Today in History:

"The Laundress"

"The Laundress" is a historical figure who played a role in covert communication during the American Civil War. While her identity remains unnamed in many historical accounts, her actions exemplify the creative methods employed by individuals to send messages across enemy lines.

Dabney and his wife crossed over into Union lines in 1863, and Dabney took up work as a cook and body servant at General Joseph Hooker’s Falmouth encampment along the Rappahonnock River. Dabney’s intimate knowledge of the terrain across the river made him an intelligence asset, and soon he was leading troops into battle as a scout—in one instance he allegedly led Union troops directly against his old master.

His wife crossed back across the river and took up the job of a laundress. Dabney started reporting accurate and timely information to Hooker about Confederate movements. None of the officers knew how their cook obtained critical information about rebel movements without ever leaving camp.

During the Civil War, women, including African American laundresses, often worked near military camps and encampments. In this context, "The Laundress" is said to have conveyed messages to her husband, who was stationed in General Hooker's camp across the river from Fredericksburg, Virginia.

One method of covert communication reportedly employed by "The Laundress" involved hanging laundry in a strategic manner. By arranging clotheslines or garments in specific patterns or positions, she could signal messages to her husband across the river. These messages may have included information about troop movements, morale, or personal matters intended to provide comfort and support.


You see my wife over there? She washes for the officers, cooks, and waits around, and as soon as she hears about any movement or anything going on she comes down and moves the clothes on that line so I can understand in a minute. That there gray shirt is Longstreet; and when she takes it off it means he’s gone down about Richmond. That white shirt means [A. P.] Hill; and when she moves it up to the west end of the line, Hill’s corps has moved up stream. That red one is Stonewall Jackson. He’s down on the right now, and if he moves, she’ll move that red shirt.


Historical records indicate that individuals on both sides of the conflict utilized various forms of signaling and covert communication to relay messages to loved ones or fellow soldiers. While specific details about "The Laundress" and the messages she conveyed may be limited, her actions highlight the ingenuity and resourcefulness of individuals during wartime.

It's essential to acknowledge the contributions of individuals like "The Laundress," whose efforts often went unrecognized but played a significant role in maintaining connections and morale during the Civil War.