Custer's Cape Cod Mistress
By Evan J. Albright
She arrived inauspiciously in the spring of 1864, in what would be the final year of the Civil War. The Yarmouth Register announced her appearance with a long, run-on sentence, as if the author could not take a second to breath:
"Miss Emma Jones, better known several months since in the army of the Potomac as 'Major Jones,' and subsequently arrested as a rebel spy and sent north to be confined in some House of Correction in this State, has been sent to Barnstable, where she arrived on Wednesday night, in charge of U.S. Marshal Keyes, who left her with Mr. Easterbrook [Albert Esterbrook, keeper of the Barnstable County House of Correction]."
Assuming the reporter was a man, perhaps he had no choice but to gush, struck as he apparently was over Miss Jones' beauty. "She is quite prepossessing in appearance," he wrote, "and it is but justice to her to state that she denies the character attributed to her."
There was little doubt what the reporter meant by "character." Miss Jones was obviously a nineteenth century Mata Hari who traded her womanly charms for sensitive information.
Her name was not Emma, but Anna Elinor Jones -- "Annie Jones" -- an orphan of Cambridge, Mass., who left home in 1861 at age 19 with the intention of becoming an Army nurse. While the reporter from The Register newspaper knew something of her background, he made no mention of what she had done as a spy, only that she was to serve her term in her home state.
Massachusetts' governor had decided to have her serve her sentence at the Barnstable County Jail and House of Corrections. The county hoosegow, however, had no facilities for women. Even worse, it had no facilities for a beautiful, articulate woman in her early 20s. Mr. Estebrook, the keeper of the jail, kindly put Miss Jones up in a rooming house not far from the jail. She must have been grateful for the accommodations, which were certainly better than her previous residence at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C.
Miss Jones was not much of a flight risk. She had the run of the village and was frequently seen outside her rooming house, shopping in local stores and sampling the local eateries, such as they were. Even though there was a war on, she was on Cape Cod in the summer. In all, things could have been worse.
Her vacation, if her imprisonment could be considered such, was short-lived. During her stay there were forces at work to win her freedom -- powerful forces.
Most people think the sides of the Civil War were clearly divided, North against South. However, not everyone in the South was in favor of the war, and most certainly not everyone in the North was unanimously behind the war effort.
The most notable exception in the North was New York City. Cut off from Southern cotton, the city was economically devastated by the war. Early in the conflict the city was famous for its riots of draft-aged men against enlistment. One of the most outspoken opponents of the war was New York's mayor, Fernando Wood. Not long after Wood left the mayoralty for a seat in the U.S. Congress, he took a personal interest in the travails of Annie Jones. He appealed to President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton personally to free her. And in July 1864, they acceded to his demands and ordered Jones released.
Wood himself came up to Cape Cod from New York to get Miss Jones. The New York newspapers knew nothing about the prisoner's release in such notable company, or if they did, they reported nothing about it.
What horrible crime against the United States had she committed that warranted her jailing without so much as a trial or even military tribunal? What secrets had she delivered to the enemy? What devious plot had she been involved in?
Exactly what she had done remained top secret until 1957, nearly 100 years after the Civil War. But when the secret Annie Jones file was made public, the true story of "Major Jones" came out.
Apparently Annie Jones was guilty of nothing more than sharing her affections with officers of the Union Army, or, as she put it in a sworn statement given shortly before she shipped to Cape Cod, "a companion to the various commanding officers ...a private friend or companion."
In her March 1864 statement, Annie claimed she left her home in Cambridge in 1861 with the goal of becoming a nurse. She traveled to Washington where she applied for work but was refused on account of her young age. While she may have been too young to nurse wounded soldiers, she was apparently old enough to service officers in other ways. "While in the various camps I was furnished by the commanding officers with a tent, and sometimes occupied quarters with the officers," she wrote.
She apparently began her career as a "Daughter of the Regiment," a ceremonial post in which young women traveled with military units as an unofficial mascot. These "daughters" sometimes cooked or mended clothing for the soldiers. It appears that Annie Jones was a little more enthusiastic than most about her duties.
