Rebecca Wright: Quaker teacher, Union spy

general philip sheridan in battle illustration
Rebecca McPherson Wright (1838-1914) In 1867 General Philip H. Sheridan sent Rebecca a locket as a token of appreciation for her Union help during the autumn of 1864. It is likely this portrait shows her holding the locket.

Rebecca M. Wright (1838-1914) was a young teacher from a Quaker family living in Winchester, Virginia. She spent at least a year during the 1850’s attending Springdale School, run by Samuel M. and Elizabeth Janney outside the village of Lincoln, in Loudoun County. According to written accounts she attended Springdale in the school year 1854-1855, and Goose Creek Meeting minutes show Rebecca taught at Springdale school during the year 1858 summer session. That slim connection with Lincoln, Virginia is reason enough to tell her dramatic story here.

The following report from the committee having charge of the school at this place was received and was satisfactory to wit that the school was taught last winter by Jesse H. Brown and during last summer by Rebecca Wright and so far as we hear to good satisfaction.” Goose Creek Meeting minutes January 1858, Courtesy ancestry.com

Rebecca Wright is known in Civil War history for her role as a spy for Union Cavalry General Philip Sheridan. Wright’s clandestine information, learned from an indiscreet Confederate officer, was passed to the Union general during his 1864 push to clear the Confederate army from the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan wrote about Rebecca Wright in his Memoirs, giving her great credit for making his September 1864 Winchester battle successful, saying Wright “was worth more than a brigade to me.” A overview of Rebecca Wright’s story is on Wikipedia.

James Taylor traveled with Sheridan’s army and drew this illustration in 1864 of Thomas Laws meeting with Major Gen. Sheridan outside Winchester. Courtesy Library of Congress

Crucial to the spying effort was Thomas Laws, an enslaved man from Millwood, a village about 15 miles south-east of Winchester. Laws met several times with Sheridan at the Union camp and was given notes to carry into Winchester, the town under heavily fortified Confederate control. He passed Sheridan’s notes along to Rebecca Wright. The story of Laws’ and Wright’s dangerous spying activity has been told many times, including as a dramatic play, in Civil War history books including this one, and online. Sheridan himself tells it best; his handwritten pages, preserved by the Library of Congress, are scanned here. The transcript is printed below. Rebecca Wright no doubt avidly followed the exploits about which Sheridan writes. She could read of them in the Northern press and hear of them spoken of on the Winchester streets.

Sheridan was a good writer. This transcript carries on past the Wright/Laws spy team, continuing to April 6, 1865, three days before Lee’s army surrendered at Appomattox. (Sheridan’s published Personal Memoirs cover April 7-9 in detail.) The beginning pages tell of Rebecca Wright and Thomas Laws, but by reading the transcript to the end, a pattern is shown to emerge: Sheridan was comfortable using spies, turning to them again and again for crucial military information. Had he learned something from the success of his efforts with Rebecca Wright?

Plus: there is a possible John Wilkes Booth spotting…

Union General Philip H. Sheridan (1831-1888) commanded the Army of the Shenandoah. In the autumn of 1864, he sought out Quaker schoolteacher Rebecca Wright for clandestine help.


Sheridan: “On the 4th of August, 1864 I was appointed to the command of the Army of the Shenandoah, then lying at and near Harper’s Ferry in the Valley of Virginia. The army of the Confederacy commanded by Gen. Jubal Early occupied Winchester, in the same valley, about thirty miles distant.

On the 10th of August, we moved against the enemy, who retreated up the valley, taking a strong position at Fisher’s Hill, immediately south of the town of Strasburg. On the 14th of August, while making my preparations to attack, I received information from Lieut. Gen. Grant, the commander-in-chief, of heavy reinforcements being dispatched to Gen. Early stating that the whole of Longstreet’s corps had left Petersburg and were in route to join him – and directing that I should discontinue offensive operations and assume the defensive. As I could not take the defensive without a defensible line, I was compelled to fall back to Halltown near Harper’s Ferry, but prior to doing this I learned, through my scouts, that Longstreet’s advance was crossing the Blue Ridge and threatening my flank by way of Front Royal. I accordingly fell back and was followed by the enemy. Soon after taking position at Halltown and after making a reconnaissance in force, I was led to believe that only Kershaw’s Division of Longstreet’s Corps had as yet united with Early, and I again assumed the offensive, the enemy falling back to Winchester. I took up position at and near Berryville on the Harper’s Ferry and Winchester pike, about ten miles from Winchester.

