on their plantation in Monroe (Lowndes) County, Mississippi. When his owner enlisted with the Confederate army, Douglas came along. First Lieutenant Hargrove of Company B gave Old Douglas to Colonel William Hudson Moore. The camel became the regimental mascot.
W. Cook of Helena, Arkansas, who served with the 43rd Mississippi, Company A, later wrote about the camel: “Col. Moore assigned Douglas to the regimental band, for whom he carried instruments and knapsacks. The camel’s first active service was with Gen. Price in the Iuka campaign. He was sent to the wagon train, and stampeded all the teams. There was only one horse in Little’s Division which would face Douglas at first, and that was Pompey, the little bay stallion belonging to Col. Moore, but it was not long till he was on intimate terms with all. His keeper would chain him to keep him from wandering off, but Douglas would sit back and snap any kind of chain, then proceed to graze at leisure, though never leaving the regiment or interfering with anything that did not interrupt him. When the regiment was ready to start, Douglas would be led up to the pile of things he was to carry, and his leader would say, ‘Pushay, Douglas,’ and he would gracefully drop to his knees and haunches and remain so till his load was adjusted and he was told to get up. His long, swinging gait was soon familiar with the entire command, and ours was called the ‘Camel Regiment.’”
Colonel Robert S. Bevier referred to Douglas as “a quiet peaceable fellow, and a general favorite” with the men. Because Douglas first served under General Price, he acquired the nickname, “Price’s camel.”
The horses of the command were afraid of the camel, [so Douglas’s] driver was instructed to stop just outside the camp when [the regiment] halted. But in a forced march toward Iuka, Miss., the command had halted just after dark, and the camel and driver got in the line of march before he knew it. The result was that a horse made a break with a fence rail attached to his halter, and running through the camp, he stampeded men and animals in every direction. Many men took [to] the trees or any other protection, and the panic spread through much of the brigade, and many men and animals were badly hurt, and one or two horses … were killed.
Douglas became part of the action at the Battle of Corinth under Major General Earl Van Dorn. On the second day of the battle, the camel’s owner, Colonel Moore, was killed.
In early 1863, the 43rd was ordered to Vicksburg, Mississippi, serving under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. On that hot, humid afternoon of June 27, 1863, Douglas stood silently, observing the battle from a grassy hill safely behind the lines, a little north of his unit’s third redoubt … It was 3 P.M when a rebel soldier at the third redoubt repeated a cry: “Douglas has been shot!”
The news traveled through the trenches like a brushfire. Then someone yelled, “Murderers! Yankee murderers!”
Douglas was shot by a Union sharpshooter while the animal was grazing,” reported J.W. Cook. “The Confederates shot back, but their rifles were just out of range. The Yankee proceeded to mock the Confederates just out of range. However, other rifles were brought in … and the next time the Yankee showed himself to mock the Confederates, a Southern sharpshooter put a bullet between his eyes causing him to fly backwards onto his back. Douglas was avenged.” Colonel Bevier enlisted six of his best snipers to successfully shoot the culprit. Bevier later said, “I refused to hear his name, and was rejoiced to learn that he had been severely wounded.”
Descendants of the soldiers were told that, following Douglas’ death, the Confederates decided the best thing to do (since they were all starving) was to put his carcass to good use, so they carved camel steaks and had a feast. When the Union Army finally gained control of Vicksburg, Yankee soldiers entered the city, passing by the remains of Douglas. According to one Illinois soldier, “…our sharpshooters had killed ‘Price’s Camel’ used as a pack animal by the Confederates. His skeleton was picked up and his bones made into finger rings and other ornaments and sold to curiosity hunters from the North. When the supply was exhausted, the bones of cattle slain for beef were substituted, the souvenir fiend being fully satisfied they were part of ‘Price’s Camel.’”
Douglas was buried near members of his regiment with full military honors.
