Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter connected to a record-breaking cold case

 

Robert E. Lee's mysterious letter

Detail of Robert E. Lee’s letter. Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers. (c) Virginia Historical Society, with permission.

 

A national mystery

The Virginia Historical Society inherited a national mystery in 1981. That’s when it obtained the deButts-Ely family papers. The collection contains Robert E. Lee correspondence, and among it, a surprising letter from the Siege of Veracruz. In that letter, Robert E. Lee praised an unknown hero. But no one suspected that man was an assassin – the perpetrator in a record-breaking German cold case.

Lee at the Siege of Veracruz

General Winfield Scott masterminded the siege in March 1847 as the opening gambit to his campaign in the Mexican-American War. While General Zachary Taylor remained in northern Mexico, far from the capital, Scott planned an amphibious landing near Veracruz. He wanted to capture the Mexican port city and then march inland, following Cortez’s route from centuries before, to sack Mexico City.

The Siege of Veracruz was Robert E. Lee’s first battle. He directed the fire at an onshore naval battery. A German company from Pennsylvania’s first regiment was assigned to defending it. Eight Americans died at the battery before the U.S. won the siege, and one of those deaths made a profound impression on Lee. On April 11, he put his feelings on paper in a letter to his son Custis:

Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter

There was one poor fellow that behaved nobly. His thigh was broke by a cannon ball & he was laid in a trench at the rear of the battery for security, the balls & shells were flying so thick that he could not be borne away. A bush was stuck over him to keep the sun out of his eyes & all that we could give him was occasionally a cup of bad warm water. The men at the guns were hot & thirsty & drank up the water as fast as it could be brought. It was at some distance & the balls swept over the field & at such a furious rate that the officers would not let the men go for water except when they could not do without it. There the poor fellow lay till evening; when they got a litter & was bearing him off, when a shell fell & burst & a fragment killed him. He laid the whole day with the balls & bombs flying over him without uttering a complaint. His sufferings must have been very great, for the battery kept up a constant & brisk firing & the concussion from the 32 [pounders] & Paixhan guns shook the whole ground & must have pained him terribly. I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man.*

This unknown hero has been a discussion point in the literature. Why would Robert E. Lee balance American military objectives against the life of one man and find them lacking?

But no one, until now, has asked who that man was.

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz, ca. 1848. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

The unknown hero turns out to be a long-sought criminal

A careful comparison of the American casualty list against descriptions of the deaths at the naval battery in primary sources such as logbooks, letters, and a newspaper account from an embedded journalist all point to a German volunteer in the 1st Pennsylvania.

Robert E. Lee couldn’t have known the man’s background. It would have shocked him. The man was the assassin in a record-breaking German cold case – 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved and its only murder ever solved in the USA.

For the first time, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee (Kent State University Press, September 1, 2017) brings these two stories together. It offers American history packaged in international true crime wrapping. You can order the book here on Amazon.

Next week we’ll look at the German case and the letter from America that provided the crucial clue.

Literature on point:

*Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers, Virginia Historical Society.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (New York: Penguin Books, 2009; discusses the letter on p. 173).

Bernice-Marie Yates, The Perfect Gentleman: The Life and Letters of George Washington Custis Lee, Vol. 1 (Xulon Press, 2003; discusses the letter on pp. 92-94).

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Lincoln’s dog Fido: A Faithful Pet Assassinated Like His Master

Lincoln's dog Fido

Lincoln’s dog Fido (1860); public domain.

Two theories on the popularity of the name “Fido”

Fido.

Do you actually know a dog with that name? It’s so cliché no one names their dog Fido anymore. Fido has instead become a generic name for dogs: “Bring Fido on vacation.” “Is expensive dog food really good for Fido?”

How did Fido become so popular that the name became generic?

Dog lovers and historians have advanced two theories. One is that Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido influenced the name’s popularity, the other that is was the Italian dog Fido in WWII. Which theory is right? We’ll look at both against the backdrop of the popular literature of the day to find a clear winner. You might want to have a box of tissues because both of these stories are sad.

Lincoln’s dog Fido: Assassinated like his master

Articles in both Psychology Today and the American Kennel Club attribute the popularity of the name to Lincoln’s dog Fido.

