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Civil War  |  Historic Site

Loyal Quaker And Brave Slave

Virginia

50 E Fairfax Ln
Winchester, VA 22601
United States

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In Confederate-held Winchester, Thomas Laws delivers his message to Rebecca Wright.
In Confederate-held Winchester, Thomas Laws delivers his message to Rebecca Wright. Western Reserve Historical Society

In September 1864, U.S. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan heard rumors that Confederate forces had left the Shenandoah Valley to rejoin Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army at Petersburg. Wanting to confirm this information before attacking Gen. Jubal A. Early’s army, Sheridan concocted a dangerous and intriguing scheme. He had learned that a loyal Quaker named Rebecca Wright lived in Winchester on this site. Also, a slave named Thomas Laws often passed through Confederate lines to sell Rebecca Wright and Thomas Laws vegetables in town. On September 16, 1864, just three days before the Third Battle of Winchester, Sheridan wrote to Wright, “I learn …that you are a loyal lady and still love the old flag. Can you inform me of the position of Early’s forces? Have any more troops arrived from Richmond?” In closing he wrote, “You can trust the bearer.” Laws rolled the note in tin foil and placed it in his mouth. During the Civil War, the penalty for spying was death.

Wright wrote in reply, “The division of General [Joseph B.] Kershaw, and [Lt. Col. Wilfred E.] Cutshaw’s artillery, twelve guns and men … have been sent away, and no more are expected.” She added, “the bearer may call again.” She gave the message to Laws, who bravely crossed back to Union lines. Sheridan had the confirmation he needed and days later attacked, routed Early, and forced the Confederates out of Winchester, which would remain under Union control through the end of the war.

Gen. Phil Sheridan gives Thomas Laws secret instructions for Rebecca Wright.
Gen. Phil Sheridan gives Thomas Laws secret instructions for Rebecca Wright. Western Reserve Historical Society