Archive for the ‘Lincoln’ Category

Union Spy in Confederate Richmond: Elizabeth van Lew

September 21, 2008

By John E. Carey

Alive with spies, merchants, military men and government agents, Civil War Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy’s capital, provided a crossroads for people of all walks of life. One of the more devious and committed was Miss Elizabeth van Lew, an unnoticed spy for the Union cause in plain sight amid the commotion.

Born the daughter of wealth and privilege, Miss Van Lew spent her childhood in a columned mansion atop exclusive Church Hill in Richmond. Family owned household slaves catered to the wishes of her family. Miss Van Lew’s father, John, a wealth hardware vendor, entertained pre-war Richmond society and sent his daughter to his wife’s home town of Philadelphia for her schooling. After Miss Van Lew’s “finishing” in Philadelphia, she returned to Richmond, but she had changed significantly. In Philadelphia, Miss Van Lew became an ardent abolitionist.


Although both of Miss Van Lew’s parents were northerners, they had completely adopted, at least outwardly, the mores and ways of pre-war Richmond. But Miss Van lew secreted her abolitionist beliefs. Although she always maintained that she was a good and loyal southerner, she could not agree with slavery or the war. These feelings probably were formed in her childhood, even before her schooling in Philadelphia. “From the time I knew right from wrong, “ she wrote, “it was my sad privilege to differ in many things from the …opinions and principles of my locality.”

Elizabeth’s abolitionist beliefs were heartfelt and strong. When the Swedish novelist Fredericka Bremer, one of the first “feminists,” visited Richmond, she met Elizabeth Van Lew, who was then thirty. Bremer described Miss Van Lew as “a pleasing, pale blonde,” who “expressed so much compassion for the sufferings of the slave, that I was immediately attracted to her.”

Despite their beliefs, Miss Van Lew and her Mother continued to live within the societal rules of Richmond and did not openly or publicly advocate freeing the slaves. They even kept their own slaves in bondage. Elizabeth R. Varnon, Van Lew biographer and author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, wrote, “Elizabeth and her mother…did not practice overt abolitionism but rather a kind of double life – their outward conformity to social conventions masked their inner doubts about slavery.”

Though prohibited from doing so by John Van Lew’s will, Elizabeth and her mother allowed the slaves to drift further and further toward freedom. The slaves were allowed to earn salaries, travel, and generally, if eventually become free. But once free, the Van Lew’s former slaves lacked the appropriate paperwork for “freedmen” in Virginia.

Elizabeth even went so far as to pick out a young slave girl for education in the north. Mary Elizabeth Bowser would become a life-long Van Lew loyalist in return for her education. The full account of Mary Bowser is sketchy and she certainly had aliases. But if local tradition and conversation can be believed, she was an integral part of the Van Lew spy ring.When the Civil War started, Elizabeth van Lew immediately knew her loyalty and her mission belonged with the Union. When she first saw the Confederate flag flying over Richmond, she wrote, “Looking toward the capitol, I saw the flag of treason floating over it.”

Miss Van Lew arranged for Mary Elizabeth Bowser to work as a free black servant in the Jefferson davis household. She became Miss Van Lew’s eyes and ears, even the occasional collector of valuable papers, in the inner circle of the Confederacy.

By some accounts, Mary Bowser pretended to be “dull and unaware” but in fact, many after the conflict became convinced she had a photographic memory. She listened to Jefferson Davis and his visitors discussing war strategy, troop movements and other government business. She dutifully reported all to her Mistress, Miss Van Lew.

Using her own spinster plainness and merciful heart as her “cover,” Elizabeth van Lew began a regular visitation routine with the Union soldiers she called “the dear boys” held as prisoners in nearby Libby prison. At the same time, she set up ways to send information north to Federal military commanders. Fresh from the front, captured Union soldiers were a wealth of information on the Confederate military situation. They had been transported behind enemy lines and inside Richmond without blindfolds. Miss Van Lew began to send intelligence northward, explaining to the Confederates that she only communicated with the families of prisoners – an act of mercy and kindness.

By late 1863 and early 1864, in the north, people began to realize the pain and suffering of the soldiers held in Libby prison and then at Belle island. Harpers Weekly published drawings of the gaunt, emaciated and dying prisoners along with many first hand account of their privations. Some of the prisoners’ pleas for help were smuggled out of Richmond by Elizabeth van Lew and her cohorts.

At first Miss Van Lew used the mail to transmit information. Then she developed a code, used invisible ink and left messages in books and reassembled empty eggshells hidden in baskets of goodies. Most of her espionage was “hidden in plain sight.”

At a time when Union sympathizers were hanged in Richmond, Miss Van Lew managed to maintain a successful spy operation that was never discovered or even mush suspected, even though she was growing less secretive about her abolitionist beliefs.

Through the van Lew courier system, information, troop dispositions, even home grown van Lew flowers for General Grant moved northward. When the Libby prison inmates staged a tunnel breakout, Miss van Lew his many of the escapees in her Church Hill mansion.

In March, 1864, Miss Van Lew participated in the still controversial “Dahlgren Raid” on Richmond. Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren, USA, the youngest colonel in the Army at the age of 21, and son on Naval artillery expert rear Admiral John Dahlgren, engineered a daring raid on Richmond. The one-legged Union colonel marched his men around Richmond, seeking ways to penetrate the city’s defenses. He was supposed to rendezvous with some 3,000 cavalry troops led by General Judson Kilpatrick, but nothing went as planned in the raid. At Cary Road, Dahlgren’s force was confronted by three hundred armed men of the Home Guard. In the altercation that ensued, Dahlgren was killed. The Confederates mutilated Dahlgren’s body and then hastily, and ignominiously, buried him. Miss Van Lew found the buried body of Dahlgren and had it removed and reburied in a safer place.

On April 3, 1864, as Union forces reclaimed Richmond, Miss Elizabeth van Lew had the largest Union flag she could find hoisted atop Church Hill. For the first time since succession in 1861, the pre-war flag of all Americans flew above the city. But this act of respect, allegiance and defiance won Miss Van Lew no friends in old Richmond society. Tongues wagged and Elizabeth Van Lew’s loyalty became a topic for the following decades.

When General Grant arrived in the desolate, burning, beaten Richmond, Miss Van Lew hosted him to tea. Grant paid Miss Van Lew the highest compliment a wartime general could give to a citizen of a beleaguered enemy city. Grant honored Miss Van Lew with the words, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

After the war, Miss Van Lew continued to ignore the arbiters of proper conduct in the former Rebel capital. She found Colonel Dahlgren’s body and returned it north to his family and his nation. The people of Richmond were incensed. Newspapers in Richmond had full reports of the honors and ceremonies that greeted the young colonel: a guard of honor, laying in state, and a spectacular funeral. The papers recounted that Oliver Wendell Holmes eulogized Dahlgren while he quietly condemned Richmond. The locals in Richmond hated Miss van Lew even more after they endured this spectacle.

Miss Van Lew would spend the rest of her life shunned and alone. Nobody in “proper” Richmond society would ever again speak to her.

When Grant became president, he appointed Miss van Lew postmistress in the district of Richmond. She stayed in that post, serving admirably, for eight years. But Richmond “society” still considered her the lowest form of turncoat.

In her old age, society Richmond called miss Van Lew “Crazy Bet.” She became a penniless recluse. She died in 1900.

Northern admirers placed a granite boulder over the grave of Miss Van Lew, and paid to have these words affixed: “Elizabeth van Lew 1818-1900. She risked everything that is dear to man – friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself, all for the one absorbing desire of her heart, that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.”

Miss Elizabeth van Lew, a lady of her convictions, led a valiant yet tragic life as the finest Union spy and abolitionist in the Confederacy’s capital, Richmond.

