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Posted March 2001
Manly Missouri Cross-Dressers
of the Civil War
John N. Edwards,
Absalom C. Grimes
Excerpted and introduced by G.E. Rule, from "Noted Guerrillas or the Warfare of the Border", by John N. Edwards, 1877; "The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War", by John Fiske, 1900; “The Story of Cole Younger”, by Himself, 1903; “Confederate Mail Runner”, by Absalom C. Grimes, edited by M. M. Quaife, 1926
Introduction to John N. Edwards
Introduction to John Fiske
Introduction to Absalom C. Grimes
Introduction to Cole Younger
The Manly Missouri Cross-Dressers of the Civil War, both Union and Confederate, engaged in a time-honored tradition. In 62 B.C., the Roman politician Clodius put the empire on the road to civil war when he disguised himself as a woman and snuck into Caesar’s house. Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart heir to the British throne, dressed as a woman to escape the English in 1746 after his invasion to reclaim the throne of his father failed. In modern times, early in his army career, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak cross-dressed (complete with explosives-packed purse) in order to carry off an attack on a terrorist group suspected of being responsible for the 1972 attack on Israel’s Olympians at Munich.
The curious thing is, every one of the accounts given below --told by four different authors-- has the same thing in common. Apparently, in Missouri, wearing your cavalry boots under your dress signified a fellow who was just engaging in a stratagem as opposed to one who was indicating an alternative lifestyle choice. Or possibly they all just really liked the feel of leather against their skin beneath their frillies.... on second thought, let’s stick with the stratagem theory.
Four miles from Independence, and back a little from the road leading to Kansas City, a house stood occupied by several women light of love. Thither regularly went Federal soldiers from the Independence garrison, and the drinking was deep and the orgies shameful. Gregg set a trap to catch a few of the comers and goers. Within the lines of the enemy, much circumspection was required to make an envelopment of the house successful. He chose Jesse James from among a number of volunteers and sent him forward to reconnoiter the premises. Jesse, arrayed in coquettish female apparel, with his smooth face, blue eyes, and blooming cheeks, looked the image of a bashful country girl, not yet acquainted with vice, though half eager and half reluctant to walk a step nearer to the edge of its perilous precipice. As he mounted, woman fashion, upon a fiery horse, the wind blew all about his peach colored face the pink ribbons of a garish bonnet, and lifted the tell-tale riding habit just enough to reveal instead of laced shoes or gaiters, the muddy boots of a born cavalryman. Gregg, taking ten men, followed in the rear of James to within half a mile of the nearest picket post, and hid himself in the woods until word could be brought from the bagnio ahead. If by a certain hour the disguised Guerrilla did not return to his comrades, the picket were to be driven in, the house surrounded, and the inmates forced to give such information as they possessed of his whereabouts. Successful, and Gregg neither by word nor deed, was to alarm the outpost or furnish indication in any manner that Guerrillas were in the neighborhood.
Jesse James, having pointed out to him with tolerable accuracy the direction of the house, left the road, skirted the timber rapidly, leaped several ugly ravines, floundered over a few marshy places, and finally reached his destination without meeting a citizen or encountering an enemy. He would not dismount, but sat upon his horse at the fence and asked that the mistress of the establishment might come out to him. Little by little, and with many a gawky protest and many a bashful simper, he told a plausible story of parental espionage and family discipline. He, ostensibly a she, could not have beaux, could not go with the soldiers, could not sit with them late, nor ride with them, nor romp with them; she was tired of it all and wanted a little fun. Would the mistress let her come occasionally to her and bring with her three or four neighbor girls, who were in the same predicament? The mistress laughed and was glad. New faces to her were like new coin, and she put forth a hand and patted the merchantable thing upon the knee, and ogled her smiling mouth and girlish features gleefully. As she-wolf and venturesome lamb separated, the assignation was assured. That night the amorous country girl, accompanied by three of her young female companions, was to return, and the mistress--confident in her ability to provide them lovers--was to make known among the soldiers the attractive acquisition.
