September 16, 1864 (Friday)
“On the 16th of September I was sitting in my school room during the noon recess,” told Rebecca Wright after the war, “when the door opened, and an intelligent looking negro entered the room, and softly close the door behind him.
“‘I want to speak to Miss Wright,’ he said.
“‘I am Miss Wright,’ I replied, ‘but there are two of us, myself and my sister. Perhaps thee wants to see my sister Hannah.’
“‘No, I don’t,’ he answered. ‘Your sister is not on our side. I want to see Miss Wright the Unionist. I have a letter for her from Gen. Sheridan.'”
Completely in the dark about the position and number of Jubal Early’s force before his, Philip Sheridan had turned to scouts and then finally, on the recommendation of George Crook, commanding a corps in his army, he sent a messenger named Tom Law, with a letter to Rebecca Wright, a Quaker school teacher in Winchester.
“I was greatly excited and trouble by this,” continued Wright, “but I took from him what he then removed from his mouth and handed to me, a tiny ball of tinfoil, and I began to tear the tinfoil with my fingers.
“‘Don’t do that,’ he said. ‘You will need it to wrap your answer in. I have carried a letter to you from Gen. Sheridan in this tinfoil, holding it under my tongue. I have a permit to go through Confederate lines three times a week, and I was under instructions to swallow the letter if I was arrested or searched.'”
Rebecca Wright understood, and told Mr. Law to return at 3 o’clock. She left school and hurried home to read the letter. It was short, asking: “Can you inform me of the position of Early and his forces, the number of divisions in his army, and his probable or reported intentions? Have any more troops arrived from Richmond, or are any more coming or reported to be coming?”
The Wright family knew General Crook well. When the Federal forces occupied Winchester earlier that year, he and his staff would dine with them. Apparently at one point she remarked to Crook that “If Gen. Sheridan knew as much as I do he would capture Early’s force.” This statement, if true, left an impression on Crook, and he remembered her as a trustworthy Unionist.
“I realized what would be the consequences if I should give him this information,” recalled a greatly troubled Wright. She was generally well-informed, but it was only two days ago that she came into the knowledge specifically requested by Sheridan.
Her father had been imprisoned by the Confederates for refusing to join the army due to his religious beliefs. When pacifists were finally exempted, he understandably spent little time in Virginia. This left the twenty-four year old Rebecca at home with her mother and sister. As was known by both General Crook and Tom Law, the messenger, Rebecca’s sister was a Rebel through and through. The brother of the family had been drafted and killed earlier in the war.
To make ends meet, the Wrights opened a boarding house next door to a family of Confederate sympathizers. It was in this house that the South-leaning family took in a wounded Confederate officer from Louisiana. As he convalesced, he moved from a bedroom to the back porch of the house. This gave him a view of the two sisters as they tended their garden. He saw that they were popular enough in town and had many friends who visited them both despite their differing political opinions.
“In the evening of the 14th of September,” Wright said, “this officer, whose name I have forgotten – nor would I tell it if I remembered it – called upon us. Naturally we talked about the war. There was really nothing else to talk about in those days. It was the undoing of his cause. The conversation drifted upon the strength of the Confederate forces, and upon the probability of Gen. Early’s forces being strengthened by reinforcements from Richmond.
“The officers information was exact. He knew, also, that so badly were defenders of Richmond needed that not only would no reinforcements be sent to Early, but that on the contrary his force was already greatly weakened by the detachment of troops from his command for the defense of the Confederate capital. He also had specific information as to an artillery division which had been withdrawn from Early’s command.
“We spent a pleasant evening together, and our rebel friend left us without a suspicion that he had placed in my hands information which , if in the possession of the Union General, would enable him to crush Gen. Early and regain supremacy in the Valley. Nor did I myself realize the importance of the information I had obtained.”
That importance was to come two days later when she made her reply to Sheridan. But as she read Sheridan’s message, she was troubled. “I turned to my mother for guidance,” she remembered, “not taking my sister into my secret, for that, I knew, would be fatal.”
At first, she wanted to simply ignore the letter. “The rebels would kill us if they should find out.” But her mother thought better: “That is true, but men are dying for their country, and thy life and my life may be needed too. I would not persuade thee. Settle it with thy conscience. Go to thy room, and give thyself to prayer.”
That she did, and after both thought and prayer, she made her reply to General Sheridan:
“I have no communication whatever with the rebels, but will tell you what I know. The division of Gen. 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 form 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.”
Not only was Rebecca Wright willing to risk her life to feed information to the Union army, but she was willing to do it again.
She rolled up the letter in the bit of tinfoil and waited for Mr. Law to return. When he did, he once more put it under his tongue, took his leave and passed through the Rebel lines.
Writing in his memoirs after the war, Sheridan stated that “Miss Wright’s answer proved of more value to me than she anticipated, for it not only quieted the conflicting reports concerning Anderson’s corps, but was most important in showing positively that Kershaw was gone…. Word to the effect that some of Early’s troops were under orders to return to Petersburg, and would start back at the first favorable opportunity, had been communicated to me already from many sources, but we had not been able to ascertain the date for their departure. Now that they had actually started, I decided to wait before offering battle until Kershaw had gone so far as to preclude his return, feeling confident that my prudence would be justified by the improved chances of victory.”
Having all the information he needed, Sheridan had now only to wait.1
- Sources: Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; New York Times, July 28, 1912; The Last Battle of Winchester by Scott C. Patchan. [↩]