Battlefield held little terror for feisty Marie Tepe as she focused on aiding her beloved Zouaves
During the confused fighting May 12, 1864, near the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania, Lieutenant Thomas Galwey of the 8th Ohio Infantry was startled to see a young woman walk past his regiment.“
The shower of musket balls, shrapnel, and every sort of projectile falling in the midst of us was trying to the nerves of our coolest,” Galwey recalled. Amid the din, he heard a man nearby call out, “Annie, come this way.”
The soldier had mistaken Marie Tepe, vivandière to the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry, for Anna Etheridge, vivandière of the 2nd Michigan Infantry. Nonetheless, said Galwey, “To hear a woman’s name at such a time was startling. I looked around. Sure enough, there was a woman! She was about twenty-five years of age, square-featured and sun burnt, and dressed in Zouave uniform in the vivandière style. She was with two men and seemed to be looking for their regiment, the 114th Pennsylvania, they said.” Galwey was incredulous. “Hers was the only face in the vicinity which seemed in any way gay. She was laughing and pointing very unconcernedly, as she stumbled over axes, spades, and other obstacles on her way to the trench! She was either wonderfully courageous or else she did not understand the danger.”
Or maybe it was a little of both.
Known throughout the Union Army as “French Mary,” Marie Tepe proved to be a most practical camp follower, serving at various times as sutler, cook, laundress and nurse to the troops.
French Mary, who owed her nickname to her accent, was born Marie Brose in Brest, France, on August 24, 1834, to a Turkish father and French mother. Beyond that, details of her early life are sketchy. After her death, a Harrisburg, Pa., obituary said Marie had married a French seaman named Belmont Tebbe at age 15 and traveled with him to America in 1854; other newspapers said her father had raised her and the two of them had emigrated to Philadelphia, where she married a tailor named Bernardo Tepe in 1854.
What is certain is that her husband’s name was Bernhard Tepe, that he was a Philadelphia tailor and that when he enlisted as a private in the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry in June 1861, she overrode his objections (he wanted her to manage their tailor shop in his absence) and accompanied him to war.
Marie Tepe might have joined the 27th Pennsylvania to emulate the vivandières (derived from the French word viand, meaning “food”) of her native France. Vivandières were women officially attached to French regiments as sutlers or canteen keepers. Widely celebrated in France, vivandières had served in French armies since 1700. American army observers in the Crimean War brought the idea back to the United States, and a handful of women served in both Union and Confederate regiments as vivandières.
Whatever her motivation, Marie marched from Philadelphia with Bernhard Tepe’s regiment, a gallon-and-a-half keg slung over her left shoulder from which she dispensed whiskey or water as circumstances dictated. Marie sold tobacco, hams, whiskey and sundries to soldiers of the 27th in camp, and after First Bull Run she worked in the regimental hospital. During the battle, said the Harrisburg Patriot, “the young woman showed she was a better soldier than many of the men. She alternately fought and ministered to the needs of the wounded. She apparently cared nothing for the singing of scores of bullets around her.” Her actions at Bull Run set a pattern for her activity throughout the war.
Marie’s stint with the 27th Pennsylvania ended abruptly six months later, when her intoxicated husband and his friends stole into her tent and robbed her of $1,600. French Mary returned to Philadelphia in disgust; she later said this theft was “the only insult” she received during three years in the army.
The opportunity to be a true vivandière enticed Tepe back into the ranks. Charles H.T. Collis, who commanded with distinction a Pennsylvania company of Zouaves d’Afrique in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, had returned to Philadelphia in June 1862 to recruit a Zouave d’Afrique regiment. Collis wanted his regiment to be as authentic as possible. He ordered uniforms from France and advertised for a vivandière. Whether Collis sought Tepe out or she volunteered her services is uncertain. But there can be no doubt that she entered into her work enthusiastically, or that she was the flashiest dresser in the regiment. She wore the red pantaloons, blue shell jackets and blue waist sashes of the Zouaves. But instead of the regulation white turban, Marie sported a lady’s bonnet. To
further distinguish herself from the men, she wore a red-fringed skirt over her pantaloons and adorned the lapels of her Zouave jacket with buttons
(regulation jacket lapels were bare); in a more martial vein, she holstered a Remington .44 revolver.