Confederate Lieut. General Jubal Early (1816-1894)

My movement to the rear had impressed me so strongly with the absolute necessity of more reliable information of the enemy’s numbers and movements, that I determined to adopt a system of espionage that would give me a more accurate knowledge of him than I had as yet been able to obtain, and I immediately commenced the organization of a body of scouts, whose services, from that time forward, were almost invaluable to me.

The Presidential campaign in the north was now fairly opened, and in the peculiar condition of our country at that time, I became much impressed with the idea that, under no circumstances, could we afford to risk a defeat – to say nothing of my intense aversion as a soldier to such a result, in any case. Having ascertained through two of my most trustworthy scouts, that there was an old colored man near Millwood, about fifteen miles from my headquarters, who had a pass the dpermitting him to enter and leave Winchester three times a week to sell vegetables, I thought I might make use of him in getting inside the enemy’s lines and obtaining information. My next object was to find some intelligent and reliable unionist in Winchester who would be willing to cooperate with me.     I therefore asked Gen. Geo. Crook, who was then commanding what was known as the Army of Western Virginia, if he knew of any person there that could be safely relied upon. He did not know positively but suggested a Miss ——– [Wright], whom he had met there and whom he thought to be honestly loyal to the United States government. I then sent two scouts to see the colored man and to bring him at midnight to my tent. After satisfying myself of his truthfulness, I inquired of him if he knew Miss ——– [Wright]. He said, yes, and I arranged with him to carry a letter to her, written on tissue paper so as to be able to compress it to an exceedingly small compass, and which I could wrap in tin-foil, so that he could keep it in his mouth, and chew and swallow it if necessary. I instructed him to deliver it privately to Miss —– and state to her quietly that it was of great importance, and that he would return in an hour or two for an answer. The colored man was then taken back to his house. The next day I wrote a letter to Miss ——-, appealing to her patriotism and loyalty and asking her for certain information, if it was in her power to give it. On the night proceeding the day that the colored man was to take his marketing to Winchester, the letter was given him by one of my scouts, and the next day it was by him safely delivered to Miss —. The lady courageously acquiesced in my request, and the result was that the first Battle of Winchester, Opequan, occurring on the 19th September, 1864, was to a certain extent fought and won on information given me by this young lady.

The following are briefly the facts: After receiving two communications from Miss —-, giving me the best information she could of the number and position of the enemy, she informed me that Kershaw’s division was under orders to return to Petersburg or Richmond, and that she would notify me as soon as possible after its departure. The vegetables of the colored man, under the influence of the scouts, were promptly sent into Winchester, but it was two or three weeks before I received information from Miss – [Wright] that the division had started. Meanwhile, the whole country seemed to be impatient at my apparently dilatory movements, and I fear that Gen. Grant became so also, as he came in person to Charlestown to see me. But on the night prior to his arrival, Miss — had sent me word by the faithful colored man, that Kershaw’s division was then marching up the Front royal pike in route for Richmond; and when I met Gen. Grant at Charlestown and assured him that I was ready to attack, and would do so even before the date specified by him, he then gave me the since famous order, “Go in,” and the order was probably given from the result of my conversation with him which convinced him that I would succeed, and I am willing to admit that my confidence arose to a great extent from the information furnished me by Miss —-. I could have defeated the enemy as he was, but, considering the great interests at stake and the loss of life that Kershaw’s division would inflict, I felt that it was better to wait, and attack him diminished in numbers by the withdrawal of this division several thousand strong, than to allow popular pressure to force me to fight a battle with increased risk and greater loss to our own army.

