Rebecca Wright: Winchester Unionist and Sheridan’s “Little Quaker Girl”
In January, 1867, while serving as the head of the Department of the Gulf, in New Orleans, Gen. Philip Sheridan penned a letter to Rebecca Wright, in Winchester, Virginia, regarding affairs in which she had played part, less than three years before. “You are not probably aware of how great a service you rendered the Union cause”, wrote Sheridan, “by the information you sent me by the colored man a few days before the battle of Opequon, on Sept. 19, 1864.”
Who was Rebecca Wright, and how big a part did she play in the Battle of Opequon?
Rebecca L. Wright (often seen in biographical sketches as “Rebecca McPherson Wright”) was born January 31, 1838, in Frederick County, Virginia, a daughter of Amos and Rachel Lupton Wright… “Friends”, or Quakers… who belonged to the Hopewell Meeting House, near what is now, Clear Brook, Virginia, just north of Winchester.
In her youth, Wright is said to have “enjoyed the advantages of a fair education, obtained in the schools at Winchester, Va., and, at the age of fifteen, she began her employment as a teacher.” A year later, however, she opted to continue her education with a year’s course of study at the Friends’ School in Loudoun County, Va., under the guidance of Samuel M. Janney. Upon completion, and for the three years that led up to the war, she taught a private school, sponsored by the Friends at Hopewell Meeting, and subsequently served as an assistant teacher in a private school of eighty pupils.
In the early days of the war, she stood against what seemed to be the popular leanings in the area, and “pronounced Union sentiments” that were “distasteful to the management and the popular feeling of the community”. Subsequently withdrawing from the private school, she opened another private school in Winchester, where “she taught the children of loyal parents, and never lost faith in the Union cause.” Furthermore, as the war came regularly to Winchester and Frederick County, she is also said to have never “refused to aid the friends of the National government and its armies”.
Certainly, considering the disposition of the Friends, this makes sense, but were these details of what appeared to be immense and long-term service to the Union made more extraordinary after the war, and because of her having assisted Sheridan with critical information that served him well in the Battle of Opequon? In the absence of detailing information, it’s difficult to project so much from only one documented incident. We’ll return to this thought in a bit. In the meantime…
In the early stages of his 1864 Valley Campaign, Sheridan was in need of reliable information regarding the size and strength of Gen. Jubal Early’s army. In his memoirs, Sheridan recalled that some of Major H.K. Young’s special scouts (who often wore gray as part of their intelligence gathering operations) learned of “an old colored man”, Thomas Laws, who might prove useful.
They learned that just outside of my lines, near Millwood, there was living an old colored man, who had a permit from the Confederate commander to go into Winchester and return three times a week, for the purpose of selling vegetable to the inhabitants. The scouts had sounded this man, and finding him both loyal and shrewd, suggested that he might be made useful to us within the enemy’s lines; and the proposal struck me as feasible, provided there could be found in Winchester some reliable person who would be willing to co-operate and correspond with me. I asked General Crook, who was acquainted with many of the Union people of Winchester, if he knew of such a person, and he recommended a Miss Rebecca Wright, a young lady whom he had met there before the battle of Kernstown, who, he said, was a member of the Society of Friends and the teacher of a small private school. he knew she was faithful and loyal to the Government, and thought she might be willing to render us assistance, but he could not be certain of this, for on account of her well-known loyalty she was under constant surveillance. I hesitated at first, but finally deciding to try it, dispatched the two scouts to the old negro’s cabin, and they brought him to my headquarters late that night. I was soon convinced of the negro’s fidelity, and asking him if he was acquainted with Miss Rebecca Wright, of Winchester, he replied that he knew her well. Thereupon I told him what I wished to do, and after a little persuasion he agreed to carry a letter to her on his next marketing trip. My message was prepared by writing it on tissue paper, which was then compressed into a small pellet, and protected by wrapping it in tin-foil so that it could be safely carried in the man’s mouth. The probability of his being searched when he came to the Confederate picket-line was not remote, and in such event he was to swallow the pellet. The letter appealed to Miss Wright’s loyalty and patriotism, and, requested her to furnish me with information regarding the strength of condition of Early’s army. The night before the negro started one of the scouts placed the odd-looking communication in his hands, with renewed injunctions as to secrecy and promptitude.
