Confederate Nurse and Spy
North Carolina native Emeline Pigott offered her services to the Confederate Army as a spy. Single and 25 years old, Pigott hosted parties for local Union soldiers and gathered information about their plans. In the folds of her voluminous skirts she hid important papers and other contraband, which she later passed on to the local Rebels – until 1865, when she was arrested and jailed.
Emeline Pigott was born in December 15, 1836, in Harlowe Township, Carteret County, North Carolina, and spent her youth there. When Emeline was 25 years old, just after the Civil War began, she and her parents moved to a farm on Calico Creek at Crab Point on the coast – what is now part of Morehead City.
Soldiers of the Confederate 26th North Carolina Division soon arrived to defend the coastline and made their camp just across the creek from the Pigott home. Emeline had a passionate desire to assist the Confederate cause. She offered her services as a spy and gathered food and clothing for the soldiers. She hid these items in designated hollow trees, so the soldiers could retrieve them later. She cared for wounded soldiers who were brought in from the battlefields, sometimes nursing them back to health in her home.
Working in three neighboring counties, Emeline distributed mail and supplies to the soldiers and gathered information about Federal ships, their tonnage and cargo, and passed it on to the authorities across Calico Creek.
The Confederate troops left coastal North Carolina and moved up the river to New Bern. The Battle of New Bern was fought on March 14, 1862, led by Union General Ambrose Burnside and accompanied by armed vessels, opposed by an undermanned and rather badly trained Confederate force of North Carolina soldiers and militia. The Union won the battle.
Confederate soldiers were rushed out of town by flatcar to Kinston, North Carolina – 40 miles inland. Emeline went along to care for the wounded on the last train out before the Northerners occupied the town of New Bern. Many residents fled. When the Yankees arrived, the houses were empty, and the army used them as barracks, offices and hospitals.
New Bern was an important shipping port and a stop on the Atlantic and Northern Railroad, and it became the center of Union operations in eastern North Carolina for the rest of the Civil War. The Confederates tried to take it back twice, but failed.
Emeline and a soldier named Stokes McRae and fell in love, but decided not to marry until after the war was over. When McRae went to the battlefield, he took along a special Confederate flag that Emeline had made just for him. He survived the Battle of New Bern but lost the flag. McRae was killed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July 1863. Devastated by the news, Emeline rededicated herself to helping the Southern cause.
When Emeline returned home to Calico Creek, she found the Yankees had occupied the entire area. She continued to gather intelligence about Northern blockade ships in port. She also carried letters and other items from family members to Confederate soldiers, and made numerous dangerous journeys to New Bern and other locations.
She narrowly escaped capture several times, and disregarded her own safety in order to complete her mission. She sometimes carried up to thirty pounds of supplies and intelligence information in huge pockets inside her hoop skirt.
She obtained valuable information while entertaining Union soldiers in the parlor of her home, while her brother-in-law Rufus Bell dispensed food from her pantry to hungry Rebel soldiers out the back. Local fishermen also gathered information as they sold fish to the Yankees and then reported to Emeline.
Emeline Pigott became North Carolina’s most famous spy and smuggler. In 1865, as the war was ending, Union officials were watching Emeline and Rufus Bell very closely. One day she and Bell got into his carriage and headed toward Beaufort to deliver the supplies they had collected. Along the way, however, they were stopped, arrested and sent to jail by Union soldiers, and they confiscated the carriage.
While the Yankees were trying to find a female to search Emeline, she ate some of the papers she had tucked inside her blouse which contained important information and tore up others. She shredded some of the mail she carried, but the Unionists discovered the large amount of supplies that were hidden in the pockets inside her skirt.
Though she faced the death penalty, after two months she was inexplicably released without going to trial. She had been nothing but trouble to the soldiers who guarded her. She was, however, watched and harassed until the end of the war. was . She returned to her family’s farm. She never married; her heart was always with Stokes McRae.
After the war, Emeline greatly enjoyed telling others about her escapades, but she never revealed how she came to be released from prison. She remained active in the community until her death.
Emeline Pigott died on May 26, 1916, at the age of 80. She was buried in the family cemetery on the north side of Calico Creek. It is open to the public, and is appropriately located on Emeline Place in Morehead City.
I was born a Tarheel, and I greatly admire her courage.