Illustration of General Philip Sheridan in the Battle of Winchester, September 19, 1864. Sheridan stated that information given to him by Rebecca Wright led to success and “was worth more than a brigade to me.” Illustration from Oct. 8, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly

After this battle, I continued to devote much attention to the formation of a body of scouts, limiting their numbers to sixty, never more and often less. These scouts were all enlisted men and were placed under the command of Lieut. Col. Young, Rhode Island Vols., who was placed on my staff; the conditions of payment being their regular pay as soldiers, and for services under my direction as scouts they were to be paid in proportion to the value of the information obtained or service rendered, and they were to perform any service required, however desperate. Duplicate and often triplicate sets of scouts were sent to accomplish the same purpose, as this would give corroborative information, or detect any fraud in the performance of the duties required. They were all dressed in Confederate uniform, and were required to be good shots, and skillful and accomplished spies.

About the 1st of November, through the scouts, I made the acquaintance of Mrs. –, the wife of a Confederate soldier then a prisoner at Elvira, N.Y. She agreed to engae as a spy on the condition of the release of her husband, and such other consideration as I thought her services worth. These I found so valuable that I added to the that compensation to be made her the consideration of furnishing sufficient money to set her husband up in business as a tinsmith in Baltimore. She visited the enemy’s camps, counted his artillery, ascertained his numbers and described his condition, from time to time, from about the 1st of November, 1864, to the Battle of Waynesboro, March 2nd, 1865. The day before the battle, she met me on my onward march on the road about eight miles from Stanton, told me where the enemy was encamped, his numbers, artillery, & c. and the next day, it was all captured, except Gen. Early himself and a few followers.

Sheridan doesn’t mention him in this transcript, but the Union victory at the Battle of Waynesboro was dominated by one of Sheridan’s Brigadier Generals, George Custer (1838-1876)

During the latter part of November or first of December, 1864, I became acquainted with Miss –, living in —, who entered into an arrangement to carry the Confederate mail from the town in which she lived to Baltimore, Md. The letters were skillfully opened and again sealed, and much information and corroborative evidence obtained of the objects and intentions of the enemy. Her trips to and fro were frequent.

During the month of December, 1864, I also made the acquaintance of Miss —, who lived between Stanton and Lynchburg. The arrangement with her was that the scouts should pass up the mountains on the west side of the valley and make their way to her house, where they would be entertained as Confederate soldiers, received and collect all the news, and bring back letters to me. This source of information was exceedingly valuable, and on account of the social position of the lady, I felt very reluctant to say much on the subject. Suffice it to say, that by this and other means, I was so well informed of the strength and purposes of the enemy that it was almost unnecessary to picket. There was not a single day in which I was not fully aware of what was going on in my front, for at least a distance of fifty miles, and nearly every day to the very picket lines of the enemy. While these precautions on my part were going on, I learned that Maj. Harry Gilmore [sic], of Maryland, had reached Harrisonburg, a town about five miles in my front, and I sent two trustworthy scouts to watch his movements and ascertain his purposes. They returned in the course of a few days and informed me that he was on his way to Moorefield, in Western Virginia, a point nearly west of Harrisonburg and about 80 or 90 miles south west of my headquarters at Winchester – that he was going to Moorefield and that there was to be a camp meeting there and that he expected to recruit a considerable force at the camp meeting, which, when joined by a party of recruits coming to him from Maryland, would make him a good sized command with which he intended to depredate on and break up the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

After this information was given to me, I made up my mind to attempt his capture and, sending for Col. Young, we found among the scouts two young fellows from that section of Western Virginia, for we had many regiments from that portion of the State in our service, and all in my command. I gave them a couple of hundred dollars, and directed them to go over and attend the camp meeting, and find out where Maj. Gilmore was quartered, and acquire a thorough knowledge of his habits and the house he lived in – to have a good time generally and collect all the information possible. In about two weeks they returned and reported to me that Maj. Gilmore lived and had his headquarters in a house three or four miles out of Moorefield, told all about his habits and the number of men he had obtained, and how and where they were encamped.

