Antonia Ford found the love of her life while she was incarcerated in the Old Capitol Prison.
IT ACTUALLY WAS A DARK AND stormy night when Confederate Captain John Mosby and 29 of his Rangers rode quietly into Union-controlled Fairfax Court House, about 15 miles west of Washington, D.C., at 2 a.m. on March 8, 1863. Rain had begun to fall just as evening had settled over a landscape already obscured by mist. “There were a few [Union] sentinels about the town, but it was so dark that they could not distinguish us from their own people,” Mosby recalled in his memoir. Before the war’s outbreak, Fairfax Court House had been a quiet crossroads centered on a brick courthouse and a hotel. Plantations fanned out around it, and the mansions of wealthy residents loomed over its dirt roads. By the night of Mosby’s raid the fields were overgrown, the fences were torn down, and perhaps 2,500 Union soldiers were camped nearby. A tent on the courthouse lawn sheltered a telegraph operator, and the hotel was serving as a hospital. The mansions provided housing for high-ranking Union officers, among them Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton, a West Point graduate and, at 24, the army’s youngest general. It was in fact the possibility of capturing a general that brought Mosby behind enemy lines that night. The Rangers spent just an hour in the village without firing a shot, but rode back to the Confederate lines with 58 captured horses and 33 prisoners— Stoughton among them. That one escapade made Mosby an instant hero in the South and sent a tremor through the Union lines. How had a handful of guerrillas managed to make their way through hundreds of Northern soldiers to kidnap a general? How had Mosby known where to find Stoughton? And how could the Union avoid another such embarrassment?
Suspicion fell almost immediately on a Fairfax Court House resident rumored to be a Rebel spy. Antonia Ford was the daughter of wealthy merchant and ardent secessionist Edward Ford, and her family had entertained Confederate Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart, and perhaps Mosby himself, before the Union captured their town. Well-educated—she had attended Buckingham Female Collegiate Institute, and in 1857 earned a Mistress of English Literature degree—she was also attractive, with lustrous light brown hair that lay “in soft waves against the rose of her cheeks,” a relative recalled, and “beautiful luminous brown eyes.” Her brother Charles, who would die in battle in the spring of 1864, was a Confederate officer.
Within three days of the raid the U.S. Secret Service sent a young female undercover agent to Fairfax Court House to investigate. Wearing a faded calico dress to support her claim that she was a Mississippi belle stranded behind Union lines since the war’s outbreak, Frankie Abel (whose real name was Frances Jamieson) knocked at the door of the Ford mansion and explained that prominent friends had obtained a pass allowing her to return to the South, and a mutual acquaintance had urged her to seek the Fords’ assistance.
During a stay of several days, Frankie ingratiated herself with her hosts, telling them how wonderful it was to enjoy true Southern hospitality again. She and Antonia, who had a reputation among family members for desiring to be liked, reportedly talked for hours, in the course of which the federal agent heard much of the information she sought.
Fairfax was ideal for espionage, as a Washington Star account of Ford’s activities later made clear: “The hamlet swarmed with officers close to the fighting, but far enough removed from it to be easily susceptible to the charm and tact of a brilliant Southern girl.” Starting early in the conflict, she had made good use of her position. Just before the conflict’s first major battle, outside Manassas on July 21, 1861, she learned from Union officers that the North knew the layout of the Confederate lines and recognized where the enemy was weak. The Federals planned to attack the Rebel left, above Stone Bridge. Ford may also have heard that the Union planned to confuse the enemy, using Confederate flags.
She borrowed a horse on the night of July 19, 1861, and rode to a Confederate camp to warn the Rebels of the Union plans. The Southerners took her for a Union spy, however, holding her under guard for 24 hours before she was allowed to go home, traveling back roads to avoid Northern troops. Meanwhile other spies corroborated Ford’s information, and the Confederates— who would win the battle—adapted their strategy accordingly.
