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Love the Cause or Love the Man? A Question this Confederate Spy Had to Answer

Antonia Ford, a pretty, sassy spy for the Confederacy, didn’t mind batting her eyelashes at a Union soldier if it got her intelligence. She didn’t count on one man capturing her heart, though, or what their love would cost them.

(Photo by O.H. Willard, Library of Congress Philadelphia Manuscript Division, Gift of the Willard Family) Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/women-spies-of-the-civil-war-162202679/#WsXXVlco9S8BmloT.99 Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter

(Photo by O.H. Willard, Library of Congress Philadelphia Manuscript Division, Gift of the Willard Family)

Born into a wealthy family of loud-and-proud secessionists, Antonia loved her home in Fairfax Court House, VA. When Union troops occupied her town in mid-1861, she eagerly used her money, connections, and feminine wiles to gather intelligence. The officers were awed by her beauty and, clearly, oblivious to her brains. They talked and talked about the Union’s plans right in front of her. And Antonia turned right around and fed intelligence to the Confederacy.

When Union General Edward H. Stoughton was captured in his headquarters (one of the most famous raids of the Civil War), suspicion fell on Antonia, since she had spent some time with the officer. A counter-spy tricked Antonia into revealing the aid-de-camp commission given to her by J.E.B. Stuart himself. Antonia was arrested based on this document. Worse, however, smuggled papers were discovered in her possession. Pretty incriminating.

As fate would have it, she was arrested by 44-year-old Maj. Joseph Willard. Willard was struck right in the heart by the pretty, 24-year-old belle, but did his duty and delivered her to Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C. Antonia was also drawn to the major and their romance blossomed…behind bars. Maj. Willard spent several months working at it, but was finally able to secure Antonia’s release. Their love, though, came at a high cost.

Antonia had to swear allegiance to the Union and promise that she would never spy again. Willard agreed to give up his commission and resigned from the Army. Apparently, neither of the two ever regretted these decisions. The couple married in 1864 and took over his family’s business, the Willard Hotel. Sadly, during their short marriage, they lost two babies, and Antonia continually battled health issues that stemmed from her incarceration. She passed away in 1871. Willard was heartbroken by her death and never remarried. Their hotel, now called the InterContinental, still stands on Pennsylvania Ave., mere shouting distance from the symbol of a government she once sought to topple.

Oh, the irony for a lady in defiance.

Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton

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Charly Parkhurst’s Legendary Life of Lies

Sometimes, just existing is such a task.

A college roommate said that to me many years ago. For some reason, I thought of that when I researched the story of Charly Parkhurst. She carried an amazing, isolating secret for over thirty years…

stage

Born in 1812, Charly lost her parents at an early age and wound up in an orphanage in New Hampshire. Either she escaped or they let her go, but when Charly was old enough to take care of herself, she skedaddled. Probably in her early teens. Somehow, she stumbled upon a job with Ebenezer Balch’s livery in Worcester. Working with horses would set her destiny. Charly became one of the Wild West’s most famous stagecoach drivers.

She worked for Balch for several years, then suddenly struck out for California at the height of the gold rush. Skilled, reliable, sober stagecoach drivers were in short supply so she pretty much walked into a job. And the woman proved her metal. She was robbed twice. The first time she was unarmed, the second time the robber chose the wrong victim. Charly shot him dead. Road conditions were abhorrent in Northern California. If Charly wasn’t worrying about bandits or renegade Indians, she was crossing swollen rivers, navigating rickety bridges, driving in ice and snow, and, of course, battling ornery horses. To her credit, she never lost a coach.

Charly liked whiskey and cigars. She could fight and cuss with the toughest of men and did. Small in stature, she was tough as an oak but reclusive. Not many people got close to Charly. She was always picky about her privacy and lived alone her whole life.

Eventually, the demands of driving teams of horses up rugged mountain roads got to be too much for her. She “retired” and dabbled in ranching, and raising chickens. She even worked as a lumberjack for a spell.

Now all this is impressive, but there’s one other thing you need to know about Charly. She lived this remarkable life…as a man.

From approximately 1849 or so to 1879, Charlene Parkhurst’s gender was her deepest secret. The truth was only discovered upon her death. The town doctor, as well as the coroner, also believed that at some point in her life, Charly had given birth at least once. And baby items (either a dress or shoes—accounts differ) were found in a chest at her home.

So why did Charly live her life as a man? I find it interesting that she worked with Balch for several years, even moving with him to Rhode Island, then she suddenly struck out on her own. What if, at some point, Balch discovered that Charly was a woman? According to accounts from the time of Charly’s death, she was “well-endowed,” but hid her curves under baggy, pleated shirts. What if Balch didn’t like being lied to? What if he wasn’t a very nice man?

I realize that’s a heavy dose of speculation. But a small, petite orphan girl would have been easy prey. A young man on the other hand…

A gender-bender or a woman hiding from her past? Will we ever know? What do you think?

Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton

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