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Author's Biography
My Mother's Stories
A Helpful Hint from Heritage Quest
The Prisoner's Letter
Analysis of the Letter
Publishing History

Molly Pitt, that "dangerous & traitorous character,"
My Great-Grandmother

Author's Biography

Alberta Jane Parker grew up in Hollywood, CA, attended the University of California at Los Angeles, graduated from Long Beach State University in 1968 (diploma signed by Governor Ronald Reagan) with majors in mathematics and psychology. She was employed as an aerospace engineer, then married and raised three boys successfully. That marriage was dissolved and she married secondly James Churchyard. She has owned several small businesses, all very successful. She designed her new house in Fallbrook, built all the cabinets for it, and was general construction contractor. As you can read elsewhere on this site, this house burned down and she is now in the process of rebuilding it. In addition to collecting dead ancestors she collects cacti and succulents.[top]

My Mother's Stories

My mother, Janet Marie (Hall) Parker used to tell me stories of the family when I was young. Later she wrote her memoirs with the same stories (Reference 1). One story particularly impressed me. This was about Mother's grandmother, born Mary Elizabeth Pitt and known by the nickname Molly Pitt: she was a spy for the Federal army during the Civil War.

A Richmond diarist of that time commented about spies as follows:

"The existence of spies had become more than a mere suspicion, but whether from the amiable temper and laxity of our government or the inefficiency of our military police, there were very few apprehended and brought to trial. ... Since the occupation of Richmond by Federal forces, we have been told by their officers that numerous spies were in the city during the entire existence of the Confederacy, and were in constant communication with the enemy. They were, said the officers, generally ladies who occupied enviable positions in society, and were in the regular pay of the Federal government. Suspected persons were, however, extremely rare, and we are inclined to believe the statements of these officers admit of much questioning." (Reference 2)
Molly, was born in June, around 1840, in Richmond, Virginia. Her father was Reddick Pitt, supposed to be related to the English Prime Minister, William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham. Reddick settled in Virginia, operated a line of packets up and down the James River. He became substantially well off and was nicknamed "Money Pitt." He went back to England to get a bride named Martha __, married, and returned to Richmond. Molly was born a beautiful, dark haired, blue eyed, girl. Her mother died when Molly was about 8 years old.

Her father then married into the "Green" family, prominent army people. An invalid daughter was born of this marriage. Molly greatly resented her situation and behaved badly. She wouldn't do her lessons, calling the Greek she was supposed to learn "pot hooks and hangers," and would have none of it.

When she was 12, her father was kicked by a horse he was shoeing. This burst his bladder, and he died. Filled with grief, Molly became more obstreperous than ever.

After the death of her father, she stayed on at the Green's. Since she had no one to see that she shared in her father's estate, the invalid half sister was the inheritor. The Green's were typical Southern landowners with many slaves. For a long time, Molly stole food from the kitchen, sneaking it out to the slaves. She thought they were not fed enough for the work they did.

Molly was about 21 when the Civil War started. Because of her strong feelings against slavery, she became a spy for the North. She hated Gen. Grant — he was so uncouth and she was accustomed to the Southern gracious manners and hospitality. In contrast, General Robert E. Lee of the Southern army was a wonderfully fine personality whom she greatly admired, but she was whole heartedly anti-slavery.

Molly Pitt, according to my mother's standards of honesty, was not very admirable. She would sit at the dinner table at the Green home, listen to discussions between General Green and other leaders of the South, then relay these plans to General Grant. She had other ways of obtaining information, but Mother never heard her tell about them. Mother does recall her saying she spent as much as $60 for a hat during the war years. She must have been well paid for her work, for in the mid 1800's that must have been some hat.

Molly told this story: once, while she was hidden by some bushes and a fence, Gen. Lee and an aide passed by on horses. She heard Gen. Lee remark that if he could find Molly Pitt he would send her across the border into Mexico. He never found her.

Picture great-grandmother when she was young: slim, only 4 foot, 9 or 10 inches tall, abundant dark hair, blue eyes, fair complexion, and with all the Southern graces – when she chose to turn them on. She was beautiful and very desirable.

At the close of the War she returned to Richmond, quarreled with her sweetheart and, in a pique, married William Johnston. At this time he was a widower, old enough to be her father. He, of course, was charmed by the young and beautiful Molly. So he sold his haberdashery business in order to give his last unmarried daughter (one of 8 children - 3 girls and 5 boys) an appropriately elaborate wedding. This accomplished, he was free to start a new life with Molly.

They were married and lived in Richmond for a while: that is where Mother's mother was born 16 December 1865.

The Johnston's then traveled westward, hoping to establish a new life away from the ruins of the South. But their efforts were not very successful. William Johnston died on a trip to Florida searching for new opportunities. Molly (Pitt) Johnston died a widow in St. Louis, MO, about 1913. My mother was about 16 then and remembers Molly as a fat, old lady weighing over 300 pounds.

I consulted the Pitt Families and Related Lines (Reference 3). A Reddick Pitt was mentioned there, but he could not have been Molly's father as he died in 1815.[top]

A Helpful Hint from Heritage Quest

And that is where the story ended until my husband saw the article in Heritage Quest issue 32, "Some Special Sources for Civil War Research at the National Archives," by Robert S. Davis, Jr. Among other collections it mentioned Record Group 110 which contains information on spies who worked for the U.S. Army.