She was arrested several times during the war, including once by the South. Annie Jones denied being a spy, but admitted that she had depended on the kindness of strangers, specifically Civil War generals. "I have spent two years and a half in the Union Army, and during this time have been the guest of different officers, they furnishing me with horses, orderlies, escorts, sentinels at my tent or quarters, rations, etc.," she wrote in 1864 just before being transferred to Cape Cod. "I have invariably received passes from these officers to go and return when and where I pleased." On some occasions, she testified, she wore major's stripes, hence the nickname "Major Jones."
It was her next-to-last arrest, in August 1863, that made her famous among Civil War buffs. According to Annie's statement, she was imprisoned for being the mistress of a Brigadier General named George Armstrong Custer. Custer, assigned to the Army of the Potomac in Virginia, was even then a romantic figure with his long golden tresses (he swore he would not cut them until the war was over).
Custer at the time was under the command of General Judson Kilpatrick. In the summer of 1862 Annie Jones joined Kilpatrick's command "and went to the front as the friend and companion of General Custer," she wrote. "Gen. Kirkpatrick became very jealous of Gen. Custer's attention to me, and went to Gen. Meade's headquarters, and charged me with being a rebel spy."
Custer flatly denied her version of events and her accusation that he had paid her the least attention. "So far as her statement in relation to General Kilpatrick and myself goes is simply untrue," Custer wrote in a report to his superiors. The general also did not believe she was spy. "This part of her reputation has been gained by her impudence."
According to Custer, she arrived at his headquarters supposedly to become an Army nurse. "She expressed a desire to attach herself to one of the hospitals connected with the 3d Division," he wrote in 1864. "I gave her permission to remain at my headquarters until she could ascertain whether her services were required at any of the hospitals in the command. She remained at my headquarters about one week and desired to remain longer, but I denied her permission to do so."
"Her whole object and purpose in being with the army seemed to be to distinguish herself by some deed of daring; in this respect alone she seemed insane."
Annie Jones claimed later that she had been coerced into signing the statement. However, according to the man who took it down, it was read to her three times before she signed it in the presence of a notary.
If her statement was true, than that would mean Custer was lying, and he had good reason to do so. When Annie Jones rode into his camp, he had just returned from his honeymoon. Getting caught with a 21-year-old would have improper, even for someone as flamboyant as Gen. Custer.
The War Department incarcerated Miss Jones in the Old Capitol Prison until November when Secretary of War Stanton ordered her freed. As part of her parole she promised to stay out of Virginia, but in March 1864 she was arrested while trying to bluff her way into the state. This time she was sent back to her home state to serve her sentence, but instead of Cambridge she was ordered held on Cape Cod.
In May 1864 Annie made a personal appeal to Fernando Wood, a U.S. Representative from New York and former mayor of New York City. She claimed she was being held a prisoner "among strangers, without money, clothes, and, worst of all, books. The only volume I possess is a ragged Shakespeare which I almost know by heart."
"I am not a beggar, but I have no one else to ask; will you therefore lend me a little money? I will repay you some day." She likened herself to the mouse in the fable who freed the lion who spared him. "I ask you not for party sake, but only as any woman in distress might ask for charity -- will you aid me?"
What possessed Miss Jones to contact Wood in the first place? One theory is that before her alleged affair with Custer, she had been servicing the needs of Custer's commander, Judson Kilpatrick. Throughout the war the New York Times had been publishing the heroic exploits of Kilpatrick, even though most of them were highly exaggerated or even false. Kilpatrick had also married into a prominent New York family, which may have led Wood to believe he would be a future political rival once the war ended. Annie Jones knew her story would discredit Kilpatrick, and subtly offered it to Fernando Wood.
Whatever she did, it worked. Wood arranged for her freedom and she left Cape Cod in his care. She disappeared from public view, apparently never speaking out about her alleged affair with Kilpatrick or Custer. In a letter to Secretary of War Stanton shortly before the end of the Civil War, Miss Jones wrote, "I refused either to write or speak against this government, little cause as I have to love it, when Mr. Wood offered me all the money I wanted to do so."
Annie Jones turned up officially only once after the war in Vicksburg, Miss. in May 1866. Her ultimate desire had apparently been fulfilled, for the records indicate that her occupation was that of a nurse.
© 2001 Mystery Lane Press