union spy

ELIZABETH STILES donned the costume she wore as a Union spy and posed for a picture sometime after her service to the Union ended in 1864. Elizabeth was born in Ashtabula County and spent the first 21 years of her life here.

The knock at the cabin door came late in the October evening 149 years ago. Elizabeth Stiles, cracked open the door, advanced her lantern into the darkness and surveyed the mass of Union soldiers in front of her.

  Although she did not recognize any of men, their uniforms put Elizabeth at ease. Shawneetown, situated on the Kansas-Missouri border, was a dangerous, bloody place to live in 1862. There was constant violence over the issue of slavery, and outlaws roamed the countryside inflicting terror and death upon those who favored the preservation of the Union.

  The most feared of these was Charles Quantrill and his gang, which included Jesse James. One historian/author called Quantrill “the bloodiest man in American history.”

Elizabeth, a school teacher who was born and raised in Ashtabula Village, had reason to be especially cautious. Fiercely patriotic and committed to the Union, she dabbled in espionage while posing as a nurse who cared for sick and injured Union soldiers. Perhaps it was for that purpose that the Union soldiers were calling upon their home this evening.

No, the men simply needed directions, information that her husband, Jacob, would be able to provide. Would she be so kind as to ask him to step outside?

George Todd of Kansas City was the first to approach Jacob as he came out to see what all the ruckus was about.

“What’s your politics?” Todd asked.

“Union,” Jacob said.

Todd shot and killed Jacob on the spot.

Another man, whom Elizabeth recognized as a former neighbor, stepped forward, placed the muzzle of his gun against Jacob’s mouth and shot him again.

The uniforms were thus but a disguise that Quantrill’s men hid behind as they delivered their package of terror to Shawneetown that night. Fearing for the safety of her children, Elizabeth returned to the house, but Quantrill and several of his men soon had her cornered therein.

One of the guerillas pulled his gun and put it next to her temple.

Quantrill intervened.

“Let her go, boys. She’s too pretty to shoot!”

Important work

Ten months later, President Abraham Lincoln sent word to Elizabeth, who was staying at Fort Leavenworth, that he had some “important work for her to do.”  Elizabeth placed her two youngest children in a Washington D.C. school and, with her 13-year-old daughter, Clara, at her side, took the oath of service to her country.

“I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers under whom I may be employed.”

Sewed into her dress was the letter of introduction, dated Aug. 19, 1863, that Lincoln wrote to Secretary of War Stanton: “Sec. of War, please refer the bearer, Mrs. Stiles, to the proper place, if there is any, to present her claim for property destroyed by the Rebels. Also her application for employment.”

While Elizabeth was officially a military nurse, that was but a subterfuge for her real purpose, espionage. The lady was a spy.

Corker’s daughter

Born on Bunker hill in East Ashtabula, on Aug. 21, 1816, Elizabeth was one of 10 children born to John “Corker” Brown and his wife, whose name history has not recorded. While in slang use a “corker” is a remarkable person, John’s nickname came from his occupation — he caulked the seams of wooden ships. Brown also farmed, and according to the “History of the Western Reserve,” his place was in the neighborhood of the “top of the Harmon Hill” on the east side of Ashtabula Village.

Both Corker and his wife instilled valuable skills in their daughter, who by the age of 5 could ride horseback and handle a gun. Her aim was more accurate than many of the boys of her age, the result of Corker patiently working with to develop the skill.

From her mother, Elizabeth gained a knowledge of nursing, no doubt a necessity when raising a large family in the relative wilderness of East Ashtabula 190 years ago.

Described as physically attractive as well as intelligent and independent, Elizabeth departed Ashtabula County at the age of 21 and headed for Chicago. For nine years, she supported herself by teaching and working as a seamstress. She and Jacob married circa 1846, and it appears they did not have any children of their own. However, after the death of her sister, Emmaline L. Dolph, in 1858, Jacob and Elizabeth adopted Emmaline’s young’s children, Clara and George. They completed their family with the adoption of another, younger girl, Sara, at some point before moving to Shawneetown, Kansas, in 1859.

In Kansas, Elizabeth continued her work as a teacher who was determined to uphold the Union to her students. To that end, when the students paraded from the school to a picnic ground for an outing, Elizabeth carried an American flag as she led the procession.

That event caught the attention of the pro-slavery residents, and at some point along the parade route, a note was slipped to Elizabeth: “If this parade is repeated you may expect a coat of tar and feathers.”

Elizabeth ignored the threat and proceeded to repeat the display of patriotism that afternoon. That night, Quantrill’s raiding party raided Shawneetown and killed Jacob Stiles.

Old southern lady

“I have known the bearer, Mrs. E. W. Stiles, since the breaking out of this rebellion, when she commenced the service of the Government, as a Spy and Secret Agent on this Border,” stated the June 23, 1863, letter form Capt. George H. Hoyt, Kansas Volunteer Calvary. “...I cheerfully recommend her to all Commanding officers as one who only needs to be tried once to be permanently employed.”

The work of a Civil War nurse was difficult enough without taking on the added stress and responsibility of being a spy. The stench of decaying flesh, disease and death was inescapable. Nurses had the gruesome task of changing the dressings of the wounds and amputations of the pain-wracked bodies while trying to calm the traumatized minds. In a pinch, Elizabeth was even called upon to perform a few “minor” amputations.

Nevertheless, one can imagine that seeing a spouse murdered in cold blood has a way of putting things into perspective, and no doubt the memory of that drove Elizabeth to take extraordinary risks and travel hundreds of miles through 19 states, many of them at war with her employer.

As a spy, Elizabeth assumed the role of an old Southern woman whose mission was to find the wounded father of her granddaughter (actually daughter), Clara, who accompanied Elizabeth on the forays.

Elizabeth’s spy garb included a granny cap, powder to whiten her hair and a pipe. She completed her deception with a southern accent that fooled even General Sterling Price of the Confederate Army.

Arrested at Jefferson City, Mo., Elizabeth was brought before Price on suspicion of being a Union spy. After recovering from his initial shock of seeing that the spy was a female, Price questioned Elizabeth at length about her background. We don’t know what kind of stories Elizabeth concocted, but by the time their tête-à-tête was over, Price was convinced that Elizabeth was indeed a spy — for the Rebels! Stiles ended his interrogation by apologizing to Elizabeth, then ordered a meal for her and supplied a fresh horse to replace the one his troops had confiscated. And, to further demonstrate his trust in her, Price gave her a better gun, to boot.

Elizabeth, a crack shot whose circle of friends included Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok, had no reservations about using a firearm to protect herself and Clara. According to her obituary, which appeared in the Kansas City Journal, Clara and Elizabeth were riding along the Kansas-Missouri border one night when Clara fell asleep on her horse. As she dozed, a soldier approached and attempted to arrest them. Clara awoke to the sound of a pistol firing and the sight of her mother regaining her composure.

To gain access to privileged information, Elizabeth also worked in Confederate hospitals as a nurse. This provided her access to the doctors’ medicine bags, where strategic information was often  concealed. Once Elizabeth had obtained some valuable information through this route, she and Clara went AWOL.

Likewise, Elizabeth took advantage of the loose lips of Confederate soldiers who sought to drink away the horrors of war. Slipping into a tavern, the old southern woman was all ears to their stories, which she exported in loaves of bread or  pieces of paper concealed in her “built-up” hairdo.

The extremes to which Elizabeth would go to get information were amazing. When she learned that a dirty building with a hog pen on the back would be the location of a nighttime meeting of commanders, Elizabeth climbed through the hog pen and hid therein through most of the night, listening through a crack in the boards to the conversations inside the building.

Full circle

After more than a year of living a double life, Elizabeth and Clara resigned their positions in November 1864. The recommendation came from the provost marshal in St. Louis, because the women had become ‘known to the rebel sympathizers of the city as Government employees.’”

Elizabeth Stiles slipped into obscurity as quietly as slipped behind the enemy lines during her years as a spy. Her son, George Dolph, cared for her in his Venango, Pa., home until 1895, when Elizabeth entered the Women’s Relief Corps Home in Madison. The home provided shelter for destitute female relatives of Civil War soldiers, and Elizabeth spent the last three years of her life as a resident there.

When she died July 18, 1898, Elizabeth’s treasured letter from Abraham Lincoln was still among her possessions. The Western Reserve Historical Society purchased the letter from a family member in the 1940s.

Elizabeth Stiles, the woman who was “too pretty to shoot,” is buried in a cemetery near the former Women’s Relief Corps Home on Middle Ridge Road, Madison.

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