Colonel Henry H. Young (1841-1866) was Sheridan’s staff officer and chief scout. He figures repeatedly, even heroically, in these final months of war.

I then laid my plans for his capture, and sending for Col. Young, made know my plan to him, which was, for him to select twenty of his best men and I would start him at night for Moorefield, and after he had gone about fifteen miles on the way, I would send 300 men in pursuit of him. He was to pass himself and party off as the expected recruits from Maryland in route to Maj. Gilmore’s headquarters, and state that he was being pursued by the Yankees. Of course every one living on the road would help him along, and he could thus allay all suspicion. Meantime, the commanding officer of the 300 men in pursuit, who alone knew the secret, would follow him up. The plan worked admirably. Col. Young was helped along in the way of refreshments, & c., and passed through the town of Moorefield to Maj. Gilmore’s headquarters, and on the plea of urgent business, was passed up into his room, about twelve o’clock on the night of Feb. 5th – 6th, 1865, where he found Gilmore asleep, with two pistols on a chair. When shaken by the shoulder by Col. Young, he awoke and asked who Young was. He replied, placing a cocked pistol at his head, that he was one of Gen. Sheridan’s staff officers, and ordered Maj. Gilmore to get up without delay and accompany him. This was complied with. Meanwhile, the – of Gilmore became aroused, but about that time, up came the 300 Yankees who were in pursuit, and Maj. Gilmore was secured and brought to my headquarters at Winchester, from whence he was sent by direction of Mr. Stanton, Secretary of War, to Fort Warren, Boston Harbor.

Maryland Confederate Major Harry Gilmor (1838-1883), a dashing Cavalry officer and leader of partisan “Gilmor Raiders,” had his swashbuckling brought to an ignoble end by Union Col. Harry Young

Although my general rule was to employ only soldiers as scouts, occasionally others not soldiers were employed, and among that number was one named Lomas, a Marylander by birth. I never had much confidence in his pretensions, and constantly kept a close watch on him. He aroused my suspicions by his frequent desires to see me privately, and always brought accurate information, nevertheless my suspicions went so far as to make me believe he was a spy of the enemy, although I at no time felt quite certain that such was the case. About the 1st of February, 1865, he informed me that he knew one of Mosby’s men who had left him on account of some misunderstanding and that he was exceedingly anxious to be of use to me. I informed Lomas that I would take the proposition into consideration, although the affair looked suspicious, and subsequently arranged to see the man between eleven and twelve o’clock that night, making the way clear for him to meet me at my headquarters. He came with Lomas at the appointed time, was a tall, slender, handsome, dark complexioned young man of easy address and pleasant manners, but was completely disguised until after he entered my room. To be brief, he told me he had served with Mosby, was tired of him and wanted to be useful to me, and wished to know if I had any service for him. I agreed to give him some work, and also that I would see him again at the same hour the next night.

My previous suspicions of Lomas and the circumstances just narrated satisfied me pretty well that both individuals belonged to the enemy, and sending for Col. Young next morning, we laid our plans to let them run out their string. When the visit was made by Lomas and his friend on the second night, I said that I wanted the bridge over the James River at Lynchburg burnt, and that if they would undertake the job and be successful, I would agree to pay them $7000, but nothing if it was not done, and that I would furnish them means and liberal expenses in the attempt. They thought they could do it, and would be off on the venture the night following. Meantime, Col. Young had selected two of his best men to watch them closely. The parties left, and in about two or three days one of the two men sent to watch them returned, stating that Lomas and his friend had only gone to Strasburg, and were there concealed. He was ordered to return and keep up the espionage.

About the 15th or 16th February, Lomas and his friend returned. They had failed to burn the bridge, of course, as they had never gone further than Strasburg, twenty miles from my headquarters. Still they gave a detailed account of how they had failed, and Lomas’ friend informed me that he felt so bad about the failure that he thought it best to go to Richmond, and pick up such information as he could get there, which he then gave me. There was no further doubt in my mind of the character of the two individuals with whom I had dealings. They were spies of the enemy, and were without doubt in active correspondence with him, and as I was then making my arrangements to move against him, I thought I could make use of the parties to hide suspicion of any movement, by engaging them to make a second attempt to burn the bridge, and thus deprive them of the opportunity of ascertaining any knowledge of the preparations then being made to move against Gen. Early.