By every rule of background, Miss Elizabeth Van Lew should have been among the Confederate women who hurried in and out of Jefferson Davis’s “Gray House” on fashionable Clay Street, knitted for the Southern boys, and wept softly to themselves as the Stars and Bars floated past the iron-balconied residences of Richmond.
       Miss Van Lew was the daughter of a prominent Richmond citizen. Their house stood on one of the city’s most commanding hills, a mansion soaring three and a half stories high. And Elizabeth in her soft Southern voice always spoke of Virginians as “our people.”
       Yet Miss Van Lew became a freak in Richmond, a woman whose existence was a protest against the beliefs of her class and region. Defying old friends, civil and military authorities, she opposed slavery and war. She poured out money and energy to assist Union soldiers, and gained the hatred of her neighbors. But Elizabeth Van Lew was more than the “fanatic” and “theorist” that most Richmonders considered her. For the four full years of war she operated as a dedicated and resourceful spy, according to several Northern generals, the best one inside the Confederate capital.
       Her reputation as a Union sympathizer, though it brought her heavy censure, served as a blind behind which she practiced espionage, directing a band of assistants of assorted ranks and occupations. Miss “Lizzie” was so foolishly and openly attached to the North that most people considered her a silly, hysterical woman. A spy would be ‘ expected to be silent or speak the opposite of what he felt. Deviousness was the last thing to be looked for in anyone like Miss Van Lew.
       Yet dissimulation, it seems clear, was actually the quality that she possessed above all others. Without it she could not have bribed farmers, used Confederate clerks and attorneys, maintained lasting contact with secret service men, and helped prisoners to escape. At times Miss Lizzie could be acid-tongued, scalding in her contempt; again she was gentle and flattering when it helped her to get what she wanted.
       Prim and angular, nervous in movement, she had once been pretty, but by her early forties she had turned into an old maid. She was the same age as her fellow Virginian, Rose Greenhow, but she had no men in her life. Tiny, blondish, with high cheekbones and a sharp nose, Miss Van Lew went about with an “almost unearthly brilliance” in her blue eyes. The opposite of the seductive lady, she accomplished her ends without the help of charm or a lush figure or a coquette’s air.
       Miss Lizzie served particularly the general whom Southerners regarded with marked dislike, U. S. Grant. After the victorious Union army arrived in Richmond, one of Grant’s first visits was to the spinster’s home. Proudly, her ringlets bobbing, she received him for tea. Nevertheless, some years later, when a little girl demurred against meeting her, a “Yankee,” Elizabeth Van Lew bridled: “I’m not a Yankee.” For she maintained at all times that she was only a good Southerner, holding to an old Virginia tradition of opposition to human bondage. She had been the loyal one, she said, they the traitors. . . .
       Some Richmonders insisted the Van Lews had not, after all, come originally from the Old Dominion. Elizabeth’s father was from Long Island, a descendant of a colonial Dutch family. Going to Richmond at twenty-six, John Van Lew cast his lot in 1816 with a member of the well-established Adams family. Their commercial firm failed, owing a debt that the daughter recalled as a hundred thousand dollars. With the sense of rectitude strong among the Van Lews, he “honorably paid” his share. Then, starting again as a hardware dealer, Mr. Van Lew prospered magnificently.
       On a trip to Philadelphia he met the daughter of that city’s late mayor, and brought her back as his bride. Of their three children, Elizabeth was, though least robust, the strongest willed. She was tutored, and given the best of academic and social training, and she soon grew proud of her family’s magnificent home on Church Hill, across from the church in which Patrick Henry called for liberty or death. The Adamses had lost the property, and the Van Lews acquired it.
       ‘Handsome as the building was, John Van Lew transformed it, adding the superb portico and other embellishments. For years the great of America and some from the Continent visited the house to admire the chandeliered parlors with their walls covered with brocaded silk, mantels of imported marble, the sixteen-foot hallway, the terraced gardens lined with boxwood, and the summerhouse at the edge of the James. Jenny Lind stopped there, when she sang her way across America, and Chief justice John Marshall, and Edgar Allan Poe, who, it has been claimed, recited in one of the parlors.
       From her earliest days Elizabeth was very close to her quiet mother. Then the girl left for school in Philadelphia, and Richmonders maintained that she “imbibed abolitionism” there. It appears, however, that she had always been a serious, introspective child. As she put it in a rather self-pitying analysis: “From the time I knew right from wrong it was my sad privilcge to differ in many things from the . . . opinions and principles of my locality.” She described herself as “uncompromising , ready to resent what seemed wrong, quick and passionate but not bad tempered or vicious. . . . This has made my life sad and earnest.”
       When his daughter was twenty-five, Mr. Van Lew died, and his son John, as energetic as he was unspectacular, took over the hardware business with success. Meanwhile the bond between Elizabeth and her mother grew stronger. In the early i850s, when Fredericka Bremer, the Swedish novelist, visited Richmond, she met Elizabeth, who was then thirty, “a pleasing, pale blonde,” who “expressed so much compassion for the sufferings of the slave, that I was immediately attracted to her.”
       As the 1850s passed, this Richmonder did more than feel compassion for her slaves. She freed all the family servants (Elizabeth dominated her mother in such matters), and most of them stayed on in their jobs. Hearing that the children or relatives of Van Lew slaves were to be sold by other owners, she bought and liberated them as well. And she set down such firm opinions as: “Slave power crushes freedom of speech and of opinion. Slave power degrades labor. Slave power is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic, not only over the slave but over the community, the state.”
       Surviving today is an unusual manuscript of hundreds of pages, part diary, part reminiscences, confused yet vivid in many passages. In it Miss Lizzie recalls the days just before the war: “I was a silent and sorrowing spectator of the rise and spread of the secession mania.” From the hour of John Brown’s raid, “our people were in a palpable state of war.” In the general fury, rumors spread that Northern forces were immediately marching on Richmond. “The alarm bells would be rung, the tramp of armed men . . . heard through the night.”
       About this time Miss Elizabeth started her pro-Northern activities by writing to Federal officials and telling them everything that was happening. In her recollections she pictured the Virginia Secession Convention, and quoted a number of women as asking: “Do you think the state will go out today? For if it does not, I cannot stand it any longer.” Upon this she commented: “God help us. Those were sorry days. . . .”
       On April 17, 1861, Miss Van Lew first beheld the Confederate banner over Richmond. “Alas for those with loyalty in their hearts.” Through tears she watched a torchlight procession, and fell to her knees. “Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me. . . .” Friends understood her general sentiments, but some of them must have thought Miss Van Lew’s attitude would change. A delegation came to ask Elizabeth if she and her mother would make shirts for the troops.
       The Van Lew ladies declined, but when they began to receive “personal threats” they agreed reluctantly to take religious books to the camps. If the people of Richmond thought the Van Lews had given in, they were wrong. An uneasy May and June passed. July brought the preparations for the first battle at Manassas. The two women saw the soldiers ride off to the applause and tossed roses of Richmond admirers. Their hearts sank when the South sent the Union Army reeling back. Through Richmond rolled wagons with dispirited Northern prisoners, and resentment against Yankees rose so high that no one dared speak to them.
       A day or two later the Van Lews heard stories of suffering in the grim warehouse that was Libby Prison. Miss Lizzie went to Lieutenant Todd, the Confederate prisonkeeper (who was also Mrs. Abraham Lincoln’s half-brother) and asked to be a hospital nurse. The lieutenant gasped. She didn’t mean she wanted to nurse those men! Why, he knew people who would be glad to “shoot the lot of them.”
       Miss Van Lew next tried Secretary of the Treasury Memminger, with whom she was acquainted. Ah, he could not hear of such a thing. A class of men like that-they were “not worthy or fit for a lady to visit.” She changed her tactics and reminded Memminger of the time he gave a beautiful discourse on religion. His face beamed; so she had liked it? “I said that love was the fulfilling of the law, and if we wished ‘our cause’ to succeed, we must begin with charity to the thankless, the unworthy.” She won her point and the Secretary gave her a note to Provost Marshal Winder.
       Once Miss Lizzie assured a friend: “Oh, I can flatter almost anything out of old Winder; his personal vanity is so great.” Now she proved it. With her gaze fixed on his white head, she smiled: “Your hair would adorn the Temple of Janus. It looks out of place here.” A few more such remarks, and she had her pass!
       From then on Miss Van Lew called regularly at the prisons, until, as one man said, she shopped as much for the prisoners as for her own family. She carried clothes, bedding, medicines. Discovering sick men, she persuaded Confederate doctors to transfer them to hospitals. Some thanked her for their lives. As one of the Union secret service chiefs ultimately declared: “By her attractive manners and full use of money she soon gained control of the rebel prisons……… But before long the Van Lews were in the limelight, when newspapers singled them out.
       Two ladies, mother and daughter, living on Church Hill, have lately attracted public notice by their assiduous attentions to the Yankee prisoners. . . . Whilst every true woman in this community has been busy making articles for our troops, or administering to our sick, these two women have been spending their opulent means in aiding and giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil, bent on rapine and murder. . . . Out upon all pretexts to humanity! . . . The course of these two females, in providing them with delicacies, bringing them books, stationery and paper, cannot but be regarded as an evidence of sympathy amounting to an endorsement of the cause and conduct of these Northern vandals.
       The Van Lews did not take the hint. Instead, they expanded their activities. Learning of Lieutenant Todd’s taste for buttermilk and gingerbread, they plied him (shades of Mati Hari!) with these wholesome items. They worked similarly to gain favors from others. And Miss Lizzie’s enemies would have been even more indignant had they known she was getting military information from the Union prisoners. The day she first sent secret messages through the lines is not known, but it appears that she soon established contact with Union agents who slipped into Richmond on secret missions. The prisoners understood the meaning of Confederate troop movements, the shifting of regiments near the capital, and they and Miss Lizzie picked up hints from soldiers and guards.
       Elizabeth’s servants were ready to leave the Van Lew mansion on a minute’s notice on innocent-looking errands. The Van Lews had a small vegetable garden out of town-an excuse for the Negroes to go in and out of Richmond. Not many people would poke into the soles of muddy brogans worn by an old colored man on a horse. Few would inspect a servant’s basket of eggs, one of which was an empty shell concealing a coded message.
       The Confederate attitude toward Miss Lizzie’s prison visits varied. A commanding officer once asked her to stop bringing in special meals because it “subverted the consistency of prison rules.” Such orders inconvenienced but seldom halted her. During a tense period when she was ordered not to exchange a word with the prisoners, Elizabeth brought books. When the soldiers passed them back to her, the Confederates did not know that tiny pin pricks conveyed military data.
       The spinster also slid notes into the “double-bottom” of a dish, originally intended to hold wan-n water. Advised that a suspicious guard planned a thorough inspection of the dish, Miss Van Lew prepared for him. When he reached for it she gave it up readily; for she had been holding it for some time cradled in her shawl. He let it go with a howl; she had taken care to fill the bottom with boiling water!
       In the summer of i86i the Union seized fifteen Confederates as privateers on the vessel Savannah, and threatened to hang them. In retaliation Jefferson Davis ordered the same number of Federal soldiers held as hostages. Miss Lizzie protested and won the right to visit the endangered men, comforting them, bringing food, taking out forbidden letters. At this time the old maid developed a particular friendship for one of the condemned men, a young Colonel Paul Revere of Massachusetts. At one point she connived in his attempted escape. The danger of the mass hanging passed, and Colonel Revere eventually was exchanged, only to die later at Gettysburg.
       Each incident meant intensified Confederate bitterness against Miss Van Lew. She did not dare keep a complete journal. “Written only to be burnt was the fate of almost everything which would now be of value. Keeping one’s house in order for Government inspection with Salisbury prison in prospective, necessitated this. I always went to bed at night with anything dangerous on paper beside me, so as to be able to destroy it in a moment.” Again: “The threats, the scowls, the frowns of an infuriated community-who can write of them? I have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things………
       Miss Lizzie once went to Jefferson Davis himself to request protection. Not many spies for one government asked the head of the opposing government for his aid! Mr. Davis’s secretary advised her to apply to the mayor, but she had a better thought, which grew out of the housing shortage. Lieutenant Todd was to have a successor as keeper of prisons-a captain with a family. The newcomer had to live somewhere, and Miss Van Lew knew just the place-her big house. While he stayed there with his “interesting family,” the Van Lews were left in peace.
       It is hard to tell when the next step occurred in her evolution as a spy. Slowly, however, she took on a new, protective coloration. Richmond had long regarded her as a trifle odd. Elizabeth began to accentuate that oddity. As she walked along the street, she mumbled and hummed to herself, head bent to one side, holding imaginary conversations. Richmonders glanced at one another and shook their heads. The prison guards gave her a new name: “Crazy Bet.” She lived up to her title, combing her curls less carefully, wearing her oldest clothes and most battered bonnets.
       Yet there was nothing crazy in the next exploit credited to Miss Van Lew. Among the slaves she had liberated was slim, intelligent Mary Elizabeth Bowser, then living outside of Richmond. Mary Elizabeth returned at Miss Lizzie’s request and became the new house servant for the Jefferson Davises. The Union now had its spy in the household of the Confederate President. The girl apparently brought back some interesting stories. . . . Mary Elizabeth and her former mistress met at intervals after dark near the Van Lew farm. For such trips the older woman varied her Crazy Bet routine and wore a huge poke bonnet, leather leggings, “belt canvas coat.” Tucking up her curls, she played the poor country woman driving around in her buggy.
       Miss Lizzie enlisted the help of a number of simpler folk, farmers, storekeepers, factory workers, united in their belief in the Union. In the words of General George Sharpe of the Army Intelligence Bureau: “Their [the Van Lews’s] position, character and charities gave them a commanding influence, and many families of plain people were decided and encouraged by them to remain true to the flag, and were subsequently able during the war to receive our agents. . . . For a long, long time, she represented all that was left of the power of the United States government in the city of Richmond.”
       Other Federal spies or scouts arrived in the capital to “take her orders,” the intelligence chief added. They usually slipped into the Van Lew house at night, to stay for days in rooms at the back of the mansion. In emergencies they stopped only at the family farm. Miss Lizzie’s friends took them frequent messages. One such friend was a seamstress who stitched dispatches into her patterns. Several times the girl was halted by Confederate guards; rough fingers felt the patterns but none of the messages was discovered.
       The Union threat against Richmond became ominous in 1862. McClellan came so close that the people of the capital could hear gunfire. “We are in hourly expectation of a battle. . . . We have hatched eight chickens today and have a prospect of rearing and eating them under our ‘dear young government’; and so we go, mixing peace with war,” wrote Elizabeth.
       Miss Lizzie had the happy notion that when McClellan entered Richmond he should be their guest. Using “new matting and pretty curtains, we prepared a chamber.” Meanwhile, revealing another side of herself, she went out with friends for a ringside view of the fighting. “The rapid succession of the guns was wonderful…. No ball could be as exciting as our ride this evening. Only think of the bright rush of life; the hurry of Death on the battlefield!” Here was a sight that not many other Richmond spinsters would have enjoyed.
       McClellan never set eyes on Lizzie Van Lew’s pretty room. Robert E. Lee took charge of the Confederate defenses, and Little Mac pulled back. For the saddened Van Lews there were other misfortunes. One day Elizabeth took pity on an undernourished milliner, “friendless and alone.” Bringing this Miss McGonigle home, she helped her for months. Overnight the milliner turned on her and paid a call at Confederate headquarters to report her suspicions. Luckily Miss McGonigle knew nothing definite against the Van Lews, but Elizabeth was deeply hurt by this occurrence.
       By now the family had taken in other boarders. One such guest, who might have told far more than the milliner, received a note from “W. W. New, Detective, C.S. Police,” with a request to appear for testimony against the Van Lews. Her evidence was needed “to conclude the case.” Detective New added that if the boarder felt some hesitation in going she would not have to appear before Mrs’ Van Lew, nor would her name be mentioned in the case. The lady felt more than delicacy in the matter; she declined to say a word.
       Some of the neighbors, however, were not so loyal and the Van Lews were continually trailed by detectives. As Miss Lizzie wrote: “I have turned to speak to a friend and found a detective at my elbow. Strange faces could be seen peeping around the column and pillars of the back portico.” The grand jury investigated the old maid and her mother for “trafficking in greenbacks,” United States currency, and Elizabeth’s mother fell sick when she heard that warrants had been prepared against her.
       With the supply of army horses decreasing, few Richmonders were allowed to keep their animals. One day Elizabeth received a tip from a friendly Confederate clerk that soldiers were headed for her home to confiscate her horse. She needed him badly for spy work, so she hid the animal in the smokehouse. A few days later Confederates learned of this and, being warned again, Miss Lizzie led the horse through the house and up the stairs to the library. Straw had been spread, “and he accepted his position and behaved as though he thoroughly understood matters, never stamping loud enough to be heard nor neighing.” He was “a good, loyal horse,” Elizabeth assures us.
       Many townsmen were certain that Crazy Bet hid more than horses. In these later days, as privations increased and men in prisons turned desperate, scores escaped. The Van Lew home was searched several times without result, but people whispered stories of secret passages and hidden rooms. Miss Lizzie’s niece told eventually how she saw Aunt Elizabeth glide toward the attic with a plate of food, and tiptoed after her. As the niece peered around a corner the spinster touched a panel. It slid back, and a bearded man reached out hungrily for the food. Years afterward the girl found the concealed chamber beneath the slope of the rear roof.
       General Sharpe of the Union Intelligence credited Miss Van Lew with helping in many escapes, including the celebrated exploit in which a sixty-foot tunnel was dug under Libby Prison. The time was a chilly February day in i 864. Elizabeth had been told “there was to be an exit” in the near future, and she prepared “an off, or rather end room.” Personal problems intervened and she had left the house when some of the escaping prisoners sought refuge, and the servants turned them away. Other Union sympathizers took them in, communicated with Miss Van Lew, and she went to work to assist them on their perilous journey….
       By now she had further systematized her espionage, establishing regular contact with General Ben Butler at Fortress Monroe. Becoming more professional, she received a cipher and hid the key to it in her watch case, which she retained until her death. As an additional safeguard, her niece said, Miss Lizzie would tear cipher messages into two or three pieces and roll them into tiny balls, to be handed over in that shape. Years later the retired spy herself told a Richmond child how she hid papers by unscrewing the top of the andirons in her bedroom.
       Crazy Bet’s spy organization had also widened. The chief of Federal spies, speaking of her and her mother, said: “They had clerks in the rebel war and navy departments in their confidence.” On that point Elizabeth always remained reticent, and such helpers, traitors to the Confederacy, were apparently never exposed. Once, she noted, she did go to General Winder’s office with an emergency message from General Butler to a Union agent on the Confederate payroll. Had it fallen into Southern hands, the letter could have destroyed the man and also Crazy Bet.
       The old maid acted with cool daring. She entered Winder’s quarters, sought out the individual in question, and placed the note directly in his hands. A few feet away were the central offices of the Confederacy’s secret service. The man trembled and seemed about to break. Might he betray her, in his terror? Instead he slipped the paper into his pocket and whispered that Miss Lizzie must never come there again. Apparently she did not have to, as the next time he went to her.
       Late in January of 1864 Elizabeth Van Lew and her friends in Richmond passed on vital information about Confederate plans to move thousands of prisoners. Here was an opportunity for a sudden Northern attack which would free a great many Union soldiers and might even take Richmond. Miss Lizzie called in a few well-placed assistants and then sent a young emissary on a dangerous trip to Butler’s headquarters in Virginia. The official war records contain her dispatch, originally in cipher:

It is intended to remove to Georgia very soon, all the Federal prisoners; butchers and bakers to go at once. They are already notified and selected. Quaker knows this to be true. They are building batteries on Danville road. This from Quaker. Beware of new and rash councils. This I send to you by direction of all your friends. No attempt should be made with less than 30,000 cavalry, from 10,000 to 15,000 infantry to support them…. Forces probably could be called in from five to ten days; 25,000 mostly artillery, Stokes’s, and Kemper’s brigades go to North Carolina. Pickett’s is in or around Petersburg. Three regiments of cavalry disbanded by Lee for want of horses. . . .

