Who was Turner anyway?

Who was Turner anyway?

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A. Quick Look at…The Rhea County Spartans

A. Quick Look at the Rhea County Spartans

The all-girl Rhea County Spartans was a unit of young women from prominent families who refused to sit idly by when their fathers and sweethearts went off to war. Their home county, located in Eastern Tennessee, had raised seven Confederate companies—but also a single Union company. One local Federal sympathizer, a Rhea County farmer named John Walker, managed to dodge the Confederate draft and joined the 6th Tennessee Mounted Infantry, a Union company raised in Chattanooga.

The Rhea County Spartans were formed in the summer of 1862, headed by Captain Mary McDonald and her sister-in-law, First Lieutenant Caroline McDonald; their 1st Sergeant was Jane Catherine Keith and her adopted sister, Sarah E. “Sallie” Mitchell was 3rd Sgt. Jane’s two sisters Mary and Maggie also joined the Spartans. There are twenty-six members known by name, but some say that over a hundred ladies served in the petticoat brigade, riding side-saddle to aid their men in the war.

By the summer of 1863, Union troops had moved into the area. The presence of Burnside’s Ninth Corps forced the Spartans to meet clandestinely, mostly at churches around the McDonalds’ hometown of Washington. In December 1864, the area was firmly under Union control. However, Confederate guerrillas still struck blows for the secessionist cause.

Captain John Walker returned home to Rhea County with his company, the 6th Tennessee. Part of their mission was to combat Confederate bushwhackers, and Walker knew which locals were most likely to provide the guerrillas with aid. By April of 1865, the war was nearly done, but Captain Walker targeted the Rhea County Spartans and had the girls arrested. The ones who were unable to escape their pursuers were marched through the mud, while their Union captors rode. Upon reaching Bell’s Landing on the Tennessee River, they were herded onto the U.S.S. Chattanooga, which offered no quarters suitable for young women save for a small dining room that had been cleared to its furnishings. The exhausted Spartans slept on the floor. The boat took them to Chattanooga, where they were marched to the provost marshal’s office and forced to take the Union oath of allegiance. Having given their word, the Spartans were allowed to freshen up at the Central House Hotel and eat a meal, courtesy of the Army. Walker was ordered to escort the girls home, but he abandoned them at Bell’s Landing, leaving them to make their own way back. The war soon ended, and the Spartans slipped into obscurity, all but forgotten by the time their story was told in Confederate Veteran magazine in 1911.

This one’s for the girls.

© 2015 Anita Quick, All Rights Reserved.

This article was originally published in the January-February 2015 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Sheila Porter, Editor.