Once the Civil War ended, military personnel lost interest in pursuing the use of camels, and abandoned the idea of a camel corps. Unionists took control of Camp Verde in March 1866, and sold off the animals to the highest bidders102 to be employed in circuses, zoos, traveling menageries, and mines. Others were turned loose in the desert and, presumably, hunted down and eaten by Comanches who were not particular about their diet. Some of the camels were used in Austin’s Mardi Gras parade. The King of the Carnival’s float was drawn by 32 camels, and each one was lead by a costumed freed slave holding a lighted torch.
After Major Henry Wayne was released from prison, he was awarded the First Class Medal of Honor from the Societe Imperiale Zoologique a-Acclimination de Paris for his efforts and achievements with the camels. It is believed that the last descendant of the army’s camels was seen in an Arizona desert in 1941. However, some people claim to have seen camels roaming remote areas of Texas, Arizona, and California to this day. The last captive offspring of a government camel, Topsy, died in the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles in 1934.
In 1995, founder Doug Baum established the Texas Camel Corps, whose mission is to promote stories of camels that were used during the Civil War. On April 12 and 13, 2011, Vicksburg National Military Park hosted “Douglas the Camel,” a dromedary reenactor. After giving a presentation about the use of camels during the Civil War, Douglas, along Doug Baum, who is his handler and a U.S. Camel Corps re-enactor, visited a local school.
The Civil War created many tight bonds between soldiers, between comrades and enemies, as well as soldiers and animals. Cavalrymen were so reliant on their mounts that they often treated them as pets and became emotionally attached. This also happened with some of the soldiers’ mascots, which included an eagle, numerous dogs, and in one rare case, a camel. Douglas the camel was an especially revered mascot. He was killed at the Battle of Vicksburg. I have had the opportunity to see where Douglas’ headstone is located (his body isn’t in a grave), and it was quite moving to think that the soldiers who knew him loved him so much that they made him a marker.
GRAVE OF DOUGLAS THE CONFEDERATE CAMEL
The final resting place of the camel who served with the Confederate Army during the Civil War
Among the 5,000 grave markers for Confederate soldiers in the Soldier’s Rest section of Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg, Mississippi, one pays tribute to Old Douglas, the camel of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry, Company A, nicknamed “The Camel Regiment.”
It is not known how Douglas, a dromedary (one hump) camel, came to serve with the 43rd Mississippi infantry during the Civil War. He was a gift to Colonel W. H. Moore, who assigned him to carry the instruments and knapsacks for the regimental band. Douglas participated in the Battles of Iuka and Corinth under Major Generals Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn, respectively, before being shot by a Union sharpshooter on June 27th, 1863, during the siege of Vicksburg.
Douglas was well loved by the humans of his regiment, less so by the horses. On one occasion, Douglas is said to have spooked one of the horses into stampeding through a camp near Iuka, injuring horses and soldiers, possibly killing some of the former. Soldiers climbed trees to get out of the path of destruction.
Douglas routinely broke free of his tether, but usually used his freedom to graze, never wandering too far from the regiment. On that fateful day in 1863, though, he wandered into no man’s land between the Union and Confederate armies, and paid the ultimate price.
The Union army responded to the camel’s death, according to legend, by eating him, since food was scarce, and making war souvenirs out of his bones. The Confederates responded by making a point of severely wounding the sharpshooter who had killed their beloved camel. His gravestone, however, states that he was eaten by his own Confederate regiment who were suffering under the Siege of Vicksburg.
Douglas was not the only camel in the United States during the Civil War. Before he became president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis was the U.S. Secretary of War, and implemented the Texas Camel Experiment in the 1850s to see how useful camels would be in the American Southwest where horses were beginning to have trouble on long trips. Camels can carry immensely heavy loads for long distances with little water. They are also not nearly as tamable as horses, though Douglas was called “faithful” and “patient” by those who knew him best.
Camels were brought over from the Mediterranean and North Africa, and used for exploring the Southwest. The Civil War took the steam out of the experiment, and the camels eventually dispensed. Many were sold at auctions in 1864 and 1866 to work in circuses and mines, as postal carriers and pack animals and racing camels. Some even escaped or were set free, and feral camels were occasionally spotted roaming the American Southwest for years after.