       When Butler received Miss Lizzie’s message four days later, he marked it “private and immediate” and forwarded it to Secretary of War Stanton, with an explanation that it came “from a lady in Richmond with whom I am in correspondence.” The bearer had carried a token to show he could be trusted. “Now or never is the time to strike,” Butler added . , and told of his questioning of Miss Van Lew’s nervous courier.
       The boy had contributed dozens of other military facts, troop movements of which the Van Lew group had learned at the last moment, and other advice from “Quaker” and “Mr. Palmer,” two of the Union agents who concealed their identities. All pointed to the belief that “Richmond could be taken easier now than at any other time of the war.”
       This advice from civilians had its defects, to be sure; they threw figures about carelessly, and there were military factors about which they lacked information. Nevertheless, the Northern officials apparently accepted the truth of the general situation as presented, and accordingly launched a major operation. The Union War Department gave considerable time, attention, and manpower to a cavalry movement to surprise Richmond and free the prisoners. Unfortunately for the enterprise, however, the “secret” project became as confidential as a White House reception. Too many officers’ wives, and officers themselves, talked about it.
       On February 28 a body of four thousand picked troops swept toward Richmond from the left, under General Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. From the right several thousand other Union soldiers would make a feint. Then young Dahlgren was to drive on the Confederate capital in one direction while Kilpatrick knifed in from the other. The blow might be one of the most brilliant of the war; his superiors expected a great deal of the twenty-two-year-old Dahlgren, son of Rear Admiral Dahlgren, and the Army’s youngest man of his rank. Having lost a leg shortly after Gettysburg, the boy used a wooden leg and crutch, but could still outride anyone in sight.
       The raid started on schedule, then rapidly went to pieces. There were unforeseen obstacles, a Negro guide who could not or would not find a ford across the James, and, not least, Confederate foreknowledge. In badly frightened Richmond, as Miss Van Lew reported: “every reliable man was called out. There was an awful quiet in the streets; the heavy silence was impressive. . . . At night we could hear the firing of the cannon. . . .” By the time Colonel Dahlgren reached a road only five miles from the city, strengthening resistance made the attack hopeless. As the Union troops retreated in darkness and rain, Yount, DahILyren himself was killed.
       Then began a macabre episode that involved the boy’s remains. The body was hastily searched by Confederates, a memorandum taken, a finger cut off for its ring, and the valuable wooden leg was removed. Casually they buried what was left of Dahlgren near a road.
       Soon afterward Southern officials made an announcement that sent a wave of fury over Richmond. Dahtgren, they said, had carried orders to burn and sack the city, and kill Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet. Whether or not the documents were authentic has never been determined. Richmond papers described the captured Union soldiers as “assassins, barbarians, thugs . . . redolent of more hellish purposes than were the Goth, the Hun or the Saracen.” Kill them all as enemies of humanity! One journal urged a public showing of the Dahlgren corpse as a “monument of infamy” to teach young Confederates to hate such men.
       Where Ulric Dahlgren lay interred, no one knew, said the newspapers. “It was a dog’s burial, without coffin, winding sheet or service. Friends and relatives in the North need inquire no further.” As a matter of fact, the remains had meanwhile been placed in a coffin and transferred to Richmond, and on orders from President Davis workmen reburied Dahlgren late at night and secretly among thousands of other Union graves. But not entirely secretly, because of Elizabeth Van Lew.
       She tells us that a Negro she knew was “in the burying ground at night . . . entirely accidentally, or rather providentially”! The man marked the spot of Dahlgren’s grave, sought her out, and she took over, managing a remarkable job of plotting, body stealing, and transfer through the Confederate lines. Needing six or seven helpers, she had no trouble enlisting them at once among her Union friends.
       Late one night, four men rode to the burial place. Digging up the rude casket, they unscrewed the lid and identified the corpse by the missing right leg. Over rutted back roads they hastened to the farm of W. C. Rowley, where Miss Lizzie waited in a seed house, and once again the boy’s remains were examined, but with “gentle hands and tearful eyes,” she said. She helped transfer the corpse to a new metal coffin, which would now be put into the earth on Robert Orrick’s farm outside town.
       First, however, they had to take the box past Confederate pickets. In the morning Farmer Rowley climbed to the seat of his wagon, the coffin on the floor behind him, covered by a dozen closely packed peach trees. Approaching the pickets, the farmer saw that they were examining everything. He was panicky until he recognized the soldier who strolled over to inspect his wagon. He reminded the man of their last meeting. Vaguely the soldier recalled the incident. “But whose trees are these?” Rowley tried to be casual: “They belong to a German in the country.” The two acquaintances talked about the unwisdom of planting peach trees at this season. Ah, well, that was the German’s worry. The uniformed man sighed: “It would be a pity to disturb those trees, when you’ve packed them so nice. Go ahead.”
       With the body safely buried, Elizabeth Van Lew promptly started a cipher report of the exploit on its way to General Butler. Dahlgren’s sorrowing father had meanwhile asked that Ulric’s remains be returned to him and Jefferson Davis issued orders to grant the request. When Confederate soldiers dug in their own burial grounds and found nothing, Richmond buzzed with a greater mystery than ever. Not until after the war was the matter cleared up.
       At least once Miss Lizzie was almost led to betray her connection with Butler. The general had requested an up-to-date report on Richmond’s defenses, and she had her cipher message ready, torn in strips and rolled in wads as usual. An expected scout had not arrived and as she walked along the street, wondering how she was going to send her report, a man beside her murmured: “I’m going through tonight,” and continued on without pausing.
       Perhaps it was the Union agent, who might have some urgent reason for approaching her this way without identifying himself. Quickening her steps, she passed the stranger, and again she heard: “I’m going through the lines tonight.” She frowned and made no acknowledgment. The risk was too great. The next day a Southern regiment marched by, and she recognized the man, now in his gray uniform. Belle Boyd had once been trapped in much this fashion; Crazy Bet was more crafty.
       From General Sharpe, we learn that as General Grant moved closer to Richmond Miss Van Lew’s communications with the Union command reached a new peak. With the distance shortened, she could forward messages almost daily. She used a system of five “stations” or points along the way, from the mansion on Church Hill, to her farm, and beyond. Grant asked repeatedly for “specific information” and she “steadily conveyed it to him,” Sharpe explains.
       So expert was her transmission belt that flowers from the Van Lew gardens often arrived fresh and dewy on Grant’s breakfast table! And Sharpe declared that “the greater portion” of the information passed to the general’s army in 1864-65 “in its collection and in a good measure in its transmission, we owed to the intelligence and devotion of Miss E. L. Van Lew.”
       But at this late date Crazy Bet faced a final threat of exposure. In February of 1865 Union officials believed they had an inspiration when they dispatched to Richmond an Englishman named Pole. Prodigious spying deeds were predicted. On his way Pole met many Union sympathizers. Careful arrangements had been made for him in the city and supposedly he was to meet Miss Lizzie. Her diary described her suspicion and anxiety, which turned to terror when Pole suddenly rushed into Confederate headquarters to sell out his employers.
       At least two Union agents went to prison. For hours Elizabeth waited in apprehension, fearing the man had discovered enough to implicate her. Then nothing more happened. She had missed disaster by a thread. Personal deliverance was not long in following. On a Sunday in early April a roar echoed in the Richmond streets; Lee’s lines had given way, the Confederates were marching out, and the town had gone mad. Fires crackled in one square and another. “Hundreds of houses had fallen victims to the spreading fire…. The constant explosion of shells, the blowing up of the gunboats and of the powder magazines seemed to jar, to shake the earth and lend a mighty language to the scene … the burning bridges, the searing flames added a wild grandeur. . . .”
       Neighbors borrowed the Van Lew wheelbarrows to save their belongings. The prisons were emptied and scores of Union soldiers were taken out of Richmond. Miss Lizzie had determined to make a grand gesture, whatever its cost. At considerable peril she had ordered a big American flag smuggled through the lines. She and her servants scrambled to the roof and set it to waving its thirty-four stars against the sky. Hers was the first Union flag to be unfurled again in the Confederate capital.
       Richmonders glared, and a howling mob gathered. God damn the old devil; burn her place down! Men shoved toward her house, trampled the garden, and Crazy Bet stepped forth to confront them. “I know you, and you. . . ” Her thin face contorted, she screamed their names and pointed them out. “General Grant will be in town in an hour. You do one thing to my home, and all of yours will be burned before noon! ” They were convinced and they backed away.
       Miss Lizzie had one last assignment for herself. She ran to the Confederate Capitol, to search among the ashes of the archives for secret documents which the Union government might find helpful. She was found there by a special guard dispatched for her protection by General Grant. He had remembered her and the danger she might face on this day….
       Soon after his arrival the general paid his formal visit. Mrs. Grant explained later that her husband said they must visit Miss Van Lew, for she had given great service to the Union. They drank tea together and talked politely on the columned porch. “Crazy Bet” was very proud; for the rest of her life she kept Grant’s calling card.

Source: “Spies For The Blue And Gray” by
Harnett T. Kane


Civil War Chaplains and Executioners

September 21, 2008

John E. Carey

Civil War diaries and letters from the front reveal a common thread about chaplains: the soldiers almost universally admired and respected the good chaplains and treated others with distain. Chaplains had many roles to fill and their duties either endeared them to the men or caused misunderstandings or unhappiness.

Civil War chaplains served in dozens of roles both traditional and unusual. Typically, and rightly, we think of chaplains holding services, preaching to the soldiers, listening, and leading the men in church songs. But chaplains worked every day; not just on Sunday. War diaries tell us that the chaplains performed many non-traditional functions such as mailman, pay collector (sending soldiers’ pay home to their relatives), correspondent (writing letters for the wounded or illiterate and to families after deaths occurred). Some chaplains became scouts, provisioners and diplomats. Almost universally, chaplains assisted doctors in the hospitals in any number of ways. Following a Court Martial, it was often the chaplain who made that last lonely walk with the condemned man on his way to meet his maker.

Summoned by military order and sometimes in writing, the chaplain would find himself face-to-face with some wretch who had been convicted of desertion, rape or some other grievous offense. This religious duty of extending God’s graces to even the most questionable of characters meant that the priest or chaplain gained a keen insight into the depths of human nature. He became, in effect, a good judge of character.

When the chaplain encountered the “executioner,” that is, the officer who convened the Court Martial or commanded the unit involved, the chaplain’s judge of character and reputation came into harsh conflict with the rigors of military discipline.

On April 24, 1864, Father William Corby of the Irish Brigade made efforts to set aside a conviction and execution of one Private Dawson. His requests moved up the chain of command without resolution. Finally, Father Corby sent this telegram to President Abraham Lincoln: “His Excellency; A. Lincoln; President of the United States — General Meade has not the official proceedings relative to the court martial of L. Dawson who is under sentence of death to take place the 25th instant therefore….Please say what might be done.”

We can only speculate as records are incomplete but it appears that Father Corby may have previously discussed the Dawson case with President Lincoln.

Corby had put Lincoln on the spot. Lincoln had been widely known in the army as a man of reason and leniency. By 1864, military leaders considered this a severe negative influence on good order and discipline. Grant had discussed the issue himself with the president, encouraging the commander in chief to stay out of the Court Martial appeal process.

On April 25, General Meade sent this telegram to the President: “I duly received your note by Mr. Corby & after examining the case of Dawson could find nothing to justify my recommending a mitigation….Unless you intervene he will be executed.”

Dawson was executed.

Even though Corby had come into conflict with General Meade, Meade understood and respected the role of the chaplain and kept him involved with the execution process.

On July 12, 1864, Father Corby was summoned to assist a convicted man with this memorandum:

“Rev’d Sir: There are two men to be executed on the 15th inst., one of whom, especially, is very anxious to secure the services of a priest. If you will be pleased to attend him, the provost-marshal at headquarters will be instructed to furnish you all the facilities necessary to discharge the functions of your sacred office.”

“By order of Maj-Gen. Meade”

Father Corby rode off immediately to fulfill his ordered “sacred office” and upon meeting the convicted immediately sensed innocence. “He was not a low, depraved person by any means, but in time of temptation he had fallen.” Father Corby went to work ministering to the condemned man.

Military justice, more often than not, dominated any attempts to set aside a conviction. Father Corby was bound to see this execution to the end. “There were, perhaps, ten thousand men present. A strong guard conducted the prisoner to the scaffold, and I rode beside him until we reached the spot…. I attended to the two men and escorted them up the scaffold. Without very much ceremony the ropes were adjusted about their necks, and, while both continued to pray for God’s mercy, a silent signal was given and both dropped dangling at the end of the ropes – dead!”

General Meade was not inclined toward leniency.

Father Constantine L. Egan, who had served with the 9th Massachusetts until the muster-out of the regiment in June of 1864, and then was attached to the Headquarters of the 5th Army Corps, recounted a very similar summons to minister to a convicted man in April, 1865. “We have a prisoner under sentence of death for desertion; the time appointed for his execution is Friday. He desires the attention of a clergyman of your denomination…”

Egan set about to have the execution put aside. He convinced Major General S. H. Crawford of the Third Division, Fifth Army Corps, to send him to General Meade with a letter of introduction and a military escort. “The carriage was made ready with seventeen troopers, and Gen Crawford, handing me the letter, we started on our journey.”

Father Egan ultimately had a hearing with General Meade but he was not as successful in his mission as he had hoped. Egan wrote, “The principle point of my argument representing the prisoner as a reckless half-fool, non compos mentis. The general remarked that that fellow was no fool, for he broke away from the guard three times.”

Ever the tough nut on military discipline, Meade only partially relented to Egan’s argument. “Well, Father,” Egan recalls Meade as saying, “I will suspend his execution for tomorrow, but you will have to get the doctors to substantiate your claim that the prisoner is non compos mentis.”

Thus Egan the advocate bought at least a little time to gather more information in the hope of saving a man’s life.

