A Woman in Lincoln’s Cabinet. . . or A Political Publicity Hound?

Anna Ella Carroll, daughter of Maryland’s Governor prior to the Civil War, consumed his law library at an early age to become a political writer and pro-Union advocate.

Unrecognized by most Americans today, Anna Ella Carroll made her way in the male-dominated world of 1850’s politics by asking the right questions and explaining complicated legal matters in laymen’s terms–the power of her pen.

Much of border-state Maryland around her embraced the South, she clung to the Union and maintained long-term, pen-pal relationships with the leading men of her time on both sides of the political/geographical divide.

Her life as the eldest child of Governor Thomas Carroll in Pre-Civil War Maryland may explain the intellectual curiosity that led her to enter her father’s law library at four. There Anna consumed the sense and nature of the law–the foundation for her future work in politics and writing.

The fire she carried for democracy rises from her paternal grandfather, Charles Carroll, who signed the Declaration of Independence. Her youth, spent living on the Eastern Shore at Kingston Hall on a 2,000-acre tobacco plantation with 200 slaves, explains her Southern ties.

The falling price of tobacco and the Panic of 1837 forced the Carroll’s to sell the plantation and move to Warwick, a three-story brick home and smaller plantation on the Choptank River. When she was 22, Anna and Leah, a slave girl from the Carroll Plantation and skilled seamstress, moved to Baltimore (second largest U.S. city then), where Leah listened to the gossip about new businesses in the homes where she worked sewing dresses for the elite.

Anna would track down the owners, often the wives and daughters of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad executives, and generate publicity and advertising for their businesses—a need they didn’t realize until the rail industry swiftly became competitive.

Anna worked for seven years in Baltimore establishing her credential as a publicity writer and became active in the Whig Party, meeting people like then Army Chief of Staff Winfield Scott, who discussed his war strategies in the invasion of Mexico with her. Anna began to sit regularly in the Senate visitor’s gallery, where she met future Presidents Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore.  She gained skill writing letters to party officials to influence political decisions, gaining a reputation for “scheming, conniving and maneuvering as well as any man.”

Female Campaign Director in 1858

Carroll likely was the first female campaign director by writing editorials and honing her skills to craft and send letters in support of the Union to newspaper editors—a low-tech version of the modern press release.

Anna helped convince enough Marylanders that the state should remain with the Union, that when a vote came in the Assembly, they stayed, even if just barely. Her letters went to newspapers in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and every weekly and daily papers in a 50-mile radius. Her friendly correspondence continued with her distinguished friends on both sides of America’s divide, which provided insider information for Lincoln, giving him a unique perspective on the opinions of Southern public and important opinion makers.

She became the pen in support of Thomas Holliday Hicks, a family friend from childhood, who became Maryland’s governor in 1858. Hicks proved to be a complicated man, who agreed to keep Maryland in the Union, but favored slavery and opposed abolition.

Strange Political Bedfellows

Anna Carroll, Abraham Lincoln, and Jefferson Davis had supported the 1848 candidacy of Zachary Taylor as the only Whig who could win. Their previous choice, Henry Clay, had lost three Presidential elections, despite his claim as leader of the Whig Party.

Anna called on the new President Taylor at the beginning of his term to establish her role early on. Jefferson Davis, who would become the U.S. Senator from Mississippi and future Secretary of War prior to the Civil War, fell in love with Taylor’s daughter, strengthening his ties when he married her, but the two men were never close and became estranged when she died early in the marriage. Davis became one of Carroll’s correspondents, giving her an insight into the Confederacy that few Yankees had. She would sign her correspondence with him, “most affectionate regards.”

When the Whig Party declined in 1854, Anna joined the American Party (Know Nothings), which was formed because Southerners and border state Whigs disagreed over slavery.  The American Party took an anti-slavery stance but fought against Catholic control of politics and the ballot box and what they perceived as use of funds being taken from public schools for use by private Catholic schools.

If you’re familiar with Maryland or Catholic history, her opposition to Catholicism seems surprising since her relative, John Carroll, became the first American bishop and archbishop and eventually the founder of Georgetown University. Anna came from a family divided by religion with her mother a strong Protestant, which almost prevented her marriage to Anna’s father.

