Arlington Seniors Look Back at Women Soldiers, Spies of Civil War


(Monday, April 7, 2008 2:44 PM EDT)

Women didn't have too many options during the Civil War - either become a nurse or take care of the household while the men were away fighting.

But what if they wanted to be part of the action?

“All women had to do was cut her hair short, don male clothing, pick an alias and find the nearest recruiter, regiment or army camp,” said Mary Buckingham Lipsey, quoting from the book “They Fought Like Demons” at a lecture she gave on recently at the Aurora Hills Senior Center in Arlington.

Between 20 and 30 women became spies during the Civil War, and about 400 put on uniforms and fought as soldiers.

In recognition of these women, and of Women's History Month, Lipsey, a former history teacher at Lake Braddock Secondary School, related some of their stories.

One local woman was Antonia Ford, who was born just a few doors down from the Fairfax Court House.

A Confederate spy, she passed information on to Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and Col. John Singleton Mosby, leading to significant captures of Union soldiers.

She was captured in 1863 and sent to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. After being released, she ended up marrying Maj. Joseph Willard, the Union soldier who arrested her.

She had to sign an oath of loyalty to the Union as part of her release negotiation, but she did not give up her Confederate leanings completely. Nor her sense of humor.

When asked why she had married a Union soldier, she said, “I knew I could not revenge myself on the nation, but was fully capable of tormenting one Yankee to death.”

Another local resident Lipsey discussed was Charlotte Hope of Munson Hill (today's Seven Corners), who joined the First Virginia Cavalry as “Charlie Hopper” to avenge the death of her fiance.

Her goal was to kill 21 Union soldiers, one for each year of her love's war-shortened life.

Fighting in larger battles with more soldiers on the field, Hope couldn't be 100-percent sure who died at her hand, so she preferred scouting missions. As a scout, she could be more certain of the men she had killed.

She was killed in 1864, before having exacted revenge.

Why did these women want to take such an active part in the war?

“Some did it to escape prostitution, some for patriotism and some to escape abusive families,” Lipsey said. “Some were even living as men already.”

Most commonly, they were following a loved one, usually a boyfriend or husband.

By avoiding the common latrines, padding their uniforms to hide their curves, and drinking, gambling and cursing, they usually fit right in.

And though many of them were detected (most were discovered when they were either sick or wounded), “they fought just like any other soldier” and, as spies, delivered important messages to key players in the war.

“It's a small group of women, but it's amazing what they did,” Lipsey said.

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