Like the chaplains, the doctors were under military commanders and the medics of the Civil War had virtually no knowledge of the concepts later known as “battle fatigue” and “post traumatic stress disorder.” Egan would have to witness an execution.

Military chaplains who served in combat throughout history faced daily tests of their courage and faith. The Civil War chaplains were no different. No test could have been tougher than taking that last walk with a condemned man when the chaplain believed in his heart that the accused was innocent.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page and The Washington Times.


Civil War Hangings

By Mike Parker, The Kinston Free Press

(Oct. 11, 2004) — In the wee hours of Feb. 2, 1864, Confederate forces captured 53 men who had deserted the Stars and Bars and currently wore the uniform of those serving the Stars and Stripes. These men comprised nearly the entire roster of Company F of the Second North Carolina Volunteer Union Infantry.Within four months of capture, nearly all were dead. Many became victims of diseases after they were sent to southern prisoner of war camps.

Some were branded with a “D” for “deserter” on their hips.

However, 22 of these men were publicly hanged in Kinston.

The story of these hangings, once the stuff of local legend, entered this summer into the arena of international study thanks to the efforts of Dr. Donald Collins, a retired history professor from East Carolina University.

His account of these ill-fated men appeared in the June issue of the CHAB News. CHAB stands for the Confederate Historical Association of Belgium.

The publication is a popular Civil War magazine, similar to the Civil War Times Illustrated published in the United States.

“During the past two years, interest in the story of the Kinston hangings has expanded nationally and internationally,” Collins said. “Northerners visiting the South are often dumbfounded by the interest of Southerners in the Civil War.

“They would be more surprised at the intense interest our war has generated throughout the world.”

Germans, Austrians, Australians, Frenchmen, Belgians and other Europeans hold round-table discussions, and European re-enactor groups, fighting as both Federals and Confederates, recreate the battles of Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor and Antietam, Collins explained. The First North Carolina Cavalry has a German branch that has ridden into action for the past 12 years.

Even the Internet offers evidence of the interest people world-wide have in the American Civil War. One website’s greeting reads, “Willkommen auf des Homepages des Union and Confederate Reenactors International,” while another says, “Bienvenue sur le site du Club Confedere et Federal de France.”

Dr. Collins’ article in CHAB News, titled “General George Pickett and the Mass Execution of Deserters in Civil War Kinston, North Carolina,” is just the latest chapter in the story of this professor’s personal quest.

“I became interested in this topic many years ago while doing genealogical research on my great-grandfather, Richard Louis ‘R.L.’ Collins, who was the husband of Elsy Becton of Lenoir County. R.L. Collins owned a tailor shop next to the Pollock Hotel across from the court house before the Civil War,” Collins said.

“He lost his shop at the beginning of the war when he refused to make a Confederate flag. He even refused to sell the material to make Confederate flags.”

Collins said when he learned that his great-grandfather’s death occurred around the time of the Kinston hangings, he suspected that his Union-sympathizing ancestor was possibly one of those who ended up at the end of a rope. R.L. Collins was 31 at the time of his death.

As the professor meticulously examined documents from that historical period, he pieced together the story of the captured deserters and the Kinston hangings. Major General George Pickett was in command of Confederate forces in the Kinston and Goldsboro areas at the time of the hangings.

“I never did find out how my great-grandfather died, but being a historian, I decided to write the most detailed story of the hangings possible,” Collins explained. “After I completed the article, it took years to get it into print.”

Since the story’s first appearance in print, Collins has published an expanded version of the article in The Human Tradition in the Civil War and Reconstruction, published by Scholarly Resources, Inc.

In Jan. 2003, Collins told the story of the Kinston hangings to the Pickett Society in Richmond, Va., at the annual commemoration of Pickett’s birthday.

Professor Collins has no kind words for Gerard A. Patterson’s book, “Justice or Atrocity: General George E. Pickett and the Kinston, N.C. Hangings.”

“I have great disdain for Patterson’s book for two reasons. First, he took a subject too short for book-length treatment and padded it with Pickett’s love story,” Collins said.

“Even worse, he padded the text with statements that are just outright wrong. He makes mistakes page after page. The courts-martial did not take place at the courthouse but at Pickett’s headquarters, first in Kinston and then in Goldsboro. His claims to know the location of the hangings is incorrect because no one knows with certainty just where the hangings took place.”

Dr. Donald Collins is a retired history professor from East Carolina University. At the time of this article he was in the final stages of completed his latest book. “The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis,” scheduled for release in May 2005.

Account of Civil War Executions
By Rev. Francis Springer 

On the 29th wit. A.J. Copeland, James H. Rowden, John Norwood and William Carey suffered the extreme penalty of the law for murder and the violation of the civilized rules of warfare. These men were tried by a military commission and found guilty of the above names crimes.

In April here, in company with twenty or more accomplices, they murdered eight Federal soldiers of the 1st Ark. Cav., who were herding horses near Fayetteville, Ark. They approached our men dressed in the uniform of U.S. soldiers, and pretending to belong to the 14th Kans. Cav., completely throwing them off their guard. That point gained, they suddenly and without a moment’s warning fired upon them, and killing eight out of ten.

A Union citizen, named John Brown, was also killed by the miscreants at his own house about the same time.

When the sentence of death was first read to the culprits, they first seemed to be indifferent, one of them remarking with an air of bravado, “Well, all right.” As the time of their execution drew near, however, they began somewhat to realize their awful situation, and requested the services of a spiritual adviser, and Rev. Francis Springer assumed that duty.

During the ministrations of several weeks of this reverend gentleman, they showed symptoms of considerable contrition, thought at first they seemed to be aware of scarce any consciousness of the awfulness of their crimes, which they had committed. They began to feel that they had been in their previous career the enemies of God and man, and confessed that they had been “pretty bad boys.” So callous and hardened were they at first that what they had done, they considered as first rate, too.

The condemned were all very young men, their average age not exceeding nineteen years.

Carey, the youngest, was a most desperate case, and gave his spiritual adviser a partial history of his wicked career. He is said to have killed twenty-one men. . They had all been once in the confederate army, but at the time of their capture were levying war upon their own hook, that so had become outlaws.

Early in the morning of their last day on earth the prisoners were visited by the chaplain, and impressive religious [illegible] were held. Soon after the close of this interview the irons were taken off the culprits. They were then brought forth from the prison and placed in the custody of the guard detailed for the occasion. In a few moments more they were in the wagons each one seated on his coffin. Chaplain Springer was with two of the condemned in the first wagon, and Chaplains Wilson and McAfee with the other two in the second wagon.

The solemn procession was then formed, the Provost Marshal of the District, Capt. C.O. Judson, 6th Kans. Cav., with his staff, taking the lead. Then came the music and the firing party, consisting of 64 men of the 13th Kans. Inft., the two wagons with the culprits and chaplains, and lastly the guard. A large number of citizens and soldiers lined the streets through which the procession moved.

The unfortunate but guilty man evidently tried to be firm and composed on the march, except Norwood, who repeatedly gave signs of grief by weeping and inaudible prayer. The expression of their countenances, in spite of endeavors to be self-possessed, was that of sadness and despair.

On reaching the place of execution south of town and just outside of the rifle pits, the prisoners were arraigned in a line, each one by the side of his coffin. Three sides of a hollow square of infantry had previous been formed to keep the multitude of the spectators at a proper distance, leaving the side next to the prisoners open.

The Judge Advocate of the District, Lieut. Whicher, then read to them the charges and findings of the military commission, after which the condemned kneeled down with the chaplains, and Rev. Mr. Springer offered a short and appropriate prayer. At the conclusion of it, the officers and others about the condemned shook hands with them and, bidding them a final farewell, retired except the Judge Advocate who remained til their eyes were bandaged and hands tied. By this time all of the unfortunate men showed signs of intense mental distress. Carey and Copeland prayed audibly and with great force. Norwood started a hymn, and was still singing in a low voice when the death volley sent his soul into eternity. Carey, on shaking hands with the Judge Advocate, remarked, “Judge, I hope to meet you in Heaven.” At length, as the preparations were completed, and in another moment or two forty-eight muskets were pointed at the culprits. One moment more and at the simultaneous discharge of the forty-eight guns, four lifeless bodies lay stretched on the ground.

The whole terrible scene, from beginning to end, was conducted with the propriety due to a transaction so awful but to the detail entrusted with the fatal shooting a special word is due. The entire detail, consisting of sixty-four men of the 13th Kans. Inf., was commanded by Capt. Frankhouse. Forty-eight were in line about twenty-five feet from the doomed men. One half of the guns were charged with ball and the other half with blank cartridges. The remaining sixteen men were held as a reserve in case of failure in the first discharge, but the volley of forty-eight guns was simultaneous and complete. Death ensued almost instantaneously — no lingering agony remained to torture the doomed and distress the beholders. The most painful reflection awakened by the sad ceremony was that selfish, faithless, and traitorous citizens should have stirred up a strife that precipitates into the vortex of crime, ignominy and ruin so many of the young men of our once peaceful, prosperous and happy country.

This account of the execution of four bushwhackers originally was published in the Aug. 6, 1864 edition of the Fort Smith New Era. Although the name of its author was not given in the New Era, the Rev. Francis Springer wrote the account under the name Thrifton, according to The Preacher’s Tale: The Civil War Journal of Rev. Francis Springer, Chaplain, U.S. Army of the Frontier, by Francis Springer; ed. William Furry. A copy of the account in Springer’s hand signed “Thrifton” was with his journal. Letters from each of the condemned men to their families, three of which also were written in his hand, were found among his papers. Presumably, Springer took dictation from them. For another version of the execution from Springer and text of the letters, prefer to The Preacher’s Tale.

House of good repute: Brothel pampered elite

September 21, 2008

John E. Carey

Mary Ann Hall catered to the nation’s elite in Washington as the proprietor of the capital’s best brothel during the Civil War.

Located just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol on Maryland Avenue on what now is part of the Mall, her house, a three-story structure nearly the size of a city block, included parlors, an elegant dining room and, almost assuredly, the most attractive of the city’s estimated 5,000 “soiled doves.”

Prostitution was not a crime in the 19th century, and any concentration of troops during the Civil War attracted flocks of “camp followers” who were available for a price. Women often would show up after battles and offer their services to the generals as nurses. The “nursing,” however, frequently became an open door to those less honest and caring, and when armies experienced theft, prostitution and other less traditional forms of nursing, generals sometimes rejected offers of female help.

Houses of prostitution were fairly common in America’s larger cities, and Washington had as many as 450 entertainment venues on the “wilder side.” The presence of affluent politicians, lobbyists and the hierarchy of the government departments helped make Washington a man’s home away from home.

Elected representatives in those years did not routinely bring wives and families to Washington. Service in Congress was not necessarily even a full-time job. The city was hot and steamy. Nights could be filled with drinking, smoking, gambling and frolicking with willing companions of the gentler sex, far from the eyes of the electorate at home.

Mary Ann Hall took every opportunity to provide such indulgences. The throngs of men willing and able to pay her comparatively exorbitant rates deserved the best. Imported hats, dresses and perfume enhanced her staff. Magnums of champaign added an air of dignity, gentility and grace. Fine food filled the supper tables. Her real goal as hostess, however, was to supply attractive women.

The fashion of the time was an hourglass shape – an ample bosom and tiny waist – which not all women could achieve without corsets reinforced with steel belts called busks. Busks, champagne corks, fine china and combs to hold spectacular hair creations all have been excavated from the site where Hall’s house once stood. Historians and archaeologists believe the quality of these items shows the elegance Hall brought to her entertainment trade. Several of them, including rusted busks, have been preserved by the Smithsonian Institution.

Hall insisted on certain standards of decorum, and her house, which opened around 1837, flourished until it closed in 1878. She was never raided by police, was not the subject of public disgrace or even controversy and was never discussed in newspapers. Editors in those days believed that what was private should stay private. Unless a public figure disgraced himself so thoroughly that prosecution was in order, private excesses remained unreported.

Rep. Daniel E. Sickles of New York learned the limits the hard way. Rumors abounded in the late 1850s that he maintained close personal relationships with a variety of women. Though tongues wagged, his private pleasures never merited newspaper interest. Then, when he murdered his much-younger wife’s lover, Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”- detailed accounts of the court proceedings made newspaper sales soar.


The 1859 trial and associated juicy details sold newspapers and became for a time the talk of Washington and New York. Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper printed 200,000 copies as the trial opened. Demand forced a second printing of 300,000. (During the Civil War, then-Gen. Sickles’ private indiscretions returned to the realm of private matters. After the war, despite routine and well-documented misbehavior, his private life remained taboo to journalists.)

Mary Ann Hall became a wealthy woman. She died in 1886 and was buried in Congressional Cemetery beneath a carved stone statue of herself.


Ladies’ general

The slang word for prostitute, hooker, is generally thought to have originated during the Civil War. For generations, rumors claimed that Union Gen. “Fighting Joe” Hooker had inspired the nickname by his amorous relationships.

General Joe Hooker

There is, however, a recorded use of the word before the war, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. The dictionary’s authors queried historian Bruce Catton, who agreed that the term came into use before the Civil War but that it became popular during the conflict. An area south of Constitution Avenue was known for its extracurricular activities and was referred to as “Hooker’s Division.” A Civil War officer, Charles Francis Adams Jr., referred to Hooker’s headquarters as “as place to which no self-respecting man likes to go, and no decent woman could go – a combination of barroom and brothel.”

Hooker should be remembered, however, for more than his moral laxities. He was wounded at Antietam and fought at Second Bull Run, and Lincoln made him commander of the Army of the Potomac after Ambrose Burnside’s disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg.

The Battle of Chancellorsville began well and ended badly for the 48-year-old West Point graduate, and just days before Gettysburg, Hooker asked to be relieved. The president appointed George Gordon Meade his successor as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page and The Washington Times.

Arlington Ridge Sees War’s Beginning, End

September 21, 2008

By John E. Carey

When did the Civil War begin and end? Most would say it began at Fort Sumter and ended at Appomattox. A less conventional view could be that the war began and ended on Arlington Ridge, in Virginia.

