Eyewitness 1863: Female teen is accused of being Southern spy

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Mary J. Prater was wearing the uniform of a Union cavalryman when she was arrested in 1863 on suspicion of being a spy for the Confederacy.

Interviewed by a reporter from The Pittsburgh Post, she said she was neither a teenaged Mata Hari nor a jilted girlfriend. "We asked her if she had not followed a lover into the army, when she asserted positively that she had not, but had gone for mere love of adventure," according to the May 8 edition of the newspaper.

Prater was not shy about her family's support for the rebels or about anything else. The story describes her as "a plump, good featured specimen of sweet sixteen or seventeen, but so far gone in depravity that it was painful to listen to her."

"She swore like a trooper, and dipped snuff like a -- well, here our simile fails us," the reporter wrote.

Prater told the reporter that she had two siblings serving in the Southern army, and "she did not want her brothers to hear of her disgrace," referring to her use of foul language. She indicated they would not be upset about her cross-dressing or the accusations of spying.

"[Swearing] was the only disgraceful act of which she was guilty, and she learned [it] in the army," the story said. "As she said this the proud blood rushed to her face, and her cheeks were suffused with blushes, being in marked contrast to her general deportment."

Prater originally was one of four women from the Wheeling area accused of espionage and put on trains that were to transport them to Washington, D.C.

When they and their guards arrived in Pittsburgh, however, two of the suspects, Mary Ann Sommer and Mary McKenzie, disappeared with two soldiers. Their new protectors -- an army captain and a sergeant -- promised to release the two women at Harrisburg if they agreed to serve as "traveling companions," according to the Post.

That left Prater, a second accused spy named Sarah E. Hays and an unidentified corporal stranded in Pittsburgh "to make the best arrangements they could." In what sounds like a scene from a bad movie, the corporal left them "while the deserted prisoners were left standing upon the platform of the depot."

The two women turned themselves in to a policeman, who took them to Capt. Edward S. Wright, the army provost marshal for Pittsburgh. He locked the pair in the city jail, "until he could receive orders from Wheeling."

"[There] behind the iron bars of their cell they bewail their unhappy fate," the story said. "They are poorly clad and the youngest complained of being cold."

The newspaper went on: "Efforts are being made to ascertain the whereabouts of the Captain and the Sergeant who have been guilty of such disgraceful conduct, and when taken they will certainly be court martialed, and punished with the greatest severity."

A few more details about Prater's adventures appear in "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War," a book by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook.

After Mary Jane Prater was taken prisoner in West Virginia's Kanawha Valley, she was jailed in Wheeling for several months. The army provost marshal there eventually sent her to Pennsylvania "with other women of the same sort."

"Prater did not like the company and did not like Pennsylvania," according to the book. She made her way east to Wellsburg, in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. "Dressed in male attire, she was arrested there and sent back to Wheeling, where she cursed a colonel." She was given 30 days in jail.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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