Sarah Elizabeth Thompson
Tennessee Widow and Spy
1838 – 1909 A.D.
By Anne Adams
On that day in September 1864 as Greenville, Tennessee widow Sarah Elizabeth Thompson was working in her kitchen her ordinary domestic routine turned into an encounter with a Confederate “freebooter,” a ride for help, and then a quick glance into a neighbor’s garden. All events that would change her life.
Though Tennessee did not officially secede from the union during the Civil War, its citizens were divided, with some supporting the Union and others the Confederacy. In East Tennessee, where Sarah lived, it was generally Union in sentiment though there were a few Confederate sympathizers. And those were the ones who supported Confederate General John Hunt Morgan who led his men in raids on communities throughout the several states, raids that destroyed a great amount of property, civilian and military.
Then in June 1863, Morgan and his men crossed the Ohio River to conduct raids in the area of Cincinnati; but he was eventually cornered, captured and imprisoned in Columbus. However, by April 1864 Morgan and some of his men escaped as the Federals began to track him down.
Though he was on the run with only a small force, Morgan decided to attack a Union cavalry detachment under the command of General Alvan Gillem at Bull’s Gap, north of Greeneville so he headed in that direction. When he arrived in the area in September 1864, and entered Sarah’s home it was an unfortunate time – for him. For she was anxious to get revenge on the man she thought had inspired her husband’s murder.
Sarah’s husband Sylvanis had been a recruiter for the Union forces in the Greenville area, but he had been shot and killed in January that year, possibly by brigands attached to Morgan’s command. Though details were sketchy, Sarah was sure that Morgan’s men had done it and thus she took his visit as a chance to get her revenge.
She herself was involved in espionage for the Union, and in fact just a few weeks before Morgan arrived she had ridden more than 100 miles to and from Knoxville, carrying dispatches. At this time she was 25 and had two young daughters, Lilly and Harriett.
When Morgan arrived at her home she was busy in the kitchen. He swaggered around the house, telling her he was headed for Knoxville, and when he arrived he would send for her since “she would make some Rebel a good wife,” as she wrote later. She listened in bitter frustration, but things didn’t get any better when some of Morgan’s men began to raid her pantry and steal what they could – including her breadbasket.
When he left to head for the nearby home of friends, Sarah decided to take action. Somehow she knew of Morgan’s plan to attack the Union detachment at nearby Bull’s Gap and she reasoned that if he spent the day and night drinking with his friends he would be in no condition to attack. So to get Federals on the scene before he recovered, she reasoned she needed to inform General Gillem that Morgan was in Greenville.
She avoided Morgan’s men on the edge of town, and mounted on a horse acquired from a farmer, she cantered out in a downpour through a dark countryside. Racing past several sleeping communities, eventually she met a mounted sentry with a lantern. Within a few minutes she was speaking with a skeptical General Gillem who not only did not believe Morgan was in Greenville but also didn’t want to accept a “woman’s tale” as he called it.
Then two of his officers vouched for Sarah since they knew her previous service, so when she returned to Greenville she was accompanied with a force of Union men.
At dawn at his friend’s house, Morgan woke up, calling for brandy, but when he saw that the Yankees had arrived he pulled on his trousers over his nightshirt and scrambled out of the door. He sought refuge in a hotel, then a church.
The Union forces with Sarah met no opposition since Morgan’s men had fled but they began to search the town for their commander as Sarah returned home to find her children still asleep. She decided to search for herself, so she changed clothes and then set out for the nearby home where Morgan had been staying.
Meanwhile, Morgan had returned to the house but he was hiding nearby after he ducked under the board fence and hid in a grape arbor adjoining the house. He was crouching there as Sarah came by.
Spotting the trouser/nightshirt clad figure among the vines, she called to a Union soldier and told him: “Sir, if you will tear the fence down I assure you will find Morgan!” The soldier pulled the fence board aside, recognized Morgan and called him to surrender. Thinking Morgan was reaching for a weapon; the man fired and killed Morgan.
By evening the rest of Gillem’s force arrived just in time to rescue Sarah after her home was invaded by Confederate supporters. Since she obviously couldn’t safely stay in town, she was moved with her children out of state where she eventually worked in Federal hospitals.
There arose some controversy as to who exactly identified Morgan, but one supporter of hers claims it was Andrew Johnson, a former neighbor. In a letter of introduction signed in November 1864 just months before he became Vice President, Johnson wrote: “It affords me pleasure to state that the bearer thereof, Mrs. Thompson, .. is pusonally [sic] known to me as an East Tennessee lady of the highest respectability and unquestionably loyal to the Federal Government…”
After the war Sarah went on lecture tours, remarried and had two more children. Then after her second husband’s death she moved to Washington seeking employment and though she recently held a $600 a year clerical position at the Treasury Department when funding dried she was unemployed.
A now desperate and also bitter Sarah wrote pleading letters to Congress and the War Department seeking financial support or employment and then with the endorsement of officers who had served at Bull’s Gap, she found a job with the Postal Inspector’s office.
In the late 1880s Sarah married again but after her husband died she finally obtained a pension by means of an act of Congress. The same bill also offered congressional endorsement of her part in Morgan’s death.
After 1900 Sarah lived in Washington where she was active in her local church as well as the women’s auxiliary to a national veteran’s group. Then after she retired in 1903 to live with a son she was killed in a traffic accident in 1909 and was buried with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery. Today a small regulation headstone marks her grave.
Anne Adams, a resident of Athens, Texas, is a retired church staffer and has been a writer for many years, publishing in Christian and secular publications. Presently she has a weekly historical column in the Athens Review.