Pharmacy records in Springfield, Illinois indicate Lincoln had a dog already in 1855. He purchased de-worming medication. That dog was probably “Fido,” a yellow lab mix, of whom a few photographs survive. Lincoln decided not to take Fido with him to the White House and left his dog in the care of a friend while he was gone.

A year after Lincoln’s assassination, Fido also met tragedy. A drunken man was sitting on the curb. Fido jumped up him with his dirty paws. In an intoxicated rage, the man knifed the dog. That’s how Lincoln’s dog Fido met his end. Assassinated like his master, said Johnny Roll, a member of Fido’s adoptive family.

Fido’s reputation as the First Pooch, the first presidential dog ever photographed, and as assassinated pet catapulted the name Fido into enduring popularity.

mMonument to the Italian Fido

Tuscanycalling, Dante Square and monument to the Italian Fido, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The Italian Fido: Ever faithful

A book on dog names attributes the popularity of Fido to an Italian dog belonging to Carlo Soriano. Soriano rescued the dog and named him Fido (“I am faithful”). Thereafter Fido waited for Soriano’s bus every day to accompany him home from work. One day during WWII, Soriano was killed in an air raid while at work. Fido continued to wait for his master at the bus stop every day – another fourteen years – until the dog’s death. Fido’s faithfulness received worldwide attention. Italy even erected a statue of Fido to commemorate his faithfulness.

So which dog made the name Fido famous?

If you peruse old newspapers, you’ll find dogs named Fido going all the back to the 18th century. Lincoln’s dog Fido wasn’t the first with that name. After Lincoln’s death, however, the name occurs more frequently in online newspaper searches, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s due to increased popularity of the name or the availability of more newspapers for that time period.

"Fido" appears as a generic name in a mock trial in 1906.

“Fido” appears as a generic dog name in a mock trial in 1906. “Administrator’s Notice,” Mexico Missouri Message (Feb. 22, 1906). Public domain.

An 1875 review of the clerks records of registered dog names a good thermometer reading of the popularity their popularity. Fido was tied for the third most popular, preceded only by Jip and Carlo. Another survey of dog licensing records in Bakersfield, CA indicates that Fido had almost completely dropped out of the list by 1900. Only one person named their dog Fido. A Minneapolis paper of 1901, however, indicates that Fido was still a popular name at a dog show.

By 1906, Fido begins to appear as a generic term for dogs. It was used as the name for a fictional dog in a mock trial. And in 1910, a satirical article about dogs appeared by an author named “Fido.”

Fido as a newspaper author

“Fido” is already writing newspaper articles by 1908. Fido, “There’s Nothing Nowadays Like Being a Flossie Little Dog,” The Spokane Press (July 15, 1908). Public domain.

All that indicates that Fido was popular canine name long before the Italian Fido was even born. Hence, it’s Lincoln’s dog Fido, the assassinated pet, to whom we should attribute the enduring popularity of the name.

 Literature on point:

 Administrator’s Notice,” Mexico Missouri Message (Feb. 22, 1906).

Matthew Algeo, Abe and Fido: Lincoln’s Love of Animals and the Touching Story of His Favorite Canine Companion (Chicago Review Press, 2015).

Dog Names: “The Most Popular of the Pack (1875),” Worcester (Mass.) Gazette via the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (Aug. 24, 1875).

Dorothy Meserve Kuhnhardt, “Lincoln’s Lost Dog,” Life (Feb. 15, 1954).

Man’s Best Friend,” Minneapolis Journal (Dec. 14, 1901).

Laurie Bogart Morrow, The Giant Book of Dog Names (Gallery Books, 2012).

Popular Dog Names in the Early 1900s,” woofreport (April 12, 2017).

Randy Shore, “Names Increasingly Reflect Dogs’ Integration into the Family,” Vancouver Sun (Oct. 189, 2009).

Fido, “There’s Nothing Nowadays Like Being a Flossie Little Dog,” The Spokane Press (July 15, 1908).

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Mary Todd Lincoln’s Castle Ghost in Germany

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln, 1860-1865. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). Public domain.

Germany as a haven after the Lincoln assassination

One of the lesser known aspects of the Lincoln assassination is the aftermath that played out in Germany. All the surviving occupants of the presidential box at Ford’s theater ended up moving to Germany. Mary Todd Lincoln and her son Tad lived in Frankfurt from 1868 to 1870, and Henry Rathbone moved to Hanover with his wife Clara and children in 1882 when the president appointed him U.S. Consul there. [Rathbone then became involved in a true crime himself. He murdered his wife a year later in Hanover – but that will be the subject of another post.]