For the Union, the conflict existed so long as its enemy’s armies occupied national territory. The first piece of Rebel-occupied territory taken back by the Union Army was Arlington Ridge. The last encampment of the Union Army, four long years later, was on Arlington Ridge.

Although it is generally accepted that the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, it is difficult to exactly fix the start of the conflict. The insurrection didn’t happen all at once. In 1859, John Brown and a small band of followers raided and captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. This was a crime of individuals, not an act of statewide insurrection, and he was hanged by the state of Virginia.

On Jan. 9, 1861, Rebel gunners fired artillery rounds at the Union steamer Star of the West as she attempted to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C. The ship was forced to withdraw. A state had defied the federal government. Yet no war existed.

Despite these early acts of defiance, efforts to avert war continued. In February 1861, former President Tyler played host to a peace commission to iron out the differences between the states. Twenty-one states sent representatives to the gathering, which was held in Washington’s Willard Hotel. The commission failed to find a compromise, and disbanded. War seemed imminent, but did not yet exist.

On April 12, 1861, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of Rebel forces in Charleston, ordered Fort Sumter shelled. The fort’s commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, surrendered the garrison a few hours later.

Yet efforts were still made to keep the union, and the peace, intact.
Although most people would say war existed from April 12, 1861, the Union leadership still remained fairly calm. As tensions mounted between the federal government and the Southern states, it became apparent that Washington needed defenses against a turbulent Virginia, just across the Potomac River.

On May 23, 1861, Virginians voted to secede. Alexandria, within sight of Washington, was a hotbed of insurrection, though the farmers of the adjoining county, which included Arlington Ridge, largely favored staying in the Union.

Now, suddenly, the land just across the river was Rebel territory. When President Lincoln and his generals looked across the river, what did they see? Arlington Ridge. Cannons could easily be placed there to shell the Union capital.

Union troops crossed the river to seize Arlington Heights at dawn, May 24, 1861. A special detail commanded by Col. Ephraim Ellsworth of New York crossed on steamers to seize Alexandria. Once ashore, Ellsworth hurried to remove a Rebel flag flying from the Marshall House, an Alexandria inn owned and operated by James W. Jackson. Both men were killed in the fracas.

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth

Ellsworth was the first Union officer killed in the war. Jackson was probably the first Confederate civilian slain.

On Arlington Ridge, Union Army pioneers immediately began clearing the land of trees. Union generals wanted this ground reinforced and held as the first line of Washington’s defenses. Fort construction began almost as soon as the trees were felled.

A low rise perhaps 800 feet above the adjoining terrain, Arlington Ridge ran from just above Alexandria to a position northward directly across the Potomac from Georgetown. The ridge included land later leveled for construction of the Pentagon and Shirley Highway. Geologists believe the ridge may have been the shoreline of the Potomac during flood stage thousands of years ago.

Now the ridge became the first line of defense for Washington. Calm in the capital was giving way to rumors, fear and uncertainty. The low-lying city had no natural defense except for the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. The city had no regular troops assigned to protect it.

Col. Charles P. Stone, the D.C. inspector general, summarized the state of military readiness of Washington: “The only regular troops near the capital of the country were 300 or 400 marines at the Barracks [at 8th & Eye streets], and three officers and fifty-three” Army ordnancemen at the Washington Arsenal. The old militia system had been abandoned (without being legally abolished), and Congress had passed no law establishing a new one.”

The Union leadership worked feverishly to change this. The Evening Star reported on May 24, 1861, that “a full corps of [Union] carpenters and workmen” accompanied the soldiers who crossed into Virginia. “The United States forces are now throwing up fortifications on the heights on the Virginia shore.”

A series of mutually supporting forts began to go up along Arlington Ridge. At the southern end, the fort closest to Alexandria became known as Fort Scott. At the northern end, Fort Marcy stood across the Potomac River from Georgetown.

Each fort was really a detached earthwork, which mounted heavy guns, accompanied by a small garrison and as few as 100 rounds of ammunition.

During the seven weeks following May 24, the goal was to get as many forts properly situated as practical. Each fort was only about one-half mile from its supporting position.

On July 21, 1861, the Union was again shocked when its forces suffered the humiliating defeat at Manassas, or Bull Run, as the Federals called it. Fort construction around Washington was immediately intensified. A second line of forts west of the Arlington Ridge defenses began to go up, and, for the first time, forts were planned and started to the north of the city.

In “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts,” authors Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II report, “By 1865, the defenses [of Washington] were impressive, containing 33 named fortifications, 25 batteries, and 7 blockhouses. Field works were established at intervals of 800 or 1,000 yards, with intersecting fields of fire commanding every important approach to the city.” The fortifications included 256 smoothbore cannon, 170 rifled cannon and 60 mortars.

The construction of the forts and the accompanying military roads and constant traffic devastated the once fertile fields of Arlington. Although most of the farmers in the rural sections of what is now Arlington County had voted to stay in the Union, they paid a terrible price for their state’s secession. Buildings, livestock and supplies were often seized for military use. By 1865, the area was impoverished.

At war’s end, the armies of the Union marched north to participate in the grandest military parade in the nation’s history. On May 18, a two-day spectacle, reviewed by President Andrew Johnson, flowed through the city. Every famous Union army marched or rode down Pennsylvania Avenue. Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George Gordon Meade, George Armstrong Custer, all rode at the head of their troops. Philip Sheridan led the cavalry. Joshua Chamberlain led his men from Maine. The victorious armies were returning home.

Joshua Chamberlain
Joshua Chamberlain

Where did this mighty force bivouac while near Washington? On Arlington Ridge. The Army of the Potomac – the designation of which would be discontinued five days after the great review, as would other regionally designated armies through the summer – mingled alongside the cruder “Westerners” of Sherman’s army. The men who had sacked Atlanta and marched to the sea camped by Grant’s more spit-and-polished troops who had chased Robert E. Lee to his end at Appomattox.

The men in blue camped on Arlington Ridge.

The last official campsite for many Union men of arms was on that ridge. Mustering-out commenced almost as soon as the parade ended.

Thus, arguably, one could say the Civil War started and ended on Arlington Ridge, within sight of the still unfinished U.S. Capitol dome and the uncompleted Washington Monument.

* John E. Carey is a writer who lives at the foot of Arlington Ridge.

Marsena Patrick: Provost Marshal General of the Army of the Potomac

September 20, 2008

By John E. Carey

Generally unknown, unnoticed and little honored, the provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac proved his worth as an invaluable right-hand man to the commanding general.

During a myriad of sometimes messy, often ugly and usually distasteful assignments, one man acted aggressively, diligently and with integrity, plus a dash of God-fearing, Bible-thumping religion: Marsena Rudolph Patrick (1811-1888).


Before the war, Patrick worked on the Erie Canal, taught school and attended the U.S. Military Academy. He served in both the Seminole War and the Mexican War. During the 1850s, he became an expert farmer, intrigued by the science of agriculture. Ultimately, he became president of the New York State Agricultural College.

When the Civil War began, Patrick offered his services to New York, and the governor appointed him brigadier general and inspector general of the state militia. By March 1862, he was in command of James Wadsworth’s brigade in Rufus King’s division of Irvin McDowell’s 1st Corps.

He first learned the difficulties of managing both Union troops and semi-hostile civilians when appointed military governor of Fredericksburg, Va., in April 1862. Later, Patrick and his men fought at Second Manassas and Antietam. In October 1862, Gen. George McClellan appointed Patrick provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac.

On the march

Patrick’s job as provost marshal began with a marching army. Whether in advance or retreat, a force the size of the Army of the Potomac had to contend with clogged roads, narrow bridges, mud, swift rivers and a host of other situations bound to slow progress.
The provost marshal almost always had troops, both infantry and cavalry, under his direct command to assist him in his duties. Patrick had to keep the army moving while rounding up stragglers, looters or worse.

“Artillery, Packs, Ambulances, Servants, Orderlies & detached commands, with Stragglers of all kinds, began to pour in” as the army approached a narrow bridge, Patrick wrote in his diary. “I was at the Bridge & thereabouts, whip in hand, using it freely & directing the movement successfully, until every wheel & hoof had crossed the bridges.”

As battle neared, Patrick’s job evolved into helping concentrate the army. He had to round up drunks, skedaddlers, looters, stragglers and other unsavory men who were supposed to be in line against the enemy. On June 30, 1863, as the army approached Gettysburg, Patrick wrote, “I was called into town and sent for two Squadrons of Cavalry to go back to Frederick & clean out that town, which was reported full of drunken men & Stragglers.”


During battle, Patrick performed the thankless job of turning around or corralling the men who ran from the battle. He also had to deal with prisoners. During Pickett’s Charge, Patrick and his men were behind the main Federal line. “I had my hands full with those that broke to the rear, but we succeeded in checking the disorder & organized a guard of Stragglers to keep nearly 2000 Prisoners all safe.”

After the battle, Patrick saw to the dead and the mountains of government equipment left on the field. On July 6, 1863, Patrick wrote, “I was soon ordered by Gen. Meade to go into the town & make arrangements with responsible parties for the burial of the dead & Securing of the property on the battle field.”

A town pillaged

Perhaps Patrick’s most controversial action was at Fredericksburg. In November 1862, Union troops commanded by Gen. Ambrose Burnside conducted a 40-mile forced march across rural Virginia to a position on the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg.

Gen. Robert E. Lee pulled the bulk of his army out of Fredericksburg to Marye’s Heights, leaving behind sharpshooters. The 120,000-man Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and began a five-hour house-to-house engagement in the town. By the time Patrick crossed the river and entered the town, he encountered a horrifying scene, which historian Frank A. O’Reilly called “a bizarre, bacchanal carnival kind of atmosphere.”

“The Soldiery were sacking the town!” Patrick wrote, uncharacteristically using an exclamation mark in his diary. “Men with all sorts of utensils & furniture, all sorts of eatables & drinkables & wearables, were carried off. I found the town in a most deplorable state of things. Libraries, pictures, furniture, every thing destroyed & the brutal Soldiery still carrying on the work.”

Patrick described his efforts to restore order with near-melancholy: “Couch sent over for me to clear the town. This was impossible although I put in my Cavalry & 4 companies of Infy.”

Some gave Patrick credit for stopping the looting, but in the post-battle finger-pointing, Army leaders and politicians in Washington wanted Patrick’s head for the “sacking of Fredericksburg.” Messages from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton annoyed and depressed Patrick, who believed he had done his duty to the best of his ability in a miserable situation.

“I then wrote [to Stanton] saying that So far as the Pillage of [Fredericksburg] was concerned,” Patrick wrote in his diary on March 19, 1863, “I had nothing further to say, and that the Court of Inquiry would elicit the facts in the case.”

A myriad of tasks

Despite criticism, Patrick kept to the task at hand, performing any number of unusual and often unseemly, yet necessary, duties.

In camp, his “routine” was never routine. “I have been overrun with applications for Bakeries, for Agencies, for Eating Houses, for any and every thing in fact, even to holding my horse, if I pay, roundly,” the provost marshal wrote.

Often, he had to deal with cheaters, moneymaking schemes and the like. “We have made a large number of arrests today, of Soldiers selling [stolen] passes [to return home from the army].” One unusual diary entry is unexplained, but it certainly entailed malfeasance: “I drove up to the Hospital to see about some charges against the embalmers.”

Some complaints Patrick encountered give insight into the lively camp life of the Army of the Potomac. He wrote on Sept. 22, 1864: “This Evening I have had Rev. Mr. Burdick, Chaplain of the 61st New York here, for the 2nd time, in regard to a gross outrage committed upon him by Capt. & Lieut. Ames of a Battery in the 1st N.Y. Artillery, in the 2nd Corps – They tied him up to a Battery Waggon & the trial seems to be a farce.”

Newspapermen were not always treated well by the army. Negative reports from the front could mean banishment, or worse, for the offending scribe. Patrick wrote about “a Man named Cropsey of the Phil. Inquirer, who is to be sent off on account of a Libel on [Army commander George] Meade.” Patrick describes Mr. Cropsey’s punishment: “He was placed on a horse, with breast and back boards Marked ‘Libeller, of the Press’ & marched in rear of my flag, [through] the army, after which he was sent North.”

Patrick frequently interrogated the prisoners in his charge. He nicknamed the holding pen for these men the “Bull Ring”: “I went over to the Bull Ring and brought out a number of cases for examination.” He commented that many commanders found no value in Allan Pinkerton’s detectives and their intelligence. Many believed that between the interrogations of the prisoners and other information dug up by Patrick and his men, all intelligence to be had was obtained.

No alcohol, please

Practically every unwanted and difficult task, it seemed, wound up in Marsena Patrick’s hands. Just before Christmas 1863, he wrote: “I have had the Oyster business in hand, it having been referred back to me by Gen. Meade. I have, this evening, sent down an Advertisement, to appear in the Chronicle, & it has been telegraphed to the Associated Press. The bids are to be opened on Saturday the 2nd of January ’64.”

A teetotaling Presbyterian, Patrick took a stern approach to any amusement, especially involving alcohol, that made him both a pain in the neck and the perfect rule enforcer. On one St. Patrick’s Day, Patrick wrote: “In accordance with a Special request from [Gen. Joseph] Hooker, I agreed to go over & witness some of the festivities at the Head Quarters of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. We brought up in the midst of a grand steeple chase, from which the crowd soon adjourned to drink punch at Meagher’s Head Quarters – Everybody got tight & I found it was no place for me – so I came home.”

Patrick investigated his boss’s own servant for misuse of alcohol. “There has been a court Martial over at headquarters today to try Meade’s Steward, E.A. Paul for Selling Whiskey to Soldiers.” Later, Patrick enforced a “no alcohol” order by the notoriously non-teetotaling Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Picture of honor

More than once, Patrick officiated at an execution, taking the opportunity to address the troops on the value of good conduct and discipline. On July 15, 1864, Patrick wrote: “I read the Order of the Court & Sentence – The Clergy talked with them a few moments & at their request the feet were tied, the eyes bandaged, the ropes adjusted, the tap upon the drum & the drop fell! I remounted the Scaffold & said such words of warning, of reproof & of correction as seemed proper.”

After Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox, Mathew Brady posed Grant and his staff for one final photograph in the field. On April 12, 1865, Grant, the hero of the hour, posed in a high-backed chair. All his other staff officers stood on either side. The bald, well-built Patrick, wearing a startling 6- or 7-inch white beard, draped his right arm over the left shoulder of Grant’s chair. Patrick appears calm, serene and in command of the minutiae no other general needed or wanted.

As provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac, Patrick had served Gens. McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Meade, the enforcer of discipline, the repairman of messes, the handler of the distasteful.

He did his duty honorably and well. Every large military unit requires a man like him.

John E. Carey writes history in northern Virginia.

Willard Hotel’s Historic Civil War Role

September 1, 2008

By John E. Carey

The last major social event in Washington before the Civil War that included Southerners was at the Willard Hotel.

A desperate conference among representatives of 21 states attempting to avoid war took place in its meeting rooms, chaired by a former president.

Abraham Lincoln, as president-elect, spent his first nine nights in Washington in the hotel, due to safety concerns.

Generals such as Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and George B. McClellan stayed here. Its public rooms, restaurants and tavern were the crossroads for generations of congressmen, as well as leaders from around the globe.

The Willard Hotel was a landmark of social elegance and grace in the heart of the capital. As war ignited and blazed across the land, Washington became a city of hotels, boarding houses, brothels and travelers.

The main facade of the Willard InterContinental

The main facade of the Willard InterContinental
Hotel today…

The city teemed with soldiers and merchants seeking lucrative contracts by day. At night, the city became the playground of revelers.

Yet the Willard maintained its stature and reputation as Washington’s premier hotel. One might go to the Willard simply “to see and be seen.” Only the best known or the fortunate could manage to obtain a room.Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: “[T]he Willard Hotel has been a central gathering place for the great, the near-great, and those who aspire to greatness. … This hotel, in fact, may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House or the State Department.”

Hawthorne added: “You exchange nods with governors of sovereign states; you elbow illustrious men, and tread on the toes of generals; you hear statesmen and orators speaking in their familiar tones. You are mixed up with office seekers, wire pullers, inventors, artists, poets, prosers until identity is lost among them.”

Located at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, just one block from the White House and a short walk (or carriage ride) to the Capitol, the War Department and other Washington centers of government and business, the Willard was, and is, a valued home away from home for travelers.

The property, originally part of the David Burnes farm, gained its first buildings in 1816 when John Tayloe erected a row of six two-story houses. By 1818, a hotel was in operation. It became known as the City Hotel and began to serve a long list of the rich and famous. Charles Dickens, for one, stayed there in 1842.

Senators and members of Congress began to use the Willard at a time when serving as an elected representative was not considered a full-time job. Office seekers and those in search of all kinds of favors flocked to the Willard in their wake. Samuel F.B. Morse frequented the hotel to explain his telegraph and seek government money to develop it.

In 1847, Benjamin Tayloe leased the structure to Henry A. Willard (1822-1909) and his brother Edwin. Edwin left the business in 1849. He didn’t see eye to eye with his younger brother.

Another brother, Joseph Clapp Willard (1820-97) became Henry’s business partner. Joseph had recently failed to find gold during the California gold rush, and he needed work.The brothers’ hotel prospered. By 1853, they had bought the entire row of houses from the Tayloe family and started the first of many renovations and reconstructions.

In 1858, they expanded again, buying the southwest corner of 14th and F streets from Col. James Kearney, where they built a six-story addition to the hotel. They bought a church on F Street and converted it into a meeting space known as Willard Hall.

The partners divided up their work and diligently tended to excellence in service and the comfort of their guests. Each morning, Henry Willard arose before 3, joined a staff member who had already prepared a horse-drawn carriage, and headed out for the daily stocking of food.They visited the Potomac waterfront for fresh fish, then the markets, bakeries and butchers of the Central Market on 8th Street. Everything from fresh milk and eggs to vintage wines and freshly cut flowers arrived at the hotel before most guests were awake.

This routine continued even through the Civil War.The quiet, business-like Joseph Willard took the role of business manager and bookkeeper. The two partners created an unsurpassed standard of excellence.In 1859, the Willard Hotel hosted a ball in honor of the departing British ambassador, Lord Napier.

Almost 2,000 attended. Washingtonians would remember this party as the last major social event before the Civil War that included Southerners. Jefferson Davis, Sam Houston and Stephen A. Douglas were among the guests.In February 1861, representatives from 21 states met at the Willard in an attempt to avert war. Former President John Tyler chaired the conference. To make the hotel hospitable to both Northerners and Southerners, the F Street entrance was reserved for Southerners. The Pennsylvania Avenue entrance served Northerners.

The day of Lincoln’s planned arrival in Washington, thousands lined Pennsylvania Avenue between the railroad station and the Willard, hoping to see the president-elect.They would be disappointed.Fearing for his safety, detective Alan Pinkerton, serving as a forerunner of the Secret Service, had spirited Lincoln into the hotel in the pre-dawn fog. Lincoln, his family, and several soon-to-be Cabinet members stayed nine days.

Lincoln’s first paycheck as president paid his Willard Hotel bill of $773.

Visitors to the hotel can see a copy of this bill today, displayed off the hotel’s lobby.

Famous guests included Julia Ward Howe, who later told of hearing Union soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body.” Howe decided a more dignified song was appropriate at such a momentous time and she penned “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at a desk in her Willard Hotel room – on Willard Hotel stationery.During the Civil War, business boomed at the Willard. It was the only hotel of stature in a city crammed with people. Often the Willard hosted as many as 1,000 guests, sometimes three or four to a bed. Still, Henry Willard maintained his standards.

The 1865 edition of “The Strangers Guide to Washington” advised visitors to avoid the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, an area where “pickpockets, prostitutes and con men abound.”To those more inclined toward refined society, the guide advised, “To see society, go to the Willard.”After the Civil War the Willard Hotel continued as a major lodging, dining and meeting place.Many believe the word “lobbyist” originated at the Willard. According to Washingtonians, President Ulysses S. Grant favored the lobby of the Willard as an evening locale for cigar smoking and perhaps a libation.

The president used to walk over from the White House. When word got out that Grant frequented the lobby of the Willard, office seekers began to gather in hopes of “lobbying” Grant for favors.President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, in one of her many controversial (and sometimes scandalous) exploits, smoked a cigarette in the Willard’s formal dining room.

Ulysses Grant 1870-1880.jpg

Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, Thomas A. Marshall, fretting about the Willard’s high prices, coined the phrase, “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.” He made his declaration at the hotel.

Mark Twain wrote two books at the Willard. Buffalo Bill Cody and P.T. Barnum stayed there. Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge and Harding all stayed at the Willard. Martin Luther King wrote the “I Have a Dream” speech at the Willard Hotel.Of course, the hotel there today is not the structure at the site during the Civil War. In a major renovation at the start of the 20th century, the building we see today went up.

The brainchild of Joseph E. Willard, designed by architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh of New York and built by George A. Fuller Co., it was declared the city’s first “skyscraper” in 1904. A 1925 expansion added 100 rooms.

By the end of World War II, the Willard had fallen on bad times. The Willard family sold the property in 1946.

The hotel closed in 1968 and remained vacant for almost two decades.

Restored to its elegance and beauty, the Willard Hotel reopened in 1986.

Carl Schurz: Civil War General and Difficult Statesman

August 31, 2008

Carl Schurz (1829-1906) came to America from his native Germany in 1852. Even before he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, his influence in American politics, especially among German-American immigrants, became so great that he was nominated for lieutenant governor of Wisconsin as a Republican.

In 1860, he led the Wisconsin state Republican delegation to the national convention. He campaigned for Lincoln who later appointed him Minister to Spain. He rose to become a Major General in the Union Army during the Civil War, was elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of Missouri, and later served as Secretary of the Interior, the highest offices ever occupied by a non-native born citizen.

Schurz biographer Hans Trefousse called him “America’s most celebrated citizen of foreign birth.”
Carl Schurz

Along the way, Lincoln allowed Schurz to read the notes which formed the basis for Lincoln’s first inaugural address — almost one month before the delivery of that oration. Schurz undoubtedly was buoyed by Lincoln’s belief that: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.“

Schurz played Beethoven’s great works for Lincoln on a White House piano. He worked for, gave personal advice to, or opposed at least six U.S. presidents, wrote for at least six newspapers and magazines, published notable books and gave countless speeches of national significance

Carl Schurz expressed his deeply felt respect and admiration for Lincoln in his “Abraham Lincoln: An Essay,” published in 1891. Schurtz wrote, “The people knew that the man at the head of affairs, on whose haggard face the twinkle of humor so frequently changed into an expression of profoundest sadness, was more than any other deeply distressed by the suffering he witnessed; that he felt the pain of every wound that was inflicted on the battlefield, and the anguish of every woman or child who had lost husband or father; that whenever he could he was eager to alleviate sorrow, and that his mercy was never implored in vain. They looked to him as one who was with them and of them in all their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows,— who laughed with them and wept with them; and as his heart was theirs, so their hearts turned to him. His popularity was far different from that of Washington, who was revered with awe, or that of Jackson, the unconquerable hero, for whom party enthusiasm never grew weary of shouting. To Abraham Lincoln the people became bound by a genuine sentimental attachment.”

Schurt became a dedicated supporter of the still young Republican Party and campaigned for Lincoln in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin. After the election, President Lincoln appointed him U.S. envoy to Spain. Upon the first defeats of the Union Army in the Civil War, Schurz returned to the U.S. and begged Lincoln to appoint him a Union Army general.

He won his appointment and rose to the rank of Major General, but not without significant controversy. Biographer Trefousse wrote that Schurz was “a competent officer who had risen too high, too fast.”

Schurz had no military training and his appointment was largely political payback from Lincoln and an effort to secure the continued support of German Americans. But Schurz, like Joshua Chamberlain, dedicated himself to the study of military thinking and tactics. He immersed himself in Clausewitz, Jomini and other noted military experts in an attempt to make up for his lack of military background.

His personal daring in battle remains unquestioned. But the units Schurz led did not always fare well in battle. And a certain amount of prejudice against the “Dutch” troops he usually led clouded Schurtz’s record as a military man.

In the summer of 1862 Schurz found himself in command of the Third Division in Segal’s First Corps of Pope’s Army of Virginia. Largely composed of German immigrants, the corps already had a reputation as “a band of wild, untrained and demoralized marauders.”

On August 22, 1862, at Freeman’s Ford, Schurz ordered a bayonet charge in an effort to rescue General Henry Bohlen’s brigade, including the Eighth Virginia (U.S.) and Sixty-First Ohio. Bohlen was killed in the engagement, his brigade decimated and Schurz was forced to withdraw, but his actions in battle had been deliberate and forceful.

On August 29 Schurz led his men in an eight hour engagement against Longstreet’s men and part of Jackson’s corps near Grovetown. The next day, he led his men again in battle and, at one point, tried to encourage his commander Sigel to push all his men forward. But Sigel, not known for his audacity, refused to press the attack. Schurz supervised a withdrawal again.

The New York Tribune recorded these engagements and lauded Schurz for leading “his division in the hottest fight with heroic courage and veteran skill.”

Schurz wrote of the Second Battle of Bull Run: “Stonewall Jackson, with a force of 26,000 men, had worked his way through Thoroughfare Gap to the north of us, had swooped all around Pope’s flank, having made a march of fifty miles in thirty-six hours and pounced upon Manassas Junction, where Pope’s supplies and ammunition were stored, helping himself to whatever he could use and carry off, and burning the rest. Jeb Stuart’s troopers, accompanying Jackson, had even raided Pope’s headquarters at Catlett’s Station. It was a brilliant stroke, but at the same time most hazardous, for Pope’s largely superior forces might have been rapidly concentrated against him, with Longstreet, his only support, still far away.”

Pope was relieved.

At Chancellorsville in May 1863, Schurz’s division performed poorly. When Schurz’s men were surprised by Jackson who attacked at dusk on May 2, the rout was on. of the Schurz had tried to alert his new corps commander, Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard, that the flank was poorly prepared, but to no avail. After Chansellorsville, Schurz was saddened by press criticism of the German troops and particularly his own division for their confusion and panic. Although he responded to the papers, his Germans were mistaken for Brig. Gen. Charles Devens’s First Division. Deven’s men had retreated wildly in a rout.

Schurz wrote General Howard one of his classic, stinging letters. The letter was so bitter that Howard said, “I thought I should never survive it, but I have.”

The debacle at Chansellorsville stigmatized the German troops thereafter. The rest of the Army of the Potomac called them “foreigners,” and worse: cowards. Despite Schurz’s best efforts, he was never able to completely restore the reputation of his men as fighters or himself as a military leader.


As the three day Battle of Gettysburg was about to commence, Schurz was in the XI Corps under Maj Gen. O.O. Howard. Schurz woke his men early on July 1, 1863, in Emmitsburg, some ten miles from Gettysburg. During the march toward Gettysburg, Schurz was told by dispatch rider from Howard that the First Corps was fighting west of Gettysburg. Schurz was ordered to rush his corps forward, reinforce the First Corps and assume command of the Eleventh Corps.

Schurz galloped ahead and reached Howard on Cemetery Hill about 11:30 A.M. Howard told Schurz that General Reynolds had been killed. Howard now commanded the field and Schurz was needed to position the Eleventh Corps. The First Corps needed the Eleventh Corps on the high ground on its right flank, near Oak Hill, northwest of town.

