Rebel Spy Story Just a Good Yarn

by Steve Meserve on September 21, 2007 · 1 comment

Stuart’s joke lands woman in jail, but she weds a Northern officer

When the American Civil War began in 1861, Antonia Ford was a 23-year-old woman living in Fairfax Court House, Virginia, in the home of her father, a prominent local businessman. The Ford family was secessionist, and Antonia’s brother, Charles, enlisted in the Confederate cavalry. The Ford home became a favorite meeting place for the dashing Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart and his staff when the gray cavalry camped in the Fairfax area early in the war. Stuart, who was often accused of foppery by his detractors, enjoyed flirting with pretty young ladies almost as much as he enjoyed fighting Yankees. Antonia Ford and her neighbor, Laura Ratcliffe, quickly became two of his favorites. In October 1861, in a moment of levity common in the fun-loving Stuart’s headquarters, the general presented young Miss Ford with a gaudy certificate, bearing the impression of his own signet ring, and “commissioning” her an “honorary aide-de-camp.” All who witnessed the presentation agree it was done strictly in fun, to get a laugh from an attractive young lady.

The “commission” read:

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

Know ye: that reposing special confidence in the patriotism, fidelity and ability of Miss Antonia Ford, I, James E.B. Stuart, by virtue of the power vested in me, as a Brigadier General in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States of America, do hereby appoint and commission her my honorary aide-de-camp, to rank as such from this date. She will be obeyed, respected and admired by all the lovers of a noble nature. Given under my hand and seal at the headquarters, Cavalry Brigade, at Camp Beverly, this seventh day of October, A.D., 1861, and the first year of our Independence.

JAMES E.B. STUART Brigadier General, CSA

Though given in jest, this document would become one of three things that form the basis for the claim that Antonia Ford was a Confederate spy. Because it had been given her by one of the most famous men on the American continent at that time, Miss Ford treasured it and kept it carefully hidden beneath the mattress of her bed. In time, the paper would get her arrested because Edwin Stanton, U.S. Secretary of War, and Lafayette C. Baker, first head of the U.S. Secret Service, found it convenient to use Antonia Ford as a scapegoat in one of the most embarrassing episodes in American military history.

Concerning the second piece of support for the claim that she was a Confederate agent, a Web page maintained by members of the Antonia Ford Chapter of Children of the Confederacy says: “On at least one occasion, just before the Battle of Second Manassas in August 1862, [Ford] saved Southern troops from certain disaster by reporting a Union plan to use Confederate colors to draw them away from assigned positions. Because no one could be prevailed upon to deliver the message for her, she drove herself 20 miles by carriage through the rain and past Union troops to deliver the intelligence to Stuart.”

This claim is absurd for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Jeb Stuart was not within 20 miles of Fairfax in the entire week before the battle of Second Manassas. His closest approach to the town came the night he burned Union General John Pope’s baggage train at Catlett Station–a night so dark and rainy even Stuart’s men were not sure where they were until he ordered the charge into the Union camp. In addition, no one knew there would be a second battle at Manassas until Stonewall Jackson started it on the evening of August 28. Until the first shot was fired, Union officers knew only that Jackson’s corps was somewhere in their rear and presumed to be in full retreat toward Thoroughfare Gap.

All who use the Second Manassas incident to establish Antonia Ford’s credentials as a spy cite, as the source of their information, the 1954 Willard’s of Washington: The Epic of a Capital Caravansery by Garnett Laidlaw Eskew. Eskew, however, bases his story on the flimsiest of historical evidence–that Antonia Ford was the prototype of Violet Grafton, the heroine of one of John Esten Cooke’s post-war novels, Surry of Eagle’s Nest.

The warning the fictional character delivered had nothing to do with Jeb Stuart and Second Manassas. Instead, it was delivered to General P.G.T. Beauregard in the days before the First Battle of Manassas. Her message was that the Yankees were on the march, and that they: “… knew all about [Beauregard’s] lines on Bull Run…; they had no intention of attacking the center, opposite Manassas–nor the right. The attack would be against the left of the Rebel line above Stonebridge, and they would be run out of their holes before they knew it…. The Federal officer now added that he was supplied with a number of Confederate flags, which he intended to make use of to deceive the rebels….”

The reality of history is that the message about the Union advance on Manassas was delivered to Beauregard not by Antonia Ford, but by the legendary, or notorious, Rebel spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow. The text of the Greenhow message may be found in the Confederate correspondence relating to the battle in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. There is no evidence in the records of a message from Antonia Ford.

