Begun as a lark, the all-girl Rhea County Spartans soon attracted the attention of unamused Union officers.
By Charles Rice
“I must tell you about a candy stew that they had at Uncle Frank’s last night,” young Mary Paine of Rhea County, Tennessee, wrote to her Confederate-soldier brother in January 1863. “Miss Jennie and Manurva had been up to town on a visit and came back there and asked if they might have one there. She told them she did not care if Uncle Frank was willing [,] so they waited till he came home and begged him until he agreed that they might have one there. So they went on home and came back that night with several other girls and had a fine time they say. But I will tell you who was there and then you can guess what a time they had. There was Miss Jennie, Manurva, Scrap, Ann Gillespie, Jane Locke, Molly Kelly, and Isabel Cunnyngham. [Colonel Onslow] Bean was the only gentleman there.”
Unbelievable as it might seem, most of these carefree young ladies would one day be “captured” by the Union Army and find themselves held as full-fledged prisoners of war. The story of the adventuresome Rhea County girls and the “cavalry company” they formed is an undeservedly forgotten incident of the Civil War.
The Rhea County Girls’ Company was created in the summer of 1862 through a combination of boredom and the desire to be a part of the war for Southern independence. Almost all of the “sidesaddle soldiers” had fathers or brothers in the Confederate military, and the young ladies evidently felt frustrated because their gender prevented them from enlisting. Since they could not actually join the Confederate Army, they did the next best thing: They created an army of their own.
Rhea County, located on the northern bank of the Tennessee River in east Tennessee, was one of the most pro-Confederate counties in the politically divided mountain region. Rhea County provided seven companies for the Southern army against only one for the Union–something of a record for east Tennessee. When their fathers and brothers marched off to war, the young ladies refused to be left out. Instead, the all-girl company came into existence. Mary McDonald, one of the oldest of the group, was duly elected captain. Caroline McDonald, evidently her sister-in-law, became first lieutenant. Anne Paine was picked for second lieutenant, while Rhoda Tennessee Thomison completed the commissioned list as third lieutenant.
Named as noncommissioned officers were Jane Keith, first sergeant; Rachel Howard, second sergeant; Sallie Mitchell, third sergeant; and Minerva Tucker, fourth sergeant. The girls elected no corporals, and the remaining members of the company had to be content with the humble rank of private. These included Barbara Allen, Josephine Allen, Martha Bell, Mary Crawford, Kate Dunwoody, Martha Early, Ann Gillespie, Jennie Hoyal, Kate Hoyal, Maggie Keith, Jane Locke, Louisa McDonald, Mary Ann McDonald, Sidney McDonald, Mary Paine, Mary Robinson, Sarah Rudd and Margaret Sykes. Like their male counterparts, the ladies chose for themselves an appropriate martial name–the Rhea County Spartans. All the young women came from prominent local families. The average age was 18, although the 1860 U.S. census lists Mary McDonald and Caroline McDonald as both being 25, which would have made them about 27 when the company was formed.
At first, the Rhea County Spartans contented themselves with simply visiting their soldier sweethearts and relatives among the three companies stationed in the area, presenting them with useful gifts of food and clothing. In mid-1863, however, Union troops entered the area, and the girls’ activities necessarily became more circumspect. The lady soldiers continued to hold clandestine meetings, if only to keep up their spirits and to exchange news of the war. Rural churches in the Washington area were their most common rendezvous.
Almost certainly, the ladies must have engaged in at least a small amount of spying and information-gathering for the Confederate Army. What had started out as a lark became decidedly more serious.
The Spartans never had any official connection with either the Confederate Army or the state of Tennessee. Nevertheless, at least one Union Army officer obviously took them quite seriously.
After Confederate General John Bell Hood led the Army of Tennessee to disaster at the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, Union troops gained uncontested control of Rhea County for the remainder of the war. Among the units active in the region was the 6th Tennessee Mounted Infantry (Federal). Formed in Chattanooga in October 1864 to serve one year, the 6th Mounted Infantry was a ragtag regiment composed of a few genuine Tennessee Unionists combined with an unsavory assortment of Confederate draft dodgers and deserters. Its primary purpose was to combat the small band of Confederate irregulars who still roamed the Cumberland Mountains of east Tennessee and north Georgia. In the spring of 1865, Captain John P. Walker of Company B decided that the Rhea County Girls’ Company was just such an organization.
Walker, a 38-year-old Rhea County farmer, was a typical Tennessee Unionist. Even though he owned real estate worth an impressive $1,000, Walker was “land poor.” In fact, the 1860 census listed his personal estate at a mere $180–scarcely more than the value of a top-quality horse. Dodging the Confederate conscript officers until the Union forces gained the upper hand, Walker hastened to join the Union victors and share in the spoils. He quickly acquired a reputation for harshness toward Southern sympathizers, using his authority to pay them back for such indignities as he felt he had suffered.
Walker certainly justified his reputation when he returned to Rhea County, for one of his first acts was to order the mass arrest of the girls’ company. As far as Walker was concerned, it was high time to teach the rebellious Southern ladies a lesson. Somehow he persuaded his commander, Lt. Col. George A. Gowin of Hamilton County, to go along with his plan.
