Mary McDonald


Mary McDonald was one of three siblings supporting Confederate operations in Tennessee. Her brother, Floyd McDonald, was a 3rd Lieutenant with the 1st (Carter’s) Tennessee Cavalry Regiment and participated in operations in East Tennessee patrolling Walden’s Ridge. In 1862, Mary and her younger sister, Sidney, joined a group of 20 to 30 young women in forming the Rhea County Spartans. The Spartans mimicked military organization, establishing a chain of command and electing officers, with Mary as captain. Their goal was to aid the Confederacy but, more specifically, family members in the Confederate army. These women, all from prominent families, gathered and delivered supplies to area cavalry units. Their dedication may have gone far beyond this, however. Some claimed that the women were actually sworn into Confederate service and drilled regularly, learned to provide medical care, and perhaps even served as spies. At least one Federal officer believed the women constituted an actual threat to Union operations. In April 1865, Capt. John P. Walker of the 6th Tennessee Mounted Infantry ordered the arrest of 16 of the Spartans. They marched on foot in groups, covering between six and 12 miles, through mostly muddy terrain. They sailed down the Tennessee River to Chattanooga and were delivered to the provost marshal, who called for Gen. James B. Steadman. Appalled that the women had even been detained, Steadman arranged for the Spartans to receive a good lunch and transportation back home on one condition: that they take the oath of allegiance. On the steamer trip home, they learned of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender. In the postwar years, Mary McDonald married a man named Sawyers and, by 1901, was a successful businesswoman in Rhea County. As for the Spartans’ legacy, Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area historian Dr. Antoinette Van Zelm surmises that “we’ll never know the whole story. They have been portrayed in a somewhat patronizing manner as innocent victims of Union oppression. They have also been portrayed as female soldiers, ready to do battle and defend the home front if necessary. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.”

  • A founder of the Rhea County Spartans, elected captain
  • Delivered supplies to troops
  • Arrested, sent to Chattanooga, released by Gen. Steadman
  • Became a successful businesswoman