Maria Lewis was probably the most unlikely person to have ever fought in the American Civil War. She was an escaped slave, a woman, and was underage; all three of these factors barred individuals from serving. But Lewis was much smarter than the average person, let alone the average enslaved American. She fought in the war as a free white man, distinguished herself during her service, and was even part of an honor guard that presented captured rebel flags to the Secretary of War.
Kinda like this but with way more violence.
Born into slavery in 1847, Lewis and her family spent her younger years in Virginia around Albemarle County, near Charlottesville. At the age of 17, she assumed a new identity and a new life as an emancipated slave. The only real hitch was that she presented herself as something totally different when it came time to join the Union cavalry.
She enlisted as Private George Harris, a nod to the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antebellum classic who escapes slavery as a Spanish man, in New York’s 8th Cavalry, which took part in many major battles throughout the war, including Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House. She first participated with the 8th at the Battle of Waynesboro, near where she was born and enslaved.
The battle at Waynesboro ended the fighting in the Shenandoah for good.
Her service saw her join Union General Philip Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley, where the Union Army soundly defeated Confederate General Jubal Early and devastated the Confederate economy in the area and beyond. After the war, however, George Harris/Maria Lewis had no home to go back to and very little is known about her postwar life. She traveled to Rochester, New York, where the 8th Cavalry was originally formed, to live with the family of one of her officers. Historians believe this officer hid her secret during the war and, as a result, would naturally have been a close confidant.
Lewis Griffin was an abolitionist lieutenant in the 8th Cavalry. His sister, Julia Wilbur, wrote about the “colored woman [who] has been here who has been with the 8th N.Y. Cav. for the last 18 months.” She wrote a few more details:
“She knows Mr. Griffin. She wore a uniform, rode a horse and carried a sword and carbine just like a man. The officers protected her and she was with them mostly. The regiment didn’t know that she was a woman. She was called Geo. Harris, but her real name is Maria Lewis. She is from Albermarle Co. Va. and escaped to the Union army.”
Rochester, NY in the days following the Civil War’s end.
Many knew Lewis when she wore a dress on the streets of Rochester. She was more than happy to don a petticoat and perform the tasks of a woman of the time. But she was also known to celebrate her veteran status with those who fought alongside her.
When celebrating her service, she wore her full military uniform.