Collis not only welcomed Marie to the regiment but ensured that she received a soldier’s pay and an additional 25 cents each day she did hospital duty. The Zouaves adopted her as the “daughter of the regiment” and quickly came to admire her resourcefulness.
In anticipation of its first active campaigning, on October 27, 1862, the 114th Pennsylvania crossed the Potomac River. The officers assured the men that the water would be less than knee-deep, so they rolled up their pantaloons and splashed into the river in good humor. “At first the water proved to be shallow, but on approaching the Virginia side the current brought us into much deeper and rougher obstructions,” remembered the regimental bandmaster and historian, Frank Rauscher. “Nearly all the men fell headlong into the channel and stumbled over the large stones becoming wringing wet. All were in the same predicament, excepting the staff officers, who were on horseback, and Marie, who had the forethought to pick up an old mule, on which she safely crossed the river.”
The 114th Pennsylvania first saw combat at Fredericksburg in a charge that rescued an exposed battery on the Union left. In the regimental history, Bandmaster Rauscher said only that Marie helped band members and regimental surgeons set up a field hospital. But she also ventured near enough the front to suffer a slight bullet wound in the left ankle while bringing water to wounded Zouaves.
Collis wrote Tepe a letter thanking her for her bravery, and Lt. Col. Federico Cavada presented her with a silver cup inscribed, “To Marie, for noble conduct on the field of battle.”
Cavada may have had ulterior motives for giving Tepe a gift. When Brig. Gen. David Bell Birney’s division, to which the 114th was assigned, crossed the Rappahannock River to enter the battle, Cavada was left in command of the brigade rear guard. The brigade commander authorized him to rejoin his regiment once the fighting started. But Cavada never showed up, and in January 1863 he was brought up on charges of “misbehavior before the enemy” for having “remained in the rear under shelter” while the 114th was engaged. Birney convoked a court-martial and French Mary was called to testify. She was among the minority of witnesses to offer compelling evidence on Cavada’s behalf.
Noticing him on horseback some distance behind the regiment, Tepe said she warned him not to ride forward because “the fire was too heavy.” Cavada, she said, nonetheless continued on. The court found Cavada guilty, but President Abraham Lincoln remitted his sentence.
The 114th Pennsylvania suffered light casualties at Fredericksburg, but at the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863, it was decimated, losing 173 killed and wounded, among them 24 of 27 regimental officers.
Marie was on the front line. Her “skirts were riddled with bullets” as she passed among the wounded dispensing water, Rauscher said. It was probably at Chancellorsville that an artillery shell shattered her original keg, which she replaced with a keg painted red, white and blue, with the image of an eagle at one end and “French Mary, 114th Pennsylvania” inscribed at the other.
After the battle she worked for several weeks in a field hospital, where she caught the attention of a female nurse from Maine, who wrote, “Since I left
for the hospital at Chancellorsville, I had seen a woman, and I did not know that any other woman crossed the Rappahannock excepting ‘Mary’ the vivandière of the 114th P[ennsylvania] V[olunteers], who was a brave and faithful worker.”
In recognition of her meritorious conduct at Chancellorsville, Collis submitted Marie’s name to division headquarters along with 25 enlisted men of the regiment for the Kearny Cross, a decoration given in honor of the division’s first commander, Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny. In a May 16, 1863, general order naming recipients, General Birney admonished “the wearers of it [to] remember [Kearny’s] high standard of a true and brave soldier and never disgrace it.”
Marie had no intention of disgracing the medal, but neither did she prize it. “She would not wear the medal,” Rauscher recalled, “remarking that General Birney could keep it, as she did not want the present.”
Rauscher does not say why Marie spurned the medal, but several of the enlisted recipients in the 114th also refused to wear their Kearny Crosses, believing it dishonored others who had shown as much courage as they had but lacked the good fortune to be nominated for it.