Greenhow’s message said nothing about an attack on the Confederate flank above the Stone Bridge on the Warrenton Turnpike. That particular assault was not discovered until the battle was well under way. Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans fought a masterful delaying action that allowed time for Jackson’s Virginians and Bee’s Carolinians to arrive and shore up the hard pressed Confederate left. Had Beauregard known in advance of McDowell’s intention to attack there, such an action would not have been necessary because he could have disposed his troops in advance to meet the threat.

Anyone familiar with the First Battle of Manassas knows the idea of using enemy flags to draw troops out of position is totally unrealistic. The First National Flag of the Confederacy carried in the Manassas fighting so resembled the Stars and Stripes carried by Union troops that there was enough confusion about flags on both sides of the battle lines without anyone attempting such a subterfuge. Shortly after the battle, in fact, General Beauregard commissioned a new flag to prevent such confusion in the future. The result was the well-known “Confederate Battle Flag” or “Beauregard Flag.” Violet Grafton’s message plays well in a Victorian action story, but it is not based on historic events.

Finally, enthusiasts of the image of Ford as a Confederate spy give her credit for giving Partisan Ranger John Mosby information on the location of Federal camps near Fairfax, patrol schedules, and countersigns. With this vital information, the story goes, Mosby rode into Fairfax Court House with a small group of men, captured Union general Edward H. Stoughton, his staff, and more than 50 horses, and rode out unmolested.

Although Antonia Ford was one of several Fairfax residents arrested for espionage in the aftermath of Mosby’s raid, both he and his commanding officer, Jeb Stuart, adamantly denied her involvement. Long after the war, when Antonia Ford was dead and buried and could not have been harmed in any way by his revealing the truth of the affair, Mosby wrote that he met the lady early in the war but did not communicate with her again until after its end. “She was as innocent [of the espionage charge] as Mr. Lincoln,” he wrote. Instead, he said he had been gathering information about Union troop dispositions by carefully interviewing prisoners for some time.

His guide on the raid was not Antonia Ford, but James “Big Yankee” Ames, who deserted from the 5th New York Cavalry barely a week before the event and knew the Fairfax area and the Union campsites intimately. No one took the espionage charges against Ford seriously, with the possible exception of Stanton and Baker, who were desperate to make the entire affair seem to be something other than an egregious military blunder.

Even Northern newspapers reported the story with tongue implanted firmly in cheek. Harper’s Weekly featured a caricature of “General Stuart’s New Aid,” showing a female rider with a pistol strapped to her saddle, oversize rowels on her spurs, and a drum bouncing on her back as her trotting horse threw shoes with each step. The caption read, “The rebel cavalry leader, Stuart, has appointed to a position on his staff, with the rank of Major, a young lady residing in Fairfax Court House, who has been of great service to him in giving information.”

The last laugh, however, was Ford’s. After spending time in prison, she took the oath of allegiance and married Major Joseph C. Willard, former Provost Marshal of Fairfax and co-owner of Willard’s Hotel in Washington almost exactly a year after Mosby took General Stoughton out of Fairfax Court House..

“I knew I could not revenge myself on the whole nation,” she later said, “but felt very capable of tormenting one Yankee to death, so I took the Major.” She bore him three children, two of whom died in infancy, before she died in 1871 at the age of 33. Willard must not have felt himself too tormented by his wife because, after her death, he became a virtual recluse and never re-married.

The definitive assessment of Antonia Ford’s “service” to the Confederacy may have been given by Heros von Borcke, a Prussian officer who served on Stuart’s staff when he wrote of the Confederate cavalry’s 1862 return to Fairfax: “General Stuart established his headquarters at the house of a citizen whose daughter he had previously known, and regarded as a young lady of very ardent patriotism. Her subsequent conduct did not justify this opinion. In a playful and imprudent manner the General had bestowed upon her a sort of honorary commission upon his Staff, which caused her to be arrested at a somewhat later period by the Federal authorities; but long before the termination of the war she managed to marry a Yankee officer, and took the oath of allegiance to the Northern Government, thus doubly discrediting the title of Virginian.”


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Matt McKeon September 22, 2007 at 5:08 am

Fun story. I’m glad it turned out alright for Antonia.
Is it me, or does Edwin Staunton always seem like a dick? In Team of Rivals, Goodwin describes a dedicated and able War Secretary at a time we really needed one, but often he seems fundamentally unbalanced. His hysteria about the ironclad Virginia, and his clownish mobilization of the War Department clerks after 2nd Bull Run stand out.
Imagine Staunton in the cabinet nowadays. He would (shudder) fit right in.

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