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All-Girl Rhea County Spartans

6/12/2006 • America's Civil War

‘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.

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4 Responses to All-Girl Rhea County Spartans

  1. Thomas Robinson says:

    Many recorded inaccuracies continue to unfold as I have researched this group. Mr. W. G. Allen, in my opinion, is not a reliable historian. His book, “History of Rhea County”, contains numerous errors. The article he submitted for “Confederate Veteran” magazine in 1911 states that only three of the Spartans survive…

    One only need to do a little research to find that there were at least five more survivors at that time; Sarah Rudd (1847-1930), Isabelle Cunningham (1842-1914), Mary Robinson (Caldwell) (1843-1916), Mary Crawford (1843-1920), Louisa McDonald (1834-1912). All of these lived within 20 miles of Mr. Allen.

    In another writing, Mr. Allen states that Mary Robinson is the daughter of John Robinson and Hannah Earnest…… wrong. She was the daughter of Samuel Robinson and Mary McPherson.

    I find it surprising that contemporary articles continue to present the same “facts” to the reader, when a little research can uncover obvious problems.

  2. Thomas Robinson says:

    A recently discovered newspaper article contemporary to the formation of the group now known as the Rhea County Spartans, sheds new light on the subject. Previously, the earliest commonly known reference to the Spartans has been the 1911 article submitted by William G. Allen to Confederate Veteran magazine. On this date, August 2, 2013, I stumbled upon an article which predates Mr. Allen’s writing by 50 years.
    Let me inform the reader that the late Bettye Broyles, former Rhea County Historian, opined that the \Spartans\ never called themselves by that name. The moniker was an invention of later times… Perhaps Mr. Allen was the person who gave them the name. Then, assuming that the group was called by another name during the war years, one must look for …. another name! So it is… \Rhea Soldiers’ Aid Society\….
    I have written in the past that I regard Mr. Allen’s writings with caution. Too many of his \facts\ have been disproven. So, it is with small reluctance that I now must cast a shadow on his legacy once more. It is my opinion that Mr. Allen probably interviewed one person, or maybe two, then put his story to print. He certainly did not talk to the seven or more members of the group who were still alive when his article was published, even though many of the women he himself named as members lived within 20 miles of Dayton! His story of the formation of the Spartans has been, until this date, the only version on record. However, there is now a more credible source to consider.
    The newly discovered article is most certainly more correct than Mr. Allen’s efforts of 50 years hence. Granted, there is certainly the possibility that many of the facts recorded by Mr. Allen are true. One should consider that the group which elected new officers in \the summer of 1862\ as Allen reports, could be the second election of officers for the group. The fact that many of the same people listed by Mr. Allen appear in the 1861 article is testament to the probability that it is the same group. One can draw their own conclusion on which account they wish to put faith in, but my money is on the Athens Post article.
    Now you can add the names Parks, Peterson, Evens, Early, Chambers, Nanny, Darwin, Smith, Ball, Roe, Howard, Rawlings, Gist, Kelley, and James to the Spartans roster.

  3. Victor McDonald says:

    I believe my Great Great grandmother was a member of this unit. Her name is Tempa Adaline Rhea Fowler 1841 to 1905 from Cherokee County NC. In all her pictures she wore what appears to be a confederate scarf. I have pictures and information if you would like. We have been trying to figure the significance of the scarf. This article seems to fit the puzzle.

    Thank you
    Vic McDonald

  4. Diana Brooks Mcbay says:

    There is an article that was published in the Winter 1999 Tennessee Genealogical Magazine Ansearchin News that is called A Seldom Heard Tale of the Civil War The Side-Saddle Cavalry of East Tennessee… there isn’t a name given of the person/persons who gathered the info for this article leaving me to believe that several members of the genealogical society may have been collecting data. It is a 3 page article in this 68 page magazine w/ sources given for parts of it and V C Allen is one source given. I don’t know if he is the one that gave the girls names and their parents/husband’s names for this article but some or incorrect just as Mr. Robison has said about the articles he has seen.
    The first error is a name of the Capt. responsible for swearing in the girls, this articles gives the name as Capt. W T Darwin when is should be W. P. (William Perry) Darwin. This info can be found in Goodspeed’s Rhea County History. Darwin married Adelia Gillespie, one of the girls in the cavalry.
    As for the names of the girls and their parents it gives the source as the 1850, 1860 &1870 federal census of Rhea County. This could explain the error in the next girls parents. !st Sgt. Jane Keith, ca 21, daughter of Nicholas and Eliza J Keith. Jane was the daughter of Nicholas Keith but her mother was his first wife Nancy Buttram who was now deceased and he had remarried when Nancy died in 1844. Notice the maiden name of Sgt. Keith’s mother is the same as the cemetery some of the girls in the unit chose to be buried in. Now when the article states that Mary and Margaret Maggie Keith are daughters of Nicholas and Eliza J Keith this is correct. They are half sisters to Sgt. Jane Keith.
    I have to agree with Mr. Robinson when he said that there hasn’t been enough research done before data was written… the article I am referring to gives names of spouses of these girls after their stint in the Civil War. The source given for these marriage is the Rhea Co. marriage records but yet it says there was three marriages that happened but no record was found, one was Jane Keith to George Benson. This is incorrect as Jane Keith married Mathias Andrew Tice Moyers in Rhea County, Tennessee on September 18, 1867. The record is for M.A. Moyers to J.C. Keith. Sgt. Jane Keith’s middle name is Catherine. After their marriage Tice and Jane Keith Moyers relocated to Texas where they are both buried in Fairfield Cemetery in Cooke Co. Texas. Since the record is in the Rhea Co. marriage books and the marriage took place on two years after the Civil War ended. Mathias Andrew Moyers was the nephew of W. T. Gass who was Captain of one of the six Confederate units organized in Rhea County, Tennessee. Mathias Moyers was also the brother to George Jacob Jake Moyers who married 3rd Sgt. Sallie Mitchell, the adopted daughter of Nicholas and Eliza J Keith and adopted sister to Jane, Mary and Maggie Keith. They married on March 13, 1867 in Rhea County, Tennessee. George Jacob and Sallie Mitchell Moyers relocated to Georgia where they are buried in the Summerville City Cemetery, Summerville, Georgia. Sarah died in 1891 and Jake remarried in 1893. Mathias Andrew and George Jacob Moyers were brothers of my great grandfather Rufus Sherrill Moyers and were sons of Wyley and Sarah Jane Jones Moyers of Rhea County, Tennessee. Wyley was the step brother of Capt. W.T. Gass. From the list of ladies who served in the all girl unit of the Civil War I can find at least 13 with connections to my family line, not counting the males listed that were somehow connected to the ladies in the all girl unit.

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