Stories reminiscent of the classic film “Gone with the Wind” were not uncommon during the Civil War. When occupation forces interacted with the local population, both positive and negative relationships developed.
One real-life Scarlett O’Hara, by the name of Antonia Ford, resided in Fairfax Court House, Va. She was an appealing member of a prosperous local family and a secessionist sympathizer who served as a spy and courier for the Confederates, including Maj. John Mosby, commander of a ranger battalion that often operated behind enemy lines.
Antonia’s role as a spy, however, became problematic after she met a handsome Union officer, Capt. Joseph Willard, who was a member of the occupying Union army. Before long, a liaison à la the fictional Rhett and Scarlett in “Gone with the Wind” blossomed between Joseph and Antonia.
Antonia soon discovered that falling in love with a man who wears the enemy’s uniform required reevaluation of her loyalty and involvement with undercover operations on behalf of the South. Pamela Bauer Mueller related this hybrid historical and romantic episode in “The Dancing Delilahs.”
Antonia’s first espionage success came when she served as a courier for a Rebel spy ring in Washington, D.C. She rode for several hours through Union lines to Manassas, Va., to warn Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard about the Yankees’ plan to attack his position. Although hesitant at first, he accepted what turned out to be accurate information and prepared accordingly.
Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart was a frequent visitor to the Ford homestead, and a member of his staff, John Esten Cooke, became infatuated with Antonia. Although she admired John Esten, she did not return his romantic sentiments.
Antonia’s world began to revolve more rapidly in April 1862, when Capt. Willard came to her home in Fairfax and informed her family that his commander, Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, wished to use the Ford home as his headquarters. Although this was an unwelcome intrusion on their privacy, Antonia was attracted to “this soft-spoken, refined soldier.”
Proximity soon evolved into companionship, and horseback rides into the countryside. However, her prior activities as a Southern spy loomed large when Union Secret Service agents arrested and imprisoned her in Washington, D.C.
Thankfully for Antonia, although it took some time and considerable effort, Capt. Willard used his influence to arrange for her release. But he also dropped a bombshell by informing her that he was a married man — although not happily so.
Although torn, over time, Antonia rationalized Joseph’s unhappy marriage. With understanding and encouragement from her sympathetic brother — an officer in the Confederate army with whom she shared this dilemma — she worked her way through with mixed emotions.
The two would-be lovers were reunited when Antonia went back to Virginia after release from prison. While she was temporarily staying with friends in Warrenton, Capt. Willard rode into town. Before long, their passionate feelings toward each other were once again on full display.
These two people believed in human rights and shared a faith in God. Yet they also were loyal to their country; he to the United States and she to the Confederacy.
Antonia had a heart-wrenching decision to make. If she and Joseph were to one day become a couple in marriage, she must take an oath of allegiance to the U.S.
In consultation with her father, Antonia chose love over loyalty. She signed a written statement in which she promised to “support, protect and defend the Constitution and Government of the United States against all enemies.” With this accomplished, Joseph soon resigned his commission.
After his divorce from his first wife, Joseph and Antonia married, on March 10, 1864. Triumph and tragedy would follow.
During the next few years, Antonia brought three children into this world. Unfortunately, she would die in childbirth in February 1871 — just shy of seven years of marriage to Joseph.
Like Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” Antonia lived life to the fullest. The historical record remembers her primarily as a young, pretty and effective member of a Confederate spy ring.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (recipient of the Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award for 2015), available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at email@example.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.