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Was this colorful Confederate spy a man or a woman? Perhaps a Zouave colonel? Find out here!

  Madame La Force

By John T. Marck

Throughout the Civil War, many of the spies were slaves who were desperate for the North to win, and thus secure their freedom. These slaves, both men and women, risked their lives passing information on to the Union army. In addition to the slaves, there was also a great deal of spying being done by well-to-do white women. Women spying for either the North or the South used their large hoop skirts to hide weapons, secret documents and other contraband, as well as other means.

Another woman, so people thought, who spied for the Confederacy was Madame La Force. On June 28, 1861, the liner "St. Nicholas" left the docks at Baltimore, Maryland. On board was a rather strange, ostentatious French lady known as Madame La Force. While she kept the passengers and crew occupied with her flirting in both French and English, men traveling with her carried several toolboxes and military trunks onboard unnoticed.

Once the ship got underway, she retired to her cabin. When the ship reached Point Lookout on the southern tip of Maryland and docked, she would again emerge on deck and continued flirting with the various men who were boarding. Again the ship got underway as she retired to her cabin. A short time later she again appeared on deck, although not as Madame La Force, but as Richard Thomas, a Zouave colonel from Maryland, now in uniform complete with pistols and a sword. As he arrived on deck, his men, who had gotten aboard during his diversions as Madame La Force, drew their weapons from the toolboxes and military trunks. One of these men was Confederate commander George N. Hollins. They rounded up all the passengers and crew and placed them below the deck. They then ordered the ship's captain to sail to Coan River.

Here on the Virginia border they planned to pick up Confederate Lieutenant Henry H. Lewis and his regiment of Tennessee sailors. On its normal journey the "St. Nicholas" would stop alongside the Union warship "Pawnee" for the purpose of picking up mail and supplies. The Confederate plan was to capture the "Pawnee" when it routinely stopped.

While en route to pick up Lt. Lewis and his men, Hollins learned that the Union warship "Pawnee" had been sent to Washington. Having to now change his plans, he ordered the ship's captain to sail to Fredericksburg, Virginia. While en route to Fredericksburg, Hollins and his men, managed to capture three Union ships. These three ships were carrying ice, coal and coffee, all badly needed by the Confederacy. Some of Hollins crew took two of the ships and sailed them to Fredericksburg, while the "St. Nicholas," followed these two ships, towing the third Union ship and her cargo of almost three hundred pounds of coal. The operation was a victory for the Confederacy.

Following their arrival in Fredericksburg, Colonel Richard Thomas was captured ten days later. Imprisoned in solitary confinement for two years he was finally released through the prisoner exchange system. Upon his release he fled to France, never to return to the United States.

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.