When the American Party began in the 1840s, it was also xenophobic and hostile to immigration as great numbers of Irish were coming to America during the Great Potato Famine and as Germans were fleeing the 1848 Revolution and began working in the rail yards and ports. Know Nothings’ ranks in Maryland grew as laborers struck Baltimore’s Ironworks, and the Democratic Party refused to help them. Anti-slavery Democrats sought a party to support as their party moved to support slavery .

Carroll urged “Americans to take back their votes—settle problems through the ‘ancient process of democracy by an honest expression of will of most genuine citizens.’ Anne successfully used this issue to assist in bringing the American Party in line with the Whigs, which helped provide Lincoln the numbers he needed to win the Presidency in 1860.

Carroll greatly expanded her political and press contacts with the publication of two party-related books during the 1856 campaign: The Great American Battle or The Contest Between Christianity and Political Romanism and The Star of the West and the pamphlet “The Union of the States,” a virulent criticism of the political influence of the Roman Catholic Church under the papacy of Pius IX.  Anna criticized the “buying and selling of the papal (Catholic) vote” like a hogshead of tobacco or a bale of cotton to win an election and retain power until they can hang out a signal of disunion. 

Carroll’s Role in Presidential Politics

Millard Fillmore, the last Whig to become President, took over the Presidency after the death of Zachary Taylor in July 1850. He sought out Anna as a confidant after the death of his first wife. Anna wrote and researched a pamphlet for the American Party outlining the failings of his opponent James Buchanan, who did in the end win the Presidency in 1856. Filmore gained just twenty percent of the vote with the endorsement of the Know Nothing Party, keeping his affiliation with the American Party under wraps.

Filmore should be better remembered for his role in passage of the Compromise of 1850—the bargain establishing a truce in the battle over slavery by establishing a horizontal line between slave and free states. But this just postponed the Civil War—didn’t prevent what seemed inevitable. The political tug of war between the Northern and Southern politicians began long before 1856, yet the Presidential campaign threw Carroll headlong into this heated debate.

Indiana Congressman Caleb Smith made Lincoln aware of Anna Carroll’s writing. Despite Filmore’s mediocre showing, Smith believed she could aid Lincoln’s campaign as she seemed to be capable of making the case among American Party members, who opposed slavery and were becoming an important voting bloc.

By helping to bridge this gap and bring these voters to the Republican side, despite their anti-immigrant stance, she helped swing a vote with a slim margin (Northern votes only) to Lincoln. The importance of her efforts to gain these voters brought the two together.

Lincoln had a contract drawn up during the Civil War to pay her $50,000 for a series of writings. After the election in the week before his inauguration, Lincoln camped out in the Willard Hotel up the block from his future residence. There in a shabby side conference room, he met those who helped get him elected. These were people who Lincoln would depend upon as he led the nation through war. Anna, the pro-Union Maryland native, may very well have been one of those people—one of very few women with the knowledge, ability and scope to provide aid to a nation on the brink.

With all her contacts across the country (St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, Richmond, etc.), Carroll had more to offer and across various political persuasions, offered a perspective he could not find in others.

The value he placed on her work suggest she could have been one of the people he met in Washington at the Willard Hotel, where he and his family stayed prior to the Inauguration on March 4, 1861. But no records have been found.

Freeing Her Slaves

When Lincoln became President, Anna freed the twenty slaves she’d inherited from her father and persuaded abolitionists to accompany them to safety into Canada.  This helped prove to Lincoln her commitment to him and the Republicans, showed the strength of her loyalty to the Union.

Anna Carroll and Abraham Lincoln shared a common mission: to prevent the nation’s government from total control by the Southern Democrats, who at the time regarded the government “with distrust and aversion, as an agency mainly of corruption, oppression, and robbery,” Showing how history does repeat itself in a mirror image. (New York Tribune, 2 June 1948 in William Brock, Parties and Political Conscience: American Dilemmas, 1840-1850, (Millwood, NY: KTO Press, 1979), 12.

With the country two steps from all-out war, he desperately needed eyes and ears, voice and pen in Maryland and throughout Washington. Already she’d begun her research into the nation’s defense and military movements.

Stay tuned next week for Anna Ella Carroll’s travels through military camps in the South during the Civil War. Academics argue for her role in shifting the Northern strategy to a winning one. See if you agree next week.

Anna Ella Carroll’s story appeared in My Dear Lady, in the University of Texas’s (UT) main library in a book Marjorie Barstow Greenbie wrote in 1940. Greenbie also found Carroll in a library—the card catalog at the Library of Congress. I read the version reprinted in 1974 in Women in America.