SIX EXTRAORDINARY LADIES
by James L. Walker
THE FRENCH LADY
Males aboard the side-wheel steamer St. Nicholas - members of the crew as
well as passengers - tried to sneak covert glances at the heavily veiled lady who boarded not far from Federal Hill in
Baltimore on June 28, 1861. Women tossed their heads and looked the other way; they pretended to have no interest
in the colorful passenger who was listed as Madame La Force. It was impossible,
however, to escape noticing that the French lady, as she was called by her shipmates, had an unusually large
quantity of luggage - much of which was in large millinery trunks.
By the time the vessel reached Point Lockout, a possible sight for a Federal prison camp, the weather had become nasty. Rain caused most of the passengers to pay only slight attention when eight men boarded there. Speaking with a decidedly continental accent, the beguiling passenger explained that "rain hinted that it would be wise to retire for the night" before going below.
When the St. Nicholas was half an hour from the wharf and headed toward her next stopping point, Rebel Richard Thomas, wearing a Zouave uniform and armed with a cutlass and pistols, sprinted on deck. Without the heavy veil and hoopskirts, he didn't look a bit like the mysterious French woman he had pretended to be. He gestured to approximately two dozen of his followers, who had come aboard during the last forty-eight hours, and a few of them ripped open the trunks of the "French lady" and began distributing weapons to their comrades. Soon they had taken over the vessel, successfully completing the first step toward seizing the mighty USS Pawnee, believed to be moored on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.
Thomas, a former cadet at West Point with an urge for adventure, had spent time in California before going to Italy to fight pirates. He had taken on the pseudonym of Zarvona, which appears in many dispatches and reports. His daring escapade, which apparently had been approved by high-level Virginia leaders, might have succeeded had the Pawnee not been moved to a relatively inaccessible location much closer to Washington. Undaunted by failure, Zarvona, using the same technique, set out to capture the Columbia instead.
Unfortunately for him, seamen on board from the St. Nicholas recognized him almost as soon as he came aboard. Aided b a Federal officer and a policeman from Baltimore, these sailors took over the ship and headed toward Maryland's Fort McHenry, where an entire company of soldiers swarmed aboard. Zarvona's uniform, weapons, and papers were found immediately, but the sailors found no trace of Zarvona. A 90-minute search revealed that Zarvona had slipped into a cabin and was curled up in the drawer of a piece of furniture.
The "French lady" later spent nearly a year imprisoned at Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor, then languished almost as long at Fort Delaware. There "one of the most colorful seamen of the Civil War" was released in April 1863 on one condition - that he leave the United States and never come back. Zarvona solemnly made the required pledge of exile and went to France, where he spent the rest of his life. In his latter years he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was the only person in the Civil War whose impersonation of a member of the opposite sex spread his exploits across forty-four pages of the Official Records.
Ivan Vasilevitch Turchinoff of Don, Russia, fought in the Crimean War before coming to the United States in 1856 and Anglicizing his name. Working as a topographical engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad when war broke out, he immediately volunteered and was put in command of the 19th Illinois. Like many officers on both sides, Turchin took his wife with him into camp and seems to have depended on her for military as well as domestic advice. Given command of a brigade without having been made a brigadier, Turchin led his men well at Bowling Green, Kentucky, and later during a famous raid on Huntsville, Alabama. They encountered stiff opposition in Athens, Alabama, and, after fending off attacks by Rebels, went on
a looting spree. Tried by a court-martial over which James A. Garfield presided, the Russian was found guilty of misconduct; his dismissal from the military service was recommended.
While court was in session and before a verdict had been reached, Turchin's wife raced toward Washington, where she gained an audience with Abraham Lincoln. When the verdict concerning her husband reached Washington, she not only persuaded the president to set it aside, but also secured a commission for her husband in recognition of his service at Huntsville, but which he became a brigadier. Known by his men as the "Russian Thunderbolt," Turchin fought well at Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Atlanta. In July 1864, constant bouts with illness led to his resignation. For ten days during one of his periods of illness, his wife had commanded his unit. Described as having "seemed almost imperial, riding side-saddle on a great horse," the Russian woman reputedly led her husband's regiment in at least one engagement. Even if that is the case, the Smithsonian Institution's recognition of Harriet Tubman as the only American woman to do so stands unchallenged - for Mrs. Turchin was the daughter of a regimental commander in the army of the czar of Russia, not an American woman.
THE TAINTED WOMAN
As the only child of a merchant and farmer, Anna Blair had comforts that many of her era envied. After
her mother's death, she and her father moved to Wisconsin; at age sixteen she married a man known only as Etheridge. Their union was brief, and after having secured what she believed to be a divorce, she was viewed askance in the village of what was then the West.
