At dawn on February 23, 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington after sneaking through Baltimore in dark of night to avoid street mobs that had threatened to murder him. From the Baltimore & Ohio railroad station near the Capitol, he went directly to Willard's Hotel, where the proprietors, Vermont Yankees named Joseph and Henry Willard, gave him the best suite in the house.
After a desperate search, the Willard brothers solved their first problem as hosts to the distinguished Illinoisan by borrowing from Henry's grandfather-in-law a pair of carpet slippers big enough to replace those Lincoln had lost along the way from home in Springfield. It was one of many personal services they would provide to the politicians, lobbyists, generals and lighthearted ladies who turned Willard's into the nation's most important Civil War hotel. Nathaniel Hawthorne would write that, in the 1860s, Willard's was "much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House or the State Department."
When Henry Willard took over its management in 1847, the hotel was a row of six two-story wooden townhouses built in 1816. He converted it into a 150-room establishment before his brother, Joseph Clapp Willard, came back broke from the California gold rush and joined him in 1853 as an equal partner. In 1858, the brothers expanded their hotel all the way from Pennsylvania Avenue to F Street.
The affable Joseph Willard kept the books and office, while Henry did the hands-on managing. At 3 o'clock any morning, Henry was likely to be on his way down the avenue to Center Market, where the National Archives would later stand, to buy fish, oysters, game and vegetables for the hotel's vast dining rooms.
A year after the war began, Willard's had prospered and Union military prospects had slumped so far that Joseph decided that he could and should be in uniform. Joseph did not have to go into the Army; he was 41 years old, there was no national draft yet, and even if there had been, he easily could have hired a substitute to go in his place. He did not have to work his muddy way up through the ranks; he got himself appointed captain upon his entry in April 1862. Three days later, he was assigned as aide to Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell. That summer, he was promoted to major and commended by McDowell for his staff work at the Second Battle of Bull Run.
In the field, Joseph was looked after by his long-time servant Jim, although Jim was not eager to go along if Joseph was ordered far away. "I do not feel so well when I think I must take a stranger with me," Joseph wrote to his mother, "but you know in wartime one must expect to suffer . . . if I do I will try and not complain."
But Joseph would never be sent far away from Washington. His staff duties usually kept him within a day's ride of the capital. By the winter of 1862-1863, the main Blue and Gray armies were dug in miles south along the Rappahannock River, but even staff officers like Joseph had to look out for fast-moving Confederate raiders who kept the war alive behind the lines.
NEAR THE END OF 1862, the cavalier Confederate Jeb Stuart and his raiders struck at Burke Station, a Fairfax County stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, only 15 miles southwest of the White House. From there Stuart sent an impudent telegram to Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs, complaining of the poor quality of Union mules his Rebel troopers had been capturing lately. Stuart had surprised the station at Burke during a five-day expedition on which he led some 1,800 cavalrymen with a battery of horse artillery on a rampage deep into and safely out of Union-held territory. No one went about war with more jollity than Stuart, whose personal dash rubbed off on his men, and none of his men was more restless and reckless than "the Gray Ghost," the lean lieutenant named John Singleton Mosby.
Mosby was cut loose to operate with a handful of horsemen in the Virginia counties west of Washington, which soon became known as "Mosby's Confederacy." The Federal cavalry could not catch Mosby because his band was so small, fast and unpredictable, growing from a handful to only a few dozen riders that winter. Union Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker complimented Mosby and jeered his own cavalry by noting that for a while Union sentinels were taking up planks in Chain Bridge at night, afraid the daring raiders might rush into Washington and kidnap the president.
Between raids, Mosby's men did not cluster in camp but scattered among friendly farmhouses until summoned again. They were able to melt so successfully into the countryside because they had dedicated collaborators in the women left behind by Confederate soldiers.
Thomas R. Lounsbury, a Yale-educated New Yorker, met some of these women when he was stationed with his Union brigade in western Fairfax County. Lounsbury found them to be full of fight; their standard response to any Yankee comment about how poorly Confederate soldiers were uniformed was that men didn't need to dress up to slaughter hogs. These Rebel women were "bright, lively, intelligent brunettes, agreeable as girls, the world over, generally are. One of the most attractive of them, mentally, physically, and pecuniarily, professed herself exceedingly anxious to become a martyr to the cause of southern rights," wrote Lounsbury.
More than one high-spirited Virginia woman felt that way, among them Laura Ratcliffe, who is said to have sheltered Mosby's men in her house at Frying Pan (later Herndon), and smuggled information to Stuart and Mosby. But Lounsbury clearly had in mind Antonia Ford, the flirtatious daughter of Edward Ford, a well-to-do, strongly Southern merchant in the village of Fairfax Court House.