Lest the contributions of camels in the Civil War be forgotten, the Texas Camel Corps promotes their stories with reenactments and hosts camel rides. Two of the camels are descendants of Old Douglas.
Know Before You Go
To find Douglas turn into the cemetery at Lindsey Street from Sky Farm Ave. A bit after the first cross street you will see a group of graves with Confederate flags on the left. Douglas’ marker (the one with the camel on it) is on the right side of the group, second row in.
(Article courtesy of The Southern Comfort, Private Samuel A. Hughey Camp #1452 Sons of Confederate Veterans, Hernando, MS, vol. 43 issue 5, May 2019)
Today marks the 156th anniversary of the death of the great Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The general was hit by friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville. His left arm was amputated and buried at the Ellwood House. Jackson was improving, but suddenly, his health took a turn for the worst. He contracted pneumonia and died on a Sunday, which he said he always wanted to do. His last words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”
Here is an excerpt from my novel, A Beckoning Hellfire, describing how his soldiers reacted when they heard the news.
Suddenly, a loud cry went up behind him. He hurried to camp, where chaos was everywhere. The men looked distraught, their faces wrought with anguish. He found Alfred Crawford, one of the soldiers he wrote letters for, and asked him what had happened.
“We jist received word,” Alfred said woefully. “Stonewall Jackson died yesterday.” He wandered away.
David stood dumbfounded for a moment. Returning to his campsite, he found John sitting under a tree, puffing on his pipe, and staring off. Michael was weeping. The death toll continued to climb, and there was no end in sight. Now the Confederacy’s beloved general, “Old Jack,” was dead, too.
In the morning, General Lee issued General Order #61, which Lieutenant Colonel Waring read to the men during roll.
“With deep regret, the commandin’ general announces the death of Lieutenant General T.J. Jackson,” Lieutenant Colonel Waring orated. “Let his officers and soldiers emulate his invincible determination to do everything in the defense of our loved country.”
One of the buglers, Charles W. Peters, played “Taps.” The men stood in solemn mourning with their heads bowed and their hats held in their hands.
Overwhelmed by the tragedy, David felt completely powerless and alone. His heart ached, and with each day, he grew more despondent and depressed. He didn’t have anyone to express his sorrow to except his horse, and Renegade could only communicate so much. One by one, he was losing everyone he loved. The romantic dream he had shared with Jake only a few weeks ago was now crumbling down around him, smothering him. It was like a smoldering fog surrounding them all and suffocating them. He longed for his family to write. The memory of their dear faces was the only thing that gave him hope. Painful, heartbreaking loss was all around, but somehow, it gave him more resolve. He knew he had to defend his homeland and family by repelling the Northern tyranny, at any expense.
It is difficult to imagine what a soldier who fought in the American Civil War endured. Firearms were virtually relics at the start of the war. Soldiers fought with arms they brought from home, which were typically muskets used for hunting. These firearms were very slow to fire and were usually ineffective, and sometimes dangerous, because they were difficult to aim, load and fire. During the course of the war, increments became far more effective and deadly. Here’s an explanation of how the early muskets were used.
Civil War soldiers were taught to load and fire their muskets using the “Nine-Steps.” They were drilled for hours to ensure every soldier would know each step without thinking. Step No. 6 was “return rammer” and while all of the steps were important, this one could have serious consequences if it was skipped.
Pvt. Arminius Bill of the 66th Illinois Western Sharp Shooters, recorded an incident in his diary about a man who skipped step No. 6. It was on Dec. 2, 1861,during a “sham battle” between Union forces at Benton Barracks near St. Louis. Artillery roared, cavalry galloped, and tens of thousands of blank rounds were fired. “One infantry man was killed by the man behind him in the rear rank who became excited & forgot to withdraw his ramrod. The gun went off & drove the ramrod through the head of the man in front.”