Anna went back to Detroit just as the Civil War was beginning, with regiments largely under state rather than national control. Michigan authorities seem to have welcomed women who offered their services as nurses. As a result, Anna became one of more than a dozen women who were attached to the 2nd Michigan regiment just days after the fall of Fort Sumter. Many of these volunteers were discharged after their 90-day enlistment expired, but some members of the regiment - Anna included - signed up for three years.
She was the only woman who was included in regimental rolls when her unit fought at Bull Run. On detached service for a period, so that she could work for the Hospital Transport Service, her ties with the Army of the Potomac were so strong that she told old comrades goodbye when they departed for the Western Theater. Having transferred to the 3rd Michigan so she could remain in the East, she was at or near Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and numerous other battlefields.
At the war's end, the woman, who was considered tainted by some because she was divorced, married another veteran. The pair settled down in Washington. There, she had the joy of telling her children and grandchildren that during four years of hard living and bitter fighting, she was the only woman on whom the special Kearny Medal - named for Gen. Philip Kearny and awarded to those who served honorably under him - was bestowed.
PVT. ALBERT D. CASHIER
Because Illinois was hard pressed to fill its draft quota, recruitment officers asked few questions when Albert D. Cashier indicated his willingness to fight. When he was accepted early in August 1862, the Irishborn
recruit was put into Company G of the 90th Illinois regiment.
Within a month, the regiment was mustered into Federal service and was soon assigned to the Army of the Tennessee. Much of 1863 was spent in the lengthy Vicksburg campaign, after which the soldiers from Illinois took part in the Red River expedition. The unit gave a notable performance at Brice's Cross Roads, Mississippi, before taking part in the Battle of Nashville. Having completed almost three years of service, the regiment was mustered out during the summer of 1865. On returning to Belvidere, Cashier received a tremendous ovation from fellow townsfolk. Work was scarce there, however, so the combat veteran moved to Saynemin and found a job as a farmhand. In 1911, after working there for years, Cashier sustained a leg injury in an accident. On examining Cashier, the doctor discovered that his patient was actually female. At age sixty-six and suffering from severe arthritis, Cashier was sent to the Soldier's and Sailors' Home in Quincy. This change apparently triggered mental as well as physical problems, and the Civil War veteran was committed to an asylum for the insane in 1913.
That's when authorities and newspaper reporters learned that Albert Cashier was really named Jennie Hodgers. The revelation was questioned when stories about the Union veteran broke in newspapers. Members of an examining board in Washington made a careful investigation and concluded that the Irish-born immigrant had kept her gender a secret for forty-two years, during part of which time she was paid an invalid soldier's pension of $70 a month. Had she been lucid at her death in 1915, Jennie could have held her head very high; records indicate that she was the only woman in blue or gray that served a full term of enlistment and was honorably discharged. What's more, her assumed name is included in the massive Illinois monument at Vicksburg.
THE YOUNGER BROTHER
With the possible exception of western Tennessee, no section of the South was more politically divided in 1861 than was western North Carolina. Slightly more than half the natives were strongly opposed to secession. But many of their neighbors desperately wanted out of the Union and bragged that "any southerner worth his salt can lick half a dozen Yankees with one hand tied behind his back."
Traipsing around western North Carolina's towering Grandfather Mountain during childhood, Malinda Pritchard suffered hardships comparable to those of young Harriet Tubman. Though she and her family were never legally enslaved, their grinding poverty served as leg irons and handcuffs that prevented them from doing more than simply sustaining life, working sun-up to sundown.
At age fourteen she was so rebellious that members of her family heaved a mighty sigh of relief when they learned she planned to marry Keith Blalock, ten years her senior. (Keith was not the bridegroom's real name; during adolescence he so admired a popular bare-knuckle boxer named Keith that he began using the athlete's name.)
Though most of his close relatives were Unionists, Keith decided to put on a gray uniform. When his bride learned of his plans, she whacked off her hair, pulled on trousers large enough to conceal her figure, and joined the 26th North Carolina as Sam Blalock - younger brother of Keith. After a few weeks of service around Kinston, North Carolina, Keith became fed up with the life of a soldier. He found a thick patch of poison oak, took off most of his clothes, and rolled in it long enough to "become a sight to behold" when the poison took effect. A hasty examination by a regimental surgeon led to the conclusion that Blalock had a contagious disease of some sort, so he was discharged during the spring of 1862. In order to get a discharge also, "Sam" confessed that the two were not blood relatives and she was actually a female.
