Monday, August 8, 2011

Mary and Mollie Bell: Johnny Rebels for the Confederacy

Castle Thunder Prison -- Richmond,
Virginia -- a warehouse on Tobacco
Row converted to a prison. Mary and
Mollie Bell were imprisoned here for
three weeks after being reported as
illegally enlisted women in the army.
Another famous prison, on the same
street was Libby Prison. 
Despite the prohibition in both the Union and Confederate Armies for women combatants, hundreds of women enlisted to fight in the Civil War. It was easier than most people think. First, this was largely an all-volunteer war on both sides, comprised for the most part of young men, immigrants, and local militia. The top brass were the West Point men. Second, contrary to popular belief, physical entry-exams were not that thorough; nothing like what would come later during the World Wars of the 20th century.

Women would rush off to battle for the same reason men did. It was easy money, they were patriotic, or they were escaping a repressive home life. Many women also disguised themselves so they could accompany their husbands who enlisted. For Mary and Mollie Bell, spiting their uncle was a good enough reason as any to join the army.

Mary and Mollie Bell were cousins from Pulaski County, Virginia, who lived with their uncle. Around 1862, their uncle “went over to the Yankees” and in retaliation for what they saw as desertion, Mary and Mollie decided to join the Confederate Army. They disguised themselves as men and joined a Confederate cavalry. Which one they joined is unclear. What is interesting is that the Southern cavalry was made up of militiamen who were responsible for supplying their own horses, and whose prior experience consisted primarily of policing and arresting escaped plantation slaves. There is no evidence that Mary and Mollie were “slave catchers,” but by joining the cavalry it meant that they were experienced riders and owned, or had gotten a hold of, horses.

Mary enlisted under the name Bob Morgan and Mollie under the name Tom Parker. Soon afterwards, Mary and Mollie’s cavalry unit was taken by Union soldiers. For most women, it was at this point when they would have been discovered and many records show the “discovery” of women soldiers in POW camps. However, Mary and Mollie were able to remain undetected and soon General John H. Morgan and his cavalry rescued their outfit. Gen. Morgan would go on to fame by leading a cavalry into Ohio, which some claim is the farthest north any uniformed Confederate troops would get. Soon afterwards, Mary and Mollie transferred to the 36th Virginia Infantry and became foot soldiers

For the next two years, Mary and Mollie fought alongside their male counterparts. According to the Richmond Dispatch, they “were acknowledged by all the soldiers with whom they were associated to be valiant soldiers, having never been known to straggle or shirk duty.” Mollie was even promoted to the rank of Corporal during her years of service. Mary and Mollie knew they were hot stuff, rumoring to have said “that if all the women of the Confederacy were as patriotick [sic] as they, the country would have been free long ago.”

To stay hidden for so long, Mary and Mollie did what many women fighting in disguise did, they let a senior officer in on it. In a tight bind, a senior officer could help a woman from being discovered by covering for her. This was especially effective if the woman was injured in battle and was sent to the field surgeon for treatment that might require undressing.

The last six months of their service saw Mary and Mollie in the thick of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, commanded by Gen. Jubal Early. This campaign would be the Confederate’s last attempt to invade the North. Many cite the Union’s victory over Gen. Early, coupled with the sacking of Atlanta by Gen. Sherman, as the reason Lincoln was re-elected and signaled the beginning of the end for the Confederates. These valley battles were a pretty big deal and Mary and Mollie were there for the whole thing. The last one, the Battle of Cedar Creek, would also be the beginning of the end for their military careers.

General J. Early, the man
who arrested Mary and
Mollie Bell. After the war,
he would flee to Mexico
and later Canada, involving
himself in the "Lost Cause,"
the romantic retelling of
the Civil War that used
Arthurian and Chivalric
traditions to politically
reposition the South.
The Captain that Mary and Mollie had confided in to help keep their identities under wraps was captured at Cedar Creek. Mary and Mollie then made a bad decision, they told a Lieutenant that was second in command. That Lieutenant betrayed their confidence and reported their illegal enlistment to Gen. Early, probably to either avoid punishment himself for aiding them or to get a promotion. Gen. Early’s reaction was typical of a high-ranking officer who had been informed there were women in his ranks. He asserted that there was no way they could have been serving for two years, as women were weaker, and that they were obviously “camp followers.” Camp followers, as they were called, were the groupies that followed regiments from camp to camp as companions to soldiers and the prostitutes looking for work.

Mary and Mollie, like most women discovered, were arrested. They were sent to Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond, Virginia. They were incarcerated, in the same prison as deserters, spies, and Unions POWs, and interrogated for three weeks. If found guilty, their punishment would be severe, because most camp followers were also suspected of being spies who had infiltrated the barracks. The reports from the Richmond Dispatch and Richmond Examiner published during these three weeks are the contemporary sources used to reconstruct their story. The Examiner went so far as to suggest that the mere “unclean presence” of these two women in Gen. Early’s army was what caused his defeat in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Ouch.

In late November 1864, Mary and Mollie were released from Castle Thunder. No charges would be brought against them. They were no longer enlisted men, and were sent back to their home in Southwest Virginia, in the same uniforms they had been arrested in. The Examiner described it as “sending home the petticoat soldiers.”

Further Reading:
They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War

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