Completing the Story of Mary Love, Grant’s Special Courier

By Dennis D. Urban, Former President, Knoxville Civil War Roundtable

The story of Mary Love, a volunteer courier who carried an important message partway from General Ulysses Grant, who was at Chattanooga, to General Ambrose Burnside at Knoxville on a route from Kingston TN to Louisville TN during the Knoxville campaign, has been partially summarized in several books. However, the complete story has not been fully documented in one compilation until this effort. The daring exploit of Mary Love was well known to General Grant and later detailed in the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant.

The Messages:

General Burnside was on his own and isolated in East Tennessee at Knoxville since early September 1863 when he took Knoxville without a fight. The Confederate troops left the city during late August, massing in north Georgia near Chattanooga for what was to be the battle of Chickamauga. Grant was concerned about Burnside’s isolation and wanted to send him some relief before Confederate General James Longstreet would attempt to retake Knoxville and its important three intersecting rail lines. To that end, Grant sent the same written message by several couriers to Burnside on November 29, 1863. The Battle of Fort Sanders was fought in the early morning daylight on that date, but Grant was not yet aware of the Union victory when his messages were written and sent on their way. The cunning and forward-thinking Grant clearly wanted to make known to Longstreet that significant reinforcements were on the way and thus force the hand of Longstreet to make a choice. As Grant wrote in his 1885 memoir, “I put the information of what was being done for the relief of Knoxville into writing, and directed that in some way or other it must be secretly managed so as to have a copy of this fall into the hands of General Longstreet.”[1] Longstreet’s choices were to regroup and attack the city a second time, retreat, or risk being caught between two Union armies.

The following is the message Grant wrote to Burnside at Knoxville on November 29, 1863 from Chattanooga:

CHATTANOOGA,November29, 1863.

 Maj. Gen. A. E. BURNSIDE, Knoxville, Tenn.:

I congratulate you on the tenacity with which you have thus far held out against vastly superior forces. Do not be forced into a surrender by short rations. Take all the citizens have to enable you to hold out yet a few days longer. As soon as you are relieved from the presence of the enemy, you can replace to them everything taken from them.

Within a few days you will be relieved. There are now three columns in motion for your relief–one from here moving up the south bank of the river under Sherman, one from Decherd under Elliott, and one from Cumberland Gap under Foster.

These three columns will be able to crush Longstreet’s forces or drive them from the valley, and must all of them be within twenty-four hours’ march of you by the time this reaches you, supposing you to get it on Tuesday, the 1st instant.

 U. S. GRANT, Major-General.[2]

Longstreet had no way of knowing the location of the reinforcements or how long it would take them to get to Knoxville. However, the message would force Longstreet to take immediate action of some kind. Interestingly, the information contained in Grant’s message relative to the troop movements was entirely accurate. Two copies of this message were written in Chattanooga, one in Grant’s handwriting and a copy written in another hand. One was sent by a courier with instructions to let the message be intercepted by the Confederates at some point along the way to Knoxville. The other message was sent with a note written by Grant’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier General John A. Rawlings. This message was sent via Colonel J.H. Wilson and Lincoln’s advisor Charles A. Dana, both of whom were in Chattanooga to get updated information for Lincoln. The dispatch was addressed to Colonel Robert K. Byrd, commanding the Union garrison at Kingston. That message read:

CHATTANOOGA, November 29, 1863.

 Col. R. K. BYRD, Commanding Post, Kingston, Tenn.:

Inclosed please find dispatch in duplicate for Major-General Burnside, commanding at Knoxville. The one in General Grant’s own handwriting, and marked A, you will send by some one whom you can trust, with instructions to let it fall into the hands of the enemy without fail. The other, marked B, and not in the general’s handwriting, though signed by him, you must get to General Burnside at all hazards and at the earliest possible moment.

By order of Major-General Grant:


Brigadier-General and Chief of Staff.[3]


The Couriers:

Wilson and Dana made the trip through Union controlled territory from Chattanooga to Kingston. Upon receipt of both messages, Colonel Byrd made five copies of the Grant message to Burnside and recruited five different couriers so as to ensure at least one message would get into the hands of Longstreet.

At this point, Mary Love enters the story. Mary was a 39-year-old unmarried woman, who had family in Louisville, TN and lived at the Lawnville community near Kingston in Roane County. Mary was a Unionist but she had a brother serving in the Confederate forces. For this reason Byrd thought Mary would be “less exposed to suspicion by the confederate guards.” The adventurous Mary volunteered to carry one of the messages. Two members of the 9th Michigan Cavalry, Sgt. Cornelius M. Hadley, Company F, and Sgt. William B. Rowe also volunteered to carry the message. They may have traveled together.  The identity of the other couriers remains unknown. One courier, possibly Sgt. Rowe, was captured on December 1, providing Longstreet the intended information. Longstreet issued orders to lift the siege of Knoxville the following day. He moved his forces away from Knoxville and farther to the east. Rowe or a different captured courier was sent to a Confederate prison where he died. Another courier was reportedly killed along the way.