At the battle of Tupelo, July 14, 1864, Captain Theodore Carter cheered on his men of the 14th Wisconsin as they fired while lying down. Suddenly a private rose to his feet and began to hurl curses across the open ground to the Confederates. A rammer had streaked across the field and skewered his bicep, and he paused to pull out the long bloody piece of steel. “It was ludicrous to see hear him use strong invectives against the ‘rebel’ who was so careless as to leave his ramrod in the gun after loading.”
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned, “I shot an arrow in the air, it fell to earth, I know not where.” A beautiful poem, he was certainly not thinking of Pvt. Alexander Downing of the 11th Iowa Infantry, and an incident on April 6, 1862, during the battle of Shiloh.
“My musket became so dirty with the cartridge powder, that in loading it the ramrod stuck fast and I could neither get it up nor down, so I put a [percussion] cap on, elevated the gun and fired it off. But now I had no ramrod, and throwing down my musket, I picked up a Belgian rifle lying at the side of a dead rebel, unstrapped the cartridge box from his body, and advanced to our company, taking my place with the boys.”
Longfellow’s arrow was found unbroken in an oak; whatever happened to Downing’s?
Shiloh National Military Park
(Thanks to Trent Lewis)
(Article courtesy of the Southern Comfort, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Samuel A. Hughey camp #1452, Volume 43, Issue 5, May 2019 ed.)
“The Rebel in the Family”
The life of Confederate spy Nancy Hart is shrouded in mystery. Old documents refer to her with a mixture of fact and folklore. It is believed that she was born in Raleigh, North Carolina to John and Rebecca Hart in 1846. Her mother was a first cousin of Andrew Johnson, who later became president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The Harts were devout Christians, and her father frequently held family worship services. While Nancy was still an infant, they moved to Tazwell, Virginia.
Nancy was tall, lithe, and black-eyed. She was a middle child who had six, or possibly twelve, siblings. In 1853, she went to live with her sister and brother-in-law, Mary and William Clay Price, in Roane County, Virginia, which became West Virginia in 1863. The family lived in the wilderness, so Nancy learned how to be an accomplished hunter and rider, but she never learned how to read and write. When the Civil War began, the Roane County held divided loyalties. Friends, neighbors, and families were separated by opposing beliefs. William was not a Confederate soldier, but he did his part by assisting them. After drawing suspicion, Union soldiers confronted him at his farm and ordered him to go to nearby Spencer to take the oath of allegiance. He departed with the Yankees, but never made it to Spencer. His body was discovered three days later. He had been shot in the back and left in the road.
The murder of William spawned Nancy’s loathing for the Federals. She revered the Southern Cause, even though two of her brothers went to fight for the North. In early 1861, her neighbors, the Kelly’s, held a going away party for their two sons who had joined the Confederate Army. While the party was commencing, Union officers marched past the house in the moonlight. Nancy hollered, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!” Four rifle shots rang out in response, and four minie balls struck the front stoop, one of which lodged in the door. Three days later, Nancy joined the Moccasin Rangers, who were pro-Southern guerrillas, and rode with their leader, Perry Conley (or Connolly) at the head of the column, leading the Rangers while working as a spy, scout, and guide to the local region. She travelled alone at night to deliver messages between Confederate armies, and slept during the day. She also saved the lives of many wounded Rebel soldiers by hiding them with Southern sympathizers and nursing them back to health. Posing as a farm girl, she peddled eggs and vegetables to Union detachments to obtain information, and scouted isolated Federal outposts to report their strength, population, and vulnerability to General Stonewall Jackson. She even led Jackson’s cavalry on several raids. In the fall of 1861, Conley narrowly escaped the Federals, but Nancy was captured. Deciding she didn’t know anything, they released her, which was a big mistake, because she reported back to Conley with valuable information about the Yankees.
Nancy married one of the Moccasin Rangers, Joshua Douglas. Conley was mortally wounded in an engagement with Ohio Infantry in early summer, 1862. He fought off his attackers until he ran out of ammunition, and then the Yankees clubbed him to death. Afterward, the Rangers disbanded. Nancy’s husband joined up with the 19th Virginia Cavalry, and she moved into the mountains of Nicholas County, where she continued her work as a messenger. A reward for her capture was issued, and it wasn’t long until Union Lieutenant Colonel Starr recognized “Peggy,” as Nancy was known by both armies. She and a female friend were discovered in a log cabin, crushing corn. They were taken prisoner, and confined to the second-story of an old, dilapidated house in Summersville. Soldiers were quartered downstairs, and a sentry was posted to guard them in their room.