Although Ford’s role as a spy has been denied by some, her granddaughter Belle wrote in 1954: “Antonia continued to report Union troop activities to Stuart and Mosby, providing the latter with key information for the raid that captured Stoughton. Despite relations of Antonia Ford who even as late as 1952 did not like to intimate in any way that she was a spy, my father J.E.W. [Joseph E. Willard, Antonia’s son] (who was extremely accurate) confirmed this fact, which had been substantiated by his father Major J.C. Willard countless times.”
In boasting of her exploits to Abel, Antonia produced corroborative evidence, a letter from General Stuart dated October 7, 1861, commissioning her an “honorary aid-decamp” in return for her “patriotism, fidelity, and ability.” She probably also told the agent that she was a personal friend of John Mosby’s, who had spent the early months of the war encamped at Fairfax and had become “well acquainted with the Ford Family,” as he himself wrote after the war.
Abel soon slipped away, telling the Fords she had arranged to return home. On March 15, Secret Service agents roused Antonia from bed and asked her to take a Union loyalty oath. When she refused, the agents searched the house, finding Confederate papers and letters from Union officers, along with $6,000 in Confederate money and Stuart’s “commission.” They arrested her and carted her off to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C.
The prison was housed in a brick building on Northeast First Street that had served as the temporary Capitol Building—hence the name—after the original was burned by the British during the War of 1812. No letters or reports document Ford’s stay, but her experience probably was not too different from that reported by former prisoner James Joseph Williamson in his 1911 memoir. He was imprisoned at the time she was confined to Duff Green’s Row, or Carroll Prison—row houses that were used as a prison annex. On a typical day, breakfast for Williamson was a chunk of beef and a cup of liquid “by courtesy called coffee.” Lunch was “boiled beans and rusty-looking fat pork, with molasses (the molasses thin as water), served up in a dirty tin plate.” Dinner was unbuttered bread and black coffee. Prisoners who could afford to bought provisions from outside. Exercise in the yard—a muddy pit on rainy days— was allowed in the same half hour allotted for each meal.
However bleak the situation must have seemed, a twist of fate would turn Ford’s incarceration into a romance novel, thanks to Union Major Joseph Clapp Willard. A wealthy Union officer and part owner, with his brother, of the Willard Hotel, Willard had met the Fords in April 1862 when, while serving on the staff of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, he arranged for officers to stay in the Ford home. Joseph Willard was now on the staff of the prison provost marshal. At 43, he was 20 years Ford’s senior. He was apparently undeterred by a March 17 report in the Washington Star that “she certainly aided Mosby in planning and executing his raid.” Rose Harris, one of Ford’s relatives, wrote that from the day Willard saw her in prison, a “determined and open siege was laid upon her heart. Flowers, fruits, books, with accompanying notes, all the delicate attentions of a wooing lover, were showered upon her.” Willard became an advocate for her release— even though she still had not taken the loyalty oath.
Willard was not alone in attempting to help Ford. In a statement prepared on Stuart’s orders, Mosby denied she had helped him capture Stoughton. Was he lying? Antonia’s relatives thought so. Her granddaughter Belle later wrote, “Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, in an effort to save Antonia’s life after her arrest, wrote to Col. Mosby asking him to furnish whatever evidence he was able to of Miss Ford’s innocence of the charges of having been guided by Antonia in the capture of Gen. Stoughton, at the Fairfax red brick rectory—which she did.”
Despite Ford’s refusal to take the oath, authorities notified her on May 14 that she would be exchanged for Northern prisoners. By then, according to Harris, “she had pledged her troth to this Federal officer [Willard], the invader of her Southland, the armed foe of her soldier brother! Love like faith, ‘laughs at impossibilities.’” Laughing or not, the couple hid their romance from her family, but darker secrets soon came to light. As Ford was about to leave prison, her fiancé revealed that he was already married.
Willard explained he had wanted to divorce his wife for a long time, but the only grounds open to him under federal law in Washington were adultery, bigamy, lunacy or impotence—and he was at an impasse. Ford said she would pray about it but wasn’t sure she would agree to see him again.
