Rebecca Wright knew Union Major General Philip H. Sheridan needed her help, but she also believed that helping him could endanger her own family, since most of her neighbors in Winchester, Virginia, supported the Confederacy. Her mother, Rachel, reminded her that many people were sacrificing their lives to preserve the Union in the fall of 1864. “Thy life and my life may be needed too,” Rachel said, urging her daughter to pray for guidance. Much was riding on those prayers, including the largest of the battles for Winchester.
Sheridan had taken command of the Army of the Shenandoah in early August 1864, and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, along with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, urged him to not bring on a premature engagement in the Valley with Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s forces. The Federal high command warned Sheridan that if he attacked Early and suffered defeat it would not only pose military challenges but could also prove detrimental to Lincoln’s reelection bid.
After waiting more than a month as Sheridan maneuvered between Harpers Ferry and Fisher’s Hill, Va., however, Lincoln demanded decisive action. He wired Grant on September 12: “Could we not pick up a regiment here and there, to the number of say ten thousand men, and quietly, but suddenly concentrate them at Sheridan’s camp and enable him to make a strike?” Grant replied the next day that he would visit his subordinate “and arrange what was necessary to enable him to start Early out of the Valley.”
Grant began his journey on September 15, the same day that Sheridan— perhaps sensing the need to move before the election season—began a plan to gather intelligence about Early’s army. To aid him in this endeavor Sheridan leaned upon a command of approximately 60 scouts commanded by the 1st Rhode Island’s Major Henry K. Young. Often wearing Confederate uniforms, Sheridan’s scouts attempted to infiltrate Confederate lines and create a list of locals the Federals could depend on for help.
Among the friendly civilians whom Young’s scouts described as “both loyal and shrewd” was Thomas Laws, a slave from Millwood, in Clarke County, who had a pass from Early to enter Winchester three times a week to sell produce. Sheridan concluded that he needed a civilian informant in Winchester who could communicate information via Laws. The only obstacle was finding someone to help him in Confederate-occupied, ardently pro-Southern Winchester.
Sheridan turned to Brevet Maj. Gen. George Crook, a friend who commanded his VIII Corps, knowing that Crook—who had spent the summer in the region—had had the opportunity to meet Unionist sympathizers. Crook suggested Rebecca Wright, a 24-year-old Quaker schoolteacher. Crook had dined at Wright’s house several times and said he was “convinced of her loyalty and high character.” But he wasn’t sure she would be willing to help because, as a known Unionist sympathizer, “she was under constant surveillance.” When Sheridan asked whether his subordinate was sure of her Unionist sympathies, Crook declared, “I’ll stake my shoulder straps that this girl is loyal.”
On September 15, Sheridan penned Wright a note on tissue paper, appealing to her “loyalty and patriotism.” The general wrote: “I learn from Major-General Crook that you are a loyal lady, and still love the old flag. Can you inform me of the position of Early’s forces, the number of divisions in his army, and the strength of any or all of them and his probable or reported intentions? Have any troops arrived from Richmond, or are any more coming or reported to be coming…you can trust the bearer.” He rolled the tissue paper in tinfoil, placed it in a small capsule and told Laws to carry it in his mouth and swallow if Confederate pickets stopped him.
Laws—who recalled in 1894 that he didn’t know Wright at the time but knew Unionist sympathizers who could direct him to her—arrived at her home around noon on September 16. When he knocked on the door Wright was working at her desk in her schoolroom. She welcomed him but then became alarmed when he closed and locked the door behind him.
Laws explained that he was carrying a message from Sheridan, who needed her help. “His manner impressed me with the importance of his errand,” Wright recalled, “as well as the danger to both of us if it should become known.” Her first thought, she later said, was that Laws might try to “betray me to the rebels” in exchange for preferential treatment. Laws allayed Wright’s fears and handed her the message—only to hear her say she knew nothing about Early’s army and could not help. Laws told her to think about it and said he would return later that afternoon.
After Laws left, Wright started thinking about what might happen to her if her clandestine role was publicized. Although approximately 10 percent of Winchester’s population held Unionist loyalties, those individuals generally maintained a low profile and avoided espionage for fear of reprisals. Uncertain what to do, she talked with her mother, Rachel, who urged her to pray about it.
As she deliberated, Wright no doubt recalled the treatment her family had recently received at the hands of the Confederates, who had repeatedly searched their home for evidence that the Wrights supported the Union. Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had also arrested scores of Unionist sympathizers, including her father Amos, before evacuating Winchester in March 1862. Although Rebecca Wright never actually mentioned her father as part of her motivation to aid Sheridan, the Cincinnati Daily Gazette theorized in 1873 that Amos’ treatment had served as a catalyst: “Her father was imprisoned by the rebels,” the Gazette noted. “It was owing to this circumstance that Miss Wright became so embittered that she made every effort to communicate with the Federal troops.” Wright must also have wondered what Sheridan might do to her and her family if she refused to help.
