Episode 54

Ironclad Spy: The woman that saved the Union during the Civil War - Mary Louvestre

🎙️

Mary Louvestre (1812-1883) was a woman of extraordinary courage and determination who lived in Southside Hampton Roads, Virginia during the American Civil War. She was a spy for the Union Army, risking her own life to help the cause.

She risked this all as a free, African American woman, at the age of 49.

Battle of the Ironclads Episode (podcast)

Mary Louvestre: Civil War Spy (video)

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Transcript
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Imagine you are living in Virginia.

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You were in a boarding house in the growing city of Norfolk with

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your spouse, and business is good with a large port so close.

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You get plenty of visitors day and night who come in after a long day of work at

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Gospel Shipyard, just across the waterway.

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I had workers.

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Tool maintainers and men of all trades walk through your doors.

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And recently you've been hearing about this strange ship that is

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supposed to be made of steel.

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Think of it, a ship made of metal.

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How would that even float?

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And it has cannons on it too.

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At least that's what those steel workers said last night.

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Anyways, imagine that, but gospel is a Confederate ship here.

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If they have a ship like that, could the union ever stand a chance to defeat it?

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In 1862, the war between the union and the Confederate states of

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America had been going on for a year.

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And this is exactly the situation that Mary Louvestre found herself in.

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Join us as we talk about Mary Louvestre, the Iron Cloud Spy

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that may have saved the union.

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Welcome to Top of History.

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I'm your host Scott here with my wife and historian Jen.

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Hello.

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Now, Jen.

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Obviously we're talking about the video that just pop posted yesterday.

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Yeah.

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So, so talk a little bit about, set the stage for us on Mary Louvestre, who

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we're co we're calling the Ironclad Spy.

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So it's Women's History Month and we're kicking off Women's History Month.

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Yeah.

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With, uh, a Union Spy, and it's the beginning of the Civil War.

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It's 1861.

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and we have a woman of color living in Norfolk who is running the boarding house

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in Norfolk across the Elizabeth River.

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Right.

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across to the Gosport Shipyard, which today is the Norfolk Shipyard.

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And if you see in the video, I mean, there is naval ships actually being

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fixed and retrofitted and dry docked and all the things that happened

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to the Navy ships, um, in dock.

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And so, uh, it's a shipyard still in use today.

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But in April of 1861, it was undergoing a lot of changes because Virginia

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is gonna succeed from the union.

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That's right in on April 17th, 1861, and not even three days, April 20th, 1861.

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Uh, the union.

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Is pushed out of the gospel

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shipyard.

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The gospel shipyard.

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And that's, and that's one thing that I, I didn't realize because we've just been

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doing all these more civil war mm-hmm.

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kind of topics recently.

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We just did Fort Norfolk.

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And Fort Norfolk is not far away.

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No.

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And Fort Norfolk was union held the entire time.

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No, Monroe was held.

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That's what I meant for Fort Monroe.

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Fort Monroe.

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Right.

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It's, it means literally just.

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It's not far.

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Like driving wise.

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You could probably get from now today?

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Yes.

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From the shipyard over to Fort Monroe.

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What, maybe 20, 30 minutes?

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Yeah,

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definitely.

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But I would assume there's no bridge.

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In 1861.

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Yeah.

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Like there are today.

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Yep.

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And it's fortified as we show in the video, has a moat around

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it and a very small bridge

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to get across.

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But not, not long sale for ships at the time, not

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long sale for.

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And that's how people basically traveled.

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Yeah.

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At the time they had a ferry.

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Yeah.

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Now Fort Norfolk, you did mention Fort Norfolk and that

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is another video we do as well.

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Uh, that was taken by the Confederacy.

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Right?

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And that was, that's actually even closer.

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Even closer.

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That's even closer cuz it's literally, it's almost like right

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across the river, basically.

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Mm-hmm.

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. Yes.

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Um, but Fort Monroe is, is a little bit further away, but it's not that far.

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Fort Monroe is closer basically to the ocean if it's kind of

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picturing in your head, which, it's kind of interesting cuz we're gonna

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talk more about Fort Monroe in, in a moment and how it's, it never.

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To the Confederacy, and it's in the southern part of Virginia,

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which is a Confederate state.

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I mean, it's where Technic, it's where the capital of the Confederacy is in Richmond.

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It's where Robert Lee is from.

