Antonia Ford and the Ford Building
The Ford Building in downtown Fairfax is part of the city’s historic district and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built circa 1835, this Georgian Revival home (now a commercial building) holds high regard for its historic role in the growth of Fairfax and for the many events that it endured. The Ford Building was also the site of one of the most famous espionage and love stories coming out of the Civil War. Its most iconic resident, Antonia Ford, served as a Confederate spy following the Union occupation of Fairfax in 1861. For the information that she gave, Antonia was designated as an honorary aide-de-camp in October 1861. However, in 1863, she was betrayed by a Union counterspy, arrested, and incarcerated in Washington DC. She was released from the Old Capitol Prison soon after but was re-arrested in Fairfax by Union Major Joseph Willard, who she fell in love with and later married.
Backstory and Context
The Ford House, Spies, and Marriage
Antonia Ford was born in Fairfax in 1838 to the prominent merchant and passionate secessionist Edward. R. Ford. By the time the Civil War started, she was a young and attractive dark-haired lady, well received in both Washington and Virginia society. In 1861, Union troops overran Fairfax and the Battle of Fairfax Courthouse took place not far from the Ford home. Antonia’s brother Charles served under Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s Horse Artillery, and the Ford family was long friends with Stuart and his scout, Colonel John Singleton Mosby. As such, Stuart visited the Ford’s frequently before the Union takeover.
After a skirmish, Union forces ran Confederates from Fairfax and the Ford Home became a boarding house for Union soldiers. Using her wit and charm, as well as her beauty, Antonia was able to obtain valuable information from the Union soldiers in her home. She then reported this information to Stuart’s troops. As such, Stuart penned the following commission (which was later found in the Ford home):
"TO ALL WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
That reposing special confidence in the patriotism, fidelity and
ability of Antonia J. Ford, I, James E. B. Stuart, by virtue of the
power vested in me as brigadier general in the Provisional Army of
the Confederate States of America, do hereby appoint and commission
her my honorary aide-de-camp, to rank as such from this date.
She will be obeyed, respected and admired by all true lovers of a
---- nature. Given under my hand and seal at the headquarters of
the Cavalry Brigade at Camp Beverly the 7th October, A. D., 1861,
and the first year of our independence.
(signet ring seal) (signed) J. E. B. Stuart
(X true copy) (signed) L. L. Lomax"1
From 1862 to 1863, the Fords became further embedded with Union officials while Antonia and her father relayed information to the Confederates. In fact, Antonia was often seen riding with Union General Edwin Stoughton. After a Union party at the Ford residence on March 7-8, 1863, Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby and two dozen raiders slipped into Fairfax and, without a shot being fired, Mosby captured Stoughton as well as two captains and 30 prisoners. Antonia and her father were thereafter put under strict suspicion and investigation by the Federals for this capture, and counterspy Frankie Abel befriended Antonia. On March 16th, Antonia was searched and the commission, as well as Confederate money, was found in the home. She was thereafter arrested and taken to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington DC.
The arresting officer was Union Major Joseph Willard, who while acting as provost marshal in Fairfax, had fallen in love with Antonia. After seven months in prison, Antonia’s health was failing and Joseph persuaded her to sign a loyalty oath to the Union. He then successfully arranged her release and, a year after Stoughton’s capture, they were married in 1864. She later died in 1871, supposedly due to the effects of her confinement in the prison, and Joseph never remarried and lived as a recluse until his death in 1897.2