“General Stuart’s New Aid”

April 4, 1863

artist unknown

“General Stuart’s New Aid”

Civil War, Espionage; Wars, American Civil War; Women, Civil War;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American South; Virginia;

"The rebel cavalry leader, Stuart, has appointed to a position on his staff, with the rank of Major, a young lady residing in Fairfax Court House, who has been of great service to him in giving information," etc.--Daily Paper.

During the Civil War, some women served either the Union or the Confederacy as spies, couriers, informers, smugglers, saboteurs, scouts, or guides.  Rumors of espionage were printed frequently in newspapers, sometimes maligning the character of the innocent who were named or inadvertently protecting the operations of the guilty who were unidentified.

The female spy in this cartoon is Antonia Ford, who was 23 years old when the Civil War began.  She was the daughter of a well-to-do merchant in Fairfax, Virginia, and the sister of a lieutenant serving in the Confederate cavalry under General J. E. B. Stuart.  After a skirmish at Fairfax, Union troops occupied the Ford home in 1861.  Antonia Ford listened to conversations and reported what she could to Stuart's troops located near the Fairfax Courthouse.  For the advantageous intelligence her espionage provided to the Confederate military, Stuart commissioned her on October 7, 1861, as an honorary aide-de-camp.  She secreted the commission under her mattress, but had to hide it and other valuables under her hoop skirt when Union troops searched the Ford house.  

The Ford home became a boarding house for Union officers, giving Antonia an ideal setting to continue her secret intelligence-gathering.  In August 1862, Antonia Ford rode 20 miles in the rain, passing Union troops, in order to warn Stuart about a Union ploy before the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).  In December 1862, when Union general Edwin Stoughton set up headquarters at Fairfax Courthouse, she relayed the Federals' movements to Stuart and Lieutenant John Mosby.  

On March 8, 1863, a party hosted by General Stoughton for his visiting mother and sister at the Ford home (where the women were staying) caused Union security to become lax.  The Confederate Mosby was able to capture several Union officers and 60 horses and, later that night, to nab Stoughton while he was sleeping.  (When President Lincoln learned of the incident, he responded sardonically that he could make new generals, but not new horses.)

Mosby later denied that Antonia Ford gave him the inside information, but Union officials suspected her as the likely source and concocted a plan to expose her clandestine activities.  They sent a female agent, Frankie Abel, to Fairfax, posing as a distressed Confederate refuge fleeing from Union-occupied New Orleans.  The Ford family generously opened their residence to her, and she soon became a confidante to Antonia.  When Abel left, Federal officers arrested Antonia Ford and her father on espionage charges.  (This cartoon, which quotes the discovered commission, appeared after her arrest.) The father was released, but Antonia was held until a prisoner exchange with the Confederacy was arranged on May 20, 1863.  She resumed her spying, however, and was rearrested and incarcerated in Washington, D. C.

Imprisonment undermined Antonia Ford's health, but her arresting officer, Major Joseph Willard, fell in love with her and lobbied for her release.  He obtained it seven months later, after which he proposed to her.  Antonia accepted, he resigned his commission in the Union army, and the couple were married on March 10, 1864.  They settled in Washington, D. C., where his family owned the renowned Willard Hotel.  The Willards had three children, but Antonia never fully recovered her health and died seven years later in 1871 at the age of 33.  The couple's only surviving child later served as U.S. ambassador to Spain and lieutenant governor of Virginia.

Other famous female spies from the Civil War include Rose Greenhow, Elizabeth Van Lew ("Crazy Bette"), Elizabeth Howland, Belle Boyd ("Siren of the Shenandoah"), Sarah Edmonds (who posed as a black man), Emmeline Piggott, and Nancy Hart.  Mary Surratt, who was hanged for complicity in the assassination plot against President Lincoln, was the only American woman executed for a capital offense related to the Civil War.

Robert C. Kennedy

“General Stuart’s New Aid”
July 14, 2024

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