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It is like a Confederate state, but you have Fort Monroe, kind of like in

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the southern part of it on the coast.

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That is always union

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health.

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It's funny, you know, even as we talk about it, , uh, what pops into

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my head is like, you ever play risk?

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Yeah.

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Right.

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When you were a kid.

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Mm-hmm.

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and there's like, there's very key.

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Spots on the board Yeah.

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That you wanna hold.

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And for the union, Fort Monroe was one of those spots.

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I mean, that was like, they did everything they could to, to hang onto it.

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It was easily defendable.

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Absolutely.

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But they did everything they could.

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So we're, we're kind of, so we're going, we're, we're veering off here.

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But it's important to the story.

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It is.

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It's important.

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It's important to the story because where we are here in Norfolk Yes.

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You know, we basically, we kind of just get to go.

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Nowadays, downtown Norfolk to visit where Mary Louvestre used to live.

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So, and Mary Louvestre's gonna use Fort Monroe as part of her plan.

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So we'll get into that.

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April 17th, Virginia succeeds from the Union.

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April 20th, the Union Burns, God's Port shipyard.

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So nothing goes into the Confederates hands and the ship.

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The Merrimack is burned down to the waterline, and so

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the Confederacy takes over.

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God poured shipyard on April 21st, the next day, and they take that ship

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that is burned down to the waterline and start to reinforce it with iron.

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Metal, uh,

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plates, and we show a good picture, kind of like how they,

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how they did that.

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And they start to build up the CSS Virginia.

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So the first iron clat of the Confederacy, right across that waterway, which

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everyone is pretty much traveling by boat at this time because there's

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no bridges like we have today,

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right?

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They're taking ferries from the, from the shipyard sting

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back over to the boarding house.

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Boarding house right across the waterway.

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On in Norfolk is a boarding house owned by a free woman of color.

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Mary Louvestre, and you'll see her name as Tu Vestry.

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Um, and her maiden name is Ogilvy.

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And you'll see other things online that she was enslaved,

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but she was never enslaved.

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And this research was done by, um, some Norfolk librarians

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who were able to put together.

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Her mother and her father were free people of color, and they married,

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and Mary was their daughter.

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And if you remember, A child always becomes the status of the

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mother and a, a child of color.

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And since Mary's mother was free, Mary was free.

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And so she's born in 1812 and she's first registered as a, uh,

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free person of color in 1828.

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So she's 16 years old.

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So that's kind of like the time you registered

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somebody.

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And one of the things that I appreciated about you kind of making this point

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that she was free the whole time, which was, which was rare, but it was.

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Not so rare that it was completely uncommon.

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Yes.

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You know, you talk about the population then about a, you know what, 20, 25%

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of the African Americans that were in living in the Norfolk area were free.

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Free.

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So you have about, it's 1840, 11,000 people living in Norfolk.

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40 per 43% are African American or black.

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Um, that's about half and of that population.

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22% are free.

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So one fourth are free.

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So that's about a thousand people.

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So it's not rare to be free, but it is.

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Very much you, you are under the social consciousness of your surroundings.

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You're living in a slave state, you're a person of color.

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Enslavement is, uh, predominantly is African American, so you always

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have to carry your, your freedom, your certificate of freedom.

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That's why she's registered at 16 years old and you're always

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carrying paperwork that proves.

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Freedom.

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And, and I think you even talked about, and it didn't make the video,

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it just, it didn't fit into the story she actually ended up buying mm-hmm.

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like a, the, essentially like a little boy.

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Yep.

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And kind of essentially she, she took him on kind of more as a, it

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seemed like an act of kindness.

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Took him on, kind of raised him, and then gave him his freedom when he was a little

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bit older that didn't make the video.

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But I thought that was an interesting point that you brought up.

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Um, even though it didn't make the, you know, my, my editor's

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cut.

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Yeah.

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So in 19, She does purchase a little boy, 10 year old boy from a local doctor.

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He is from the same area as her father.

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Her father is a French from the, uh, Caribbean Yeah.

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Area.

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And the little boy is the same, um, background.

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And so she feels very drawn to him and she, um, she purchases him and he

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does stuff around the boarding house.

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And then she gives him his freedom when he turns 18.

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She probably did.

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I, you know, I, I conjured that, you know, he was, Abused in some way.

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Sure.