This was agreed to, some more money for expenses paid, and the circumstances of an intended fox hunt by my whole command, were related to them, so that it might spread. Under the expectation of such an event, I could shoe the horses of the command, all or a large part of which, it was give out, were to participate in the hunt. Col. Young had secured two or three red foxes and a pack of hounds, and had them fed and shown conspicuously, to add to task. Beef was publicly provided to feed the dogs and as much talk created about it as possible. Lomas and his friend started promptly and were watched as before, but instead of going to Strasburg this time, they staid at Miss –‘s in Newtown, only six or seven miles from my headquarters. Great preparations went on for the fox hunt which was to take place on Feb. 25th. The horses were shod up for it, sixteen wagon loads of ammunition were secretly filled, and a few wagons quietly loaded with hard-bread, coffee and sugar, and early on the morning of February 25th, the cavalry of the Army of the Shenandoah, instead of participating in a hunt, marched out from Winchester to capture the remnant of Early’s army, and eventually joined Gen. Grant at Petersburg.

On the evening of the 24th, the provost marshal received orders to surround Miss –‘s house in Newtown, capture Lomas and his friends, and under no circumstances to let them escape or communicate with any one, and to send them back to Baltimore and keep them there for eight days, then turn them loose.

The army marched on to the enemy at Waynesboro, before he had much time to get out of the way and captured his entire force.

I heard nothing more of Lomas and his good looking and attached friend until after the assassination of President Lincoln, when it was discovered that he was one of the parties in that enterprise, and it has sometimes occurred to me that Lomas’s friend might have been Wilkes Booth, but this is only a surmise. Still, my remembrance of him answers the description of that individual.

John Wilkes Booth was known to have been travelling back and forth in Virginia during the final months of the war. Was he the “good looking friend” of fellow Marylander and spy, Lomas?

After the Battle of Waynesboro, I sent duplicate sets of scouts to Winchester to inform Gen. Grant of the success attending our operations thus far, and after blowing up the iron railroad bridge across the Shenandoah River, continued across the Blue Ridge Mountains toward Charlottesville where the two iron bridges across the Revanna River, east of Charlottesville were destroyed, in order to completely break up the railroad connections in the central Virginia Railroad. I then hurried down the railroad in the direction of Lynchburg, intending to cross the James River on the bridge at Duguidsville if I could by any possibility secure it, and then continue my march to join Gen. Sherman in North or South Carolina. The scouts covered the country down to Lynchburg, and I soon learned from them that the enemy’s cavalry was marching from Richmond to Lynchburg, and that large numbers of infantry were being transported there by rail.

Nevertheless, I thought that by continuing the march toward Lynchburg until I could get within a reasonable distance from the bridge at Duguidsville, which the scouts had informed me was guarded and arranged to be burnt, I might make a bold dash at the bridge, and secure it before it could be destroyed. I therefore advanced within sixteen miles of Lynchburg along the railroad, then turned down to the James River Canal, and made a bold dash of eight miles at a run towards the bridge, with two regiments of cavalry, but unfortunately the materials were too combustible and the enemy too much on the alert, and the bridge was too far gone to secure it from the flames. The James River was very much swollen, and the six pontoon boats I had with me would span but a short distance over the stream, and I was compelled but not reluctantly, to give up the idea of crossing.

