LOYAL GIRL OF WINCHESTER
the latter part of the summer of 1864, when General Sheridan, in
command of the Middle Division of the Army, with headquarters
at Harper's Ferry, was desirous of obtaining reliable information
as to the Confederate forces around Winchester, Va., upon which he
was anxious to begin offensive operations, but he was deterred by
the reports of Early's great strength. He was in a dilemma as to
the means by which he could obtain such information, until Gen. George
Crook, in one of the conferences, chanced to mention that there was
a lady in Winchester, named Rebecca Wright, who had been expelled
from her position as school teacher, because of her well-known loyalty
to the Union.
Wright was born near Winchester, Jan. 3, 1838. Her ancestry for several
generations was of the Society of Friends, and her parents were members
of the Fairfax and Baltimore meetings.
was educated in the Winchester public school, and for three years
prior to the war she taught a private school in care of the Friends
at Hopewell Meeting, Va. Subsequently she was assistant in a private
school, but her pronounced Union sentiments caused her dismissal.
She then opened a private school and played a not unimportant part
in the nation's
history. How it came about is best told in her own words:
was while sitting at my desk in my little school room at the noon
hour, that I heard a ring at the front door, and was told a colored
man wished to see Miss Wright. He was thirty or thirty-five years
old, closing all doors and looking about in such ways that alarmed
me so that I demanded very positively business.
immediately told me he had a note from General Sheridan, who
wanted me to tell him of the strength and position of the rebel forces
in and around Winchester, at which I was greatly troubled, as the
man was an entire stranger to me, and the thought that he might be
trying to find out what I would do or say, and betray me to the rebels
who were in possession of the place, was uppermost in my mind.
asked him if he knew to whom he was talking and told him there were
two of us. He replied, Oh, yes; you are Miss Rebecca; your sister
is a rebel.' I then told him I did not have anything to do with the
rebels and knew nothing about them, but he talked so intelligently,
told me so much of the troops with Sheridan, and seemed so earnest
and honest that I could no longer doubt him.
quickly noticed the change and said, will go now, Miss Wright, and
come again at three, and I know you will have a line to send to the
this time I was nervously trying to get at the note, which was rolled
in tinfoil, and was tearing the foil when he said: 'Do not tear the
foil, you will need it to wrap your reply in.' I carried it under
my tongue and was to swallow it if I was arrested and searched.
talking it over with my mother, and knowing the risk I was running,
I sat down and wrote all I knew, and this was how I knew anything
of Confederate affairs:
evenings before, a rebel officer, convalescent, who boarded with
our next door neighbor, asked the privilege of spending the evening
in my company. But a sorry evening it proved for his cause. I asked
questions (never thinking of using the information) and he answered
truthfully. When Sheridan asked me I knew, therefore, what to tell,
and wrote, putting my life in the keeping of a strange colored man."
General Sheridan wrote to Miss Wright, the little Quakeress, and
her reply, is now of historical record and is as follows:
learn from Major-General Crook that you are a loyal lady and still
love the old flag.
you inform me of the position of Early and his 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 more troops arrived
from Richmond, or are any more coming or reported to be coming?
am very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
can trust the bearer.
very next day General Grant visited the headquarters of General
Sheridan and listened to his earnest argument for leave to attack
the Confederates at 'Winchester. After some deliberation our greatest
of generals laconically replied, "Go ahead."
the gray of the morning a tired, mud-be-spattered scout rode
up to headquarters and delivered into the hands of the General a
little ball of tinfoil. It contained the answer which the Quaker
maiden had tremblingly confided to the unknown colored man. It was
written in a firm hand, although the writer's life was at stake as
she wrote. It was dated but unsigned. The General sat up in his camp
bed and read:
have no communication whatever with the rebels, but will tell you
what I know.
division of General Kershaw and Cutshaw's artillery, twelve guns
and men, General Anderson commanding, 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
represented. I will take pleasure hereafter in learning all
I can of their strength and position, and the bearer may call again.
cheering information that the forces of the enemy had been so materially
weakened, led to an immediate order to march. On the next day Sheridan
and Early confronted each other at Opequan Creek, a few miles east
of Winchester. Then followed a most sanguinary battle which cost
Sheridan 3000 men —1000 killed and 2500 taken prisoners.
Miss Wright remembers of the terrible day: Many times during the
next day (17th) and the quiet Sabbath (18th), I wondered what had
become of the colored messenger and of my note. When we were awakened
on Monday morning, the 19th, before daybreak, by the roar of cannon,
my first thought was whether my note had anything to do with the
fighting. In the afternoon when the streets were filled with
troops, artillery wagons and the poor suffering wounded, when buildings
were burning all around us (our own fence was on fire several times),
my mother asked me if the note I had written was the cause of it.
But I still wondered if it had ever been received.
was the most terrible day of all our experience in old Winchester.
The shells fell so near us we went down cellar for safety. The rumbling
and noise grew fainter and fainter, until it was so quiet I could
not endure it, and said I must go up and see what I could see.
on the first floor; nothing on the second floor; but from the window
of the garret I saw the old flag waving, and it was coming to town.