Regardless of her motivation, Wright determined to give Sheridan what little information she had. Providentially on September 14, two days before Laws’ arrival, an unidentified convalescent Confederate officer had visited the Wrights. According to Wright, the officer—who was boarding at a house next door—had become enamored of her. Wright had made small talk with him as she worked in her garden. “I asked questions,” Rebecca recalled, “never thinking of using the information.” But the officer had unknowingly revealed something that would tremendously aid Sheridan: He told her that, due to the lack of activity by the Army of the Shenandoah, Maj. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s infantry division and an artillery battalion under Major Wilfred Cutshaw had left the Valley to join the Army of Northern Virginia near Petersburg.
Wright wrote Sheridan: “I have no communication whatever with the rebels, but will tell you what I know. The division of General Kershaw, and Cutshaw’s artillery…have been sent away, and no more are expected, as they cannot be spared from Richmond. I do not know how the troops are situated, but the force is much smaller than is represented.” When Laws returned on the 16th Wright “silently gave him the tiny package” containing her note.
Wright’s information came at the most opportune moment for Sheridan. Grant arrived in Harpers Ferry on the 16th, and the next day summoned Sheridan to Charles Town, to map out a strategy to strike Early. Sheridan now understood Early’s position and strength, and promptly outlined his own plan. The Army of the Shenandoah’s commander reportedly appeared “so positive in his views, and so confident of success” that Grant kept his strategic vision to himself, simply directing Sheridan to “Go in!”
Although Sheridan initially planned to move the army south to Newtown (present-day Stephens City) and cut off Early’s southern retreat route, information that his scouts gathered on September 17 altered his strategy. While Sheridan was meeting with Grant, Early committed a serious blunder: He divided his forces, sending the divisions of Maj. Gens. John B. Gordon and Robert Rodes toward Martinsburg to strike the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and deploying Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge’s division to Bunker Hill. He retained only Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur’s division to defend Winchester.
Meanwhile Wright had no idea whether her note had reached Sheridan, and whether it might be of use. When artillery and musket fire erupted west of Winchester along the Berryville Pike on September 19, signaling the opening of the Third Battle of Winchester, Wright wondered whether the information she had supplied could actually have prompted what would turn out to be the bloodiest of Winchester’s battles. “When we were awakened Monday Morning, September 19…by the roaring cannon,” she wrote, “my first thought was whether my note had anything to do with the fighting.”
As the fighting intensified, the Wrights sought refuge in their cellar. By late afternoon, as the sounds of battle grew fainter, Rebecca could not take the suspense any longer. She went upstairs and looked into the distance, where she spied the Stars and Stripes entering Winchester. Then she ran back down to the cellar, yelling: “The dear old flag is coming back again! All will soon be right again now.”
Sheridan followed his triumphant army into Winchester, and as he neared the corner of Peyton and Loudoun streets he and General Crook were joyously greeted by three Unionists—Hattie Griffith, Jennie Meredith and Sussie Meredith. When Sheridan asked Crook for a place to write a quick dispatch to Grant, Crook directed Sheridan to Rebecca Wright’s house.
On their arrival, Sheridan informed Wright that “it was entirely on the information I had sent that he fought the battle.” Although Wright may have felt flattered by Sheridan’s praise, she was also worried that her proConfederate neighbors might see her speaking to him. She recalled: “I was so fearful of suspicion that I would hardly permit him to speak to me. I knew that should the Southern people discover the part I had in the battle, my life would not be worth much, and I was afraid to have the general talk to me.” Sheridan wrote his dispatch to Grant in Wright’s schoolroom, then told her he would never forget her “courage and patriotism.”
When Sheridan asked if there was anything he could do to repay her, she asked him not to tell anyone about her role, saying that her “life would not be safe when our troops went away.” Sheridan assured her that Rebels would never again control the town, but for a resident of a town with a history of being a revolving door to military occupiers, his assurance meant little.
Sheridan kept his promise during the war. He also provided aid to Wright’s family, ordering his commissary to provide Rebecca “with all the free beef she needs.” For some time after the war ended, Army beef was her only reward. But on January 7, 1867, Sheridan sent her a note thanking her for her help, which General James Forsyth delivered to Winchester along with a gift. Sheridan wrote from New Orleans: “You are probably not aware of the great service you rendered the Union cause by the information you sent me…a few days before the battle….It was upon this information that the battle was fought and probably won….By this note I became aware of the true condition of affairs inside the enemy’s lines….I will always remember this courageous and patriotic action of yours.” An “elegant gold watch…brooch…of gold, beautifully wrought into a gauntlet, and set with pearls” accompanied the note.
