Remembering Rutherford: Teen Confederate Spy used Beauty

Susan Harber, Daily News Journal, October 18, 2015

Robbie Woodruff was a famed Confederate spy heroine who interacted as a team with her cousin and accomplice, Mary Kate Patterson.  Robbie was born on a farm in 1845 in Holly Springs, Miss., to Aaron and Sara White Woodruff.  However, early in the Civil War, her widowed mother brought Robbie and brother Willie to live with Aunt Ellen Patterson on Nolensville Pike.  Before Robbie could fully absorb the transition of relocation, she was thrust into the midst of high adventure, constant danger and stark tragedy.

Robbie Woodruff was a teen spy for the Confederacy. (Photo: Submitted)

Robbie Woodruff was a teen spy for the Confederacy. (Photo: Submitted)

Along with Mary Kate Patterson, Robbie, as a teenage girl, entered the underground “resistance” circle with no hesitation to support the Confederacy.  She was assigned to gather and convey intelligence information for the Coleman Scouts.  Robbie often walked ten miles to collect Confederate dispatches and placed them in a designated hollow stump for Confederate couriers to secretly retrieve.  These “letter drops” were vital to the Southern military.  Robbie was stopped on many occasions by young Yankee officers for not having a pass.  Yet, Robbie’s ravishing beauty and Mississippi drawl was overpowering and convincing.  Never once was she arrested.

Robbie consistently smuggled medical supplies and military information out of Nashville into Confederate hands. She was once responsible for delivery of a complete diagram of federal fortifications around Nashville (absconded from Union Gen. Grenville Dodge).  The stakes were high, yet she had no fear.

Robbie was also a young woman who would not back down from adversity.  When a party of Union stragglers attempted to burn her home (Patterson House), she stood alone on the front porch and denounced them tersely as cowards.  The Yankee officer in charge of the burning was so impressed by her spirit that he turned away leaving the house untouched.

On Dec. 24, 1862, Robbie and Mary Kate Patterson cunningly decoyed a federal spy into the Patterson home with ease.  There was an art to their trade of which they mastered very well.

In the daytime, the two young women would close the blinds if Federal agents were in the vicinity of the Patterson home.  At night, they opened the blinds and placed a light in same window to warn Confederate scouts.

Robbie’s 9-year old brother Willie offered her immense military assistance in Rutherford County.  With her intelligence information, he rode to Gen. Joseph Wheeler and saved the life of Capt. Frank Gurley, a Confederate friend, who was set to be hanged.  Willie had a wild ride on an old mule to encounter Wheeler and could only remember his sister’s emphatic words: “Don’t stop until you have found him.”

From 1862 through the end of the war, Robbie repeatedly relayed secret dispatches to the Confederate Army.  She was a right arm to the Coleman Scouts and traveled often to Nashville to secure needed reserves.  On the Monday before Sam Davis’ death, Robbie was in Nashville procuring three wash balls of soap, toothbrush and Louisville and Cincinnati newspapers for his secretive mission.

Some sources indicate Sam Davis and Robbie were sweethearts.  Even though this is unconfirmed, it is known they relied on each other as close confidantes.  When Sam visited the Patterson home, he would throw a pebble against a window to announce his arrival to Robbie.  Days before Gen. Grenville Dodge hanged Sam Davis as a spy, Mary Kate Patterson and Robbie had a picnic with Sam in Raines Thicket, just a mile from the Patterson home.  This was their last encounter, as Sam would leave for Chattanooga, only to be captured before arrival.  Sam was offered a horse, arms and an escort to the Confederate border, along with his life, to reveal who gave him the documents he was carrying.  Yet, he refused.  Records have indicated he was protecting the information handed to him by Robbie Woodruff.

At the war’s end in 1865, Robbie arrived in Houston, Texas at the age of 20.  She married Virginian Major William Henry Crank, a lawyer and a former member of Terry’s Texas Rangers, whom she met in Tennessee.  Crank was 15 years older than Robbie and offered her security and a stable home.  In 1861, Robbie hand-stitched an exquisite Confederate flag presented to the 8th Texas Cavalry, Terry’s Rangers as a tribute to her husband.

By 1880, the couple had five sons and two daughters.  Their son Kyle was a lieutenant in the Navy.  Robbie’s home on San Jacinto Street in Houston was brimming as full with her children, mother, sister and niece.  William Crank was a prominent attorney in the city, and life was abundant.

Sadly, Robbie died on Sept. 22, 1884 at the young age of 39.  Her grave remains in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston and was decorated for years on Memorial Day as a tribute to her legacy. The epitaph on her large stone reads, “My Wife … she rests from her labors and her works do follow her.”  As an advocate, defender, messenger, detective and emissary in this county, she will forever be personified as a shining star in her pursuit as leading lady in the story of the Civil War.

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