By age 23, Antonia had played cat-and-mouse with many a suitor, in person and by mail. The week after the war began, a future Confederate horse artilleryman named Louis C. Helm had complained at length that she made his life "unendurable" by withholding the answer he wanted to hear. "After all the affection and love that I have lavished upon you, you plainly tell me . . . that you had not forgotten Doct Griggsby," he moaned.
That fall, another fluttery swain told her, "I infer . . . that you are not averse to a correspondence with me . . . I embrace this idea most eagerly for I have long regarded you with much favor although our acquaintance has been brief and my opportunities to cultivate this friendship you tender me, few and hurried. The very first time indeed that [I] beheld your beautiful countenance and through it received a glimpse of the noble [soul] that animates it my poor heart has been strangely agitated by conflicting emotions of delightful hope and [despairing] fear. Pray write me forthwith and correct me painful though it be . . . if I have fallen into error. Till then I shall be most anxious and ever after be either the happiest or most miserable of mortals . . . "
She brushed off such lovelorn gentlemen after her brother Charles, a cadet at Virginia Military Institute, went away to war. She concentrated her charms on men in gray uniform, gallants who returned her interest and gladly accepted the gossip she gathered while moving about the countryside. Her information was so valuable -- or her personality so winning -- that in October 1861 Stuart made her an honorary lieutenant and aide-de-camp on his staff. By an order stamped with his ring seal, he decreed, "She will be obeyed, respected and admired . . . "
Antonia treasured the appointment, honorary though it was, and took it seriously. But then, suddenly, her Confederate admirers were gone; after months of skirmishing back and forth around Fairfax Court House, the Yankees moved in to stay. Some of their officers, including Joseph Willard, roomed at the Fords' house, one of the most imposing in town. Antonia focused her provocative wit on them, smiling as warmly on the officers in blue as she had on the departed Confederates. When they talked among themselves, she listened carefully, and passed along what seemed interesting.
Once she overheard something about Union intentions that she considered so important that she enlisted her aunt, Mrs. Augustus Brower, to ride with her 20 miles through a nighttime rainstorm to deliver it to Stuart's headquarters. The kind of intelligence that Antonia picked up was particularly useful to Mosby in the raids and ambushes that bedeviled the Yankees, but how she figured in his most famous escapade is still disputed.
LATE ON MARCH 8, 1863, Mosby departed from near Aldie, Va., with 29 men, including a Union sergeant who had deserted to the Rebel side to protest the Emancipation Proclamation. With the sergeant as guide, the raiders wound between Federal pickets, 25 snow-streaked miles through the night to Fairfax Court House. There Mosby hoped to swoop into Union cavalry headquarters and snatch Col. Percy Wyndham, who had noisily promised to bring him in.
After getting separated in the darkness, the raiders rejoined to reach Fairfax Court House after midnight and spread out, some to the Federal stables, some seeking specific officers. The sergeant discovered that their main target, Wyndham, was away that night. But a more prestigious officer, Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton, was there. Indeed, he had enjoyed himself all evening at the Ford house, and was dead asleep nearby.
With a handful of men, Mosby found the general and roused him with a slap on the backside. When the indignant Stoughton asked, "Have you got Mosby?" the raider answered, "No, Mosby's got you." He took the general away to Culpeper, where Stuart declared that the Fairfax raid was "a feat unparalleled in the war." But Lincoln's reaction became more famous: Informed that Mosby had got away with 58 horses and a brigadier general, he said that was too bad -- he could always make another brigadier, but he couldn't make horses.
Soon afterward, the New York Times printed a letter purportedly written before the raid to a man in Vermont by a Union officer stationed at Fairfax Court House. It said: "There is a woman in the town (Fairfax) by the name of Ford, not married, who has been of great service to Gen. Stuart in giving information &c -- so much that Stuart has conferred on her the rank of major in the rebel army. She belongs to his staff. Why our people do not send her beyond the lines is another question. I understand that she and Stoughton are very intimate. If he gets picked up some night he may thank her for it. Her father lives here, and is known to harbor and give all the aid to the rebs, and this in the little hole of Fairfax, under the nose of the provost marshal, who is always full of bad whiskey . . . "
Thus Antonia was an item of intense interest among the Federals in her neighborhood even before Mosby rode in. When he rode away with his captive general, she became a prime suspect for detectives who were sure he could not have succeeded without help from an informant.
Antonia apparently had not read that published letter when a woman calling herself Frankie Abel arrived at the Ford home, dressed in faded calico, saying she was a loyal Confederate on her way to New Orleans. She won Antonia's confidence by telling of her own exploits for the Southern cause. Antonia, surprisingly gullibleafter playing her double game with Union officers so skillfully, proudly brought out from beneath her mattress the honorary commission that Stuart had given her. "Frankie," who was working for chief Federal detective Lafayette C. Baker, had seen all she needed to see.
On March 13, shortly after Baker's agent left the Ford household, government authorities arrested Antonia and her father. Taken to headquarters at Centreville, Antonia was held there for three days before being transferred to Washington. Her military escort was none other than Maj. Joseph Willard, who felt the full force of Antonia's magnetism on the way to Old Capitol Prison. The turn of the key locking her away marked the start of one of the capital's most desperate clandestine love affairs.
THE OLD CAPITOL, a brick building on the corner where the Supreme Court now stands, was so named because Congress sat there for years after the Capitol and White House were burned by the British in 1814. Antonia was not the first suspected female agent to be imprisoned there. She was preceded by a celebrated Rebel spy, the society widow Rose O'Neal Greenhow, who had wooed talkative politicians into disclosing military secrets at her home on Lafayette Square. Greenhow had slipped warning of Union plans to the Confederates in time for them to defeat the Yankees at the First Battle of Bull Run. After being held at the Old Capitol in 1861 and '62, she was deported to Dixie before Antonia arrived.
Yet another colorful Southern spy, Shenandoah Valley lass Belle Boyd, was in and out of the Old Capitol during Antonia's stay. On arriving, Boyd told the superintendent, William P. Wood: "Sir, if it is a crime to love the South, its cause and its president, then I am a criminal. I am in your power, do with me as you please. But I fear you not. I would rather lie down in prison and die than leave it owing allegiance to a government such as yours . . ."
With the influence of her smitten friend, Joseph Willard, Antonia Ford made herself comfortable in captivity, sending home a list of items she needed, which included tea, sugar, needle, thread, all the bows and plumes off her velvet bonnet, and approximately enough clothes for a season at White Sulphur Springs. She had plenty of time to read, so asked for Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, a sensation of the period, especially in the South, plus an up-to-date history of the war. Any thought that prison life had dulled her spirit was quashed by her request for the music to "Maryland, My Maryland," "The Bonnie Blue Flag" and "Dixie," all songs of Confederate defiance.
Since Antonia was being held on suspicion of espionage, Superintendent Wood surely was reading her letters, but he must have found in them more titillation than information. One of her missives included a long poem addressed to her mother. "Do not have the 'blues,' '' she wrote, "But hope now for the best/This cannot last so very long/And then 'twill seem a jest." It lasted longer than she expected.
In May 1863, Antonia was sent back to the Confederacy via Fortress Monroe, at Hampton Roads, with a shipment of other female prisoners. Among them were at least two alleged "notorious prostitutes," who were sent back when the Confederate exchange officer complained that on landing at City Point below Richmond they had "descended to a depth of infamy that I hardly thought could be reached by the sex."
After making her way home to Fairfax, Antonia was arrested again because of continuing suspicions and returned to the Old Capitol. Unlike Greenhow and Boyd, she did not brag in prison about her services to the Confederacy. Outside, friends on both sides of the lines were trying to prove her innocent. Jeb Stuart wrote to John Mosby asking for exculpatory evidence, "so that I can insist upon her unconditional release."
In August, Stuart's aide, the Virginia novelist John Esten Cooke, wrote sarcastically in Richmond's Southern Illustrated News about Antonia's honorary commission from Stuart. He recalled the mood in camp when he introduced Stuart to Antonia -- "O gay vanished hours that come back with the sight of that document! . . . Who could ever have imagined that . . . this mere billet doux . . . would in these days become the ground of a grave accusation against the maiden who smiled as she received it! It was only a jest . . . I do assure you, only meant to produce a good-humored laughter from a young lady." The Yankees "can't catch our partisans," Cooke wrote, "but they arrest our young ladies. They cannot crush the men, and they make war on the women of the South! O 'nation of shopkeepers,' how thoroughly you are acting out your real character!" (Half a century later, Mosby also would deny that Antonia had been involved in his raid on Fairfax Court House. The allegation that she helped him was "a pure fable," he said. "Antonia was as innocent as Abraham Lincoln.")