The corps arrived but the men were nearly exhausted from marching at the double quick in the summer heat. Schurz led them forward through town toward Oak Hill. But, soon after noon, Rodes’s division of Ewell’s Confederate Corps arrived on Oak Hill and attacked the right of I Corps. At 2 p.m. Heth’s division joined the attack on I Corps. At 3 p.m., the battle spread north of the town when Jubal Early’s division of Ewell’s Corps attacked down the Harrisburg Road and crushed the flank of Schurz’s outnumbered XI Corps. At about the same time, west of Gettysburg, Pender’s division relieved Heth and assaulted I Corps’ position along Seminary Ridge.

Both Eleventh Corps divisions that fought on Oak Hill retreated in disarray through Gettysburg, losing almost 50% of their men, half of them captured as they tried to run through town. It had become another humiliating rout for the Eleventh Corps.

Schurz was not blamed. Schurz’s horse was shot from under him but the general was unharmed. He stayed at the front with his men and tried to prevent the retreat. But his men, outnumbered and exhausted, had suffered another humiliating defeat.

General Buford put most of the blame on Howard, saying that there was “no directing person on the field.”

General John Buford

Schurz retained his division when the Eleventh Corps was sent to Chattanooga that fall, but resigned from the army early the next year.

Schurz returned to civilian life, working as Washington correspondent for the New York Tribune, then as editor-in-chief of the Detroit Post. Starting in l867 he served as co-editor and part owner of the German-language Westliche Post in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1869, Schurz was elected U.S. senator by his new home state, Missouri. Only sixteen years after arriving in America as a homeless fugitive, Carl Schurz became a member of his adopted country’s highest legislative body. The former minister to Spain, war veteran, and newspaperman would now be called Senator. He was only forty years old.

Schurz only served one term in the Senate. But that was not the end of his public career. President Rutherford B. Hayes made Carl Schurz his Secretary of the Interior where he championed civil service reform and made improvements in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Carl Schurz never went “quietly into the night.” He was difficult, perhaps irascible. He never shied away from giving unsolicited advice and outspoken opinions to his seniors. Many of his letters had an insolent tone. In fact, he badgered Presidents Lincoln, Johnson and others with his vitriolic, opinion-filled letters. That Lincoln largely tolerated or ignored Shurtz’s haranguing is testimony to his forbearance. Unfortunately, others were much less patient with Schurz. Some even reprimanded him.

Because of Schurz’s deeply held convictions and strongly worded speeches, editorials and letters, he became a hero to his supporters and a lightening rod to his critics.

He moved to New York City, where he helped found the New York Evening Post. From 1892 to 1898 Schurz wrote editorials for Harper’s Weekly.

At the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Schurz told immigrants from Germany how he expected them to fit into American society. The term “melting pot” had not yet been coined, but Carl Schurz fully subscribed to the idea. “ I have always been in favor of a healthy Americanization, but that does not mean a complete disavowal of our German heritage,” Schurz told the immigrants. “Our character should take on the best of that which is American, and combine it with the best of that which is German. By doing this, we can best serve the American people and their civilization.”

During his final illness, Mark Twain was among those who called upon the old general. Carl Schurz, one of the last surviving generals of the Civil War, died May 14, 1906, in New York.

In 1929, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Germany’s Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann summed up Schurz’s contributions: “Carl Schurz managed to combine his love for Germany with a loyalty to his American homeland in a marvelous unity reflecting the striving of his great personality which, here as well as there, was concerned with profound moral goals that are not restricted to a single nation, but apply to all mankind.”

Among the many accolades and eulogies of Schurz at the time of his death, he may have been proudest of the remarks of Theodore Roosevelt, who he had opposed. “The country has lost a statesman of Lincoln’s generation,” wrote T.R., “whose services both in peace and war at the great crisis in the Republic’s history, will not be forgotten while that history lasts.”


Mr. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil war page of The Washington Times.

James Buchanan Eads: Grant’s Ironclad Designer and Tamer of the Mississippi

August 31, 2008

By John E. Carey

When the deans of American colleges of engineering were asked in the early 20th century to name the top five engineers of all time, James Buchanan Eads was among them; the list also included Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison. He may have been the finest self-educated engineer of all time. Yet Eads also made himself a skilled fund-raiser, diver and inventor and an able leader.

The Eads family was so poor during the 1820s in St. Louis that young James, named for his mother’s cousin who would later become president, had to quit school to sell apples in the street. He then was hired as a clerk in a dry-goods store. The owner gave him access to his personal library, thus stirring the mind and imagination of a gifted young man.
HAER Eads 099443pv.jpg
Above: The Eads Bridge

Eads’ lifelong relationship with the mighty Mississippi began in 1838, when he joined the crew of a riverboat. Realizing how many boiler-driven vessels were subject to fires or explosions, Eads entered the salvage business four years later. He was not interested in salvaging ships, however. He laid claim to the valuable cargoes strewn across the floor of the great river and made himself a millionaire.

Eads pioneered a diving bell that permitted divers to walk on the bottom of the Mississippi, and he was the first to risk using his invention, a perilous undertaking. He also became an expert in Mississippi River currents, silt and sand.

In April 1861, as the Civil War began, both the Union Army and Navy scrambled to find a way to fortify the Mississippi and penetrate the Confederacy. Military leaders summoned Eads to Washington, and in August, after months of study and negotiation, he signed a contract to design and build seven ironclad gunboats.

Eads’ first four ironclads sailed downstream to Cairo, Ill., in November 1861 under the command of the U.S. Navy. He had produced a novel kind of American warship in fewer than 100 days.

In February 1862, under the command of Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, Eads’ gunboats bombarded and contributed to the capture of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in a joint attack with troops led by Ulysses S. Grant, then a little-known brigadier general.

On Feb. 4 and 5, Grant landed his divisions in two locations near Fort Henry, a Confederate earthen fort on the Tennessee River with outdated guns. One division went ashore on the east bank of the Tennessee River to prevent the Confederate garrison’s escape. The second division landed on the Kentucky side to occupy the high ground, which would ensure the fort’s fall.

As Foote’s seven gunboats began bombarding the fort, Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, commander of the garrison, realized that it would be only a matter of time before Fort Henry fell. Leaving the artillery in the fort to hold off the Union fleet, he withdrew nearly all his men to Fort Donelson, 10 miles away.

Foote slowly sailed the Eads gunboats closer and closer to Fort Henry, maintaining a tremendous barrage. Returning to the fort, Tilghman found the gunboats within 400 yards. The vessels continued lobbing shells into his fortifications, and Tilghman capitulated.

Fort Henry’s fall opened the Tennessee River to Union gunboats and shipping as far as Muscle Shoals, Ala.

Ten days later at Fort Donelson, Confederate Gen. Simon Buckner realized his force was beaten by Grant and the gunboats. He requested surrender terms. “No terms except an immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted,” Grant famously replied.

After the fall of Donelson, the two major water routes in the Confederate west, bounded by the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, became Union highways for movement of troops and materiel. These were the first major Union victories of the war. Eads’ gunboats played a key role.

The gunboats were put to work bombarding the most crucial remaining Confederate stronghold: Vicksburg, Miss. The city fell on July 4, 1863. The combined Army-Navy operation, the first of its kind by U.S. military forces, opened the Mississippi to the sole use of Union forces.

After the war, St. Louis fell behind Chicago as a commercial center in the Midwest. Chicago enjoyed easy east and west railway service, while St. Louis was cut off by the Mississippi River. The city fathers in St. Louis decided they needed a railroad bridge spanning the river. Eads gladly created a design. As chief engineer of the St. Louis Bridge Co., he would become instrumental in building the bridge and reinvigorating the economy of St. Louis.

Eads created a design to compete with a proven method of bridge-building submitted by Brooklyn Bridge designer John Roebling. The Eads plan called for a span longer than any existing bridge, with a triple arch founded on bedrock. The design called for one arch 520 feet long and two arches of 502 feet. If built, it would become the world’s first major steel bridge.

Eads’ critics sent his plan to a board of 27 leading civil engineers for review. The group unanimously condemned it. Eads had stolen a march, so to speak, however, and already had begun construction on the west abutment, where bedrock was just 47 feet below the high-water line. Eads used compressed-air pneumatic caissons to build the west and east piers and the east abutment. He wasn’t the first American builder to use pneumatic techniques, but he would be the first to attempt such a deep penetration using compressed air.

The drawing for the east abutment called for penetration to 136 feet below high water. Unfortunately, the job produced a first – the introduction of “caisson disease,” also called “the bends.” This agony affected 80 of the crew’s 352 sandhogs, and 15 died. Eads again showed his mental acuity, however, developing slower ascent methods and limiting the men’s time at depth to lessen the effects of the bends.

To prevent obstruction of river traffic during construction, Eads developed new methods of bridge building. He used a tieback system that introduced cantilevering to American bridge construction. The bridge’s three arches each consisted of four 18-inch steel tubes composed of steel staves bound together by steel hoops. The massive structure was completed in 1874 at a cost of more than $10 million. The bridge supported two rail lines, with a 54-foot-wide pedestrian promenade above.

Even before Eads had finished his bridge in St. Louis, he became intrigued by another engineering challenge. At New Orleans, every time the “bar” – the blockage of silt and sand in the delta – made passage into and out of the Gulf of Mexico impossible, ships lay at anchor and moored to piers, filled with idle crewmen and stevedores. Commerce came to a standstill. Often, more than 60 ships sat near New Orleans for days while waiting to cross the bar. New Orleans fell to eighth on the list of most productive American port cities.

Eads said he would find a solution, but he didn’t know when he started that he would have to fight the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers every step of the way.
He went to work on one of the largest engineering challenges in the United States. He pledged that he would find a way to remove the silt from the Mississippi River delta without using clumsy and costly dredging boats. He proposed a method to use nature and the river’s own flow to “cleanse” the water.
City Class Gunboat circa 1864

Eads proposed to Congress that he would create a channel 28 feet deep and 300 feet wide through the river’s southwestern pass. He also wanted a contract to maintain the passage for 10 years. He offered to finance the work himself until his channel reached 20 feet. After that, he wanted $1 million with incremental $1 million payments for each additional foot of depth produced until the channel reached 28 feet. His maintenance fee would then be $500,000 a year for 10 years.

Eads said he could deepen the channels of the Mississippi by narrowing and restricting the flow of the water. The Corps of Engineers, led by Gen. Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, wanted no part of Eads’ scheme. The corps wanted to dredge and build a canal.

Eads had clashed with Humphreys before, over a proposal to build a canal around his bridge in St. Louis. The end of that dispute had come easily when Eads called on his old friend President Grant. The president had sided with Eads, killing Humphreys’ plan.

Eads went to work raising the money for his Mississippi delta project. He hired the Grand Republic, one of the most luxurious steamers of her day. He planned to wine and dine investors and politicians while showing them that his initial jetties were, in fact, deepening the channel. Humphreys sent his own man from the Corps of Engineers, armed with facts and figures disputing every claim Eads made. Humphreys successfully undermined Eads’ fund-raising effort.

In the end, Eads narrowed the south pass of the Mississippi in 1875 by building jetties.

The restricted flow increased the speed of the river, flushing sediment into the gulf. Within eight months, the channel at the sandbar deepened to 13 feet. By August 1876, the channel was 20 feet deep. By 1879, the South Pass Channel was 300 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The force of the river completely removed the sandbar.

The final project of Eads’ enormously productive career – a maritime link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – never came to fruition. (His audacious accomplishments are recounted in detail in John M. Barry’s fine book “Rising Tide.”) Eads had proposed not a canal, but a railway to carry oceangoing ships in cradles and huge flat cars across
Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Mexican government endorsed the plan and, largely because of Eads’ reputation and record of success, the House voted for the idea, but the Senate defeated the bill.

Had he lived a few more years, we might today be able to see huge ships crossing the Sierra Madre del Sur by rail. We’ll never be sure whether Eads might have been successful with this wild idea. He had never failed before, though.

Frederick Douglass: Turning Points

August 30, 2008

By John E. Carey

To serious students of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass usually requires little introduction. Douglass excelled as a leader and role model. Slave, writer, accomplished orator, abolitionist, friend and advisor to Lincoln, Douglass spearheaded the movement to allow black men to enlist in the Union forces.

Douglass was the first African American ever invited to the White House (by Abraham Lincoln) and he coined the term “Ebony and Ivory” when he invited Stephen Douglas to debate slavery (Douglas demurred).

Above: Stephen Douglas

Douglass threw himself into the national debate with zeal and enthusiasm. He fought to end slavery within the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War. Additionally, he complimented “talk” with action, managing an underground railroad that rescued hundreds and maybe even thousands of slaves by spiriting them into Canada.

Frederick Douglass, c.1879.

Three turning points in Douglass’ fascinating life tell us much about the man who owns a unique place in American history. The first turning point came when John Brown tried to enlist Douglass, his powers of persuasion and his reputation into the Harper’s Ferry raid. Determining that the pacifists’ approach to abolition fostered by Douglass was not working, John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison set upon a more violent course of action. They wanted to enlist Douglass to help in their plan.In the very first issue of his anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison wrote, “I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. . . . I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

Douglass became enthralled with Garrison and the Liberator. “My soul was set on fire,” Douglass wrote of the paper. In 1839, Douglass began to write essays for the Liberator, which ultimately resulted in a long career of writing and speaking out against slavery. His newspaper notoriety made him a lightening rod for the abolitionist cause, and he became on the first truly nationally known black abolitionists.A former slave himself, Douglass had endured feeding from a trough, whippings and other humiliating privations. Douglass understood the plight of his fellow black men better than many others. His essays counted and white leaders in American took note.Even though Douglass and Garrison waged a public argument over the methods and tactics of achieving abolition, Douglass drew the attention of John Brown of Kansas.

Brown believed that Douglass would like his idea to free slaves by attacking federal property in the deeply divided areas of Maryland and Virginia. Brown thought he could incite a revolt of slaves everywhere; and that Douglass might eagerly help him do just that.