I enjoy following the Lincoln and Rathbone sojourns in Germany because I live here, speak the language, and can research them. And that’s why a letter from Mary Todd Lincoln about a castle ghost caught my eye. There’s a possible mistake in there that’s leaked out into the biographical literature and I hope to point it out with this post.

Hohenzollern castle on a 19th-c. postcard

Hollenzollern castle on a 19th-century postcard. Was this the haunt of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost? Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.

 

Mary Todd Lincoln in Germany

Mary stayed at the Hotel d’Angleterre in Frankfurt while Tad attended boarding school nearby. By February, Frankfurt had gotten too cold for her and she decided to travel to the Mediterranean. Along the way, she stopped at the spa town of Baden-Baden in the Rhine Valley. Once she reached Nice, France, Mary penned a letter to her friend Eliza Slataper, a member of the Lee family in Virginia:

En route to Nice, I stopped for a day or two at Baden to see a lady from America, who resides most of the time in Europe. We visited a castle near Baden, where the veritable “White Lady,” is said, delights most to dwell, and where Napoleon signed his memorable treaty, in roaming the immense building, I said to our two attendants “have you ever seen her” – to which, of course, they both replied – “We often do.” As you know, Germans are very superstitious, and from the King of Prussia, down to his humblest subject, believe in her frequent appearance.*

The white lady appearing to the Prussian king.

“The white lady appearing to King Frederick I in 1713 shortly before his death.” Lithography by Ludwig Löffler, 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mystery of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost

Who or what was Mary Lincoln’s castle ghost? And where was the castle the white lady haunted? The answer is elusive.

One biography identifies the castle as the Hohenzollern castle in the Province of Hohenzollern. The royal family of Hohenzollern fits nicely to the white lady story. Kunigunde von Orlmünde, a widowed mother, she was engaged to marry another member of the Hohenzollern family, but thought her children came between herself and her fiancé. So she stabbed her children’s skulls with a needle and killed them. Later she sought repentance in Rome and entered a convent, where she died in 1351. According to legend, her ghost appeared throughout history to various members of the Hohenzollern family before they died, including the King of Prussia. Thus, Mary’s mention of the king in her letter appears to be a reference to the white lady of the Hollenzollern dynasty.

But the Hohenzollern castle as the dwelling for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost presents some problems. Several Prussian castles, including Berlin, Kulmbach, Rudolstadt, and Bayreuth, belong to the white lady’s traditional haunts, but I can’t find a reference to her ever spooking the Hohenzollern castle itself.

Hohenzollern castle.

The Hohenzollern castle as it appears today. Pixabay.

Problem of distances

There’s yet another reason why Hohenzollern can’t be the home of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost. It’s too far away. Baden-Baden lies on the west side of the Black Forest. To travel from Baden-Baden, Mary would have had to cross or skirt the Black Forest mountain range from the Grand Duchy of Baden into the Kingdom of Wurttemberg, and from there cross the Neckar Valley to the east and travel up into the Prussian Province of Hohenzollern on the Swabian Alb plateau. That was 44 miles as the crow flies, but at least 68 miles on the road, and three different countries.

Mary and her friend couldn’t have saved time by travelling by train, either. The Zollenalb train line connecting Tübingen to Hechingen (the nearest town to the castle) didn’t open until June 29, 1869, several months later. The women would have had to have completed at least part of the trip by horse and carriage. The journey, then, would have been too long to fit in as a side trip during a one to two day visit to Baden-Baden.

Baden-Baden was a popular tourist destination for Americans in the 19th century.

Baden-Baden was already a popular tourist destination for Americans in the 19th century. Baden-Baden Lichtentaler Allee. (c) Baden-Baden Kur & Tourismus GmbH, with permission.

Napoleonic treaty riddle

Mary’s other clue, that Napoleon signed a treaty at the castle, doesn’t help either. Napoleon, as far as I can determine, never signed a treaty at the Hohenzollern castle nor at any other castle in southwestern Germany. Mary might have been confused on that point. Please correct me if I’m wrong and leave a comment if you know what Mary might mean by  Napoleon’s castle treaty.

Hohenbaden castle

The Hohenbaden castle offers a better location for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost. Pixabay.

Hohenbaden castle and the gray lady

A prime location for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost would have been the Hohenbaden castle right next to Baden-Baden – one of the city’s major tourist attractions – and a very manageable side trip from town. The Hohenbaden castle doesn’t have a white lady, though. It has a gray one. And her story would have been far more intriguing to Mary Todd Lincoln.

The margravine who lived in the castle and became the gray lady after her death was a different kind of a mother than the white lady of the Hollenzollerns. By all accounts, she loved her baby son more than anything in the world. One evening, she wanted to show him his inheritance. She took him up a high tower and held him out over the balustrade to show him all the villages, fields, and farms over which he would one day rule. But he slipped out of her hands and tumbled down the castle walls and cliffs. Panicked, the margravine rushed down all the castle steps to search the ground below the cliffs. Although she had all her servants and maids help her, she never found her little boy’s body again. The margravine died in grief. Now, according to the Baden-Württemberg’s official website for its castles and gardens, she haunts the castle. You can still hear the margravine wailing as the wind whips the crevices in the cliffs, and at midnight, her gray-clad apparition drifts from room to room, her long white hair waving about her face.

Mary, who herself had two sons slip through her fingers into eternity, would have related much more to the mourning gray lady than the murderous white one. Might her memories of Edward and Willie have prompted her questions to her tour guides?

Gray lady in folklore

Although gray lady ghosts aren’t as common as the white ones, they do pop up in 19th-century literature. The gray lady of Caputh is another example, as is Maillais’s “Grey Lady” in Scotland. By 1846, a poem about the gray lady of Hohenbaden appeared in a collection of Baden legends. To give you a taste, I’ve translated the first four lines:

 

Habt ihr gehört von der grauen Frau
Im Bergschloß Hohenbaden?
Bethört von finstrer Macht, dem Gau
War sie zu Schreck und Schaden.**

Have you heard of the lady gray
In Hohenbaden’s cliffside palace?
Bewitched by darkness, she steals away
To spew her fright and malice.

 

The poem underscores the fame of the gray lady by the time Mary visited Baden-Baden in 1869. Today, the castle’s website describes the gray lady as the most famous of the castle’s legends. The ghost could have easily become a subject of the castle tours by the time Mary visited in 1869.

Hohenbaden castle grounds

Did Mary Todd Lincoln walk these grounds? Hohenbaden castle by (c) Yakovlev Sergey, Shutterstock.com, with permission.

Hohenbaden as the better choice

It’s possible that Mary got the color of the ghosts mixed up by the time she reached Nice and wrote her letter. Even the names of the castles are quite similar, Hohenzollern and Hohenbaden. That might have confused her in any conversations or reading on the topic.

Nevertheless, the Hohenbaden castle, for its proximity to Baden-Baden and a ghost story that matches Mary’s letter, offers a far better alternative than Hohenzollern for Mary’s side trip destination and the haunt of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost.

The question of where she thought Napoleon signed his “memorable treaty” remains open and offers a way to solve the riddle of Mary’s destination. My cursory survey of the treaties Napoleon I and III signed didn’t turn up anything in a southwestern German castle. Knowledge, however, is a cumulative and cooperative effort, and perhaps a reader knows more about the topic than I do. Please leave a comment if you can contribute. In doing so, you’ll also augment Mary Todd Lincoln’s biography.

You might also enjoy reading about Mark Twain’s visit to Baden-Baden several years later and his encounter with the Prussian empress or two posts on Frederick the Great, a member of the Hohenzollern dynasty: How Frederick the Great’s Sword Helped Spark the Civil War and The Five Greatest Criminal Trials of History, which covers his judgment in the trial of the miller Arnold.

Literature on point:

Baden-Württemberg, Städtliche Schlösser und Gärten, “Ein Geist im alten Schloss: Die graue Frau,” Altes Schloss Hohenbaden.

Betty Boles Ellison, The True Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014).

Jan von Flocken, “Die weiße Frau – ein Gespenst macht Geschichte,” Welt (Oct. 7, 2007).

**Ignaz Hub, “Die Graue Frau von Hohenbaden,” in Badisches Sagen-Buch II, August Schnezler, ed. (Karlsruhe: Creuzbacher & Kasper, 1846), 180-184.

*Mary Todd Lincoln to Eliza Slataper, Feb. 17, 1869 (in Turner, 26-27).

Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, “Die graue Frau,” Literatur Port (2015) [gray lady of Caputh].

Stephanie Graham Pina, “The Grey Lady,” Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (April 19, 2017).

Justin G. Turner, “The Mary Lincoln Letters to Mrs. Felician Slataper,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 49(1):7-33 (Spring 1956).

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Women Civil War Soldiers: Digging up the Evidence

Tintype of one of the possible women Civil War soldiers.

Tintype of a Civil War soldier, courtesy of Shelby Harriel.

Historians are a bit like detectives. They sift through evidence, weigh it, and try to leave no stone unturned.

But when they publish their results, they’re a bit like lawyers. They need to be objective enough to gain the credibility of the judge and jury, but they are still advocating. They back up their historical observations with evidence and try to draw new conclusions.

In the following guest blog, historian Shelby Harriel uses the same analogy as a springboard into her research into women Civil War soldiers. Those female warriors were actually committing a crime. They also violated the norms of Victorian society. Because of that they covered their tracks and concealed their true identities. Sometimes the army even destroyed the evidence if they were caught.

That makes women Civil War soldiers hard to research. But their contributions to the war were invaluable; the research adds a new layer of understanding to Civil War history. Shelby Harriel is writing a book on women Civil War soldiers. I met her online, through her fascinating blog, Forbidden, Hidden, and Forgotten: Women Soldiers of the Civil War, and invited her to write a guest blog. You can read more about Shelby and her book below.

Here’s Shelby Harriel with her guest blog:

Shelby Harriel

Shelby Harriel, photo by Shellie Beauchamp, courtesy of Shelby Harrriel.

I was delighted to meet Ann Marie recently.  As bloggers, researchers, and writers, we share similar experiences.  We also share a love of history.  So I was extremely honored when she asked me to contribute a guest post.  Beyond the aesthetically pleasing nature of her blog, Ann Marie has some very interesting content among her writings, most of it dealing with true crime.  It made me think of how I, as a historian, am like a detective in my search for women soldiers of the American Civil War, 1861-1865.

The Suspects

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War.  We’ll never know exactly how many there were.

The Crime

Victorian society was strictly defined.  Women were supposed to be passive and remain in the domestic sphere.  They were expected to create life, not take it.  Therefore, the government did not allow Victorian women to serve in the military.  War was the domain of men.

Clothing defined the genders.  Women did not wear pants.  Doing so resulted in imprisonment and/or a fine, not to mention the shame that discovery would bring themselves and their family.

So when women traded in their hoop skirts for army trousers, not only did they defy the morals and mores of the times, which was unacceptable behavior, they were also breaking the law.

It is difficult to think of these women Civil War soldiers as criminals, especially since many of them made the ultimate sacrifice and lie buried in graves right next to the men with whom they served.   But, by definition, women soldiers were committing a crime.  (And so were the hundreds of thousands of boys under 18 years old who lied about their age in order to fight.)

Arrested for wearing pants.

Arrested for wearing pants? You bet. During the Civil War, it was a crime in most states for women to wear men’s attire. Cincinnati Daily Press, January 6th, 1862.

The Crime Scene

Women are reported to have fought in every major battle of the American Civil War.  They were there from the beginning to the end.

The Motives of Women Civil War Soldiers

Why would these women risk their reputation and lives for a society that did not desire their service?  There were several reasons.  A majority of them enlisted in order to avoid being separated from a loved one.  Others were trying to escape an oppressive situation.  Economic factors drove some women.  Disguised as men working in masculine-only professions, they could make more money than they ever could in the few jobs available to Victorian women.  Patriotism motivated some women to enlist while others were simply seeking adventure, not unlike their male counterparts.  Love, fear, money, duty…motives common to any good mystery story.

The Witnesses

Civilians, common soldiers, high-ranking officers, and even well-known generals bore witness to women serving in the military during the Civil War.

The Evidence

Documentation is the backbone of any historian’s arguments.  The same goes for a criminal investigator. Without supporting evidence, there is no case.  And sometimes, acquiring this evidence and documentation is challenging.  Just like investigators of a criminal case, researchers who delve into the topic of women Civil War soldiers must overcome the obstacle of subterfuge.  In order to serve in the military, these women had to disguise themselves.  They cut their hair short, wore clothes that Victorians weren’t accustomed to seeing them wear, and assumed an alias.  (Some men did this, too….enlisted under an alias that is.) When discovered, some women soldiers not only told newspaper reporters the wrong male aliases they used, but they sometimes provided a false feminine name, if any at all.  Remember, it wasn’t that difficult for Victorians to assume a new identity.  They didn’t have birth certificates or forms of identification.

How does one find an individual who doesn’t want to be found?

Chasing phantom identities

Civil War tintype.

Civil War tintype, courtesy of Shelby Harriel.

Secondary sources

Before anyone may choose to venture into this realm themselves, I would suggest purchasing a box of hair color to hide the gray hair that will be infesting your head.  Eat chocolate.  And develop an exercise regimen to relieve the stress.  Eat more chocolate and understand that you’re not going to find all of the answers.

A good place to start an investigation is to read secondary sources.  But proceed with caution.  Both period and contemporary accounts may contain errors.  Some researchers can be careless.  On the other hand, it may not necessarily be the fault of the authors.  Most historians do the best they can with the evidence available to them at the time.  It is the job of subsequent generations of researchers to uncover new findings and advance the historical narrative.  And this is why it’s important to instill the love of history in young people. As archives continue to digitize more records, the more information people from all over the world will have access to.  This is exciting!

Genealogy

After scouring secondary sources for names, dates, regiments, etc., I enter the information in a genealogy website to see if I can discover the true name of the woman soldier, attempt to complete her story by finding out what happened to her after the war, or determine whether she existed at all.

Newspaper archives

I also like to search newspaper archives for period articles.  Again, the information may be wrong.  Names were sometimes spelled phonetically, and an incorrect unit may have been mistakenly recorded.  Furthermore, the woman soldier may have chosen to lead the reporter astray in order to protect the reputation of herself and her family.  Or the reporter may have chosen to take an otherwise true story and embellish it with exciting….and incorrect….details.  And some newspaper editors simply made up the story entirely.  They were trying to make a living by selling newspapers, after all.  I try to collect as many articles as I can about an individual woman soldier.  Even though all of them may contain the same basic information, one unique sentence in a single article can make the difference in piecing together the true story.

Primary sources

All investigators question the witnesses… or they’re supposed to.  Since all of the individuals involved in my realm of research have all passed on, it is necessary to acquire their testimony by investigating their letters and diaries.  I always feel as if I’m being rude by invading someone’s personal space, but at the end of the day, they’re not around to protest.  And these primary sources provide a wealth of all sorts of interesting information.  Again, one must proceed with caution.  Soldiers sometimes merely reported camp rumors and were not personally privy to the events they were writing about.  On the other hand, I have discovered information in a letter or diary that validated a newspaper article or was a completely new find.  One thing is for sure.  These missives are not tainted with political correctness! Other primary sources such as regimental histories, prison records, court martial transcriptions, and provost marshal documents also provide invaluable information.  Some of these particular records that I have examined have supported the claims of some women Civil War soldiers while debunking others.

Service records

Service records are the gold mine of military records.  One can learn all sorts of information from them:  when and where a soldier enlisted, a physical description, an antebellum occupation, when and where the soldier was mustered out, any prison records, some medical records, and any duty the soldier was assigned to.  To a lot of people, service records are the smoking gun.  According to some, if none can be found, this is enough to disprove a woman soldier’s service.  “If they don’t exist, you must omit!”  Ah, but a prosecutor doesn’t need the murder weapon or even a body to get a conviction.  In the case of women Civil War soldiers, a lack of service records does not necessarily equate to a lack of service.  For example, there is an account of a woman killed by an exploding shell during a particular battle. The story is supported by a future president of the United States, his future brother-in-law, who was a surgeon standing next to the soldier when she was killed, and several private soldiers who recorded the event in diaries and letters.  The surgeon provided enough details to narrow down a possible unit that the soldier belonged to.  So off I went to search for her service records.  Two months later, my aching eyes and I were unable to locate any.  Nor have I been unable to find any newspaper articles about the event.  Yet it happened.

Medical records

Muster roll card for one of the women Civil War soldiers.

Civil War muster roll card for “Charles Freeman,” a woman masquerading as a man. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s—1917, RG 94; public domain.

Here’s another example. Enter Exhibit A, carded medical record and discharge document for Mary Scaberry, alias “Charles Freeman,” of the 52nd Ohio Infantry.  Obviously, she served….until she went into the hospital with a fever and ultimately discharged for “sextual incompatibility” after her true identity was discovered.  In addition to this card, newspaper articles document her story as well.  But yet there are no service records for her.  Nor does she appear on the unit’s roster.  So what happened to her records?  It could be that they were inadvertently lost or destroyed over time.  Or officials could have deliberately expunged them.  Officers were often embarrassed and angry when a woman was discovered in their unit.  They had just been fooled after all.  Also, if a woman was hired as an officer’s servant or orderly, there wouldn’t be any service records because she wouldn’t have been mustered in.  Yet she would have worn a uniform and experienced the same trials with the rest of the members of the regiment.

As for Scaberry, just like her service records, her ultimate fate also remains a mystery at this time.  After she was discharged, she went home to Columbus, Ohio, only to be spurned by her father.  Seeking employment, she then made her way to Chicago where she encountered a guard at Camp Douglas who made fun of her.  She promptly beat him up which landed her in police court.  The judge felt sorry for her and released her.  She then vanished from history, rendering the tale of her life incomplete.

Women Civil War Soldiers: Tough Cases to Prove, But Valuable Contributions to History

As we have seen, researching women Civil War soldiers is much like any courtroom drama in film or text. The evidence is gathered, crime scene investigated, witnesses interviewed, and trials held.  However, unlike most crime stories, there is no dramatic final scene….no dramatic presentation of the final piece of evidence to deliver the coup de grace as it were. But just as in these crime stories, the process of bringing the truth to light is the ultimate goal. However, there is no jury to decide the fate of these women. It is up to all of us to help solve this century old “crime.” The book never closes on a murder and it is my hope that the book will never close on the gallant and mostly unknown deeds of these courageous women.

Thank you, Shelby!

Shelby Harriel giving a lecture.

Shelby Harriel giving a lecture dressed as a Confederate soldier. Photo by Tom George Davison, courtesy of Shelby Harriel.

About Shelby Harriel:

Shelby Harriel received her B.A. in History with a minor in mathematics in May 1997 and her M.Ed. with an emphasis in mathematics and history in 2005.  She earned both degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi.  Shelby has been teaching mathematics at Pearl River Community College since 2007.

While her career has always revolved around mathematics, Shelby actively pursues her passion for history through research, exchanging ideas, and speaking to the public.  For her efforts, Pearl River Community College bestowed upon her the Outstanding Humanities Instructor award in 2014.  She is also a member of the speaker bureau of the Mississippi Humanities Council.

Papers/Articles

“The Third Mississippi Infantry and Hancock County”

“A Different Look at the Yankee Invaders:  Two Women Disguised as Male Soldiers in Louisiana”

“A ‘Hole’ New Perspective:  A Woman Soldier at the Crater”

“Bully For Her:  Women Who Served Openly as Women”  

Shelby is currently writing a book on women soldiers of the Civil War, Forbidden, Hidden, and Forgotten: Women Soldiers of the Civil War.

You can follow Shelby on Facebook too, where you’ll receive updates about her book.

 

 

 

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Rape in the Civil War

An Interview with Author Kim Murphy

Crying woman. Both white and black women were victims of rape in the Civil War.

Crying woman. Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain.

 Every once in a while, a book comes along that shifts the tectonic plates in my understanding of history.

I used to practice law and was the prosecutor for parole revocation hearings in a ten-country region for Washington State. I’m familiar with elements of the crime of rape. I’m familiar with the questions defense attorneys pose about consent during cross-examination. You’re probably familiar with them too from crime films and books.

What the public never saw was the rape victims in my office when I prepared them for the hearings. They wept. They vented anger. And often, they oozed fear and frustration. It’s not easy to face your rapist in the courtroom, but it’s necessary if we want to send the rapist to prison. Without question, the hardest part of my job as a prosecutor was to lend courage to a frightened rape victim, to convince her to put her fears aside and take the witness stand for the public good.

I wasn’t always successful.

Nevertheless, once a victim agrees to testify, our modern criminal justice system takes a pretty good stab at sifting guilt from innocence, and I naively assumed that had always been the case in United States history. I never realized how much rape laws had changed over time.

My introduction to 19th-century rape laws

Never realized, that is — until I read Kim Murphy’s I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. Murphy’s non-fiction book is not only a survey of rape in the Civil War but an eloquent testimony to prejudice. Prejudice against African Americans, prejudice against foreigners, and above all, prejudice against women. Prejudice that happened in the very location that’s supposed to be the most impartial place of all: the courtroom.

