Civil War Profiles: A Union general, a female spy and two Delawareans in the Shenandoah Valley


Anyone who held Unionist political leanings while living in Winchester, Va., during the Civil War years had to be particularly circumspect to avoid the wrath of secessionist neighbors. Therefore, when a young schoolteacher named Rebecca Wright received a note furtively delivered to her from Union Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, she was faced with a predicament.

Sheridan, who commanded Union forces operating in the Shenandoah Valley, needed information about the strength, disposition and intentions of Confederate forces under Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early that occupied Winchester. When Sheridan learned about Rebecca Wright’s Unionist beliefs from a subordinate who had previously met her, he sent a note to her delivered by a slave who had a pass to enter Winchester through Confederate lines to sell produce.

It read: “Can you inform me of the position of Early’s forces, the number of divisions in his army, and the strength of … them and his probable … intentions?”

In a Civil War Times article (June 2012), Jonathan A Noyalas describes Wright’s apprehensive reaction when the slave, Thomas Laws, delivered that note. She was all too aware that local citizens, including her own father, had been arrested for espousing anti-secessionist sentiments. She told Laws she knew nothing about Early’s army.

After further consideration, however, Wright decided to risk informing Sheridan after she inadvertently learned that one of Early’s infantry divisions and an artillery battalion had left the Valley to join Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army near Petersburg. The young woman, who had now become a spy, and the Union general communicated by writing on thin tissue paper placed in a tiny capsule that Laws carried in his mouth when passing through Rebel lines.

Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Union military forces, had urged Sheridan to attack Early in order to remove the Valley as a source of supply for Lee’s main forces. Once Sheridan received Rebecca’s information about the enemy’s reduced strength, he launched an attack that drove Early out of Winchester and eventually out of the Valley altogether.

When Sheridan arrived in Winchester, one of the first things he did was to visit Rebecca in her home. He informed her that “it was entirely on the information I had sent that he fought the battle.” Although flattered, Wright also realized her life was now in jeopardy because of the townspeople’s suspicion of her.

As Sheridan’s army drove southward, his army temporarily bogged down until his cavalry under Maj. Gen. Alfred T.A. Torbert gained a position on the Rebel flank, supported by Capt. Henry duPont’s artillery, 18 guns in all. An all-out attack, including one of the largest cavalry charges of the Civil War, sent Early’s troops reeling in retreat.

Torbert was a native of Georgetown, Del., who later resided with his wife in Milford. West Point graduate Henry duPont, the grandson of the E.I duPont Company founder, was born in Wilmington. For bravery under fire during this encounter, Henry duPont was awarded the Medal of Honor. (See “Henry DuPont — like father like son,” Coastal Point, April 12, 2013.)

After the war, Wright received a note of thanks from Sheridan that it was her “information that the battle was fought and probably won.” Accompanying the note was a gift of a gold watch set in pearls, which she would cherish.

Totally ostracized by her neighbors in Winchester, Wright moved to Philadelphia; and, through Sheridan’s intercession, was awarded a position in the Treasury Department. She became a celebrity in the North, often invited to women’s suffrage and Grand Army of the Republic events.

Sheridan attended one GAR gathering in Philadelphia along with Rebecca. In response to a reporter’s question of the importance of her wartime contribution, he responded, “That woman was worth a whole brigade of soldiers and several batteries of artillery down in the Winchester campaign, and she was one of the genuine heroines of the war.”

The bravery of the slave Thomas Laws for performing perilous courier duty was neither appropriately recognized nor rewarded. Nonetheless, history has recorded his deeds for posterity.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (April 2015). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at
www.tomryan-civilwar.com.