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And she wanted to offer,

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you know.

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Yeah.

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I thought, I thought that was interesting.

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And it was just kind of an interesting piece of how it kind of builds the

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character that is Mary Louvestre who did this very brave act.

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Yes.

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You know, that we're gonna discuss here in just a minute.

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And it speaks really to kind of her character and, and it may

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explain kind of a piece of her

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motivation.

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Sure.

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And you know, we give a lot of background of.

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Birth because her parents are free.

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Again, people of color who are free in a, in slave state, so they're

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operating under those social norms.

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They have to be very strong.

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You, you have to be, yeah.

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They're not even a choice.

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So then to raise children and stay in a slave state and, and make

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a life there, she has to have.

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Some kind of, you know, strength and someone who is a risk taker

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or someone who's very sure of themselves in both parents.

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So she marries a gentleman who was on a Navy ship.

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He was a ship steward.

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Yep.

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And, uh, They get a license for the boarding house, and together

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they operate the boarding house.

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Uh, right off the, we, we have a, a map of it.

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It was on Niveen Street, which is today.

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You see the, uh, gold star if you're looking at, if you're watching this live.

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If not, if you're listening to this live on the podcast, it's where the modern

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day Sheridan, Norfolk Waterside Hotel is.

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It

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is, it is.

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On the waterfront, right.

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You'll see in our video, we're walking right in front of the Sheraton That's

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right on the waterfront right there.

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And we literally turn around and, and the Elizabeth River is

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right there.

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Yes.

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So they basically can see them building the ironclad.

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So not only is the boarding house, like they're watching

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them build the ironclad, but.

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Mary's husband, Michael Lou Vestry, who we talk about their marriage

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in 1844, and we talk about the church that they're married in.

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We talk about that for two reasons.

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One, there is primary source document that supports their marriage.

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Yep.

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Which is a great fine for her historian.

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So we wanna, you know, recognize that because there's, there's the marriage

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records in the church.

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Yes.

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But for a person of color to get married in 1840, um, they're

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actually married in 1844.

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, that's also rare because people don't, at the time, don't wanna recognize

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that people of color can do that.

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Right.

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Can do that kind of status of marriage.

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And at some points people still use her maiden name cuz they don't wanna

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give her the status of a married

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woman.

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Yeah.

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Her maiden name is Ogilvie Ogilvie.

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Right.

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But, uh, Lu Vestry, uh, is her Mary name.

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So Michael Lure, who owns the boarding house with Mary,

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actually works at the shipyard.

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And he works in the STEAM department.

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He's a tool.

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Uh, the steam engineering department, he's a, actually takes care of the tools.

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Yeah.

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Tool maintainer.

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Yeah.

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Tool keeper.

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Yeah.

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And he works with another union, sympathizer.

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William Lyons.

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Mm-hmm.

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. And we actually go to William Lyons's grave.

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So they're working together in the steam department of the css,

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Virginia, uh, ship building.

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And they're coming back over to the boarding.

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With other ship builders and people who are building and they're discussing

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changes or plans or technology updates, and they're pulling out blueprints

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and they're pulling out plans.

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And Mary Louvestre is a part of all of this.

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She's part of watching this.

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She's part of gathering the information and.

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It's between them that they decide that she is the safest person to

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bring this information to the union.

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Yeah,

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and it, I, it's interesting to me, and I don't know if there'd be any documentation

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that would kind of speak to whether or not they, like, before this started

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happening, they already kind of knew like, Hey, we're on the side of the union, or

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they were just kind of like there living.

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And then this opportunity arose and.

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They had that conversation amongst themselves and said,

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Hey, we should probably get this to the side that we believe in.

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Mm-hmm.

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, which ultimately something like that happened because they ended up doing it.

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Yes.

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Like I said, April 21st, April 20th, it's burned.

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April 21st.

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Uh, the shipyard's taken over by the Confederacy 1861.

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It.

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Very long.

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It's summer of 1861 where Mary Louvestre goes to Fort Monroe for

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the first time and meets General Wool and says, I'm privy to information.

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I'm privy to.

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Shipbuilders of the, of an ironclad.

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And, but I want people to understand this is new technology for ship building.

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No one's done this really iron on the side of a ship and it's not gonna sink.

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Like it's, it's unheard of.

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And so this is, this is important intel.

