On the night of January 26, 1898, late-night strollers on Elberton street, at the eastern outskirts of Athens, noticed flashing lights and groans coming from the house of Mrs. John D. Carithers. Nobody bothered investigating; they all figured that old Mrs. Carithers was drunk again. She had been separated from her husband for some time before his death a year before and had evicted her niece and nephew-in-law from her house just two days earlier. None of the neighbors had any interest in interfering with her when she had been drinking.
The next morning her body was found almost entirely burned up from the waist down on her parlor floor. A small hole was burned in the floor beneath her feet, but the flames had not spread. A coroner’s jury was convened and rumors spread that Will Bray, the husband of Mrs. Carither’s niece, would be accused of her murder. A verdict of accidental death was returned and Mrs. Carithers’s body was sent to Atlanta for burial. She was one of the thousands of American women who died until well into this century because of the deadly combination of long, loose clothing and open fires.
While Martha Johnson Carithers died a “woman’s death” she had by no means had a typical woman’s life. Every newspaper account of her death mentioned that she had been a soldier in the Confederate service. Dressed as a man, she had participated in several actions and acquitted herself honorably on the battlefield. The Athens Daily Banner said of her that “Mrs. Carithers is said to have had a rare experience during the war, that she followed the soldiers into battle on several occasions, and dressed as a man did good service in the fights.” The Atlanta Journal’s account ran:
When the civil war broke out Mrs. Carithers, who was then Miss Martha Johnson of Oglethorpe county, left her home and marched with the Confederates. She was with the army during the greater part of the war. It was in the army that Mrs. Carithers formed an acquaintanceship with her husband, whom she married at its close.
The 1860 U.S. census for Oglethorpe county shows no Martha Johnson, but it does show a 15-year old Martha F. Mosley living in the household of Luke D. Johnson, 32, a miller along with Mary Johnson, age 18, and Sarah E. Johnson, aged one year. This census did not list family relations; we can only guess that Luke and Mary were married, that Sarah was their child, and perhaps that Martha was Mary’s sister (the biblical pairing of Mary and Martha was, and remains, a common one in our section). It is possible that Martha was commonly known by her sister’s married name. Her age matches that of Mrs. John D. Carithers. A search through Georgia Confederate rosters turns up only one J.D. Carithers, a private of Company D, 16th Regiment Georgia Volunteer Infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia, a Madison county outfit known as the Danielsville Guards. Carithers enlisted in August of 1861, was captured in Virginia in August, 1864, and was released from New York’s Elmira Prison in June, 1865.
Georgia’s most famous women soldiers were the Nancy Harts of LaGrange who defended that town from federal troops in the desperate closing months of the war. If the Danielsville Guards were the unit with which Martha Johnson fought, she spent the war far from home, mostly in Virginia. What was she doing there? There are scattered stories of northern and southern women who disguised themselves as men and went to war with their husbands, but Martha Johnson supposedly did not meet her future husband till she was under arms. An intense patriotism or adventurous wild streak (so often indistinguishable) might have prompted a teenage girl to abandon all Victorian proprieties and live in the coarsest male society short of prison. It is possible that she was one the thousands of women who followed the armies as merchants, laundresses or prostitutes.
None of the local histories of Athens, Oglethorpe County or Madison County tell her story. It is likely that she has relatives in the area and that some version of her life has been passed down in her family. For now we have only a few old newspaper stories to establish her probable claim to have been North Georgia’s only woman Confederate soldier.
©1994 John Ryan Seawright
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.