In 1859, John Brown rented a farm near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and began planning his attack on Harper’s Ferry. He invited Douglass to a meeting in the hopes that he might recruit Douglass into the scheme.Douglass met with Brown in August, 1859.

John Brown, c.1856.

When Douglass heard the violent and illegal nature of Brown’s planned attack on the federal arsenal, Douglass knew that lawlessness would only alienate the support of the white community. This turning point marked Douglass as a moderate who refused to support violent or lawless opportunists in the cause of abolition.

Had Douglass become a part of Brown’s cabal, he certainly would have lost his standing with white abolition leaders and may have wound up alongside Brown on the gallows.At the outset of the Civil War, Douglass established two goals for his life: the emancipation of all the slaves in southern and border states and the establishment of the right of black men to enlist and serve in the Union Army. These goals would lead Douglass to two more turning points, both involving President Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln

Douglass launched what modern observers might call a “media blitz,” calling for the emancipation of the slaves. He created a pressure cooker, of sorts, for President Lincoln. Lincoln knew in his heart that Douglass was right to want the freedom of all the slaves, but agonizing defeats on the battlefield, rising casualty figures, and resistance to the draft caused Lincoln to balk. Lincoln didn’t want the emancipation controversy to become another reason for white northerners to take sides against the war.

But Douglass would not relent. Understanding well Lincoln’s political considerations, Douglass still believed emancipation must be achieved as soon as possible. This second turning point caused Douglass to kept up his pressure on the president. Douglass authored strongly worded published essays and gave innumerable speeches not directly attacking Lincoln but clearly supporting emancipation. And Lincoln relented: deciding he must free the slaves as soon as the Union Army turned back Lee’s forces at Antietam.

Frederick Douglass’ final turning point came when he became distressed at Lincoln’s failure to legalize the enlistment of black men into the Union Army after emancipation. If black men were free and full citizens, Douglass argued, they had the right and privilege of service in their nation’s military forces. They had the right to participate as combatants in their nation’s war.Douglass knew than emancipation was not his final goal. He wanted all black men to become citizens and he knew that the road to citizenship could come through service to the nation.

Said Douglass, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.:Unable to contain his distress over Lincoln’s slow response on this issue, Douglass departed for Washington D.C. – and his third turning point. Douglass went to the White House to confront Lincoln over the issue of black enlistment.

Lincoln received the hostile Douglass in his usual dignified and gentlemanly manner. Lincoln explained that many of his generals expressed doubt about enlisting the black men.Although Douglass was not pleased with Lincoln’s response, Douglass experienced another turning point. He knew this was a time for cooperation and reconciliation. He left the White House with Lincoln’s promise to ultimately allow black men full rights and responsibilities in the Army. Lincoln asked for understanding and a little more time.

Douglass returned to Boston and a short time later became one of the best recruiters of black men into the Union Army.

Frederick Douglass inspired all men to greater things. His greatness can be seen in his turning points: the rejection of John Brown’s violence, his indefatigable refusal to give in on important issues such as emancipation, and his ability to reconcile and compromise with other leaders like Lincoln.

Douglass’ turning points allowed him to ultimately achieve all his objectives.On April 14, 1876, Frederick Douglass gave an oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln. Douglass’ words that day tell us much about both men:“Friends and fellow-citizens, the story of our presence here is soon and easily told. We are here in the District of Columbia, here in the city of Washington, the most luminous point of American territory; a city recently transformed and made beautiful in its body and in its spirit; we are here in the place where the ablest and best men of the country are sent to devise the policy, enact the laws, and shape the destiny of the Republic; we are here, with the stately pillars and majestic dome of the Capitol of the nation looking down upon us; we are here, with the broad earth freshly adorned with the foliage and flowers of spring for our church, and all races, colors, and conditions of men for our congregation–in a word, we are here to express, as best we may, by appropriate forms and ceremonies, our grateful sense of the vast, high, and preeminent services rendered to ourselves, to our race, to our country, and to the whole world by Abraham Lincoln.”

Frederick Douglass: a great American leader and achiever, shaped by his turning points.

Civil War History: Blair Family Was “Magnificent”

August 30, 2008

One family participated in many historic and breathtaking moments of the Civil War. Its members helped Abraham Lincoln get elected twice to the presidency. On behalf of Lincoln, the elder statesman of the family apparently offered command of the Union Army to Robert E. Lee in 1861.

In 1865, that same Washington elder statesman tried to negotiate a peace settlement with his longtime friend Jefferson Davis.

One son served in Lincoln’s Cabinet, had his house burned to the ground by Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederate forces and resigned his high government post in a sort of political trade.
Another son served in Congress, became a general in the Union Army and then a senator after the war and led a life of brawling adventure.

Jubal Early

The family name still causes tourists to stop in awe and respect just one block from the White House, inside the nation’s Capitol and in front of a handsome bust in Vicksburg, Miss.

The Blairs of Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and the District of Columbia played a uniquely influential role in American politics from the time Francis P. Blair Sr. became involved in the financial Panic of 1819 until the end of son Frank Blair’s Senate term in 1873.
Francis P. Blair Sr.
Francis Preston Blair Sr. (1791-1876) began a long and distinguished career of semigovernment service and influence during the 1819 crisis. He led the Relief Party and became an influential writer of newspaper opinion pieces on politics.
Montgomery Blair

His articles and support for Andrew Jackson so impressed the new president that Jackson urged Blair to move from Kentucky to Washington to become a full-time newspaperman.

In 1830, Blair established the Washington Globe, a party organ, and also published the Congressional Globe. He gained national importance as a political journalist and ran the printing business for Congress. However, he is remembered best as the leader of Andrew Jackson’s “kitchen cabinet.

Blair’s business partner, John Rives, described Blair as 85 pounds of bones and 22 pounds of “gristle, nerve and brain.”

Blair continued to run and edit his newspaper throughout the presidencies of Jackson and Martin Van Buren. When James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, Blair excused himself from the newspaper business but not from his role as an influencer of government policy. He traveled all the way to Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, in Tennessee to visit the former president.

Blair supported John C. Fremont’s 1856 Republican presidential nomination even after he “retired” to his 20-room mansion, Silver Spring, in Maryland.
John C. Frémont 
John C Fremont

He aided Lincoln from the first days of the crisis between the states, offering a prestigious Union Army position to Robert E. Lee, apparently on the president’s behalf. (Controversy continues.)

He also crossed Union lines into the Confederacy more than once on peace missions, using a note Lincoln had written that read: “Allow the bearer; F.P. Blair, Sr., to pass our lines, go South, and return.”

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

President Lincoln was a frequent guest at Blair’s Maryland home, where Blair and his family entertained and persuaded the president.

Montgomery Blair

Montgomery Blair (1813-1883) graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1835. He saw action in the Seminole War, established himself as a lawyer and served as mayor of St. Louis (1842-1843).

He moved to the nation’s capital in 1852. His family established residence at the town home (now called Blair House) owned by his father on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House.

He was U.S. solicitor in the Court of Claims from 1855 to 1858. He and associate George T. Curtis served as counsel for the plaintiff in the Dred Scott case of 1857. Scott and his wife sued in federal court for their freedom after their master moved them to Missouri, a free territory.

Blair and his partner represented Scott before the Supreme Court but lost the case when Justice Roger Taney ruled that a slave’s status did not change when he moved from territory to territory. Taney held that Dred Scott, a slave, was property. Thus, Scott was not a man and had no standing in federal court.

A fervent opponent of slavery, Montgomery Blair joined the new Republican Party. He became an ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln for president.

In 1861, Lincoln appointed him postmaster general, but Blair’s influence far exceeded the standard definition of that office.

Modern observers would find it difficult to understand the importance of the postmaster in 1860. One line in Lincoln’s first inaugural address indicated the importance of the mail in those days. Faced with secession, Lincoln asserted: “The mails, unless repelled, will continue to be furnished in all parts of the Union.”

Described as the most learned man in Lincoln’s Cabinet, Blair is credited by most with founding the Universal Postal Union, an international agreement that standardized postal rates and services. He also originated prepaid postage, free mail delivery in cities, money orders, and postal railroad cars.

House burned

Montgomery Blair became a key Lincoln confidant and leader of Lincoln’s kitchen cabinet. In 1861, he was the only Cabinet member who urged Lincoln to reinforce Fort Sumter, a subject far afield of his duties as postmaster. During the war, Montgomery Blair and his father frequently had the president’s ear.

When Gen. Jubal Early and his Confederate army invaded the North to pressure Washington in 1864, his troops sacked and burned Falkland, Montgomery Blair’s rural retreat in what is now Silver Spring.

Early recalled the day this way: “[W]hen in front of Washington some of my troops were very determined to destroy the house of Mr. Francis P. Blair and had actually removed some furniture, probably supposing it to belong to his son, a member of the Federal Cabinet. As soon as I came up, I immediately stopped the proceeding and compelled the men to return every article so far as I knew, and placed a guard to protect it. The house of his son, Montgomery Blair, a member of the Cabinet, was subjected to a different rule for obvious reasons.”

Letter from Lincoln

In May 1864, a convention of Radical Republicans selected John C. “Pathfinder” Fremont as their candidate for president. Fremont accepted the nomination and told the audience: “Today we have in this country the abuses of a military dictation without its unity of action and vigor of execution.” Lincoln wanted Fremont out of the race.

Fremont demanded the resignation of the man who had urged Lincoln to make Fremont a general earlier in the war, Montgomery Blair, who was disliked by Radical Republicans.

On Sept. 22, 1864, Fremont withdrew from the contest. On Sept. 23, 1864, President Lincoln sent the following letter to Montgomery Blair:

“My Dear Sir: You have generously said to me more than once, that whenever your resignation could be a relief to me, it was at my disposal. The time has come. You very well know that this proceeds from no dissatisfaction of mine with you personally or officially. Your uniform kindness has been unsurpassed by that of any friend; and, while it is true that the war does not so greatly add to the difficulties of your Department, as to those of some others, it is yet much to say, as I most truly can, that in the three years and a half during which you have administered the General Post-Office, I remember no single complaint against you in connection therewith.”

After the Civil War, Montgomery Blair rebuilt Falkland, which Early’s raiders had burned. He became active in Maryland politics and practiced law with his son, Woodbury. After Montgomery Blair died, Woodbury continued the law practice with his brothers Gist and Montgomery Jr.

Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring is named for him.

Frank Blair

Francis P. Blair Jr. (1821-1875), the younger of Francis P. Blair Sr.’s two sons, was commonly known as Frank.

A lawyer, Civil War general, attorney general of the Territory of New Mexico, member of the Missouri Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, he spent his final time in public life in the U.S. Senate.
Francis Preston Blair, Jr. 

He probably drank too much alcohol, used too much tobacco and too quickly let his anger get the best of him. Yet he was a Lincoln man, a dedicated Union man and perhaps the best of Lincoln’s politically appointed generals.

Frank Blair certainly earned the right to be called the most colorful of the amazing Blairs. He exhibited his rambunctious nature at college. A professor at Yale said Frank gave him more trouble than all the other scholars combined. Frank also attended the University of North Carolina before ending up at Princeton.


Although Frank, like the other Blairs, supported Lincoln and decried slavery, he was a bigot and owned slaves himself. When his brother Montgomery moved to Washington, taking Frank’s favorite slave, Nancy, Frank griped, “It is indispensable comfort to have a neat servant, particularly in this region of dirt and coal dust.”

As a member of the House of Representatives, Frank Blair generally defended Lincoln’s policies. Nevertheless, the Blairs and the president were not in complete agreement on the question of slavery. Every man in the Blair family, it seemed, favored separation of the races through the colonization of American blacks abroad.

On April 12, 1862, the day after slavery was abolished in Washington, Frank Blair said on the House floor that Liberia had “failed to attract the freed negro population in any considerable numbers” but stated his support for Negro colonization in Central America. “There is a vast difference,” he said, “between the idea of being colonized on our own continent, under our own flag, and being buried in Africa.”

Blair hoped colonization would serve to avoid present and future racial disharmony.

He also believed colonization might disrupt the political power of slaveholders in the South. Blair said, “We can make emancipation acceptable to the whole mass of non-slave-holders at the South by coupling it with the policy of colonization. The very prejudice of race which now makes the non-slaveholders give their aid to hold the slave in bondage will induce them to unite in a policy which will rid them of the presence of negroes.”

Blair pushed a bill through the House that authorized the president to spend $100,000 for colonizing the freedmen of the District.

A warrior

The Blair family made several efforts to persuade Lincoln to make Frank a general, but at first the president put them off. Finally, in the autumn of 1862, after Frank had raised five regiments of troops and said he hoped to raise two or three more, the president made Blair a general in the Union Army.

Despite much newspaper criticism, Frank Blair proved himself one of the better political generals. A very capable and fearless leader at Vicksburg, he gained Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s notice and praise. “There was no man braver than he,” Grant wrote of Blair. “No man obeyed all orders of his superiors in rank with more unquestioning alacrity.”

Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant

After a shaky start, Blair also established a lifelong mutual respect with Gen. William T. Sherman. The men served together during the campaigns for Vicksburg and Atlanta, and Blair commanded the 17th Corps during the March to the Sea. When newspapers criticized Blair as a political general, Sherman said Blair was “brave, cool and of ability.”

Franc B. Wilkie, a reporter for the New York Times, described Frank Blair this way: “He was a most interesting man in every respect. … He was versatile, doing everything well, from leading a charge to uncorking a bottle, and in all instances characterized by a calm, dispassionate manner. … Beneath all his outward calmness he had a tremendous force — a fact demonstrated by the momentum with which he threw his columns against the bristling, deadly heights of Chickasaw Bayou.”

A bust of Frank Blair causes visitors to marvel at Vicksburg. A statue of him campaigning in St. Louis entertains tourists in Missouri. Both were created with family money. In Statuary Hall within the U.S. Capitol, Frank Blair’s larger-than-life statue represents his state of Missouri along with a statue of Thomas Hart Benton.

The term “larger than life” perfectly describes the Blair family.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.