I dropped on my knees then and there, and gave thanks to the Giver
of all good for the sight; then started for the cellar, fairly flying
down the stairs, screaming, "The old flag is coming in! Come
up now, all will be safe! The fires will be put out and everything
will soon be all right. The dear old flag is coining back again."
soon had the house open to receive our friends, and in the evening
I learned whether my note had anything to do with that battle.
heard sabers clamping against the steps, and on going to the door
met two officers, to each of whom, without knowing their rank, I
extended one of my hands, welcoming them as Union officers.
one introduced himself as General Sheridan, I welcomed him indeed,
and he told me it was entirely on the information that I had sent
that he at once gave battle. He said the rebels were utterly defeated
and would never come again. But I had heard that too often, and told
him all who had gained a victory had told us that, so we had lost
faith; but they never came again. He wrote the report of his battle
at my desk.
friends began to arrive, and though there were no decorations, no
flowers, there never was a reception more thoroughly enjoyed or more
fully appreciated, than the one held in the old house at the foot
of Fort Hill on Main Street, Winchester, Va., by the Quaker girl
who felt she had done her duty to her country.
on there came to the Quaker school-marm the following letter, which
DEPARTMENT OF THE GULF,
Jan. 7, 1867.
DEAR MISS WRIGHT:
are not probably aware of how great a service you rendered the Union
cause by the information you sent me by the colored man a few days
before the battle of Opequau, on Sept. 19, 1864.
was upon this information the battle was fought and probably won.
The colored man gave the note, rolled up in tinfoil, to the scout
who awaited him at Millwood. The colored man had carried it in his
mouth to that point and delivered it to the scout, who brought it
to me. By this note I became aware of the true condition of
affairs inside the enemy’s line and gave directions for the
attack. I will always remember this courageous and patriotic action
of yours with gratitude, and beg you to accept this watch and chain,
which I send you by Gen. J. W. Forsyth, as a memento of Sept. 19,
am your obedient servant,
Grant became President, Miss Wright was further rewarded by a position
in the Treasury Department, which she still retains.
changed her name shortly afterward, being married to William Carpenter
R. McP. BONSAL.
0., October 4, 1888.
hand you herewith a pamphlet now out of print, with the request that
you reprint it with the addition of three letters—one by Col.
Theodore W. Bean, of Norristown, Pa. ; one by Gen. George Crook;
and one by Major H. Kyd Douglas, an ex-Confederate officer on Gen.
incident is too interesting not to be preserved in permanent
form. It is to be regretted that neither the scout nor the colored
man referred to in the correspondence can now be accounted for. They
remain, after diligent search and inquiry by both Mrs. Bonsal and
Gen. Sheridan, among “the unknown heroes of the war.”
JOHN P. NICHOLSON.
M. WRIGHT, daughter of Amos M. and Rachel Wright, was born near Winchester,
Va., January 31, 1838. She is connected by birth with the Society
of Friends, as were her ancestry for many generations. Her parents
were members of Fairfax Quarterly Meeting, Virginia, and Baltimore,
Maryland, Yearly Meeting. Her father died August 27, 1865, and is
buried in the Friends’ burying grounds attached to Ridge Meeting,
Virginia. Her mother died June 21, 1874, in Rice County, Kansas,
while visiting her daughter, and was there laid to rest in private
burial-grounds. Miss Wright enjoyed the advantages of a fair education,
obtained in the schools at Winchester, Va., and, at the age of fifteen
years, was employed as a teacher. At sixteen she declined further
employment in this calling, and took a year’s course of study
at the Friends’ School in Loudon County, Va., taught by Samuel
M. Janney. For three years prior to the war she taught a private
school under the care of the Friends at Hopewell Meeting, Va. Subsequently
she was assistant teacher in a private school of eighty pupils, but
her pronounced Union sentiments, during the early days of the rebellion,
were distasteful to the management and the popular feeling of the
community. She therefore withdrew from the institution, and opened
a private school in Winchester. Her sentiments were well known ;
she taught the children of loyal parents, and never lost faith in
the Union cause, or refused to aid the friends of the National government
and its armies in the many and memorable struggles for the possession
of the Shenandoah Valley.
Wright was appointed to a position of honor in the Treasury Department
at Washington in the year 1868, in recognition of her distinguished
service to the country. She subsequently married William Carpenter
Bonsal. She still retains her position, and at present resides at
the National Capital.
July 9, 1883.
reply to yours of the 2d inst.
Early was reinforced in July, 1864, after his return from Washington,
by General Anderson, commanding Kershaw’s division of
infantry (about 4,00o), Fitz Lee’s cavalry (say 1,50o), and
Cutshaw’s battalion of artillery (twelve guns and necessary
men). This command was not engaged except in unimportant skirmishes
while Early was cavorting over the lower Valley. On September 14
Anderson left to join Lee with Kershaw’s division of infantry
and Cutshaw’s battalion of artillery. Sheridan a few days afterwards
attacked and defeated Early at Winchester, having learned of Anderson’s
Early’s defeat at Fisher’s Hill, and before the battle
of Cedar Creek, Kershaw and Cutshaw were again ordered to Early (Kershaw’s
division reduced to about 3,300) and made up to him his losses at
Winchester and Fisher’s Hill. About the same time (October
5) Rosser’s brigade of cavalry (a small one of say 700) also
joined Early, and got whipped at Tom’s Brook almost as soon
as he had come up.
will find these facts are stated in Early’s pamphlet and also
in Pond’s book on the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. The estimates
I have given you are larger than General Early’s (for he only
speaks of the actual effective strength), and about the same as Mr.
DEPARTMENT OF THE PLATTE,
September 26th, i886.
THEO. W. BEAN, Norristown, Pa.
reply to your favor of the 19th inst. I have to say that
I became acquainted with Rebecca Wright previous to General Sheridan’s
arrival, and became convinced of her loyalty and high character ;
but as about the time referred to General Sheridan and myself had
many conferences during each day, sometimes in the presence of other
persons and sometimes alone, sometimes in our tents, and at other
times in the open air, beyond the fact of my recommending her to
General Sheridan’s favorable consideration I now have no other
recollections on the subject.