Of course, were Laws and/or Wright found out for their efforts, it meant almost certain death. Still, Laws followed-through.
Making his way into town, he came to Wright’s private school, but… did he really know Wright so well, or… did the writer (Brevet Lt. Col. Theodore W. Bean) of the Wright-Sheridan sketch (The Loyal Girl of Winchester) design unfamiliarity between Wright and Laws to add drama to the story? The following passages from that postwar sketch make it appear that she was unfamiliar with Laws.
“It was while sitting at my desk in my little school room at the noon hour,” remembered Wright, “that I heard a ring at the front door, and was told a colored man wished to see Miss Wright.” Wright [er, uh... Col. Bean) continued...
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.
He 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.
I 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 [Hannah A. Wright, who was 18 years old at the time] 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.
He 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 General.”
All 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.”
Taking more care, she opened the contents, and read the note…
I learn from Major-General Crook that you are a loyal lady and still love the old flag.
Can 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?
I am very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
P. H. SHERIDAN,
You can trust the bearer.
The note being read, Wright turned to her mother, Rachel, for counsel…
After talking it over with my mother, and knowing the risk I was running, I sat down and wrote all I knew, and this [that?] was how I knew anything of Confederate affairs:
Two 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.
Wright penned her response…
September 16, 1864.
I have no communication whatever with the rebels, but will tell you what I know.
The 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.
Very respectfully yours,
Sheridan made note in his memoirs of the information he received on the evening of September 16…
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, and this circumstance led, three days later, to the battle of the Opequon, or Winchester, as it has been unofficially called.
While we have no further record of Thomas Laws, as to whether he continued to convey information for Sheridan, or what became of him, in the days that followed the exchange of messages, Rebecca is said to have wondered about the disposition of the messenger, and whether the contents of the message had reached Sheridan. The following comes from Col. Bean’s sketch…
What 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.
It 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.
Nothing 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 coming back again.”
We 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.
I 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.
When 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.
Soon 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.
Now, it seemed to me that Col. Bean’s sketch seemed to be “fluffing” things a little when we consider Sheridan’s 1867 letter to Wright. In fact, Sheridan’s words make it seem that only then, with that letter, did he make Wright totally aware of her contribution, and his appreciation. Recapping what was covered in the opening of this blog post…
“You are not probably aware of how great a service you rendered the Union cause“, wrote Sheridan, “by the information you sent me by the colored man a few days before the battle of Opequon, on Sept. 19, 1864.”
Still, Sheridan himself recalled, in his Personal Memoirs, when Gen. Crook conducted him to Rebecca Wright’s home, to prepare a telegram to General Grant. Therefore, Bean’s account seems to hold merit, despite the projection of meaning in Sheridan’s 1867 letter. The rest of Sheridan’s 1867 letter is as follows…
It 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, 1864.
I am your obedient servant,
PHILIP H. SHERIDAN,
It’s unclear if the locals actually gained knowledge of Wright’s contribution to Sheridan’s victory, but circumstances suggest she may have been scorned by some, perhaps making any effort to remain in Winchester, a difficult affair. It may be that, from this difficulty, she was eventually appointed to a “position of honor” as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., thanks to efforts of Ulysses S. Grant, after he became president (whether Sheridan had a hand in it or not is unclear). It was while there, she married William Carpenter Bonsal, in 1871 (Bonsal was a veteran of the Civil War, having served as a private in Co. L, 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry). She retired from her position with the US Treasury in 1914. Though she was buried in Glenwood Cemetery, in Washington, D.C., the date of her death was not inscribed on her stone.
* Several biographical sketches carry the legend that Rebecca Wright’s father, Amos, died in a Confederate prison camp early in the war. Amos died, however, on August 27, 1865, and was buried in the “Friends’ burying grounds attached to Ridge Meeting, Virginia”. Rebecca Wright’s mother died June 21, 1874, in Rice County, Kansas, “while visiting her daughter [though it's unclear which daughter], and was there laid to rest in private burial-grounds.”
**A Virginia Civil War Trails Marker, seen here, in the Historical Markers Database, is in downtown Winchester, at the site of Wright’s residence.
***I’ve made a slight effort to find Thomas Laws. Sheridan never referred to him as a slave, and it appears more than likely that Laws may have been a free black, though doesn’t appear in the 1860 census for either Frederick or Clarke counties as such.