The pair, who had tried military life for only a few months, was not welcomed by the Unionist majority in their town when they returned. Consequently, they drifted into nearby Tennessee and joined a band of fighting men who had no formal allegiance to either side. Malinda, who had successfully posed as her husband's younger brother, was one of only a handful of females in the North or South who rode, fought, and plundered for many months as a member of a guerrilla group.
THE YOUNG AND PRETTY ONE
A newspaper correspondent working part-time for the Altoona (Pennsylvania) Register wandered into remote Huntington County late in the spring of 1862. To his surprise, he found hamlet of Broadtop City buzzing with excitement. Everyone there wanted to be first to tell this newly arrived writer about a newcomer in town who was mostly described as "young and rather pretty." She had just
been discharged from Federal forces and had come to the village wearing an infantry uniform.
Residents told the man from Altoona that Mary Owens, whose parents had come to the United States from Wales, had involved herself in the Civil War when she announced that she planned to marry John Owens. After a secret marriage in Montour County, she and her husband enlisted in the same company - called themselves John Owens and John Evans.
The pair camped and fought side by side for about eighteen months, until one day, Owens fell dead by the side of his disguised wife. According to the Rebellion Record, "This remarkable woman took part in three battles, and was wounded twice; first in the face above the right eye, and then in her arm, which required her to be taken to the hospital, where she confessed the deception." Unwilling to resume civilian life where she left it, the young widow chose a different community in which to make a new start. By the time word of her exploits reached the Altoona Register, the female veteran was widely hailed as "the heroine of the neighborhood."
THE MUSKETOON BEARER
Like Col. and Mrs. Turchin, Belle Reynolds went to war serving the same state in which
Abraham Lincoln was living when he became president - Illinois. Her military service seems to have occurred entirely within units of state guardsmen. Though little is known about her activities, one unusual and unique fact has survived: She reputedly disdained the use of muskets and insisted on carrying a musketoon when serving in the 17th Illinois. The musketoon had a large bore and a short
barrel, making it the Civil War equivalent of a sawed-off shotgun.
State guardsmen drilled, marched, and spent some of their weekends in camps. They were not, however, subject to the authority of Federal commanders. This, plus the fashion in which governors appointed most officers up to and through the rank of colonel, was a prime source of irritation to Gen. William T. Sherman and many others who were less vocal about their objections.
Though never going off to war, a number of women who were members of these state forces received commissions from their governors. Most of them became lieutenants, and a few became captains. Reynolds'' claim to fame was being an Illinois state major.
THE FAMOUS AND "FICTITIOUS" SUE MUNDY
Long before tabloids became popular in the United States, many a newspaper correspondent and editor exploited sensational stories to boost readership and circulation. George Prentice of the Louisville Courier often boasted to readers about his skill in finding and publicizing stories that other papers neglected or overlooked. That's why some of his professional colleagues were suspicious when he ran a front-page
account of a female "second in command" of
a gang of cutthroats who often called themselves partisan rangers.
"By pure coincidence," Prentice said, the female guerrilla had the same name as that of a notorious Louisville madam - Sue Mundy. She and her band reportedly roamed throughout much of Kentucky and staged a spectacular bank robbery at Harrodsburg. Mundy, said Prentice, dressed as a male and often wore a full Confederate uniform. "She is a bold rider and a dashing leader who can be detected only by her comely form," he wrote.
According to the editor, the she-devil about whom he wrote had participated in murder, robbery, and partisan raids. His accounts of her exploits were highly embarrassing to Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge, commander of Federal forces in the state. Why on earth, suggested the editor, couldn't the head of a large body of soldiers put an end to the depredation of this young woman?
No one -- least of all Burbridge - had a ready answer to that question. Soon, it was suggested that the Mundy gang had joined forces with the notorious William Quantrill, who was responsible for atrocities in Kansas. An intensified hunt failed to bag Sue, but a troop of cavalrymen was successful in capturing a young guerrilla known as Marcellus Clark.
When he confessed to most of the crimes of which "the female partisan" was accused, authorities began to see the light. Clark, who wore his hair very long, was young and slender. Descended from a prominent family, he was probably well known to Prentice. In a series of moves designed to embarrass Burbridge and his troops, the editor had deliberately deceived the public by inventing the fictional character Sue Mundy and attributing Clark's exploits to her.
Here the saga of one of Kentucky's most notorious female guerrillas should have ended, but it did not. Largely due to publicity from the reported deeds of Sue Mundy, Clark was brought to trial for crimes against the state. Public feeling ran so high that Clark, who never actually posed as a woman but was associated with the stories of Sue Mundy, lasted only three days, after which the leader of notorious robbers and killers was hanged.
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