Mary Love chose to take a “long and circuitous” route from Kingston to Louisville where she had both a brother, Dr. John Lewis, and a brother-in-law, Horace Foster. Foster was a Unionist. Dr. Lewis had been a Confederate surgeon stationed at Knoxville. Mary had a companion, Reverend Thomas F. Carter, traveling with her part of the way to Louisville. Mary was stopped at least once along her route and taken to a local Confederate provost marshal, Philo B. Shepherd, 6th Georgia Cavalry, for questioning. Mary stated that she was on her way to minister to her sick sister by assisting her brother, Dr. Lewis. Interestingly, Shepherd knew Dr. Lewis, thus lending credence to Mary’s tale. In those times, a woman traveling unescorted would arouse suspicion.  Few details are known of Mary’s travels but she used her brother’s fleet horse and in a few hours traveled roughly 26 miles by horseback and partially at night before crossing the river into her native Louisville. Completely exhausted, Mary was not to carry the dispatch beyond Louisville. Perhaps she wanted to avoid further suspicion by travelling to Knoxville or perhaps she felt the chances of the note reaching would have greater success with an alternate carrier. In Louisville, Mrs. Elizabeth Brown volunteered her son, 13-year-old John T. Brown, to carry the note on the final eleven mile leg to General Burnside. The adventurous young John Brown agreed to the task. To hide the note and ensure its delivery, Mary sewed the message into the lining of Brown’s jacket. Elizabeth Brown accompanied her son for the first two miles until they passed beyond the pickets of Confederate General Joseph Wheeler who held Louisville.  On December 2, John Brown successfully delivered the dispatch to General Burnside who was relieved to know that reinforcements were on the way.[4] In writing of the receipt of the message on September 14, 1869, Burnside acknowledged that he had received the message “in duplicate.” Two couriers had made it through to Burnside. The second was Sgt. Hadley.  

Based on the intercepted information, Longstreet made a half-hearted feint back towards Knoxville from where he had moved miles to the east. Knoxville was never again threatened during the war.

The Aftermath:

In the years after the Civil War, the daring escapade of Mary Love was almost forgotten.

On January 16, 1873, the U.S. Congress awarded Mary $2,000 “for services in carrying despatches (sic)…through confederate lines.”[5] Subsequent attempts by Congress to make awards to Carter and Brown did not pass. Mary’s award was very substantial for 1873. In today’s dollars, the award would be approximately $44,000. Such an amount would represent the average 1873 earning covering fifteen to twenty years or more.

Sgt. Cornelius Hadley was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on April 5, 1898 for carrying the message to Burnside. His citation read in part, “with one companion, voluntarily carried through the enemy’s lines important dispatches” from Grant to Burnside “and brought back replies, his comrade’s horse being killed and the man taken prisoner.”[6]   

Mary Love lived out her life in obscurity for another 14 years after 1873. She continued to reside in the Lawnville area of Roane County before quietly passing away on February 24, 1887. She never married. Today, Mary Love lies buried with her parents and three brothers in the Love family cemetery on a quiet wooded hilltop behind a private home in Lawnville. There is no mention of her Civil War service to General Grant. Her story lives on in the Official Records and the post-war writings of General Ulysses S. Grant.

The Related and Long Extinct Loveville Community:

Several years ago, from a member of the KCWRT, I learned about the Loveville community that was located near the intersection of Kingston Pike and the current Lovell Road. The gentleman had personal knowledge of the community and sent me a photo of a historic marker which noted a short history of the community. The marker reads, “Robertus Love, a companion of Gen. James White, who founded Knoxville, established the village in this area in 1797 where he built a fulling mill in 1792. Several of the early buildings still exist a short distance from the highway. The name of the village has been corrupted to Lovell.” Today, the heavily traveled Lovell Road which crosses Kingston Pike and extends for several miles in each direction takes it’s name from the historic community.

The marker and the buildings are long gone and my friend was unable to find out what became of the sign. Upon enlargement, several items of interest are seen in the above photo. The Oak Ridge sign in the left background appears to be a mileage or directional marker to the town. So the sign dates to after the town Oak Ridge town became common knowledge. Also, the car to the left of the sign appears to be late 1940s or early 1950s vintage; so the sign may date from the early 1950s. Loveville is also seen just east of Campbell’s Station along the Kingston Road on an 1850 map. This long-gone Loveville community must certainly have some relation to the Mary Love family of Lawnville and Louisville. That relationship has not been researched by this author.

Mr. Urban is a Past President of the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable (2013 – 2016) and remains an active member. Urban’s book, The Making of a Civilian Soldier in the Civil War, The First Diary of Private William J. McLean Along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Affair at Edwards Ferry was published in late 2019 by New Academia Publishing.   

[1] Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume II, page 455

[2] The War of Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XXXI, Part 3, page 273

[3] The War of Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XXXI, Part 3, page 273

[4] Temple, Oliver Perry, East Tennessee and the Civil War, 1899, page 522-523

[5] The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 1988, Volume 9, page 466

[6] The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 1988, Volume 9, page 466