Union army pontoon bridge and boats at the James River, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Although my orders were to go, if I could, to join Gen. Sherman, the journey was long and I did not like to make it; but as the orders left everything to my own judgment, I felt at liberty to do as I thought best. However, I made the effort to join Sherman, and I think would have succeeded, if I could have crossed the river. After the failure to get across, I made up my mind at once that if I could not join Gen. Sherman, I could join Gen. Grant at Petersburg. I did not like to go back to Winchester. I was master of the Shenandoah Valley, and in fact, of all Northern Virginia; there was no more use for me there, and so I concluded to join Gen. Grant. As all the enemy’s cavalry and a large body of his infantry had been sent to Lynchburg, I thought I would just leave them there, turn round and make my way as rapidly as possible down the tow path of the James River Canal, destroy the locks, capture the loaded canal boats, stores, &c., advance as near to Richmond as I could, and then cut around and crossing the South and North Anna, crossing the Rapidan at the White House and join Gen. Grant at Petersburg. No time was lost.

My whole command marched down the canal to Columbia on the James River, which was as near to Richmond as I cared to go, on account of the Central Virginia Railroad being intact from Richmond to Gordonsville, and a force might be thrown out to intercept me and be on my flank; so from Columbia I thought it best to strike north to the railroad and break it up as far towards Richmond as I could. I think it was only the next evening after I made up my mind about what I would do, when I reached Columbia. Here, I considered it necessary to send word to Gen. Grant that I was on my way to join him instead of Gen. Sherman, and that I wanted supplies sent to the White House. Selecting two of my best scouts, I wrote on tissue paper an account of the Battle of Waynesboro and the events which had happened to me, and enclosing it, in duplicate, to each scout, in tin-foil to be put in the mouth and swallowed if necessary, set them afloat in a small boat with directions to go down the James River to the suburbs of Richmond, thence to Petersburg, to go out into the trenches to fight, (they were in Confederate uniform) and to desert at a favorable opportunity and deliver the dispatches to Gen. Grant in person. They did so; but to make matters still more sure, I sent by two other scouts duplicates of the same dispatch across the country around by the North and South Anna and across the Chickahominy to James River and Petersburg. These dispatches were also delivered safely – the scouts only losing their horses.

The next day after sending these dispatches from Columbia, I started north towards the Railroad at Beaver Dam, but long before reaching there, the scouts informed me that Gen. Early with about 200 men was in the vicinity. I immediately hurried on, and before reaching the place, the scouts brought me a dispatch just written to Gen. Robert E. Lee, and taken from the telegraph office at Beaver Dam Station, that Early had collected 200 men together, and that Sheridan was down at Columbia on the James River, and that he, Early, intended to strike me in the flank.

I immediately started the 5th and 6th Regiments of New York Cavalry in pursuit of him and his 200 men, who were leisurely marching in the direction of the South Anna River, and in about an hour they were overtaken, most of the men captured and Gen. Early and two staff officers, Maj. Moore and some one else, were pursued until a cross road was reached where Gen. Early and two of the orderlies slipped off on one, and the staff officers the other. The command followed the larger party with the two staff officers, whom they captured, but finding their mistake, the troops returned and pursued Gen. Early, but he was able to get across the South Anna, and make his escape in the darkness of the night. I reached this point shortly afterwards, and the scouts found during the night a house some distance off on the opposite side, where Gen. Early had stopped for an hour or two to rest, and then resumed his journey to Richmond, where he arrived next day with his two orderlies – all that remained of what was once the Army of Stonewall Jackson.

While this was going on, I learned from my scouts that the enemy’s infantry which I had left at Lynchburg, had been ordered back to Richmond, and as I was afraid that they might move over in the direction of the White House and threaten or prevent my crossing the Rapidan at the White House, I thought I would advance as though I intended to attack Richmond, and draw out this force after me and away from the direction of the White House, and at the proper time mount my horse, leave the enemy’s front and cut around his flank, and secure my crossing at the White House. This worked well. I pushed on down the Central Railroad, destroying it, and as far as the little town of depot of [sic] Ashland, destroying cars and property, the advance pushing to within eleven miles of Richmond, where we burned a train of wagons. The enemy’s infantry, (he had no cavalry) thinking I presume that it was making a bona fide advance, came out against me. When I fell back, he followed up until I thought I had drawn him out far enough, when leaving Col. Fitzhugh’s Brigade of cavalry to skirmish with him and fall back until night, and then rapidly follow me. I withdrew, crossed the North Anna, moved rapidly down to the imperfect bridge over the Rapidan at the White House and crossed over, received the supplies sent me by Gen. Grant after the arrival of the scouts, and made my junction with him at Petersburg. I believe the troops who followed me out from Richmond belonged to Longstreet and Pickett.