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I can't even distress like it is when people think of the

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civil war and ship technology.

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It's the battle of the Ironclads that changes

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the world.

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Yeah.

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And, and we talk about that in our ironclad video.

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Like th this was kind of a, a seminal moment for the globe,

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for the globe, for everybody.

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Ship building changes in that moment.

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Right?

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And so this, this espionage, this secret that she has is

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like top tier secret, right?

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And so she goes to general rule in the summer and tells

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him I have this information.

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So by December he gives her a.

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And he gives her a pass to travel.

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So if you can imagine in the Civil War, Virginia is Confederate state.

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Fort Monroe is a union fort and he's giving her a pass

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to travel through the state.

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And so they did this during the Civil War because it's

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America, it's still operating.

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Yeah.

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And so people

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still need to live and trade still kind of happened a little bit.

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It's

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called a flag of truths.

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Yep.

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And people could use it to travel to see family.

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Uh, cuz you know, brother versus brother and really the most

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unassuming person that people don't think are doing anything is women.

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And mostly colored women.

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So she is the perfect person

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for Espina.

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And, and this is, this is another place where you kind of point out the accurate

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details where as I was searching online and we encourage folks listening and

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those, watching the live stream, you know, you have to be careful about when

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you search up online because the first couple hits in Google when you, when

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you look up, her name is old kind of.

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Blogs or, or posts or something like that.

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And they're incorrect when they say like she was given a pass

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to go visit her old master.

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She never had an old master.

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So that's not accurate.

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Yeah.

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So you have to be careful when you're doing this kind of research and that's

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one of the things that I think that you bring to the channel and that you

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bring to this podcast is a historian who does thorough research and that,

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and that's important because, um, some of the stuff that you dug a

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little bit, and obviously you weren't looking at the primary source document.

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Yourself, but you found the, the articles about, about other

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historians who found those

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documents and there and, uh, general Wolf's paper still exists at Fort Monroe.

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Yeah.

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And that tra travel, that flag of Truce Travel Pass still exists.

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Oh, I didn't know that.

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And his reason for her traveling.

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Is colored woman.

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Right.

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So he doesn't even have a reason.

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. Right.

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Really like, I don't know if he even expects someone to look at it.

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, they, they

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probably don't.

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And, and then, and you bring that up on the video, she's the perfect spy.

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Unassuming, no one's gonna like, really,

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what's this lady doing?

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And you know, and one of the things that clicked for me, and I don't

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even think it had clicked for you, but in, when I was looking at the

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timeline, she was 50 when she did this.

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Yeah.

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Cuz she's born in 1912.

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So she's like 49.

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Yeah, she's, so, she's, I mean, 18,

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12.

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Yeah.

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1812.

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So yeah, she's, she's 49.

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About to turn 50,000.

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50.

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I mean, that's, that's pretty wild, right?

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So here's, here's a woman who's, you know, black at the time, even though she's

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free, also being a woman, also being a bit older, obviously nobody's gonna be like,

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oh yeah, there's a union spy over there.

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That's not

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what they're thinking.

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They're not, but they're thinking.

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There is the chance, if she is captured, what do you think

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the future holds for her?

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She would be immediately enslaved.

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That's a great point.

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By the south, like if she is caught and found to be a union spy,

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which I don't even know if they would give her that agency, but

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they would just, they would just.

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Make her enslave her.

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And so she's risking her freedom doing this.

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She's risking her life doing this.

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So in December, she gets the, the pass from General Wool at Fort Monroe, and

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she actually makes the trip February of 1862, so about two months later.

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Wintertime, usually a lot of battles aren't going on in the wintertime.

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People are traveling.

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It's not crops in the field, and so she makes it up to Washington DC So

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we show Norfolk to DC is 70 hours for her to travel by foot by boat.

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By wagon.

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70 hours, she gets up to Washington, DC and she only will speak to the Secretary

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of the Navy, Gideon Wells, nobody else.

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So imagine woman of color walking into Gideon Wells' office and all the people

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between him and her secretaries, chief of.

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You know, people are like, oh, just give it to me.

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Just give it to me.

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No, she refuses.

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A woman of color refuses every white.

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And says, no, I'm gonna speak directly to Secretary of

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the Navy.

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It's not like she just kind of walked in with nothing.

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She did have the, the pass from the general, from the general

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rule, but that's all she had.

