12 February 2005

Gen. Sheridan's Black Spy, 1864

The victory of the Union's Army of the Shenandoah on 19 September 1864 at the third battle of Winchester (Opequon Creek) shattered the Confederate army in the upper Shenandoah Valley. Partial credit for the success of General Phil Sheridan was due to Thomas Laws, a Berryville, Clarke County, slave owned by prominent Winchester attorney Richard E. Byrd. Sheridan, in need of confirmation about the disposition of Confederate general Jubal Early's 2d Corps, sent two scouts to gather military intelligence. Laws and his wife were sitting outside their cabin one Sunday evening when the pair approached and soon ascertained that the black couple lacked admiration for the Confederacy.

Discovering that Laws possessed a pass from the local Confederate commander permitting him to sell vegetables three times a week in Winchester, the scouts arranged for him to meet Sheridan personally. After the two men discussed the impending mission, Sheridan, completely convinced of Laws's loyalty, composed a message on tissue paper to Rebecca Wright, a Unionist Quaker schoolteacher. The note was compressed into a small pellet and wrapped in tinfoil so that Laws could conceal it in his mouth to be swallowed if he was searched or captured. At worse, Wright risked imprisonment or banishment to Union lines, but for Laws death, the ancient penalty for espionage, loomed as a distinct possibility. Described as "loyal and shrewd" in Sheridan's memoirs (the general did not mention him by name, only as "an old colored man"), Laws delivered the message without detection. Wright's reply confirmed that Early's forces had been substantially reduced by large transfers to Petersburg to reinforce Lee; three days later the Union achieved a major victory, but few knew that the patriotism of one Afro-Virginian had made it all possible. Afterwards Rebecca Wright was rewarded with a position in the Treasury Department in Washington; Thomas Laws died a free and respected citizen in 1898.
SOURCE: Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, by Ervin L. Jordan Jr. (U. Press of Virginia, 1995), p. 285

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