Rebecca knew the gift needed to remain secret, but that proved difficult for a variety of reasons. First, despite pleas to her mother and sister to keep it under wraps, Rebecca couldn’t resist wearing her present—even in public. “I wear these keepsakes constantly,” Wright informed a reporter decades later. Worse, a newspaper reporter from the Baltimore Sun who boarded at the Wrights’ began to pry into the reason for Forsyth’s visit. Rebecca’s sister Hannah—a former Confederate sympathizer—revealed that the watch had come from Sheridan.
By February 20, 1867, all of Winchester knew about Wright’s gift. The Winchester Times sniped that Rebecca had “received as a present from General ‘Barn burning,’ Sheridan, an elegant gold watch, and exquisitely wrought chain, a brooch and charms….The present it is said, was made in recognition of an act, which for the sake of Virginia women shall be nameless in these columns.”
Although the war had ended nearly two years before, the memory of the conflict and particularly Sheridan’s conduct in the Valley remained fresh in locals’ minds. “Most of the community were wild with indignation,” Wright recalled. A New York correspondent noted that the news of Wright’s gift changed “the quiet of this little place…to liveliness.” Even former Unionists—some of whom congratulated Wright—could not believe what she had done. “The Union people gathered around me in astonishment,” Wright explained, “I remember an old man in the place who took both my hands in his and said, Why, my little girl, there was not a man in the place who would have dared do such a thing. As much as I like the Union, I would not have had the courage.”
Once people learned of her role as a spy, Rebecca said she and her family were “socially castrated by the people of Winchester.” Potential customers boycotted their boarding house, and anytime Rebecca went out in public, locals cursed her. Wright recalled that even “the boys used to spit at me on the street.”
When the story of Rebecca’s treatment made national headlines, Robert J. Houston of Lancaster County, Pa., appealed to Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Simon Cameron to grant Wright a military pension. His appeal apparently fell on deaf ears, as Cameron responded, “I am opposed to granting pensions to civilians.”
Rebecca, her mother and sister eventually moved to Philadelphia, where they still faced financial hardship. Increasingly desperate, Rebecca wrote to ask Sheridan for help finding a government job. With his assistance and Grant’s, Rebecca became a clerk in the Treasury Department. Records indicate she received her appointment on July 6, 1868, four months before Grant was elected.
In 1882, when Wright feared someone was scheming to replace her with one of Treasury Secretary James Folger’s friends, Sheridan reminded Folger of Wright’s service to the Union and the Republican Party. Wright would keep her position until her death in May 1914.
Some believed Wright was also entitled to a military pension, among them Nebraska Senator John M. Thayer, who submitted a report “for the relief of Miss Rebecca L. Wright,” contending that she deserved a $5,000 pension for “valuable services rendered to General Sheridan.” For reasons not fully explained, the bill never came to a vote. More than four decades later The New York Times cited an interview with Rebecca’s husband, William Bonsal, whom she married in May 1871, in which Bonsal stated that he had been approached by an unidentified U.S. senator and told that he could pass a bill for $20,000 if Rebecca and her new husband agreed to split the money with him. “He proposed to make us divide the $20,000 equally with him,” Bonsal said, adding, “I am a Quaker, but I told that Senator just what I thought of him in pretty plain language and refused to accept his proposition.”
Rebecca learned to live with her disappointment, but it angered others—including Sheridan. When he was asked about Wright’s pension bid in 1884, the general replied, “Damn it, I think she is entitled.”
Although Rebecca never received any additional financial award, she became something of a celebrity, attending women’s suffrage events and much sought after as a guest at gatherings of the Grand Army of the Republic. In April 1889, when she attended a get-together of veterans in Harrisburg, Pa., a reporter noted that “she bowed gracefully as the men cheered and the ladies waved their handkerchiefs.” Harrisburg photographer LeRue Lemer marked the occasion with a souvenir albumen image of Wright, wearing Sheridan’s chain, watch and brooch.
Sheridan himself was present when Wright was the guest of honor at G.A.R. Post No. 2 in Philadelphia during one reception. After the veterans greeted Rebecca “with the greatest honors,” actor James Murdoch recited Thomas Buchanan Read’s epic poem “Sheridan’s Ride.” When a reporter asked Sheridan about the importance of Wright’s contribution to the conflict, he responded, “That woman was worth a whole brigade of soldiers and several batteries of artillery down in the Winchester campaign, and she was one of the genuine heroines of the war.”
Jonathan A. Noyalas teaches at Lord Fairfax Community College and serves as director of the Center for Civil War History.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.