Maj. General Sheridan at camp during the final push toward Appomattox and war’s end. Courtesy Library of Congress

The cavalry under my command reached the James River and went into camp near Harrison’s Landing, on Mr. Lincoln, Gen. Grant and Gen. Sherman on board the steamer “River Queen.” Gen. Grant expressed regret that I had not been in time, as Gen. Sherman had given a very graphic description of his march. Meeting Gen. Sherman at the headquarters of Gen. Grant, the maps were taken down and a renewed discussion took place.

Gen. Sherman wanted the movement to the left contemplated by Gen. Grant suspended, and that the troops at Petersburg should remain on status quo until he could move his troops up to Petersburg, Gen. Sherman explaining on the map how he intended to do it, and requesting Gen. Grant to order me to cut loose with my fine body of cavalry and join him for the movement. Gen. Grant opposed this. I did also, contending that we had a sufficient force to capture Lee and his army, that it would be shameful if we did not, that it would be disastrous to the future political conditions of the country, that there would not be an equilibrium between the East and the West in military services rendered if Gen. Sherman was to come up to Petersburg and assist in a capture which could and should be made by the troops of the Army of the Potomac and those I had brought down belonging to the Army of the Shenandoah, that the West would claim all the credit. In these views, I was only supplementing the opinions entertained and advanced by Gen. Grant, whose mind seemed to be made up. This conference lasted until a late hour. Gen. Grant adhering to his resolution to make the movement to the left, Gen. Sherman next morning very early came to me to [sic] Capt. Ingall’s quarters, where I slept, to renew the subject, but the case was too plain and the interests involved too great to permit of any change.

The next morning, March 29th, 1865, we moved my command: three divisions of cavalry, about 8000 men, led a day [sic] the advance in the movement to the left, over bad roads, reaching Dinwiddie Courthouse March 30th. Here the scouts, who had been kept well in advance and who had numerous conflicts with the enemy’s scouts and pickets, assured me that the enemy was approaching in considerable force Five Forks – a junction of roads nearly north of Dinwiddie Court house. Next day March 31st, we advanced to feel the enemy, who was found in strong force at Five Forks and who succeeded in driving us back nearly to Dinwiddie Court house. The action was ‘me additional forces. The 5th Corps was sent, but failing to march down the White Oak road as directed and coming in instead on my right flank, the opportunity was lost, and the enemy discovering his embarrassing position, hastily abandoned my front and fell back to Five Forks and commenced entrenching. He was there the same day about five o’clock in the afternoon, attacked and utterly routed – the details of which do not belong to this recital.

Sheridan’s charge at Five Forks
(lithograph published c.1886)

During all these operations the scouts kept me constantly posted as to the disposition and condition of the enemy. Next day after the battle, I received orders to close in on Petersburg; but knowing that Petersburg and Richmond must fall, I did not obey the order, claiming nothing in so doing but the advantage of superior intelligence of the enemy’s movements, and this was largely due to the vigilance of the scouts. I knew the enemy had abandoned Richmond, or must abandon it, and had to move southwest towards Burkesville Junction. I therefore struck west for the village of Jettersville, with my cavalry and the 5th Corps, the latter numbering about that time in its depleted condition, about 10,000 men. Two divisions of cavalry moved up the Appomattox River, one further south to strike the telegraph line and railroweoad at Burkesville Junction and break it back towards Jettersville, while I with the 5th Corps moved directly on Jettersville by the direct road. Getting with my personal escort, a remnant of the 1st Cavalry numbering about 160 men, I entered Jettersville about 15 miles in advance of the 5th Corps.

