Women Spies of the Civil War
Hundreds of women served as spies during the Civil War. Here’s a look at six who risked their lives in daring and unexpected ways
- By Cate Lineberry
- Smithsonian.com, May 09, 2011
(Photo by O.H. Willard, Library of Congress Philadelphia Manuscript Division, Gift of the Willard Family)
Born to a wealthy Virginia family, Antonia Ford was 23 when she provided military intelligence to Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart. Ford gathered information from Union soldiers who occupied her hometown of Fairfax Court House, which was halfway between Washington, D.C. and Manassas, Virginia. In October 1861, Stuart rewarded Ford with a written honorary commission as aide-de-camp and ordered that she “be obeyed, respected and admired.”
In March 1863, Stuart’s commission was used against Ford when she was accused of spying for John Singleton Mosby. Mosby’s partisan rangers had captured Union general Edwin H. Stoughton in his headquarters—one of the most famous cavalry raids of the war. The Secret Service suspected Ford was involved in planning the attack in part because Stoughton and Ford had spent time together. The Secret Service sent a female operative, pretending to be a Confederate sympathizer, to meet with Ford, who showed her Stuart’s commission. Ford was soon arrested. While being held, she was found with smuggled papers.
After several months at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., Ford was released due to the petitioning of Union major Joseph C. Willard—one of her captors. Willard resigned from the Union Army, and he and Ford married in March 1864; Ford took an oath of allegiance to the United States.
The couple stayed in Washington, D.C. and had three children, but only one survived infancy. Their son, Joseph Edward Willard, later became lieutenant governor of Virginia and United States ambassador to Spain.
Ford died on February 14, 1871, at the age of 33. Her husband never remarried.