While there, 20-year-old Nancy was allowed to roam the jail grounds of her own free will. She gained the attention of several soldiers, including telegrapher Marion H. Kerner, who convinced Starr to transfer the young women to the Summersville jail, and supplied them with sewing materials and illustrated papers. When an itinerant photographer showed up to hone his trade, Kerner persuaded Nancy to pose for a picture, although she said that she didn’t have clothes “fittin’ to be pictured in.” Kerner requested clothing from some Union women, and fashioned a Yankee officer’s hat by folding the bill and inserting a plume. The resulting photograph is the only one in existence of Nancy Hart, who, according to legend, refused to smile because she had to wear Yankee attire.
Here is where the story differs. One version states that, later that night, Nancy tricked a naive soldier. After talking to him extensively, she convinced him to show her his pistol. The young, enamored Yankee willingly obliged. She promptly fired into his heart, killing him instantly. Nancy jumped headlong out of a second-story window into a clump of tall jimson weeds, and escaped bareback on Lieutenant Colonel Starr’s horse.
A week later, on July 25, she returned with 200 Confederate cavalrymen. She was still riding Lieutenant Colonel Starr’s horse. At 4:00 a.m., the Rebels burned three buildings, including the commissary storehouse. They also destroyed two wagons, and captured eight mules and twelve horses. In all, only ten shots were fired, and two soldiers were wounded. The Confederates easily arrested the slumbering Yankees, including Starr, who was shipped off to Libby Prison with his officers. Marion Kerner was also captured, but Nancy convinced the Confederate officers to release him because of the kind treatment he had shown her. He was immediately arrested, however, after attempting to send a telegraph to Union forces.
Nancy faded out of the picture as an active partisan, no doubt knowing that, if she were to be captured again, a rope would be waiting for her. After the War Between the States ended, her husband returned, and they lived in Greenbrier County, raising two sons. Nancy’s last public appearance was in 1902, when she testified at the Courthouse in Lewisburg on behalf of her son, Kennos, who was charged with killing a man at a dance. Nancy died in either 1902 or 1913.
The other version of her story isn’t nearly as colorful, and is much sadder. According to Hart family legend, Nancy was born to rebel, and paid with her life after she was arrested and confined in Summersville. Because Union troops didn’t want the locals to know, her hanging on Cold Knob Mountain was kept a secret. Nancy remained calm, but once allowed to speak, she hollered out the Rebel yell, as well as “Wahoo! Whoop! Hurrah!” and “Yay for the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis!” However, there is little or no evidence suggesting that Nancy was executed by hanging. On the other hand, there is little or no evidence stating that she ever married, either, and no official record of her killing a Union soldier. Census records are sketchy at best, as are family records.
She is buried at Mannings Knob Cemetery in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, near Richwood, where the Mannings family buried their slaves. The cemetery is also known as Nancy Hart Cemetery. She was originally buried with only a pile of stones to mark her grave. Years later, Jim Comstock, a publisher and Civil War buff, decided that she deserved a proper marker, so he and Nancy’s granddaughter found the top of Mannings Knob, but the area had been bulldozed to make room for a beacon tower. Her grave was never located. However, a marker was erected in the cemetery in her honor.
Marion H. Kerner, the Union officer who convinced Nancy to pose for a photograph, said that the last glimpse he caught of her was shortly after the Summersville raid, and he never “heard of her since. She may be dead.” He later wrote about her, making her story famous in Leslie’s Weekly Magazine. The article was published in 1910. A large rock, known as “Nancy’s Dancing Rock,” still exists on the West Fork of the Little Kanawha River, near the place where Nancy grew up.
The only woman convicted and hung for the role she played during the War Between the States.
