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Quaker school teacher an unsung Civil War hero

Sheridan Avenue slices southeast from near High Street to Burnett Road on Springfield’s East Side. Like Grant Street and Sherman Avenue, it is a tribute to a Civil War Union general.

At the Clark County Historical Society’s fourth Civil War Symposium April 12, Jonathan Noyalas made a strong case that Rebecca Wright is largely responsible for putting Gen. Philip Sheridan on the map — not only here but in Civil War history.

In late summer of 1864, Sheridan was neither the first, nor second, but Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant’s third choice as commander of the Grand Army of the Shenandoah, the force they created to reverse Union misfortunes in the Shenandoah Valley in time for the presidential election of 1864.

The first two candidates had been discarded for political reasons, said Noyalas, head of the Center for Civil War History at Lord Fairfax Community College, Va. And there was yet more reason for Yankee soldiers’ doubts that Sheridan was the man to turn things around in what had been their “valley of humiliation.”

Eric Wittenberg, who gave a separate presentation at the symposium, put Sheridan’s record at 2-12-1 against the Army of Northern Virginia.

Still, Sheridan was given the opportunity because “Grant trusted Sheridan blindly,” said Noyalas, largely for his shining ability to motivate his men.

Because of the impending election, Lincoln and Grant had warned Sheridan in August not to strike unless he was sure of success. It was as Sheridan was awaiting a mid-September visit from Grant to remind him that doing nothing would not win votes that Sheridan heard about Wright, a Quaker school teacher in Winchester, Va.

Winchester was such a strategic location that it already had been the site of two battles. After Gen. George Crook said he’d “stake my shoulder straps” (meaning his generalship) that this girl is loyal,” Sheridan persuaded Tom Laws, a free black man with a pass to enter Winchester three times a week to sell vegetables, to deliver a note to Wright.

The note, handed over Sept. 16 and wrapped so Toms could swallow it if challenged, asked the 24-year-old Wright for any information she had on Confederate troop movements.

At first fearing for herself and her family if she were to be found out as a spy, Wright refused. But when Toms asked her to think about it until he returned later in the day, she agreed. Some speculate she changed her mind because of her father’s mistreatment at the hands of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, Noyalas said, but Wright herself left no recorded remarks.

Doubtful that she had important information to offer, she nonetheless related what a Confederate lieutenant enamored of her had said two days earlier as she they talked in her garden.

Convinced Sheridan would not attack, the Confederates had sent an infantry division and an artillery battery from the area to strengthen the Army of Northern Virginia’s positions near Petersburg.

Sheridan had what he needed. With additional intelligence that the Confederates had divided their forces, he struck at Winchester Sept. 19, and took the field. Three days later, Union forces swept away rebels at Fisher’s Hill to the south, then left a trail of smoke through the valley as they burned 1,400 barns, 70 mills and food stores Confederate troops had relied on.

In a move that assured his reputation, Noyalas added, Sheridan finally came sweeping in from a meeting with Grant and Lincoln in Washington, D.C., to rally flagging federal troops under attack at Cedar Creek with the talent Grant so admired: his ability to motivate his men.

Paintings were made to celebrate the event, Sheridan became a war hero and Noyalas quoted Springfield Gen. J. Warren Keifer as saying: “The war closed on that bloody battle ground of the Shenandoah Valley, so far as important operations were concerned.”

Paired with Sherman’s march through Georgia, Sheridan’s success in the Shenandoah Valley helped to secure Lincoln’s re-election and the prosecution of the war.

Sheridan kept his promise to keep Wright’s role secret. But after the war, he sent her a brooch, chain and watch, Noyalas said, and her inability to keep from wearing it led to her discovery. After she was forced to flee Winchester, Sheridan landed her a government job in Washington, which she held until her death in 1914.

In a June, 2012, story for the magazine “Civil War Times,” Noyalas cites this remark Sheridan made to a reporter: “That woman was worth a whole brigade of soldiers and several batteries of artillery … and she was one of the genuine heroes of the war.”

It seems just praise for a woman who both literally and figuratively put him on the map.

In the three other presentations:

  • Author and scholar John Marszalek argued that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman invented psychological warfare in his March through Georgia by breaking the Confederate civilians’ will to continue to fight while at the same time avoiding the horrendous casualties caused when armies came face-to-face.
  • Columbus historian and attorney Wittenberg said that despite suffering 55,000 casualties to Robert E. Lee’s 33,600, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s six-week Overland Campaign of 1864 succeeded in its goal: To render the Army of Northern Virginia incapable of launching a meaningful offensive ever again.
  • Eric Jacobson made a case that unseasonably high water at the Tennessee River and human error conspired to allow Union forces coming in from Missouri to slip by Gen. Jubal Early Nov. 29, 1864, and then repel his frontal assault the next day at the battle of Franklin, Tenn., in a battle whose fierceness the seasoned Union troops there said they’d never seen the likes of. Jacobson said he “spreads the gospel that is (the battle of) Franklin” because “they deserve better than to be forgotten – on both sides.”

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