By June 1863, Marie and her iconic keg were known army-wide. While resting in the sweltering heat on the long road to Gettysburg on June 12, Lieutenant Eugene Carter of the 8th U.S. Infantry watched the III Corps pass in review. “In it we had many friends. On foot and marching with the 114th Pennsylvania we saw ‘French Mary’ in [the] Zouave uniform of Collis’ Zouaves.”
After Chancellorsville the men of the 114th implored her to keep out of harm’s way, Rauscher said. She may or may not have heeded their counsel at Gettysburg, but she came through the battle unharmed.
She posed a few days later for Philadelphia photographer Frederick Gutekunst, who had arrived to take images of the battlefield. In the center of a bleak photograph of the Union earthworks on East Cemetery Hill, Marie stands eerily alone. A few dozen yards behind her is a small embalming tent.
While in Gettysburg, Marie also posed for a less dismal portrait in the Tyson Brothers studio. For the occasion she pinned on her Kearny Cross. Staring at the camera, one hand clasping the strap of her keg and the other resting on her waist beside her revolver holster, Marie’s kindly eyes betray her otherwise martial bearing. Cartes-de-visite printed from the photograph proved popular in the army.
The winter of 1863-64 offered the 114th Pennsylvania its first respite from active campaigning since it had crossed the Potomac River in October 1862. As the Zouaves settled into winter quarters at Brandy Station, boredom bred the vices common to camp life, the most pernicious being gambling. Marie devoted herself largely to cooking, washing, mending uniforms and writing letters for members of the regiment.
Still, with gambling rife, Rauscher recalled, “even Marie was tempted to try her luck. But instead of winning, Marie soon lost, and was fifty dollars poorer by reason of her experience. She was too sharp to be caught again, and being thoroughly disgusted she played no more.”
Yet in combat, Marie’s good luck persisted. She accompanied the 114th Pennsylvania through the brutal battles of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s
1864 Overland Campaign, emerging unscathed despite her penchant for courting danger.
Marie had entered the army with her first husband, and in August 1864 she left it with her second, Corporal Richard Leonard of Company K, 1st Maryland (Union) Cavalry, at the expiration of his three years’ service. They apparently met during the early days of the Petersburg Campaign, and according to some accounts married in Culpeper, Va.
Leonard was a native of Saxony who at enlistment in August 1861 had given his age as 25, and on muster out declared himself to be 20. In any case, he was younger than his bride.
Leonard had worked as a “digger” in Pittsburgh before the war, and in the autumn of 1864, the couple settled in Baldwin Township on the outskirts of the city.
Little is known of Marie’s post-war life. She and Leonard renewed their marital vows at a ceremony in Pittsburgh on April 9, 1872. In 1893 Marie attended a reunion of the 114th Pennsylvania and was photographed with her keg.
For a time she ran a small store in Pittsburgh. She filed for divorce in March 1897, charging her husband “with general abuse.” Marie withdrew the suit, but the couple separated. She closed the store and moved in with friends.
Marie appeared in the newspapers on June 19, 1898, when the San Francisco Examiner and the Dallas Morning News reported “the very interesting fact” that she had applied for a pension. The papers recounted her Civil War exploits and assured their readers that French Mary “still has her red, white, and blue keg,” and her Kearny Cross.
There is no record that Marie received her pension. By age 66, she was destitute, plagued by rheumatism and in near constant pain from the effects of her ankle wound.
In a Pittsburgh tenement on May 24, 1901, now a rheumatic invalid, Marie Tepe Leonard drank a lethal dose of “Paris Green,” a paint pigment popular with French impressionists and a common rodenticide in the sewers of the French capital.
She was buried in an unmarked grave and left her estranged husband an estate valued at $31.35.
Newspapers nationwide reported Leonard’s suicide. “French Mary” Tepe was a decorated soldier whose cheerfulness and courage under fire veterans vividly recalled, and thousands of veterans of the Army of the Potomac grieved at the news. She’d survived the war, but had come to see life itself as the enemy.
Peter Cozzens is the author of 16 books on the Civil War and the American West, including Shenandoah 1862.