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That's all she has.

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She's not showing anything else.

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And, and back then, most would expect her to be like, oh yeah, here's

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the secret thing that I'm carrying.

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Please deliver it to the Secretary of the Navy.

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And she said, absolutely not.

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Absolutely not.

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I need to speak to him.

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Right.

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She's not even telling him what she has, just that she

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needs to speak to him directly.

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And because no one knows what she has.

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She gets right in front of him and when she gets in front of him from her dress.

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From her dress, like all the petty coats, she pulls out the

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blueprints of the CSS, Virginia.

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So it's, it's that moment that she has everything.

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This is what they're building, this is what it looks like.

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This is the technology that you're using.

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Any updates they're making, she has all of it.

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She leaves such an impression on wells, and we talk about this, that

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when he comes back to Norfolk in 1868, after the war, he inquires about her.

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Where's that woman that came to see me?

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Yeah.

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I think he wrote a letter to like a, a local military official Yes.

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In the Norfolk area.

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To check on her.

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To

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check

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on her.

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He wanted, he wanted to find

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her, couldn't find her.

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And the, and the local official, like to kind of tracked her down,

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he'd like, Hey, I found her.

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So he, so there's, there's correspondence.

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Yeah.

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Spread again, those, those letters.

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That's the library of Congress.

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Yeah.

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Those letters exist as well.

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And so they're like, oh, hey, I found her.

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And so I think he, she's still at the boarding house, right.

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So I think he, didn't he come to visit?

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Did he come to visit her?

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Is that right?

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He, he came down

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to Norfolk and tried to find her and couldn't.

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Okay.

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And that's when.

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The letter.

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Can someone find her?

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Mm-hmm.

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, and then they find her and let him know that she's okay.

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But this is 1862.

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This is February of 1862.

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The Battle of the Ironclads is going to happen, uh, March 8th and ninth of 1862.

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So really it's like a month later.

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So, yeah, so they take these plans, they're like, Hey, go

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. Can you show the, show the

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So if you're watching, um, this live and I'll talk about it.

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The Virginia is, you can see how it's built above the water line.

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It's kind of, looks like they have stacked metal leaned in against each agenda.

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It's almost like a tent feature and they have candidates coming out

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of the monitor is quite different.

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The monitor real, the metal doesn't really.

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Go above the water line, except for one kind of round, I think

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it's almost like a turt, right?

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That's up there with a, a gun that goes 360.

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So it makes the monitor, in my opinion, harder to hit because it's so flat and

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the Virginia is a little bit easier.

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It's more of a target since it's out of the water.

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But this is what the two ironclads look like.

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And if you know anything about the Battle of the Ironclads, the, the css,

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Attacks first, and it's attacking union ships that are wooden and they are just

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foundering and one of them kind of runs

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the ground.

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. Yeah.

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It's basically save itself.

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It basically just kind of rolls through and like mows 'em all down.

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Yeah.

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And run runs the ground to save itself.

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And this Virginia goes back to Fort Norfolk for the night and that

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ship stays, it's, it's burning and it stays lit, but they're able.

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Uh, word up to DC that they have released their ironclad.

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And so the monitor comes down the coast and that's why they say the

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battle is March 8th and ninth.

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The monitor makes it down that night and it sees the fire of

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that ship that has run a ground.

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Yeah.

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And the Virginia is coming back to kind of end that ship.

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It took them, you know, went back for the night rested.

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It's coming back in the morning to kind of end the people and that ship.

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Obliterate that ship and it, that's when it meets the

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monitor.

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Yeah.

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And, and if you ever, uh, we show it briefly on this video mm-hmm.

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. And if you go back and watch our Battle of the Iron Clouds video, we show it a lot in

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a little bit longer, a little more detail.

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Like, I mean, these, these ships are circling around each other

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for hours and hours and hours.

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It's like you keep trying to shoot each other and cannonballs are bouncing

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off and they're not doing anything, and they're like, this is brand new.

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We don't know how to do this.

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So it's, it's kind of like a stalemate, right?

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I think it's like for three hours they chase each.

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Back and forth and all around.

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And both of 'em are firing.

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Both of, uh, their, you know, artillery is, is bouncing off of the metal.

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And we say that this is such a, a world experience because

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people are watching this battle.

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Yeah.

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And it just, the word just travels this, these ships are invincible.

