Book Review: A Southern Spy in Northern Virginia
The Civil War Album of Laura Ratcliffe
By Charles V. Mauro
It’s not often that an historical fiction author runs across a book that provides the perfect combination of war, romance, history, espionage, and famous historical figures, but that is what I found in A Southern Spy by Charles Mauro.
Of course, anyone who has read my Civil War novel Shades of Gray knows I am intrigued by all of the above. To discover these features in a non-fiction book is a real treasure, and to have it relate to Colonel John Mosby and many of the other historical characters I’ve come across in my research is icing on the cake.
To give you a little background, the book centers around a secret album presented to Fairfax County resident Laura Ratcliffe by Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart “as a token of his high appreciation of her patriotism, admiration of her virtues, and pledge of his lasting esteem.”
The album contains four poems, two written by Stuart to Laura and two he copied. It also contains 40 signatures – 26 Confederate soldiers and 14 civilians. Mauro has tracked down the personal history of each one and gives possible dates as to when each may have signed the album.
He spends a good bit space on John Mosby – the Confederate officer who is the inspiration for the main character in my Civil War novel Shades of Gray, and relates the story of how Laura trudged through deep mud to warn him of an impending ambush. Mosby wrote of the incident in his reminiscences:
“We then proceded on toward Frying Pan, where I found that a cavalry picket was stationed and waiting for me to come after them. I did not want them to be disappointed in their desire to visit Richmond. When I got within a mile of it and had stopped for a few minutes to make my disposition for attack, I observed two ladies walking rapidly toward me. One was Miss Laura Ratcliffe, a young lady to whom Stuart had introduced me a few weeks before – with her sister… They had got information of a plan to capture me, and were just going to the house of a citizen to get him to put me on guard, when fortune brought them cross my path. But for meeting them, my life as a partisan would have closed that day.”
There are also great tidbits of others who signed the album, including Fitzhugh Lee, scout William Farley, William Henry Chapman, Walter Frankland, Willie Mosby (John Mosby’s younger brother), John Edmonds and many other Mosby Rangers.
For those who are romantic at heart, Mauro has printed the poems and letters that J.E.B. Stuart wrote to Laura. For a hint at their relationship, here is what Edward Longacre wrote in his book Lee’s Cavalrymen:
“Captivated by Laura’s beauty, pleasant nature, and helpfulness (he had observed her nursing some of his wounded), the cavalry leader not only waltzed with the young woman, but accompanied her on horseback rides as well. When snow fell after the first of the year, the couple went sleighing. It would appear that Stuart was smitten. Even as he wrote letters home expressing his devotion to (his wife) Flora, he composed moonstruck poetry to Laura Ratcliffe.
Anyone who enjoys reading real-life accounts of the Civil War will enjoy this book. It also provides a great history of Fairfax, Va., and gives readers a glimpse into the lives of some of the most revered and feared Confederate cavalrymen in the War Between the States.