It lacked an hour of sunset when Jesse James got back to Gregg; an hour after sunset the Guerrillas, following hard upon the track made by the boy spy, rode rapidly on to keep the trysting. The house was gracious with lights, and jubilant with laughter. Drink abounded, and under cover of the clinking glasses, the men kissed the women. Anticipating an orgy of unusual attractions, twelve Federals bad been lured out from the garrison and made to believe that bare-footed maidens ran wild in the woods, and buxom lasses hid for the hunting. No guards were out; no sentinels were posted. Jesse James crept close to a window and peered in. The night was chill and a large wood fire blazed upon a large hearth. All the company was in one room, five women and a dozen men. Scattered about yet ready for the grasping, the cavalry carbines were in easy reach, and the revolvers handy about the person. Sampson trusting everything to Delilah might not have trusted so much if under the old dispensation there had been anything of bushwhacking.
One of the visitors [to Camp Jackson, St. Louis] next day came in a light open carriage then known as a "Jenny Lind," and was leisurely driven by a colored servant up and down the avenues "Jeff Davis", "Beauregard", and "Sumter", and the rest. This visitor, dressed in a black bombazine gown and closely veiled, was a familiar sight on the streets of St. Louis, as she took the air daily in her light carriage. Everybody recognized her as Mrs. Alexander, the mother of Mrs. Blair, but nobody accosted her or expected recognition from her because she was known to be blind. What should have brought this elderly lady to Camp Jackson? Was it simply the Negro coachman gratifying some curiosity of his own?
A couple of hours later, as Blair was sitting in the porch of the southern house of the arsenal, chatting with Colonel Simmons and a few other friends, the Jenny Lind carriage drove up, and the familiar figure, in its black gown and veil, alighted and came up the steps. It was natural enough that Blair should greet his wife’s mother and escort her into the house. But as they stepped upon the threshold, a slight uplifting of the bombazine skirt disclosed a sturdy pair of cavalry boots to the eyes of Colonel Simmons and another gentleman, who glanced at each other significantly but said never a word.
Had the close veil been lifted, it would have revealed the short red beard and piercing blue eyes of Nathaniel Lyon, the "little Connecticut abolitionist," as some called him.
Next morning there rode up to the picket line at Independence an old apple-woman, whose gray hair and much of her face was nearly hidden by an old-fashioned and faded sun-bonnet. Spectacles half hid her eyes and a basket on her arm was laden with beets, beans and apples.
The left rein was leather but a rope replaced the right.
"Good morning, grandmother," bantered the first picket. "Does the rebel crop need any rain out in your country?"
The sergeant at the reserve post seized her bridle, and looking up said: "Were you younger and prettier, I might kiss you."
"Were I younger and prettier, I might box your ears for your impudence."
"Oh, ho! You old she-wolf, what claws you have for scratching!" he retorted and reached for her hand.
The quick move she made started the horse suddenly, or he might have been surprised to feel that hand.
But the horse was better than apple-women usually ride, and that aroused some suspicion at Col. Buell's headquarters, so that the ride out was interrupted by a mounted picket who galloped alongside and again her bridle was seized.
The sergeant and eight men of the guard were perhaps thirty paces back.
"What will you have?" asked the apple-woman. "I am but a poor lone woman going peaceably to my home."
"Didn't you hear the sergeant call for you, d--n you?" answered the sentinel.
A spurred boot under the ragged skirt pierced the horse's flank; the hand that came from the apple basket fired the cocked pistol almost before the sentry knew it, and the picket fell dead.
The reserve stood as if stupefied. That night I gave Quantrell, for Col. Hays, a plan showing the condition of affairs in Independence. The morning of the 11th the attack was made and Col. Buell, his force shot to pieces, surrendered.
The apple-woman's expedition had been a success.
Edwards again, this time with a Union soldier who’s a real cutie-pie. The Confederate guerrillas raided a bawdy house and used a trick to separate the 11 Federal soldiers inside from the 5 prostitutes. However, this resulted in only 10 dead Federals. . .and now there were 6 women. According to Edwards, Frank James spared the imposter’s life.