On April 5, 1865, while Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was making the final desperate march that would end at Appomattox, Walker sent out his men to round up the Rhea County Spartans. As a native of Rhea County, Walker knew not only who the troublesome ladies were but also where to find them. First Lieutenant William B. Gothard accordingly proceeded to the area south of Washington, where the Spartans’ officers lived.
Armed with a list of names, Gothard was ordered to arrest the women and report with them by noon the next day at the two-story house of William P. Thomison, a discharged Confederate soldier and the father of “Lieutenant” Rhoda Thomison. Other men from Walker’s company marched to apprehend the disloyal women in the countryside around Smith’s Cross Roads (now the town of Dayton) and Dunwoody’s Mill. A few of the Spartans managed to elude their pursuers, but some 16 of the young women were arrested at gunpoint and brought before Walker.
When they learned that they were to be sent to Chattanooga, the prisoners became understandably apprehensive. Mary McDonald penned a hasty note to the 6th Tennessee’s commander. She urged that Gothard, rather than Walker, be the one to accompany them. “Doubtless the girls would prefer him,” she said. “We all know him.” Gowin refused to agree, however, writing that Walker, “a married man, will go with your company.” Interestingly, the 6th Tennessee seems to have been alone in viewing the Spartans as a real military unit. It was an honor the unfortunate ladies could have done without.
Gothard and his mounted men did escort seven of the female Rebels five miles from the Thomison house to Smith’s Cross Roads, where Walker’s home was located. The Union horse soldiers rode, while the women tramped along as best they could. At Smith’s Cross Roads, the footsore Spartans were joined by six more of their number. All 13 then began the long march to the Tennessee River and Bell’s Landing. It was dark and rainy, and the women frequently stumbled through unseen puddles. Just before they arrived at the landing, the final group of three prisoners joined them. The crestfallen Confederates were made to wait on the flooded riverbank, the clammy mud oozing into their shoes and adding to their discomfort. Finally, their transportation arrived–a crude little steamboat called USS Chattanooga. Their ordeal, however, was far from over.
Chattanooga was the first of a series of vessels built by the Union Army at Bridgeport, Ala., to supply the besieged Union garrison at Chattanooga. Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s victories at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge had made that role unnecessary, and the no-frills steamboat had since enjoyed a somewhat checkered career. The steamer had engaged in so many foraging expeditions that citizens along the Tennessee River nicknamed the boat the “Chicken Thief.” Clearly not meant to carry passengers, Chattanooga contained only one small room suitable for the ladies–an enclosed area normally used for dining. The table and chairs were removed, and the 16 exhausted young women were crowded inside. Armed guards at both doors ensured that none of the “dangerous” enemies of the Union would attempt to escape. Many of the women had walked 10 or more miles to the landing, and the tired Spartans arranged themselves in rows on the floor and soon fell fast asleep.
When the boat paddled up to the wharf in Chattanooga, Walker rousted out his prisoners and marched them under guard up muddy Market Street to the provost marshal’s office on the corner of Seventh Street. Captain Seth B. Moe of Ohio, assistant adjutant general of the Union Army’s Department of the Etowah, took in the spectacle and promptly sent for his commander, Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman. Steedman already viewed Gowin and his “hogback cavalry” with contempt; Walker’s latest escapade must have strengthened that feeling.
If Walker expected to be congratulated on his victory, he was quickly disillusioned. Steedman sharply reprimanded the captain for taking up his time with such foolishness. He then ordered Moe to escort the ladies to the Central House hotel, where they were allowed to refresh themselves and were treated to the best meal the hotel could offer. While the Union general (a Northern Democrat with many Southern friends) went out of his way to demonstrate that not all Yankees were barbarians, he did require the women to take the oath of allegiance to the Union. Now Walker would have no further excuse to harass them.
After the women had been fed, Moe dutifully saw them returned to Chattanooga for the journey back to Rhea County. The ladies’ accommodations were unchanged–no chairs, no beds, and only the scant comfort of the bare wood floor. This time, however, there were no armed guards watching over them. Still, Walker had one last bit of revenge in mind. Even though Steedman had ordered him to escort the women to their homes, Walker simply abandoned them at the landing to make their way back as best they could.
An irritated Steedman wrote to Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas at Nashville recommending that the 6th Tennessee Mounted Infantry “be turned over to
the State authorities of Tennessee and replaced with good cavalry.” Union Colonel Lewis Merrill was even more blunt. “The Sixth Tennessee and First Georgia [Union Regiments],” Merrill told Thomas, “are, in General Steedman’s opinion, utterly worthless. My own observation of the first named confirms this opinion. They are simply cowardly thieves–useless, except to keep a community embroiled and encourage guerrillas by running whenever attacked.”
The company disbanded when the Spartans arrived back in Rhea County. The war was nearly over, and the Spartans soon returned to the conventional role of 19th-century women. Weeks later, Walker was discharged from the Union Army and used his experience to gain a few appointive offices during the Reconstruction years. Then he, too, drifted into obscurity. By the time William G. Allen wrote an account for Confederate Veteran magazine in 1911, the girls’ company had been all but forgotten. Only three of the Spartans were then still living: Mary McDonald, Mary Ann McDonald and Rhoda Thomison. The aging male veterans, North and South, often met to relive their youth, but the Rhea County Spartans never held a reunion. That is regrettable, for the ladies had a fascinating story to tell. In a sense, they, too, had “seen the elephant” and done their patriotic duty as they saw fit.