The Lady with Spurs
Excerpted and introduced by G. E. Rule, from “The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War”, by John Fiske, 1900
|Further Reading: Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon
by Christopher Phillips
Frank Blair: Lincoln’s Conservative by William Earl Parrish
John Fiske was a well-known chronicler of the history of the United States with many books to his credit. His “The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War” starts in St. Louis, but quickly moves elsewhere. This book originated from a series of lectures Fiske gave in St. Louis in 1886 in support of a fund dedicated to erecting a monument to U.S. Grant. These lectures were hosted by William Tecumseh Sherman. Fiske clearly believes that the Civil War was won in the West, and that the Union victories in Missouri in 1861-1862 were indispensable preconditions to that victory.
“The Lady With Spurs” tells the famous story of Nathaniel Lyon’s masquerading as an old woman to scout the Missouri State Guard encampment at Camp Jackson on May 9th, 1861. This unorthodox scouting mission lead directly to the Union Safety Committee’s decision to demand the surrender of Camp Jackson on pain of immediate assault. While many believe the story, and many do not (how does a man with a beard –even if veiled—manage to successfully pose as a woman?), this is one of the few accounts that actually supplies first-hand witnesses to bolster its credibility. The second section is Fiske’s footnote giving his sources. These would seem to be nearly unassailable.
A fine cordial hospitality was dispensed at the camp in those balmy days of early May. The surgeon of [Francis P.] Blair’s regiment had dined there on the 8th, and he could have told anybody, says [Missouri State Guard] General [D.M] Frost, “that it was a very attractive place, because he saw it filled with the fairest of Missouri’s daughters, who from morn to dewy eve threaded its mazes in company with their sons, brothers, and lovers. He could also have described the beautiful United States flag which waved its folds in the breeze from the flagstaff over my tent.” One of the visitors next day came in a light open carriage then known as a “Jenny Lind,” and was leisurely driven by a coloured 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.
* * *
In my opening lecture at St. Louis, April 15, 1886, I mentioned the fact of Lyon’s visiting Camp Jackson disguised in woman’s clothes. For this statement I was taken to task in some of the newspapers, which derided it as an “old woman’s story”, too absurd for belief. I was thereupon assured by several members of the Blair family, friends of mine, that the story, although an old woman’s, was literally true. In proof thereof General Blair’s son, Francis Preston Blair III, took me to call upon his grandmother, Mrs. Alexander, a fine old lady of eighty-three. From her lips I heard the story, just as I have above given it, and she showed me the bombazine gown and close veil which she had lent to Lyon. As to the Simmons incident, it was told me by Colonel Simmons himself, who was soon afterward on Lyon’s staff, and at a later date on the staff of General Rosecrans at Stone River.