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Monday, July 14, 2014

Battlefield Dispatches No. 275: 'Femme-fa-tale' spies, smugglers and escape artists

Friday, July 29, 2011

During the Civil War, women of the north and south often used their guile, wile and wits serving as scouts, spies and smugglers for both the north and south. The women of the Mayfield family from near Montevallo, Vernon County, Mo., were some of the most famous or infamous, depending on one's point of view, and brazen Southern spies and smugglers between 1861 and 1865. The following description of some of their exploits is located on Pages 337 -- 341 in the 1887 History of Vernon County.

"Every member of the Mayfield family was pro-Confederate, from the mother to the youngest child, there was no exception. Even the daughters became strong partisans and rendered active and valuable service for the (Southern) cause. Their experience, while painful upon the whole, was highly thrilling, perilous and interesting and ought to be related in full, without exaggeration or embellishment.

The oldest three of the Mayfield sisters, Ella, Sallie and Leonora, were married when the war came on. The husbands of all three wore the gray. Sallie's husband, D.P. McGiboney, was killed Feb. 7, 1862, in a fight with Kansas troops, who did not bury the body for three days and then tossed it into a shallow grave, near the bank of a small stream. Some time afterward, the young widow -- she was then but 23, although the mother of two children -- exhumed the body herself and carted it to the old Montevallo graveyard, where it was re-interred March 10, after another exposure of five days.

Leonora's husband, John Gabbert, was a partisan ranger and was killed on April 23, 1863, by a Federal scouting party from either the 6th Kansas or 3rd Wisconsin on the road between the Gabbert farm and old Montevallo. He was but 24 years of age, and his wife was much younger. Ella was separated by the war from her husband, a Mr. Philips, and in the spring of 1863, she was married to a noted bushwhacker named David Majors of Cass County, but she was invariably known as Ella Mayfield.

The Mayfield sisters were scouts, spies, guides and couriers as the occasion demanded. In August of 1862, when so many Vernon County men were in prison at Springfield, Mo., captured during Coffee's Campaign, Ella Mayfield and Miss Eliza Gabbert went unattended to the prison and, by their persistent intercession with the federal military authorities, secured the release of half a dozen or more men. Lt. Joe Woods, who was a prisoner at the same time, furnished them with money to pay their hotel bills while in Springfield, but other assistance they had none.

Young John McNeil was in prison, practically with a rope around his neck. He had twice taken the oath of loyalty and had been captured in arms (with firearms) when Camp and the four others were killed near Montevallo. Ella Mayfield saved him by pleading with the kind-hearted Provost Marshal Col. T. A. Switzler and the genial Adjutant Kirk, averring that young McNeil was her lover and that it would break her heart if her "true love" were kept in that cruel prison.

A pretty girl pleading for her lover's liberty is usually irresistible, and this case was no exception to the rule. McNeil was released upon taking another oath and went away with his alleged "sweetheart," a woman he had never seen before.

Mrs. Sallie McGiboney or "Sallie Mayfield," now Mrs. Morgan of Kansas City, was another of the "Mayfield girls" celebrated in the annals of the Civil War in Vernon County. After the death of her husband, she devoted herself to helping the confederate cause, and as the guerrilas and bushwhackers were generally the only exponents of that cause in this quarter, she helped them when she could.

About the 1st of July 1864, Sallie Mayfield, her 16-year-old sister Jeannie Mayfield, Mrs. Nancy Burrus and Miss Nannie McConnell were out riding with a squad of bushwhackers. The party was going to the site of Old Montevallo and was riding up the valley to the southward, when they came upon a detachment of Co. C, 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry, out from Balltown on a scout. The bushwhackers un-gallantly deserted their charges and sought only to save themselves. Deserted by their cavaliers, the women did their best to escape, and Nannie McConnell succeeded. The two Mayfield girls and Nancy Burrus were captured. Being found in company with the bushwhackers, they were first taken to Balltown (north of Nevada on the south bank of the Little Osage River) and kept three days; then to Fort Scott, where they were detained for a week; then to Kansas City, where they were kept for another week and finally sent to St. Louis, where they were first placed in the Gratiot Street Prison (McDowell Medical College) and afterwards transferred to the Confederate Female Prison on the corner of Seventh and Chestnut Streets. Miss Burrus was released, on taking the loyalty oath in Kansas City.

At 2 o'clock on the morning of the 19th of October, the Mayfield girls made their escape from the Seventh and Chestnut Street Prison, accomplishing a most remarkably skillful and successful feat, but at the same time one full of difficulty and peril. They were imprisoned in a room in the third story of the building, with other Confederate girls and women.

Sallie Mayfield fashioned a screwdriver from a table knife, which she had secreted and opened the door of the room by taking off its hinges. Then, carrying their shoes, she and her young sister slipped noiselessly down the stairways, passing safely the drowsy sentinel snoozing on the landing.

The door opening from the foot of the stairway on to the street was a formidable one, with heavy bolts and bars, and there was a soldier on guard upon the outside pacing his beat with his musket on his shoulder. Drawing the bolts and forcing the lock with some difficulty, the girls waited until they heard the sentinel turn the corner of the street and start to walk the pavement on the other side of the building fronting on Chestnut, when they quickly stepped out on Seventh Street, closing the door behind them, and tripped away.

They walked the streets until daylight. Unacquainted with the city and not daring to ask for assistance, they encountered all sorts of difficulties and had many narrow escapes.

At last they contrived to reach the track of the old North Missouri Railroad (now the Wabash), on which they walked nearly to St. Charles and eventually reached some friends in the western part of St. Charles County. Not long afterward, they were forced to leave this retreat and repaired to the residence of their mother in Morgan County."

Such were some of the episodes and adventures of the Mayfield sisters from Vernon County, Mo., during the Civil War.

Next week the escapades of Miss Mary Ann Pittman, who was both a Confederate and Union spy and used the alias of "Mollie Hayes" will be described, and, of course, the war went on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches