James W Erwin


Searching for Arms (Library of Congress)

                                                                          “She Adders” and Star-Crossed Lovers

   Communications between men serving in the Confederate Army and their families back home in Missouri was far more complicated than merely addressing a letter and mailing it. Correspondence with anyone in the rebellious states was prohibited. A person caught in Missouri sending or receiving a letter to Confederate soldier was subject to being tried by a military commission, and jailed or banished.

   But family bonds were too strong to be deterred by legal prohibitions or threatened penalties. A few intrepid women were not going to let Union soldiers prevent them, their families, or their friends from seeking and providing news to their kinfolk in the Southern armies.

   Lacking a mail service, the soldiers and their families turned to couriers. These men and women slipped across enemy lines carrying letters to families or instructions to or reports from spies. Among the most audacious was Absalom Grimes, a steamboat pilot before the war. He and an acquaintance, fellow pilot Samuel Clemens, were impressed into Federal service in May 1861 to pilot steamboats for the Union Army. They escaped to Hannibal. From there they joined the Ralls County Rangers, a makeshift secessionist company. Clemens left after a couple of weeks, and made his way to the Territory of Nevada, where he began his literary career.[1] Grimes remained in Confederate service. In 1862, he started acting as a mail courier, and boasted in his memoirs that he was the official courier for Sterling Price. Grimes had a network of women who would collect mail for the South and distribute letters he brought back from the Confederate army. Some posed as drummers for the merchants Scruggs and Barney – a predecessor of Scruggs, Vandevoort and Barney Department Store (which closed in 1969). Women would write to the “drummers,” ostensibly to order corsets and hosiery, and enclose the letters to be sent to their husbands, sons or fathers.

   Being a mail courier was a dangerous job. Grimes was captured and imprisoned on multiple occasions, successfully escaping each time until 1864 when he was wounded in the attempt. He was tried as a spy and condemned to death but was saved by the intervention of President Lincoln at the instance of a friendly priest and ceased acting as a courier.[2]

   It could be equally as perilous for civilians, as the experiences of Mary Cleveland of Auburn, Missouri and the Bagwell family of Macon County, Missouri illustrate.

   In 1863, Union soldiers burst into the home of Mary Cleveland. In searching the place, they found letters from her brother Charles then serving in a Missouri infantry regiment with General Price in Mississippi, letters she and her mother had written to him but had not yet sent, and letters from neighbors to their kin. Perhaps she could have talked her way out of serious trouble, but she had angry words with a Union captain. The local provost marshal sent Cleveland to St. Louis for trial on charges of corresponding with and helping others correspond with Confederate soldiers, and with helping a soldier who had returned home escape Federal authorities. Indeed, one of her letters noted that she took a teaching job in Auburn despite her own misgivings as to her qualifications for the express purpose of helping a man named Isaac elude Federal soldiers. She consoled herself with the knowledge that at least the job would pay her expenses in carrying out the operation. She was, however, ultimately charged only with the offenses of corresponding with, and assisting others to correspond with, the enemy.

   At trial, she declined to answer when questioned about the authors of the letters in her possession – even though a comparison of some of the letters with ones she admitted writing showed “without doubt” they were in her hand. Cleveland claimed she didn’t know who wrote other letters found in her house. She had to admit that she received a letter from her brother – it was addressed to “My Dear Sister.” She said her brother’s letter had been sent by a flag of truce, and that she had written Admiral Farragut to ask him to send a response back through a flag of truce.

   When pressed to swear that she knew nothing, Cleveland would only “affirm” the truth of her answers because she would not take any oath that involved the Almighty. Whether she feared divine retribution or simply perjury is not known. She declined to answer some questions “because I don’t want to.”

   The military commission received her testimony with extreme skepticism. A note in her file from one of those in attendance says that he had never seen a person “more willful & deceptive,” and that Cleveland was a “veritable ‘she adder.’” Cleveland was found guilty and sentenced to banishment beyond Union lines, despite her pleas for mitigation because her elderly mother was “melancholy” and “deranged.”

   Mary Cleveland was among forty persons who boarded a steamboat in St. Louis in May 1863 bound for Memphis and ultimately Confederate lines in Mississippi. Cleveland tried to charm her way back home with pleading letters and those of acquaintances in Missouri, but her efforts came to naught.[3]

   Postwar reminiscences confirm Cleveland’s guilt. Virginia Yates McCanne recalled that when the Union soldiers came to search the house, Cleveland stalled them while she burned most of the incriminating documents in the kitchen fireplace. The letters had been delivered by a “little old French woman” (one of Cleveland’s letters said it was a nun from the Sisters of Charity) who had them sewed into her petticoat. McCanne also confirmed that Cleveland helped at least one Confederate soldier home on furlough to escape.[4]

   James Bagwell, a 53-year old Kentuckian, was a wealthy merchant living in Woodville, Macon County, Missouri. He owned a store in nearby Macon City (now simply known as Macon). Bagwell earned notoriety in the neighborhood for having raised a rebel flag over his store after Fort Sumter was fired upon. Troops from the 1st Iowa Infantry regiment tore it down when they were sent to secure the railroad from guerrilla attacks in July 1861. When someone complained that the soldiers were being troublesome, he advised “do as I did [,] shoot the d__n pups and then they will let you alone.” It was a boast that he came to regret, for it cost Bagwell six weeks in jail, but he was paroled upon giving a $5000 bond secured by the pledge of his business partner, John F. Johnston. His Unionist neighbors regarded Bagwell as a “Rank Rebel,” and the local provost marshal called him “one of the greatest scoundrels in the State.”

   Bagwell kept himself out of further misfortune until early 1863 when he let slip to his clerk, a Union informant, that “his women folk were writing letters and he feared they would get him in trouble.”[5]

   Augusta Bagwell, age 32, and her stepdaughter Alzada – better known as Zaidee – age 20, had been living in the Olive Street Hotel in St. Louis since September 1862, perhaps to avoid the guerrilla warfare that plagued the rural areas of the state. In writing to Joseph Flanagan, a St. Charles railroad worker then serving as adjutant for the Second Missouri Infantry at Vicksburg, Augusta said: “I have been expecting a visitor for the last week – as they have been searching for our last courier. I feel very uneasy for fear they will catch one of our dear messengers of peace, for they are a great comfort to many a lonely hearthstone.” Zaidee also feared the courier would be caught. She noted that “Miss Lucy, ‘our intelligent contraband,’ watches everything so closely that we do nothing but lie.”

   Augusta and Zaidee were right to be worried. Apparently based upon either Bagwell’s slip of the tongue or a tip from Miss Lucy, the authorities in St. Louis raided their room. There they found 28 letters to Confederate soldiers from various families and a love letter from Zaidee to her beau, all of them serving in the Confederate Army near Vicksburg.

   In ordinary military courts martial, the charging documents were required to identify the exact Article of War the soldier was accused of violating. The charging documents in military commissions said little more than that the correspondent had violated the “laws of war,” without identifying which law of war, or where such a law could be found. Simply corresponding with the enemy, even one’s own husband, son or brother, was deemed contrary to the laws of war. Augusta and Zaidee were charged under these vague procedures for writing to, or assisting others in writing to, the enemy and with encouraging the enemy by such letters.

   James Bagwell sold his interest in the Macon City business to Johnston and came to St. Louis on May 2 to be near his family for their trials.  

   Augusta testified that she did write a letter to Flanagan in response to a letter she received from him. The exact relationship between Augusta and Flanagan isn’t clear. In the letter she calls herself his “adopted sister,” but whether that expresses a legal relationship or was merely a trope written by a friend cannot be told with certainty. It was dated February 4, 1863 and was probably written shortly after she and Zaidee arrived in St. Louis from a stay in Hannibal in January. Most likely, their visit consisted of more than social calls: they were gathering the letters to be turned over to the courier – possibly Absalom Grimes.

   When questioned as to how she sent and received the Flanagan letters, Augusta would only say that she got Flanagan’s letter from an “Irish woman whose name I do not know” and gave her reply to “a boy to be sent . . . I gave him no directions. I do not know in whose employ the boy was.” Most likely these were lies to protect the courier network. She “declined to answer” any questions about the letters she received for forwarding to others. The commission had little difficulty in convicting her of the offenses charged.[6]

   Zaidee’s crime was in writing her lover, “Darling Frank,” in the army, and sending him a pair of gloves and a photograph. The letter is by turns coy, flirtatious, and gossipy about events and acquaintances. Her “particular friend” seems to have been William F. Luckett, also a former North Missouri Railroad employee, now Ordnance Sergeant for the Second Missouri Infantry. Frank was apparently his middle name; the address on the envelope and on the letter inside state that it was to “Mr. W. F. Luckett.” Zaidee mentioned that she heard that Frank’s brother was killed. So far as is known, Frank did not have a brother. She might have mistaken his cousin Henry Luckett, mortally wounded at Pea Ridge for his brother, but one wonders how well she knew Frank to make such a mistake.[7]

   There is one other mention of her “Darling Frank.” A correspondent, identified only as “A Rebel” in a letter intercepted by Union authorities and later printed in the St. Joseph Morning Herald, wrote to her brother Willie in Price’s Army about events in Hannibal, including Augusta and Zaidee’s recent trip there. “Give my love to Buck L. and tell him to write Zaidee. She is nearly crazy to hear from him, and is as true as ever. . . . Zaidee has gone home, leaving several breaking hearts behind her. She was very much admired here.”[8]

   Zaidee’s letter to Frank or Buck (as the case may be) dated February 3, 1863, enclosed a letter from his mother. His mother also wrote Zaidee and said that “I might love you if I was a real good Rebel, and if that is all she asks of me I think you are my property.”

   Zaidee passed along the news that Emma Smith “has a gentleman waiting on her . . . of African descent, and she attends church with him.” Zaidee continued:

   To let you know how fast the negroes are getting along, I send you a marriage of one that was in the list of marriages, and that is just a specimen of the negro equality that is practiced among the negro-loving people. I hope to see the last one driven into Africa, where they can all live together and enjoy themselves in each other’s society.

   Presumably the most damning portions giving aid, comfort and encouragement read: 

   I do assure you that we rebels never felt so sure of a Southern Confederacy as we do now; and we so pray for the time to come when    our brave soldiers and bushwhackers will be released from their prisons and be free once more. There is now eight hundred prisoners in the Gratiot Street Prison, or (McDowell's College,) and so many of them have the small pox. There is a thousand in the Alton Prison, and they are almost destitute of clothing. . . .

   We all give much love to you and Mr. Flannagan, and hope you will give the Feds your best Minnie ball, and shoot a few extra balls in revenge for us. You may look for several kisses in this letter, and you will find them. Write soon to your true and devoted rebel,                 

                   ZAIDEE J. BAGWELL

    [P. S.] I caught a beau, and I am going to petticoat him pretty soon. A poor, cowardly thing like him ought to be petticoated, if you would excuse the expression, for I seldom make use of such to you, do I?

   To Mr. W. F. Luckett [9]

   Zaidee’s father hired a lawyer to assist her at trial. As permitted by commission procedures, Zaidee was allowed to submit a brief prepared by her lawyer (whose name does not appear in the available records). The lawyer first argued for mercy because she was a young and inexperienced girl who was just writing her sweetheart completely unaware that it might violate any law.

   As a legal basis for dismissal, the brief raised two arguments – one very unusual and one strikingly modern, but both ultimately losers. First, Zaidee claimed that the commission lacked jurisdiction because the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution provides that citizens who are not in the armed forces (and thus not subject to military law) can only be charged by an indictment handed down by a grand jury. Even if the declaration of martial law and the suspension of habeas corpus allowed citizens to be tried by military tribunals, the orders establishing commissions provided they could only try cases not triable by courts martial. Because violations of the laws of war are triable by courts martial, Zaidee asserted the commission lacked the power to try her. The notion that a civilian was entitled to a court martial was even more radical than that the military could try them by a commission, although practically speaking there was no difference between the two procedures.

   But Zaidee’s second argument would, if made today, have special force. The only incriminating evidence came from her own testimony. She contended that her inculpatory statements should not have been admitted into evidence because she had not been warned that they could be used against her at trial. “Think you,” she wrote, “if advised of my rights, if properly admonished and warned of the humble responsibility I was assuming, I should have made any statement that could have been employed against me!” But the commission found none of her legal arguments persuasive and convicted Zaidee as well.

   Both Augusta and Zaidee were sentenced to banishment to the South (or perhaps Canada, the documents mention both as possible destinations). At James Bagwell’s request, Department commander General John Schofield mitigated the punishment to parole, but Bagwell had to post a $10,000 bond for his wife and $5,000 bond for his daughter. They remained in St. Louis for a few weeks back at the Olive Street Hotel (which Bagwell and Johnston purchased in October 1863).

   As a condition of their parole, Augusta and Zaidee had to report in writing to the provost marshal periodically. Both were given permission to return home to Woodville, but the periodic reports were still required. Their convictions did not subdue the women’s attitudes. In July 1863, Augusta reported that she “has the honor to report herself, as yet, no subjugated rebel.” This earned a note from the provost marshal declaring “This should be shown to the general,” but apparently no punishment was forthcoming for her impertinence. When Zaidee wrote in August 1863 that she “had the honor to report,” a snarky clerk noted on the document that “Miss Zaidee Bagwell has the honor (?) to report per her parole.”[10]

   The romance between Zaidee Bagwell and Frank (or Buck) Luckett did not end well. In a brilliant campaign, General Ulysses Grant landed his army below Vicksburg and inflicted a series of defeats upon the Confederates, driving General John Pemberton’s force back into the defenses of Vicksburg by May 18.

   Thinking he had the Rebels demoralized, Grant ordered an assault on the fortifications of Vicksburg on May 19. The Second Missouri was in the thick of the fight. While carrying ammunition “through very heavy fire,” Ordnance Sergeant William F. Luckett received a serious wound to his leg. The records do not reveal the nature of his treatment, but most likely his leg was amputated. Complications set in – possibly gangrene. Luckett died in the hospital in early June. Vicksburg fell on July 4.[11]

   James and Augusta Bagwell moved to St. Joseph after the war. James remained in the hotel business, managing the Pacific House in 1868. In 1869 he was hired to run the Patee House, an elegant four-story brick structure that had fallen on hard times during and after the war. James died in 1876. Augusta remarried in 1885 and died in 1902. I have not yet been unable to find out what happened to Zaidee Bagwell after the war. Presumably, she married and thus her last name changed, making her more difficult to trace without knowing the name of her spouse.[12]


[1] Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wrote an autobiographical short story about his experience as a soldier in The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.

[2] M. M. Quaife (ed.) Absalom Grimes: Confederate Mail Runner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926). One of the witnesses against Grimes was Marian Wall Vail. Vail was arrested in May 1863 and confessed to assisting Grimes. She testified that she received letters from him addressed to her with her name coded according to a key that Grimes devised, likely to conceal her identity if the letter was intercepted. Inside was a second envelope addressed to the intended recipient which Vail either delivered or mailed. The Union authorities briefly confined Vail in the “McLure Female Prison” (named after Margaret McLure, another Confederate sympathizer, who later founded the St. Louis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy). There she earned the enmity of the head matron as the “most rebellious and insulting person in my charge” by calling the matron an “old Union hag.” Vail was banished to Mississippi, but returned in September 1863, possibly because she was needed to testify against Grimes. She was paroled and required to stay with her sister in Warren County for the rest of the war, except when she was brought to St. Louis for the trial. Grimes bore her no ill will, for she is mentioned favorably in his memoirs along with other women in his network. Marian W. Vail, Union Citizens File, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 109, M345, Roll 0273; Grimes, 121. All documents from the National Archives and Records Administration cited here are available at Fold3.com.

[3] Mary S.F. Cleveland, Union Citizens File, NARA, RG 109, M345, Roll 053.

[4] Missouri Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy, Reminiscences of the Women of Missouri During the Sixties (Dayton, OH: Morningside House, Inc., 1988), 241-242.

[5] James H. Bagwell, Union Citizens File, NARA, RG 109, M345, Roll 012.

[6] Augusta W. Bagwell, Union Citizens File, NARA, RG 109, M345, Roll 012.

[7] William F. Luckett, age 20, was a freight agent for the North Missouri Railroad in St. Charles County. Rory Riddler, The Bitter Divide: A Civil War History of St. Charles, Missouri (St. Charles: Frenchtown Heritage and Research Center and City of St. Charles, 2013), 39. Zaidee J. Bagwill [sic], Union Citizens File, NARA, RG 109, M345, Roll 012.

[8] St. Joseph Morning Herald, March 25, 1863.

[9] Zaidee J. Bagwill [sic], Union Citizens File, NARA, RG 109, M345, Roll 012.

[10] Augusta W. Bagwell and Zaidee J. Bagwill [sic], Union Citizens File, NARA, RG 109, M345, Roll 012.

[11] The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, ser. I, vol. 25, pt. 1, 295; William F. Luckett, Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers from Missouri Units, NARA, RG 109, M322, roll 108.

[12] History of Buchanan County, Missouri (St. Joseph: Union Historical Company, 1881), 626-627. The Patee House took three years to build, being completed in 1858 at a total cost of $150,000 (about $4 million in today’s dollars). It was the headquarters and offices of the Pony Express during its brief existence in 1860. During the Civil War the hotel served as the headquarters of the local provost marshal. Military commissions met in its spacious second floor grand ballroom to try civilians and guerrillas. It is today one of the finest museums of the West, housing exhibits featuring the Pony Express, the Civil War, period shops of St. Joseph, and antique toys. The house in which Jesse James was killed was moved from its original location a few blocks away to the grounds behind the museum. For more information, see https://ponyexpressjessejames.com/our-history/.