Mary Elizabeth Surratt became a widow at age 42, during the summer of 1862. Her husband left behind 287 acres in what is now Prince George’s County, Maryland. He had constructed a two-story house on the land that became known as Surrattsville. The house was converted into a tavern that served as a way station for the clandestine Confederate network. Mr. Surratt also left his wife a boarding house on H Street in Washington D.C. In October 1864, Mary and her three children permanently moved to that location and rented out the tavern to a man named John Lloyd.
Over the course of the next few months, 541 H Street would become the focal point in what is considered to be one of the most influential crimes in American history. John Wilkes Booth, who frequented the Surratt home, hatched his original kidnapping conspiracy there. Other players who were involved included Mary’s son John, George Atzeroldt, who was supposed to assassinate Vice President Johnson, and Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Paine), who was responsible for the vicious attack on Secretary of State William Seward the night of April 14, 1865, (the same night that President Lincoln was assassinated). David Herold, who was a friend of John Surratt and John Wilkes Booth, rode with Booth following the assassination. He was later captured at Garrett’s Farm, where Booth was shot to death by Sergeant Boston Corbett, who was part of the 16th New York Cavalry that cornered the two men inside a barn. Also participating in the conspiracy were Samuel Arnold, who was an original plotter in the kidnapping scheme, Michael O’Laughlen, who was had been sent to kill Secretary of War Edwin Stanton but failed, and Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated Booth’s injuries after he escaped from Washington.
Booth intended to kidnap President Lincoln in order to force the Union to surrender captured Confederates. His plans were solidified by March 1865, but were postponed for various reasons, and proved futile once General Lee surrendered on April 9. Mary Surratt traveled to her tavern on April 13, where she allegedly told her renter, John Lloyd, “to have the shooting irons ready; there will be some parties call for them.”
Following the assassination, a woman whose niece worked for Mary contacted police, saying that suspicious men had been seen at Mary’s boarding house. Subsequently, everyone in the house, including Mary, was arrested. Before leaving, Mary was caught in a lie, denying that she knew Lewis Powell, who just happened to show up with a shovel, claiming that she required his services for digging a ditch.
At the trial, several eyewitnesses testified to her involvement in the assassination scheme, including George Atzeroldt. Some claimed that they had seen Mary conversing with Booth, who gave her a wrapped package containing field glasses that she was to leave with her tenant, John Lloyd. Although her son escaped conviction because he was in New York at the time, Mary was not so lucky. Tried before a military commission, the conspirators were found guilty. Mary was one of four sentenced to death by hanging. No one believed she would actually be put to death because of her gender, but regardless of her lawyers’ issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, the federal judge’s order to have her delivered to his courtroom on the morning of her execution (which was ignored), and pleas from her daughter, Anna, President Johnson refused to commute Mary’s sentence. Two days before her execution, the judge advocate general delivered a plea for her clemency to President Johnson, who later claimed that he received no such request until after the hanging.
Mary Surratt died in Washington’s Arsenal prison yard on July 7, 1865 with Lewis Powell, David Harold, and George Atzeroldt. As army personnel crowded into the yard to watch, the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government fell through the gallows’ trap doors alongside her co-conspirators. Whether she was actually guilty of the crimes she was accused of committing, or whether her sentence was unjustified and unfair, remains a topic of debate.
A film directed by Robert Redford, entitled “The Conspirator,” tells the story of Mary Surratt, and is set for release in March 2011. If you have the opportunity, visit Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. In the basement is housed a unique museum containing descriptions and artifacts surrounding this inauspicious act.
If it wasn’t for Laura Ratcliffe, Colonel John Mosby, the infamous “Grey Ghost,” might have been captured by the Yankees. Not only did she aid Mosby in his mission to serve the Confederacy as a Partisan Ranger, but she also provided valuable information to Confederate cavalry commander Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart.
Laura Ratcliffe was born on May 28, 1836 in Fairfax City, Virginia. Her parents were Francis Fitzhugh and Ann McCarty (Lee) Ratcliffe. Laura was a distant cousin to General Robert E. Lee on her mother’s side. When her father died, she moved with her mother and two sisters to Frying Pan (now Herndon) in Fairfax County, just south of Washington D.C. Once the Civil War broke out, the area bore witness to numerous raids and encampments from both sides.