East of Wellington four miles there was a large house occupied by some lewd women notorious for their favors and their enticements. Poole knew the situation well, and suggested to Jarrett that a sufficient detour should be made to encompass the building. Arriving there about eleven o'clock at night, it appeared from the outside as if some kind of a frolic was going on. Lights shone from many of the windows. Music could be heard occasionally and the sound of dancing feet. Frank James crept to a back door, peered in for a few moments, and counted five women and eleven men. Some of the men were in the laps of the women, and some were so close to them that to risk a volley would be murderous. The Guerrillas waited an hour for a more favorable opportunity to fire, but waited in vain. At no time without hitting a woman could they make sure of shooting more than a single man, but Jarrett solved the problem speedily. He was dressed in Federal uniform, and after placing his men so as to cut off from the house its occupants if they once came outside, he rode boldly up to the fence in front of the premises and cried:
"Hello!" A soldier came to the door with a gun in his hand and answered him. Jarrett, authoritatively and positively, continued: "Who are you that come to this place in defiance of every order issued for a month? What business have you here tonight? Who gave you permission to come? Where are your passes? Come out to me that I may read them?"
Thinking Jarrett a provost captain scouting for runaways from the Lexington garrison, ten of the eleven militiamen started confidently for the fence, receiving when half way the crushing fire of twenty concealed Guerrillas. In a space four blankets might have covered, the ten fell and died, only one of the lot discharging a weapon or making the least pretence at resistance. Frank James counted them, stooping to do so, and as he arose he remarked, sententiously: "There are but ten here; awhile ago there were eleven." The building was entered, searched from bottom to top, minutely examined in every nook and corner-no soldier. The women were questioned one at a time and separately. They knew only that when the man at the fence called the whole party went out together. Frank James, whose impassive face had from the first expressed neither curiosity nor doubt, spoke up again and briefly. "Awhile ago I counted but five women, now there are six." Save four sentinels on duty at either end of the main road, the Guerrillas had gathered together in the lower large room of the dwelling house. The fire had burned low, and was fitful and flickering. Where there had been half a dozen candles there were now only two. "Bring more," said Poole, "and we will separate this wolf from the ewes." "Aye, if we have to strip the lot," spoke up a coarse voice in the crowd." "Silence!" cried Jarrett, laying a hand upon a pistol, and turning to his men in the shadow, "not a woman shall be touched. We are wild beasts, yes; but we war on wild beasts.
More lights were brought, and with a candle in each hand Poole went from woman to woman, scanning the face of each long and searchingly, and saying, when he had finished, "I give it up. If one of the six here is a man, let him keep his dress and his scalp." Frank James, just behind Poole, had inspected each countenance also as the candles passed before it, and when Poole had done speaking, he laid a finger upon a woman's shoulder and spoke as one having authority. “This is the man. If I miss my reckoning, shoot me dead.” The marvelous nerve, which up to this time had stood with the militiaman as a shield and a defense, deserted him when the extremity came, and he turned ghastly white, trembled to his feet, and fell, sobbing and praying, upon his knees. Horrified by the slaughter of his comrades in the yard, and afraid to rush from the house lest he be shot down also, he hurriedly put on the garments of one of the women, composed his features as best he could, and awaited in agonized suspense the departure of the Guerrillas. Almost a boy, his smooth, innocent face was fresher and fairer than the face of any real woman there: His hair, worn naturally long and inclined to be brown, was thick and fine. The dress hid his feet, or the boots would have betrayed him at the start. Not knowing that an observation had been made before the firing, and the numbers accurately taken of both men and women, he hoped to brave it through and laugh afterwards and tell to his messmates how near death had passed to him and did not stop.
Among other prisoners who received much attention was Captain Hampton Boone, a very handsome young man and a great favorite with the ladies. One day some of his lady friends brought in a suit of feminine attire, and dressed Boone in it, to attempt an escape. He refused to take off his cavalry boots and don the slippers they had provided for him. He thought the boots would be of value to him if he succeeded in escaping. At the outside door a guard stood on either side of the three steps leading to the street. As Boone passed out with a lady on either side of him the wind blew his dress to one side and exposed his boots to the gaze of the guard. After Boone had walked a few steps the guard started after him and Boone ran down Broadway. When he started running he began tearing the dress off with both hands. He tore off the outside skirt, but a big, old-fashioned hoop skirt, then the height of fashion, was like a birdcage and he could not tear it off. As he sprang from the street to the pavement one foot went through the hoop skirt and he turned a double somersault upon the pavement, one guard falling over him. This ended his exhibition of speed. It was in the afternoon and the streets were filled with people. Everyone laughed, including Boone. He came back swinging his poke bonnet by the strings, a guard on each side of him.
©2001 G. E. Rule
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