Civil War Women: Maria Lewis, Former Slave and Union Soldier

Born around 1846, Maria Lewis lived with her family as slaves in Albemarle County, Virginia. When the 8th New York Cavalry came to the area during the Civil War in October of 1863, she disguised herself as a darkly-tanned white man and joined Company C of that regiment.

Maria mustered in as George Harris, who was a hero in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Harris escaped slavery by posing as a Spanish gentleman.

Her first intentions were to remain a soldier long enough to travel North to freedom. Perhaps to her surprise, she discovered that she enjoyed army life. She skirmished, scouted, and fought with General Sheridan’s cavalry for the next eighteen months.

They burned houses and mills. They destroyed railroads and bridges.

On March 2, 1865, Maria rode with the cavalry at Waynesboro, Virginia, where five hundred of Confederate General Jubal Early’s soldiers were captured. The 8th New York seized seventeen battle flags before burning a section of the Shenandoah Valley.

Maria was part of the honor guard who presented the captured flags to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The soldiers were granted a month’s furlough.

From there Maria went to the family of 2nd Lieutenant Lewis V. Griffin, a comrade from her regiment. She introduced herself as George Harris to his sister, Julia Wilbur, and then confessed her true identity. She wanted to return to “womanly ways & occupations.”

Though surprised to meet a black woman who served as a Union cavalry soldier, Julia wrote in her diary that she helped Maria as she had helped many other freed slaves. Making plans to find her a job, Julia gave her a chemise, petticoat, and hoops.

Julia first wrote of meeting Maria on April 4, 1865. The last time she mentions her is an entry on Sunday, April 23rd. Her sister was giving Maria a lesson, possibly teaching her to read and write.

In my Civil War novel, A Musket in My Hands, two sister have no choice but to disguise themselves as men to muster into the Confederate army in the fall of 1864—just in time for events and long marches to lead them to the tragic Battle of Franklin.

-Sandra Merville Hart

 

Sources

Cordell, M.R. Courageous Women of the Civil War, Chicago Review Press, 2016.

“Maria Lewis (soldier),” Wikipedia, 2019/04/26 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Lewis_(soldier).

Monson, Marianne. Women of the Blue & Gray, Thorndike Press, 2018.

Zeinert, Karen. Those Courageous Women of the Civil War, The Millbrook Press, 1998.