Civil War Stories: Female Sidesaddle Soldiers of Rhea County, TN
During the Civil War, a group of young women in their teens and early twenties in Rhea County, Tenn., formed a cavalry company to deliver food, clothing and supplies to their boyfriends, husbands, fathers and brothers who were stationed nearby. This Confederate aid society on horseback organized in 1862 with Mary Elizabeth “Mollie” McDonald (Sawyer) as captain – and they called themselves the Rhea County Spartans.
At first, the Rhea County Spartans simply visited soldiers and relatives among the three Confederate companies stationed in the area. However, when Union forces entered the area in mid-1863, their activities became more circumspect. They began holding secret meetings at rural churches in the former town of Washington to discuss news of the War Between the States.
In the spring of 1865, a Tennessee Unionist in Rhea County, Capt. John P. Walker, decided that the Rhea County Spartans were spies and ordered the mass arrest of the girls’ company. He convinced his commander, Lt. Col. George A. Gowin of Hamilton County, to go along with his plan.
On April 5, 1865, many of the Rhea County Spartans were rounded up by Union Army officials. A few of the Spartans were able escape, but eventually 16 of them were arrested.
The Union horse soldiers rode, while the women were forced to march five miles in the rain and dark of night to Bell’s Landing on the Tennessee River. From there, they were transported to Chattanooga aboard a crude steamboat called the USS Chattanooga, also called the “Chicken Thief.”
Once in Chattanooga, Walker was surprised to be reprimanded by Union officers for what he had done. The Spartans were escorted to the Central House hotel, where they were fed and able to clean themselves up after the long ordeal.
The Union Commander, Gen. James Blair Steedman (a Northern Democrat with many Southern friends), sent the women back home to Rhea County aboard the “Chicken Thief,” but only after requiring them to take an oath of allegiance to the Union (so Walker would have no further reason to harass them).
The Civil War was nearly over when the women returned home, so the company disbanded and the Spartans returned to their lives as 19th Century women.
Learn more about the Rhea County Spartans at the Spring City History Museum at the depot in Spring City, TN.
Check out this “virtual cemetery” that shows were all of the Spartans are buried. Many of the Spartans are buried at Historic Buttram Cemetery located at 192 Pine Crest Dr. in Dayton, TN, including Mary Elizabeth “Mollie” McDonald (Sawyer).