- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

History is filled with amusing anecdotes that are told so often they begin to take on an aura of fact, no matter how implausible they may be. The story of Antonia Ford, Confederate spy, is one.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Ford was a 23-year-old woman living in Fairfax Court House in the home of her father, a prominent 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 Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and his staff when the gray cavalry camped in the Fairfax area early in the war. Stuart, who often was 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 Stuart's headquarters, the general presented 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 agreed it was done strictly in fun, to get a laugh from an attractive young woman. 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 pieces of "evidence" to form the basis for the claim that Ford was a Confederate spy. Because it had been given to her by one of the most famous men on the American continent at that time, she treasured it and kept it hidden beneath the mattress of her bed.
In time, the paper would get her arrested because Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Lafayette C. Baker, the first head of the U.S. Secret Service, found it convenient to use her 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 the following:
"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 that Stuart was not within 20 miles of Fairfax the entire week before the Battle of Second Manassas. His closest approach to the town came the night he burned Union Gen. John Pope's baggage train at Catlett Station, a night so dark and rainy that 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 Aug. 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 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, based his story on the flimsiest of historical evidence that Ford was the prototype of Violet Grafton, the heroine of one of John Esten Cooke's postwar novels, "Surry of Eagle's Nest."
The warning the fictional character delivered had nothing to do with Stuart and Second Manassas. Instead, it was delivered to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard in the days before the Battle of First Manassas. Her message was that the Yankees were on the march and that they "knew all about [Beauregards] 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 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. Col. Nathan "Shanks" Evans fought a masterful delaying action that allowed time for Jackson's Virginians and Barnard 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 Battle of First Manassas knows the idea of using enemy flags to draw troops out of position is 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, 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 agent 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 Gen. Edward H. Stoughton, his staff, and more than 50 horses; and rode out unmolested. Although Ford was one of several Fairfax residents arrested for espionage in the aftermath of Mosby's raid, both Mosby and his commanding officer, Stuart, adamantly denied her involvement.
Long after the war, when 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 had met the lady early in the war but had not communicated 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 Ford, but James "Big Yankee" Ames, who had deserted from the 5th New York Cavalry barely a week before the event and intimately knew the Fairfax area and the Union campsites.
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 throws 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 Maj. Joseph C. Willard, former provost marshal of Fairfax and co-owner of Willard's Hotel in Washington, almost exactly a year after Mosby took 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 age 33. Willard must not have felt himself too tormented by his wife because he became a virtual recluse after her death and never remarried.
The definitive assessment of 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."

Steve Meserve is a historian in Northern Virginia.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide