Anna Carroll: All in to Preserve the Union. . . But Was Questioned to the End

Rustic Fort Donelson on the Tennessee River as Anna Carroll would have seen it on an 1861 tour of Confederate fortifications prior to General Grant’s February 1862 attack.

During the Civil War, Anna Ella Carroll, began with friendly, persuasive letters to strengthen the resolve of Maryland’s Governor Thomas Holiday Hicks, a childhood friend, to keep his border state in the Union. She utilized her study of the law and experience in journalism to move the course of history.

Anna and her father, who preceded Hicks as governor, lobbied Hicks to call a Generally Assembly to determine Maryland’s future. On April 23, 1861, Maryland’s General Assembly voted 53-13 vote against the calling of a state convention to vote on secession. Though challenged by Southern forces without and within, Maryland remained in the Union for the duration of the war.

Yet as the Civil War began Hicks wrote to President Lincoln, “I feel it my duty most respectfully to advise you that no more (federal) troops will be ordered or allowed to pass through Maryland,” as he requested a truce with the South.

This at a time when Union troops were flowing from Maine down through Baltimore’s railway stations to protect the Capitol. Carroll prodded Hicks from her end and the President and his forces from the White House to maintain a link that kept Northern troops flowing South.

When Lincoln was elected President, Carroll freed her family’s remaining slaves, though it meant a sacrifice to a family now struggling financially. Prior to the war, she’d opened a school for girls on the Eastern Shore to support the family and began writing for local and regional papers, including corresponding for the National Intelligencer and the New York Evening Express.

Carroll didn’t enter the political fray until managing Governor Hicks campaign and later continued to aid campaigns of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, campaigning in several states as a predecessor to future presidential “spin doctors.” Filmore’s Secretary of the Treasury Tom Corwin said, “The “Art of finesse and trick in this age are worth more than wisdom of Solomon, the faith of Abraham, and the fidelity of Moses.”

“The Art of finesse and trick in this age are worth more than wisdom of Solomon, the faith of Abraham, and the fidelity of Moses.”

President Fillmore’s Secretary of the Treasury Tom Corwin

Prepared Constitutional Defense of Lincoln’s Actions

Carroll’s 1861 pamphlet Reply to Breckenridge awakened Washington to her knowledge of constitutional law and her ability to write a persuasive case. Kentucky Senator John Breckenridge and Vice President James Buchanan had questioned Lincoln’s legal authority to call out the state militia, impose martial law, and blockade the Southern states of the Confederacy. She outlined precisely where the President’s legal authority resides—his Constitutional authority to protect the nation and its people.

She’d spent many hours, years in her father’s law library that he amassed through his terms as a Maryland legislator at 21, a lawyer, judge and naval officer responsible for Baltimore harbor, then as governor. Few others had successfully taken on the mission in support of the President’s Constitutional role, so her star rose.

Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Alexander Scott corresponded with Carroll after her pamphlet appeared and agreed to pay her $1500 for this and for future contributions promoting the Union cause. He came from the railroad industry and after the war became the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then the largest publicly traded corporation in the world—not someone to act in haste. When Scott was told he did not have the authority to pay Carroll from federal funds, he paid her $1500 from his own pocket.

Carroll continued her correspondence during the Civil War, reported as a journalist, and wrote other pamphlets in support of the Union. Today the question remains if she met directly with Lincoln. Some say that he referred to her as “My Dear Lady.”

Lincoln may have known of Carroll’s travels through his Secretary of State Edwin Stanton, who had earlier appointed the man who traveled with her, Lemuel D. Evans. He had just returned from service as a special agent of the federal government to monitor weapon and supply movements from Mexico into Texas. This prior role ended when it became unsafe for Evans to return to Texas because of his pro-Union activities as as a former Texas Congressman.

Evans role in 1861 — to accompany Ms. Carroll to St. Louis and through the South to his native Tennessee, serving as a joint guide, military escort and bodyguard.

Reconnaissance on the Tennessee

Anna’s analytical mind and legal background joined to complete research about the Confederate’s defenses and military movements, specifically on the secondary rivers–the Tennessee and the Cumberland to determine the best course to win the war. She learned about ships and waterways from her father, a U.S. Navy Captain who managed Baltimore Harbor traffic and believed ships and waterways played a vital role in security and commerce.

Some saw the disadvantages of being a female in a war zone, but her gender made it easier for Carroll to slip in where a male military officer might be suspect. She sought out Evans, who came to Washington as an elected Congressman from Texas in March 1855. Evans’ knowledge of the Constitution as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and his military background enhanced his value to the project and Lincoln during the Civil War.

In August 1861 Judge Evans’ and Carroll traveled to St. Louis to gather intelligence, then continued down the Mississippi to the Tennessee to scout Confederate fortifications and deliver messages to Union officers. Along the Tennessee River and into its tributaries, like the Cumberland, the Confederacy looked weak and open for conquest, which could split the South.

Carroll’s reporting about the weaknesses of Confederate defenses along the secondary rivers went to the Secretary of War and Lincoln in January 1861. Grant started his campaign up the Tennessee in February 1861, easily overcoming the defenses at Forts Donelson and Henry before going on to Nashville. With the use of technology for directions, the telegraph provided time for Carroll’s report to be considered in the decision to move via the Tennessee, as an easier target than the wider, better defended Mississippi. No one else had been assigned to provide reconnaissance of this alternate route to the heart of the Confederacy.

Correspondent across Political and Geographical Lines

She corresponded with Lincoln’s Secretaries of War, Navy and Attorney General Edward Bates while continuing to trade letters with Jefferson Davis and key Southern Senators, using her keen writing style to gather information from parties on all sides. While Lincoln is remembered for his appreciation of beautiful women, he didn’t include women in his political campaigns, but could have worked through an intermediary. The trunks said to contain the correspondence between Carroll and Lincoln have never been located, possibly lost in travel, a fire, taken by a political opponent, or only imagined, but this last is unlikely from the support Carroll received from those close to Lincoln.

It is more likely the term “My Dear Lady” came from Secretary of War Stanton. He is quoted when the question of her payment arose after the war: “Her whole course was the most remarkable in the war; she found herself, got no pay, and did the great work that made others famous.”

Carroll’s insider view came about because she made it her business to know the thoughts of others. Anna wasn’t above using female wiles and intuition. She determined the strength of the Southern resolve long before others in the North by listening to the conversations of male political leaders “who talked off guard in her presence when they’d had a bit too much (wine or bourbon) and were stirred in their vanity by the absorbed attention of a lady.”

Carroll had a knack for developing friendships and maintaining them even with former beau, whose proposals she’d rejected, like James Buchanan, who remained a bachelor for the remainder of his life.

Her pamphlets and other writing supported her financially. She used her own credit and slim reserves from November 1860 to September 1861 to pay for a room in the Washington Hotel, near the White House, and a maid and a manservant to assist with her weekly salons. There leading ‘traitors” attended along with Unionists, which helped her gain inside knowledge that she passed on to the President or Stanton and cabinets on both sides of the divide, which might have made her a spy. She remained an ardent Unionist.

Her correspondence with her other acquaintances, who she’d met through her father, included Mississippi Governor Quitman, who wrote her a letter in 1850 that urged Southerners to secretly organize for a coup to take them out of the union and “set a fiery cross throughout the land and send ever gallant son of Mississippi to the rescue.” The flaming cross gained a fearful meaning long before it was taken up as a scourge of racial hatred by the Ku Klux Klan.

Miss Carroll’s associates claimed that she, not General U.S. Grant, devised the Tennessee-Cumberland campaign, was eventually confirmed by every Congressional committee that reviewed it years later in 1876 when President Grant was a lame duck.

Then the whole question of Miss Carroll’s role in the war was subjected to an in-depth examination by the House Committee on Military Affairs and printed by Order of Congress. She received the title Major General of the Armies of the Republic, but no funds were attached to the title. Samuel T. Williams, editor of The Congressional Globe, which was The Congressional Record of that time, said, “No woman not born to sovereign sway has ever done so much to avert the threatened ruin of her country.”

Not until 1870 did her case for payment for her pamphlets finally come before the House Armed Services Committee. She’d waited after the assassination of Lincoln, for whom she completed the work, through President Johnson, then Grant who may have not wanted to discuss a woman’s role in clearing the way for his Tennessee campaign. Then Garfield’s death put other matters in the forefront before the House Armed Services Committee. Carroll, then 74 and not in good health, had waited to have her appeal. She waited through one political crisis after another, much more patiently than her male counterparts.

Fifteen years after the war, in 1876, the U.S. House of Representatives accorded her the rank of Major General of the Armies and a meager pension, but no back pay for her printing contracts, since her contractors had died decades earlier. Five Congressional committees had voted to pay Carroll, but Congress never approved the appropriation.