Immediately on reaching the town, the scouts brought me a negro man who had on his person a letter from a Confederate colonel to his wife stating that the Confederate army was with Gen. Lee at Amelia Courthouse, and that they trusted in Providence and the presence of Gen. Lee, that Gen. Longstreet had the advance and that they were moving on Burkesville Junction. In a moment afterwards a long, lank Virginian, riding on a mule, was brought up by the scouts, and two telegrams from Gen. Lee’s commissary-general were found on his person, one directed to Lynchburg, the other to Danville, and both freshly written, ordering 300,000 rations to Burkesville for the use of the army. This man was carrying the dispatches to the nearest telegraph station beyond the break in the line, to send them off. I therefore took the dispatches and getting from Col. Young a couple of his best scouts, sent the dispatches on beyond Burkesville Junction, on each branch, until a Confederate telegraph station was found, and sent them off to their respective destinations, Danville and Lynchburgh. The result of this the sequel will show.

The letter and the two telegrams gave the information so much desired, namely, where the enemy was. I had only 161 cavalry men, my personal escort, the Fifth Corps about 10,000 strong was still back 15 miles to the rear, the Army of the Potomac could not reach Jettersville before the afternoon of the next day, and if the enemy passed Jettersville we could not again head him off, and the chase would have been a slow chase. It took only a moment to decide. I sent my escort to the front to attack Gen. Longstreet, with orders to conceal themselves in the timber as much as possible, the country being wooded. Longstreet supposing it was the advance of a large command commenced to form line of battle and throw up defenses. This gave time for the Fifth Corps to get to Jettersville, where I posted it directly across the road, and ordered it to fortify. It did so that afternoon and night, and during the night the two divisions of cavalry which had followed up the Appomattox (and who had been sent for and to move with the utmost energy) and the division sent to Burkesville were gotten up, and by the dawn of next day April 5th, we felt very confident of holding our position.

Early on the morning of April 5th we discovered a movement of the enemy’s trains to the left, as if to pass by us on the left on the road to Farmville. These were attacked, their escort defeated and the trains captured and burned. A battery of artillery with the escort was also captured and lively skirmishing with the enemy went on all day. About the middle of the afternoon Gen. Meade and the advance of the Army of the Potomac reached Jettersville, and Gen. Meade being unwell asked me to put the troops into position and line of battle. I did so and wanted to bring on the engagement as I was afraid the enemy would escape by our left flank on the road to Farmville. If we had done so the surrender of Gen. Lee would probably have been at Amelia Courthouse instead of at Appomattox. The battle was not brought on. It was for this reason I sent for Gen. Grant, saying, “I wish you were here,” & c.

Next morning, April 6th, the Army of the Potomac marched on Amelia Courthouse. I marched to the left. The Army of the Potomac found Lee had gone, but I found him moving on our left flank on the road to Sailors [sic] Creek and Farmville.

Union soldiers at Appomattox Courthouse April 1865. Sheridan’s recital of the last days of the Civil War ends three days before this denouement, but his published Personal Memoirs give eye witness account of the war’s violent then reposed final events.


Philip Sheridan kept several newspaper articles about Rebecca Wright, including the one shown below. He had intervened in her post-war life, helping her get a Washinton, D.C. government job to support her family. Wright had to leave Winchester; townspeople there resented her Federal help during the war. This newspaper article, written in 1883, tells the “Quaker girl spy” story. In spite of the era’s sentimental style, we learn details about the spying incident with Thomas Laws, as well as about Rebecca Wright’s life. Read down the first column, then to the second scan below, finishing the left side column, then come back up to the second column.

In 1871, Rebecca Wright married Union veteran William Bonsal, of the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Wright kept her federal job in Washington, D.C. until shortly before her death in 1914. She is buried in Washington, D.C.’s Glenwood Cemetery.

After the war, former enslaved man Thomas Law moved to the Josephine City section of Berryville, a small town ten miles from Winchester. He bought a town lot on which to build a home. He died in 1896 and his grave can be found in the Milton Valley Cemetery in Berryville.

Philip Henry Sheridan died in 1888 at the age of 57. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

0 comments on “Rebecca Wright: Quaker teacher, Union spy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: