Pistols and Petticoats–The Moon Sisters

Ginnie Moon

The Rain Crow, the novel I’m currently working on, is about a woman from Luray, Virginia who has a small plantation and boarding school and agrees to become a Confederate spy. As fertile as my imagination is at times, I confess I can’t match some things that actually took place during the Civil War. It would be easy to write a book on the Moon sisters alone.

Long before the first shot was fired at Ft. Sumter, secret intelligence operatives were being placed for what would become the Confederate States in case worse came to worse and the union was dissolved. It had been coming to worse for years.

The Moon sisters were from an old Virginia family, but had been raised in Oxford, Ohio very unconventionally. Though they knew how to act like ladies, whether they did depended on their mood and need. They could be pistol-shooting, horse-racing hellions, but they were unfailing kind and compassionate, always doing favors for friends.

When the war started, Ginnie was seventeen and breathtakingly gorgeous. Her older sister Lottie was thirty-two and married. She’d been to the altar twice. The first time was with a stout, kind young lieutenant named Ambrose Burnside. They planned a large ceremony with all the trimmings. That was the plan. Ambrose pledged to love and cherish her as long as long as they both should live. The minister turned to Lottie and asked her if she would take Ambrose to be her lawful wedded husband. After a long, uncomfortable pause, she exclaimed, “No, siree, Bob, I won’t!” and stormed out of the church.

A few months later, on January 30, 1849, she was scheduled to marry attorney James Clark in the Moon house. James met Lottie upstairs to escort her down the stairs. Fully aware of her history with Burnside, he came prepared. He pulled a small pistol from his pocket and pressed it into her back saying, “Lottie, there will be a wedding here tonight or a funeral tomorrow.” The marriage lasted thirty-two years.

When the war started, Ginnie was a student at the Oxford Female Institute. Her father had died and her mother had moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Ginnie had no intentions of staying in the north with war upon them, but the superintendent refused to allow her to leave. She responded by taking out her pearl-handled pistol and shooting out the stars one-by-one of the flag in the courtyard. He packed her trunks and had her delivered to her sister.

Her sister got her first chance to serve the south in late 1862 when Confederate operative Walker Taylor appeared at their house. He was traveling as a mule buyer, and needed to deliver dispatches from Mississippi to Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in Kentucky. Taylor was well known in Cincinnati and knew he would be apprehended, so he could go no farther. Lottie volunteered to get the messages through.

Disguised first as an old Irish washwoman, she enlisted sympathies of Irishmen to smuggle her aboard a train to get to her poor, darlin’, dyin’ Irish husband. At Lexington, she followed the Pike until she found a Confederate officer she recognized and begged Colonel Scott to get the information to  General Smith. He didn’t recognize her in her disguise, but finally agreed to take the papers.

Back on the train, she heard rumors a female spy was on board and broke down in tears. Elderly General Coombs, oddly enough a captain of spies in the War of 1812 and a strong Union man, was in front of her. He tried to calm her and asked her what was wrong. She sobbed she’d heard they were looking for female spies and was afraid someone would mistake her for one. She collapsed into tears again. He assured her he would take care of her and slipped her off the train at Covington. From Cincinnati, she walked nineteen miles to get home.

And so the Moon sisters’ lives were set.

Lottie went north to Toronto to support the Confederate effort to play courier and acted her way out of danger more than once.

Ginnie went to Memphis to live with her mother, where she helped her mother roll bandages and nurse wounded soldiers. Her service was cut short in the summer of 1862 when the Union army captured Memphis. No shrinking violet, she turned her skills to drawing out secrets from Union officers anxious to impress the southern beauty. She smuggled out provisions and secrets, including an entire casket of medical supplies once while playing the bereaved relative.

She rode out night after night to report to General Nathan Bedford Forrest with pertinent information to keep the wizard of the saddle leading the Union army on wild goose chases. His lightning fast strikes were devastating and demoralizing and made possible in large part to his intelligence operatives.

In late December 1862, she traveled to Ohio to deliver a message for General Sterling Price to a southern sympathetic group. Judge Clark, Lottie’s husband who had years before gone to the altar with a pistol at his bride’s back, supported the south, but had remained in the north. Ginnie and her mother stayed with Judge Clark. Lottie was still in Toronto. The Union commander had some suspicions of the family and planted an young operative amongst Ginnie’s many admirers. Though he was so agreeable they invited him to spend several days with them, all he saw was the ladies industriously sewing quilts. They never let anything slip though Ginnie seemed quite friendly to him. He had nothing to report. Still, he asked the steamboat captain to delay them when Ginnie and her mother boarded the Alice Dean.

Though they carried a great deal of supplies and other information, the dispatch from the Knights of the Golden Circle hidden in her bodice was most important. She saw a Union officer looking at room numbers and asking for her. The captain pointed her out, whereupon the officer escorted her to her stateroom. Once there he locked the door, introduced himself as Captain Harrison Rose of the customs house. He handed her a note identifying her as a dangerous Confederate operative and demanding her arrest.

“Now,” said Rose, “I will search you.”

“Ridiculous,” she replied. “You, a man, ordered to search me? I will never endure it.”

“Well, how can you help it?”

She pulled a revolver from a pocket hidden in a slit in her petticoat and leveled it at him across a washstand. “If you make a move to touch me, I’ll kill you, so help me God!”

They were at an impasse.

Knowing she couldn’t hold him off forever, she asked him if General Burnside knew what he was doing. She had known him since she was five years old and she was quite sure he would not approve. She threatened to report him to Burnside.

Ginnie had been quite fond of him and called him Buttons because of the brass buttons on his uniform. He had brought her candy each time he called on her sister, but that was years ago. Lottie had left him at the altar and Burnside was known for treating southern sympathizers harshly.

The officer relented, but said he would be back and they would be searched in his office. He took her gun and baggage and ordered a carriage. She dipped the incriminating messages hidden in her bodice in water, rolled them in balls, and swallowed them. Had they been found, the three men signing the agreement would have been hanged. The two women and their trunks were escorted off the boat.

He returned to escort them off the boat and mumbled to Ginnie, “I suppose you feel like hurrahing for Jeff Davis.”

She raised her arm in the air and proclaimed, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!”

The trunks contained fifty letters to southerners and a ball of opium. Captain Kemper, who was in charge of the search asked her what they were doing with opium.

“My mother needs it,” Ginnie replied.

Mrs. Moon sat straight-backed in a chair and refused to speak.

Kemper laughed.

Ginnie said, “She might be under the influence of it right now.”

He then ripped open a quilt and out tumbled quinine, opium, and morphine. All drugs were badly needed in the south. Another officer came in and caught Ginnie’s hoopskirts in the door. They, unfortunately, clanked when he caught them and that led to another search revealing a more massive stash of medicines and fifty letters to Confederate officers.

Kemper arrested Ginnie and her mother, but he was unsure where to take them. Ginnie asked where Burnside was staying and said they would be taken to him or nowhere.

It was a gamble. Burnside was about to issue an order making helping the confederacy a death penalty and his harshness to sympathizers was already known.

Burnside took over the matter of trying Ginnie and her mother. He even chided her for not asking him for a pass. In the meantime, they remained under house arrest at Burnet House, but Burnside’s officers paid court to the beautiful eighteen-year-old, several even tendering marriage proposals.

Three weeks after becoming a prisoner, Burnside returned her pistol and paroled Ginnie and her mother to Memphis. They were to report to Maj. Gen. Hurlbut once there.

Once back in Memphis, Ginnie returned to her flirtatious ways and was soon gathering information from Union officers and passing it on to couriers. She gathered enough information to change the outcome of battles. She stirred up so much trouble Hurlbut ordered her out of Union territory never to return.

She eventually wound up in Danville, Virginia. Her brother took ill and had to leave the army. He decided to sit out the war in France with his family. He urged Ginnie to join them. Ginnie traveled to Newport News, Virginia to leave for Europe. General Benjamin Butler discovered them and demanded they swear an oath of allegiance to the Union before they could leave. The sister-in-law did, but Ginnie refused.

Butler had her arrested and imprisoned at Fort Monroe. There she wooed several prison guards and in general stirred up trouble to the point they felt she was more dangerous in prison than out and set her free, sending her back to the Confederacy.

The war ended in 1865 and she mostly wore black silk the remainder of her days. She was a one-woman charity force, raising money for the poor, sick, and under privileged. In 1919, she went with one of her foster children, a successful actress, to Hollywood and asked a producer for a job. He asked her what made her think she could act. She replied she was 75 and had played all parts. He hired her.

She died in Greenwich Village September 11, 1925


  1. That is an amazing story! Thanks for sharing it, I really enjoyed reading it. I think some of the things that happen in real life would not be acceptable in fiction because people wouldn’t believe it!

  2. Barb,

    Oh, I’m sure if I wrote half of this stuff in Rain Crow people would scoff at me. The funny thing is, many things I do include actually happened and people say they don’t think that could have happened.

    I spent the day reading about Frank Stringfellow who was one of JEB Stuart’s scouts and spies. He more than once disguised himself quite convincingly as a young lady.

    Thanks so much for stopping by.


  3. Lilac, thank you so much. Well, I think the Moon sisters were kind of hard to mess up. They were so remarkable.

    Cody is trudging along. He’ll be in therapy for a while, but thank goodness his fingers are saved. Thank you so much for asking.


  4. Julie, you are very welcome, my dear. Good to know he’ll be in therapy, and thank goodness his fingers are saved. Sending more blessings his way for a rapid and gentle recovery. <3

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