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Yeah.

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And so ship building, this is when I used can in the picture, you'll,

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you see an old wooden ship in the background cuz it really is.

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That's it.

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, they don't make wooden ships anymore.

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It's done.

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Now all ships are gonna be metal from here on out.

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Uh, as and today, military ships are all metal as today.

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So that, this is the moment that does that without those plans from

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Mary Louvestre, and of course William Lyons and of course Michael Louvestre,

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who risked their lives to get them.

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The union would not have been prepared for that.

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It would not have known what they were doing or what they were making.

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And so it was just, it's so paramount in that moment that it, it really

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was a, a secret that really saved the union and in that regard, and in

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that battle.

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Yeah.

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It was really just such an incredible story and it, it was.

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It's a fun one to make because that's, that's a, that's an exciting story, right?

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That's, that's a successful, exciting story.

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And again, from, from a production standpoint, which is what I like

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to talk about, because I don't know the history, but from a production

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standpoint, it's fun to make, right?

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You kind of get to pick the music and kind of set the mood and kind

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of increase the, the intensity.

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And then at the end you show the, the pictures, you know, that we've all seen

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in, in history books and stuff like that of the Battle of the Ironclads, and yes.

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The reason there was a battle of the Ironclads is because of

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what she did.

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Because of what she did.

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And it's a woman.

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It's a woman who, who did this.

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And not only just a woman, but a woman of color that did this.

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And I think.

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For anybody to kind of, uh, foil the Confederacy.

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Yeah.

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Not only a, a woman but a person of color to do it.

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It just makes me very proud.

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And we always talk about, um, peop you know, history people, what's happening to.

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, everyone in time when a war is happening and the Civil War.

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We do talk about the battles and we do go to the battlefield, but we want to remind

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you it's not just impacting soldiers, it's impacting families, it's impacting

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children, it's impacting women, and every American is gonna be touched by the

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Civil War since it is a war of America.

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For a woman to do this, For me, I, I just admired her so much.

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I wanted more of the truth of her story to come out.

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And it's being researched slowly.

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Uh, and like I said, there's more primary sources that are being

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uncovered, but I think she needs to get credit for what she has done.

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And, uh, and we, we were just really proud to bring her

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story.

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Yeah, it again, it was, it was super fun.

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If you haven't watched the video, go, go check out the video.

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Um, if you're listening to the podcast, I will absolutely link to

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that video in this podcast notes.

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So bravery comes in all forms, but in 1862, during the.

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Thick of the Civil War.

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Mary Louvestre displayed the most classic version of bravery, the kind that stories

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are told of throughout history, taking on a secret spy mission for something

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that she believed in a cause that was bigger than herself and more important

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than her livelihood as a free black woman living in Virginia, if she hadn't made it

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to the Secretary of Navy, Gideon Wells.

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Would the union have ever ma made the u s s monitor?

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Could they have defeated the Confederate?

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See without this revolutionary steel ship building is this one act, the one

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that turned the tide of the Civil War.

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Luckily, we have Mary Louvestre's actions to thank for accomplishing

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that vital mission for the union and possibly for the board itself.

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Now if you enjoyed this podcast, you may like our past episode that we

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talked about on Battle of the Ironclads and our upcoming episode about the

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Confederate Spy Rose Greenhouse, whose work was credited for the South's

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success at the first Battle of Bull Run.

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So thank you for listening to the Talk with History podcast.

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If you know someone else that might enjoy this podcast, please share it with them.

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We rely on you, our community to grow, and we appreciate you all every.

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We'll talk to you next time.

About the Podcast

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Talk With History
A Historian and Navy Veteran talk about traveling to historic locations

About your hosts

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Scott B

Host of the Talk With History podcast, Producer over at Walk with History on YouTube, Editor of HistoryNewsletter.com
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Jennifer B

Former Naval Aviator turned Historian and a loyal Penn Stater. (WE ARE!) I earned my Masters in American History and graduate certificate in Museum Studies, from the University of Memphis.

The Talk with History podcast gives Scott and me a chance to go deeper into the details of our Walk with History YouTube videos and gives you a behind-the-scenes look at our history-inspired adventures.

Join us as we talk about these real-world historic locations and learn about the events that continue to impact you today!

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Thank you for the great podcasts and for sharing your passion! Love hearing about the locations you visit.