So we wrote the Archives and soon received a very nice note from Michael T. Meier of the Military Reference Branch. He enclosed a copy of an old letter written by a Marie E. Pitt. This letter had been stored in Record Group 109, a War Department Collection of Confederate Records. It is addressed to the Secretary of War, James Seddon. It was forwarded with a negative endorsement from both the Provost Marshal and a Brigadier General.[top]

The Prisoner's Letter

Castle Thunder,
Richmond, Virginia
December 30th, 1864

Hon. Mr. Seddon

I am confined in Castle Thunder very unjustly. I was laboring in Mr. Hills factory, until No. 5 Battery was captured, & then the factory ceased its opperations owing to nearness of the battery. I then was appointed matron in Gen. Hospital at the Fair Grounds where I remained until I was taken sick when I resigned my position, & went home through the advice of Dr. Warne the Surgeon in Charge, but did not reach home for near two months after my departure from Petersburg, but was sick at my cousins Mrs. Mary Shepheards in Isle of Wight County, Va. While there sick, Dr. Jordan attended me. Then I went to Norfolk to see My mother, who had died but a short time before my return to that city. While there I was compelled to take the oath of allegiance to the Yankee Government. My mother being dead, I returned to my relatives in Isle of Wight, where I was arrested by Sarjant Emmory, & sent to Petersburg, & from there here. I was in the Federal lines when arrested, & have never been out of them, after taking the oath, until I was arrested.

I have never had an opportunity of producing any evidence in my favor whatever.

What I ask is that I may have a fair showing or be sent to my home in Norfolk. Should you grant me the trial, please have the following gentlemen summoned in my behalf, Mr. Wm. H. Hill of Petersburg Dr. Warne formerly Surgeon in Charge of Genl. Hospital at Fair Grounds at Petersburg, Dr. Whitehead whose P.Office is Petersburg & Mr. William J. Sullivan at same hospital, also Mrs. Mary E. Stone & Mrs. Sarah F. Causon both of Petersburg.

Yours truly,
Marie E. Pitt

On the outside was written

States the manner of her arrest and wishes her case to be investigated, in view of her release from confinement.

P (W D) 3

Resly {respectfully ?} forwarded, this case has been fully examined & evidence in full taken - the prisoner is directed to be held in confinement as a dangerous & traitorous character.

I H Carrington
Jany 2 / 65 Provost

Head Qr Post
Richmond, Jany 2 nd 1865

Res. forwarded to Hon. Secretary of War. Attention invited to endorsement of Major I. H. Carrington P.M.

W. M. Parecner (? - signature not clear)
Brig. Gen.


Analysis of the Letter

This letter adds considerable credibility to the story of Molly Pitt as told by Mother.

The Provost had investigated and acquired damning evidence of some sort to rule that a woman named Pitt was "a dangerous & traitorous character." He then directed Sergeant Emmory to go outside the area controlled by the Confederates to arrest her. The sergeant went to the Isle of Wight County where the Pitt name often occurs.

But certainly the sergeant got the wrong woman. First, the woman arrested had been working in Petersburg and Norfolk was her home town: she had no Richmond connections at all. Second, Molly Pitt was said to be of a wealthy family: she would not have been laboring in a factory and then later in a hospital. Third, her mother had died many years before the War, not during it. And finally, the one arrested had a different first name (Marie instead of Mary). Marie used a middle initial of "E." indicating a middle name, which might have been Elizabeth.

In any case, her writing is clear, well worded, and has only a very few misspellings - she probably had no access to a dictionary in a military jail.

I hope that she was freed without any greater mishap and certainly without having been sent to Mexico — as General Lee threatened. But during the collapse of the Confederate control of Richmond in early April 1865 an attempt was made to move the prisoners in Castle Thunder further south. In the diary of the famous Federal sympathizer and spy, Lizzie Van Lew, the following information is given about a woman who escaped from her jailers and returned to Richmond. (Reference 4)

"One woman, confined as a spy, was obliged to walk thirty two miles, when she succeeded in eluding them, and in due time made her appearance at our house."
After studying Marie's letter we wrote again to the Archives to see if the "evidence in full" might still exist. Perhaps it does, but we would have to go to Washington to search through boxes of papers that are only partially indexed. Having read The Day Richmond Died (Reference 5) I am amazed that even this evidence survived the burning and hurried removal of Confederate records. (This reference mentions Major Isaac Carrington, Provost Marshall, several times.)

Perhaps the Provost could not find Molly Pitt because she, living in the Green household, used that surname.[top]


My mother's stories of Molly Pitt have been largely confirmed by contemporary evidence. We plan to find Molly's burial place in or near St. Louis. But, considering the destruction of records, it is unlikely that we will ever know much more about this "dangerous & traitorous" great-grandmother.

I am very proud of her: she had her principles and she acted on them in spite of personal danger.[top]


  1. Janet Marie (Hall) Parker, Memoirs, manuscript written when she was past 77 years old 12 June 1976,
  2. Sallie A. Putnam, In Richmond during the Confederacy, many editions
  3. Norman E. Pitt, Pitt Families and Related Lines, privately published in 1974
  4. Lizzie Van Lew, Diary, published on microfilm by The New York Public Library
  5. A. A. and Mary Hoehling, The Day Richmond Died, A. S. Barnes & Co., San Diego, 1981[top]

Publishing History

An earlier version of this was published in Heritage Quest, July / August 1992, Issue 41, pages 51 - 53.

Please send any comments or suggestions to the author using the link at the bottom of the Al & Jim's Home Page.

Updated 24 April 2004.[top]