Laura and one of her sisters volunteered to serve as nurses. During the winter of 1861, while they were assisting wounded soldiers, Laura met General J.E.B. (James Ewell Brown) Stuart, and the two became friends. He wrote several personal letters and four poems to her, imploring her to continue with her espionage. In return, she provided him and fellow cavalryman Colonel John Singleton Mosby with valuable information concerning Union troop activity in the county.
A year later, Stuart led his cavalry on several raids in the area, and he visited Laura at her home many times. While at the Ratcliffe home, Mosby asked if he could remain there and continue operations instead of going into winter quarters. Stuart consented, and departed the area. Mosby and nine other soldiers from the 1st Virginia Cavalry continued to use the Ratcliffe home as their headquarters. Oftentimes, Mosby met Laura at a large rock near the top of Squirrel Hill to exchange information. Following one particularly lucrative raid, he requested that Laura keep the Federal greenbacks he had confiscated for safekeeping, so she stashed them beneath the rock.
In February 1863, Mosby captured several Federal soldiers, and returned their plunder to local citizens. Laura discovered that the Yankees had set a trap for Mosby, so she warned him of the intended ambush. Because of her valuable information, Mosby avoided arrest and captured a sutler’s wagon.
Captain Willard Glazer with the 2nd New York Cavalry complained that Laura “is a very active and cunning rebel, who is known to our men, and is at least suspected of assisting Mosby not a little in his movements … by the means of Miss Ratcliffe and her rebellious sisterhood, Mosby is generally informed.”
In March, Mosby managed to capture Union Brigadier General Edwin Stoughton by surprising him in his sleep. Arriving in the general’s room, Mosby asked him, “Do you know Mosby?”
“Yes,” replied the general. “Have you captured the devil?”
“No,” Mosby responded. “The devil has caught you.”
Mosby captured the general, two of his captains, and 58 horses without firing a single shot. When President Abraham Lincoln heard of the event, he reportedly said that generals are replaceable, but he deeply regretted the loss of so many good horses.
Although it was obvious to the Federals that Laura’s house was being used for Confederate headquarters, she was never arrested or tried for any crime. After the war ended, she lived with her mother in an old farmhouse named “Merrybrook.” In 1890, Laura, who was now 54 years old and destitute, married a neighbor, Union veteran Milton Hanna. She became wealthy because of it, but her husband died in an accident seven years later.
Laura was a very private person, and never sought or received recognition for her courageous contributions to the Confederacy. Instead, she directed her attentions to the poor and unfortunate. In 1914, she fell and presumably broke her hip, but because she refused to receive medical treatment from a male doctor, the diagnosis was never verified. However, the accident left her an invalid for the rest of her life. Before her death at age 87 on August 8, 1923, she requested that “a neat grey granite stone” be placed at her gravesite with the names of Ratcliffe, Coleman, and Hanna carved into them. In 2007, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Laura Ratcliffe Branch, erected such a marker.
Merrybrook is now under direct threat. The current owners are striving to have the home preserved, but development is encroaching. The rock where Laura and Colonel Mosby exchanged information still exists, and a monument on the country highway nearby has been erected with an inscription that reads:
This large boulder, located just south of here, served as an important landmark during the Civil War, when Col. John S. Mosby’s Partisan Rangers (43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry) assembled there to raid Union outposts, communications, and supply lines. Laura Ratcliffe, a young woman who lived nearby and spied for Mosby, concealed money and messages for him under the rock. Mosby credited her with saving him from certain capture by Federal cavalry on one occasion. She also was a friend of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.
Among the items discovered in her effects after her death was a gold-embossed brown leather album, which contained several poems, as well as the signatures of General J.E.B. Stuart, Colonel Mosby, and Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee, son of Robert E. Lee. A gold watch chain belonging to Stuart was also found with her possessions.
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