Image: Rhea County Courthouse
In the summer of 1862, the girls of Rhea County created the only female cavalry company raised on either side during the Civil War. These girls were frustrated because their gender prevented them from enlisting in the Confederate Army. They wanted to be a part of the struggle for Southern independence, so they created an army of their own.
Almost all of the “sidesaddle soldiers,” as they were called, had fathers or brothers in the Confederate Army. The unit was made up of young women in their teens and twenties from the Washington community. They were all from prominent families in the area.
Mary McDonald, one of the oldest of the group, was elected captain and Caroline McDonald, her sister-in-law, became first lieutenant. They named their unit the Rhea County Spartans.
At first, the girls were content with visiting their sweethearts and relatives among the three Confederate companies stationed in the area, and presenting them with gifts of food and clothing.
In the summer of 1863, Union General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps entered eastern Tennessee, but the lady soldiers continued to hold secret meetings. Rural churches in the Washington area were their most common gathering places. Although no records exist to confirm it, the Spartans probably engaged in a little spying for the Confederate forces.
In December 1864, Federal troops finally gained control of Rhea County, which they held for the remainder of the war. Among the Union forces active in the region was the 6th Tennessee Mounted Infantry. Formed in Chattanooga, this unit was a regiment of a few genuine Unionists plus an assortment of draft dodgers and deserters. Its primary purpose was to combat a group of Confederate bushwhackers who still plagued eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia.
Captain John Walker of the 6th Tennessee, a Rhea County farmer, had dodged the Confederate recruitment officers until the Union forces gained the upper hand. In the spring of 1865, he acquired a reputation for harshness toward Southern sympathizers, using his authority to pay them back for whatever slights he suffered when the Rebels controlled the area.
One of Walker’s first acts was to order the arrest of the Rhea County Spartans. He persuaded his commander, Lt. Colonel George Gowin to go along with his plan. On April 5, 1865, as Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was making its final desperate march toward Appomattox, Walker sent out his men to round up the girls. Being a native of the county, he knew who the Spartans were and where to find them.
Walker sent First Lieutenant William Gothard to Washington, where the Spartans’ officers lived, to arrest the women and to report with them by noon the following day at the home of William Thomison, a former Confederate soldier and the father of Spartans’ lieutenant, Rhoda Thomison.
Other officers were dispatched to the countryside around Smith's Crossroads and Dunwoody’s Mill to apprehend the other members of the unit. A few of the Spartans managed to elude their pursuers, but 16 were arrested and brought before Walker.
When they learned that they were to be sent to Chattanooga, the prisoners of war were worried. Mary McDonald, captain of the Spartans, wrote a note to Walker, urging him to allow Gothard to accompany them. They knew Gothard, and would feel comfortable traveling with him, but Gowin ordered Walker to go with them.
Gothard escorted 7 of the female Rebels the 5 miles to Smith's Cross Roads, where Walker lived. The Union soldiers rode, while the women walked. At the Cross Roads, they were joined by 6 more Spartans. All 13 then began the long march to Bell's Landing on the Tennessee River. It was dark and rainy, and the women frequently stumbled through unseen puddles. Just before they arrived at the landing, 3 more prisoners joined them.
The women were made to wait on the flooded riverbank. Finally, their transportation arrived—a crude little steamboat called the “USS Chattanooga.” Clearly not meant to carry passengers, the Chattanooga had only one small room suitable for the ladies—an area normally used as a dining room. The table and chairs were removed, and the 16 exhausted young women crowded inside. Exhausted by their 10-mile hike, the Spartans dropped to the floor and were soon asleep.
When the boat reached the wharf in Chattanooga, Walker marched his prisoners to the provost marshal’s office. Captain Seth Moe, assistant adjutant, immediately sent for his commander, Major General James Steedman.
Steedman reprimanded Walker for wasting his time with such foolishness. The general commanded the women to take the oath of allegiance to the Union, and they complied. Moe then took the ladies to the Central House Hotel, where they were allowed to freshen up and eat a good meal, at the expense of the Union Army.
After the women had been fed, Moe escorted them back to the Chattanooga for the trip back to Rhea County. Steedman had ordered Walker to escort the women to their homes, but he abandoned them at the landing to make their way back as best they could.
Steedman wrote to Major General George Thomas at Nashville, recommending that the 6th Tennessee Mounted Infantry “be replaced with good cavalry.” Union Colonel Lewis Merrill told Thomas that “the Sixth Tennessee and First Georgia are simply cowardly thieves—useless, except to keep a community embroiled and encourage guerrillas by running whenever attacked.”
The war ended, and the Spartans disbanded. The members returned to the conventional role of 19th-century women. A few weeks later, Walker was discharged from the Union Army, but he served in a few appointed offices during Reconstruction.
By the time their story was told in the “Confederate Veteran” magazine in 1911, the All-Girl Rhea County Spartans had been forgotten. Only three of them were then still living: Captain Mary McDonald, Third Lieutenant Rhoda Thomison and Mary Ann McDonald.