Sent by train and ship to City Point, Va., Ford traveled toward home. By June she was in Warrenton, some 20 miles from Fairfax Court House, when Major Willard appeared, and they took a stroll through town. Further discussion, perhaps through correspondence, presumably ensued. When Ford left Warrenton for Fairfax in mid-September, Willard served as her escort. She broke the news to her family that she planned to marry the Northern major and that he already had a wife. Harris wrote: “The opposition to her announced engagement and her unshaken determination to wed the man of her choice caused distressing family scenes. On one memorable night after she had weepingly declared that her father had ‘blighted her life,’ he indignantly replied, ‘No child of mine shall ever truthfully bring that charge against me. I withdraw my opposition.’”
Other events were moving apace, however. Within days of her return, Antonia and her father were arrested for refusing to take the oath. Back at the Old Capitol Prison, Willard held Antonia in his arms and begged her to swear allegiance. The prison had rendered her frail and sickly, he reminded her. She told him she would take the oath if he would resign his commission, and he agreed to start the process. Daughter and father swore allegiance to the Union, and on September 18 were freed. Back home, the Fords mounted a U.S. fag from the front window of their home.
Fairfax Court House was still home to many Southern sympathizers, and the Fords kept the betrothal secret. But rumors circulated anyway. In February 1864, about two weeks before their wedding, Antonia wrote Willard that a Miss Pelt had asked a store clerk if he knew when Willard and Antonia had gotten married. The clerk denied the two had wed, to which Miss Pelt said, “I am sorry it isn’t so, for now the people of Centreville will have nothing to talk about.” Antonia added, “You wonder if people attend as closely to their own business as they do to ours. I’m sure they do not, for they haven’t time, it is all monopolized in seeking information of us.”
Ford also complained of Willard’s waywardness in writing and visiting. In January 1864, she wrote: “I very much fear you care little about seeing me, else surely you would come oftener….but I will not scold, for you considerately relieved my suspense by replying to the most important inquiry. Very glad am I dear Major to receive the assurance of your unchanged love after reading my letter. I’m not disappointed in you—that is delightful. Answer my letter.”
“Answer my letter” was a recurring plea. Ford was, she warned him, inclined to anxiety: On February 23, 1864, she wrote, “I am foolish about those I love, always imagining some danger has befallen them…are you disgusted?” Rebels and guerrillas roamed Virginia, making travel hazardous. At the end of February 1864, Ford warned her lover against visiting that week: “I’ve just heard Mosby has been seen at [Annandale?] today. I declare I’m afraid for you coming on the 10th by the roads. What shall we do?”
In February Willard’s resignation from the military was almost complete, and his divorce became final on March 2. The marriage took place in Washington, D.C., at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on March 10, 1864. Thus Antonia returned to the Northern capital, where she lived for the entire last year of the war.
There are some signs that this North-South marriage had its problems. In a letter to Willard dated September 11, 1865, Antonia commented, “People are inclined to cavil and question our domestic happiness….” Rose Harris later recalled that “the problems of her wedded life,” which would include losing two of her three children, culminated “in an attack of nervous prostration in which she had suffered both physical and mental distress,” in part, Harris believed, because of “the lonely seclusion of her Washington home.”
The marriage proved to be all too brief. Willard wrote in his diary on Friday, March 13, 1868: “My dear wife, my sick and depressed, Oh. How much she has suffered in her lifetime God bless her.” A letter from Willard to Antonia’s father on February 7, 1871, reported, “Antonia is very sick, she wants her mother & you—the carriage is to bring you in haste.” She died a week later, on Valentine’s Day, at 5 a.m. Three days later, Willard recorded, she was “put into the Earth by her father and myself about 11 o’clock a.m.” at Oak Hill Cemetery.
Joseph Willard never remarried. In 1881 he marked the 10th anniversary of Antonia’s death in his diary, where he also noted their 17th wedding anniversary.
The only one of their children who survived to adulthood, Joseph Jr., prospered as a businessman and became lieutenant governor of Virginia. His daughter Belle—who would corroborate that her grandmother had helped Mosby capture General Stoughton, the spy mission that led to Antonia’s own “house divided”—married President Theodore Roosevelt’s son Kermit.
Roger DiSilvestro’s most recent book is Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands. To learn more about Antonia Ford, visit http://www.fairfaxva.gov/MuseumVC/MVC.asp
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.