Meanwhile, Union Maj. Willard was exerting all his influence to free the woman for whom he had fallen so completely. Eventually he prevailed on Maj. Gen. Samuel Heintzelman to release her, but only after she apparently took the oath of loyalty to the Union on September 16, 1863. One wonders whether she literally did so, since the officer who witnessed and signed the document was Joseph Willard himself. Two days later, Heintzelman ordered that Antonia be permitted to go home, "there to remain subject to orders from these Head Quarters -- excepting under instructions from Head Quarters Department of Washington she will in no wise be molested or interfered with by any military authority."
Joseph conducted Antonia home to Fairfax, as he had escorted her to prison after her first arrest. Her gratitude to him quickened their romance; he became so ardent that before the end of the year, she was fending off his pleas to join in a "private marriage." Because Joseph was still a Union officer, a public wedding with a suspected spy was out of the question. On a stormy winter night, Antonia sat at her window and wrote, "Major, you know I love you, but . . . [my] parents and relatives would be mortified to death; acquaintances would disown me; it would be illegal, and above all it would be wrong . . . I would make you 'the luckiest man in the world' if I could without compromising myself . . . You ask for my 'heart and hand.' The heart is yours already. When your hand is free and you can claim mine before the world, then that also is yours."
She ended that letter by gently scolding him for not coming to Fairfax lately. Soon she would be warning him not to risk riding out to see her because he might be caught on the road by her friend Mosby.
As Joseph slept alone that winter, he must not have been able to think of anything but how to bring his beloved Antonia to his side. She had told him, "Remember, Major, the obstacle is with you, not me." That obstacle was the uniform he wore; she would not marry him as long as he was a Union officer. After months of struggle between his heart and his duty, his heart prevailed. In February 1864, he rode out to Fairfax Court House and told Antonia he had made up his mind to resign his commission. She inquired about a marriage license, but no one there could issue one, and she would not even consider being wed without one. Warning him not to risk riding Little River Turnpike again, she said she would come to Washington. But her father objected to the idea of her going to Joseph, and insisted that he come to get her.
Amid these negotiations over who would travel where, the Fords got a false report that Antonia's brother Charles had been killed in action with Stuart's horse artillery, a development that did not make her father any warmer toward his Yankee prospective son-in-law. (A few months later, on May 31, 1864, 1st Lt. Charles E. Ford, of McGregor's battery, Stuart's horse artillery, was killed near Ashland.) But Antonia wrote that a neighbor had spoken of the major fondly, that "None of them consider you an enemy."
Joseph apparently reminded her that although he was shedding his uniform, he was not shedding his loyalty to the government. "My dear Major," she assured him, "no one has ever accused you of being anything but the most decided unionist . . . but I love you none the less for it. With all my heart do I believe in one union -- do you know what it is?"
This teasing courtship was almost over. Joseph's resignation was effective March 1. Nine days later, he risked the ride to Fairfax, and the next day Mr. and Mrs. Ford, Antonia and Joseph set out up the pike to Washington. Just as Antonia had feared, one of Mosby's riders stepped out of the bushes and halted them. "Who goes there?" he asked.
"Ford of Fairfax," said her father, "taking my daughter to Washington to see a doctor." He did not explain who else was in the back of the carriage, and the sentry let them pass.
Later that day, at the Metropolitan Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Rev. Phineas D. Gurley pronounced Joseph and Antonia husband and wife. They departed on a wedding trip to Philadelphia, where the groom sent a polite note to his new mother-in-law, to which the bride appended a longer postscript suggestively describing their wedding night. She did not go to the hotel dining room for supper, she said, but had tea sent up "and fooled over that until it was ridiculous, but the Major went ahead to undress as if I was a statue." He later told her "he was so free on purpose because he was determined to break down all restraint and put me at my ease by being so himself. He succeeded much better than I supposed could be the case . . . I do not promise to drink any more champagne . . . "
Both groom and bride were concerned over how their North-South merger impressed others. Joseph apparently had asked an esteemed Washingtonian, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, how the marriage would play in social circles. "I shall 'not think less' of you for marrying a poor but intelligent and more than all a respectable Virginian," the old gentleman assured him. Antonia told her mother-in-law, "I do very much wish to know what the people say of me," but she had not lost any of her mischievousness. When a friend asked why she had married a Yankee, Antonia answered, "I knew I could not revenge myself on the nation, but was fully capable of tormenting one Yankee to death, so took the Major."
Ernest B. "Pat" Furgurson is a former Washington bureau chief and columnist for the Baltimore Sun. This article is adapted from Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War, being published this week by Alfred A. Knopf.