Kim Murphy joins us for an interview about rape in the Civil War. Watch out for the double standard she offers of a criminal soldier who holds a gun to two victims’ heads, a man’s and a woman’s. Look out for her discussion of Sir Matthew Hale and 19th-century rape laws. And take note of the age of consent. Those are things I never learned in law school. They shocked me to the core. And I think they will shock you too.

You can read more about Kim Murphy below.

If this post changes your understanding of the history of rape laws, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

Welcome, Kim Murphy!

Kim Murphy presenting a lecture.

Kim Murphy presenting a lecture. Courtesy of Kim Murphy.

 What got you interested in the subject of rape in the Civil War?

While researching my Civil War fiction, I kept coming across the topic of rape. Some Civil War historians stated that it was uncommon or “rare.” Originally, I took them at their word, but the more I researched the war, I began to doubt their claim. I thought it was time the women involved had a voice, which is why I ended up writing I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. The title comes from a woman’s testimony during a court-martial. She said she’d rather die than to have been raped.

Some authors claim the Civil War was a “low-rape war.” Why has this view been so entrenched?

I think part of the view comes from the fact that few soldiers were executed for the crime of rape during the war. With rape being a capital crime during the 19th century, some historians have used that basis for their “low-rape war” belief. As time went on, the belief was repeated without any facts behind it. Some, I believe, also romanticized the war, claiming the soldiers from the Civil War practiced gentlemanly “self-restraint.” Such a belief ignores the problem we still deal with today, where most rapes are never reported.

What do the facts say?

A Civil War court martial.

A Civil War court martial, sketch by Alfred R. Waud, 1862. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; no known restrictions on publication.

Researchers E. Susan Barber and Charles F. Ritter state that approximately 450 sexual crime cases were heard in Union courts-martial. I personally found over 400 accounts of molestation or rape in the Civil War for my database. Although most were court-martial cases, not all were. Some came from diaries, letters, newspapers, and the Official Records of the two armies. The latter sources show that many cases never made it to trial. The men who were actually charged with the crime rarely got more than a slap on the hand. Some of the sentences were ridiculous, such as their heads being shaved and their getting drummed out of their regiments.

As for the statistics of STD cases, the official report from the United States Surgeon General’s Office stated there were 109,397 cases of gonorrhea and 73,382 cases of syphilis among the U.S. white troops. This report doesn’t include black soldiers or the Confederates. If the Confederate records ever existed, I’m sure they were lost along with most of their other records at the end of the war. In any case, these statistics show that gentlemanly restraint was somewhat lacking.

Are you able to draw any broad conclusions based on the data for rape in the Civil War?

Of the rapes that were reported and went to court-martial, black soldiers frequently received harsher sentences than white soldiers. Of the white soldiers, foreign-born soldiers were more likely to receive harsher punishment. Nearly thirty soldiers were executed for rape or attempted rape. More than half were black, even though they made up 10% of the Union forces. Most of the white soldiers who received the death penalty were accused of other crimes in addition to rape.

As for the victims, conclusions are difficult to arrive at since most rapes are never reported. Those that went to court-martial, upper-class white women were believed more often than poor white women or black women. Poor white women and black women essentially had to prove their cases, since both were regarded as “promiscuous.”

Another factor that many don’t take into account is that during wartime, most reported rapes are during times of occupation. At other times, armies were on the move or engaging in combat. During these times, the authorities had difficulty finding enough officers for judges to hold a court-martial, and women who had been raped wouldn’t have known to whom or where to report the crime.

There are more recorded instances of Union rapists that Confederate rapists. Why is that?

Many of the Confederate records were lost during the retreat and burning of Richmond. Even though few records remain, however, similarities can be seen. Women had to prove they had been raped.

The most shocking thing about your book, at least for me, was the state of the rape laws in the 19th century. Why was a woman required to fight for her life before a court would consider it a rape?

Painting of Sir Matthew Hale.

Painting of Sir Matthew Hale, 1670, by John Michael Wright [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The rape laws for all of early America came from Sir Matthew Hale, an influential 17th-century English judge:

It is true that rape is a most detestable crime, and therefore ought severely and impartially to be punished with death; but it must be remembered, that it is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.

His words echoed throughout courtrooms well into the late-20th century. Basically, his declaration laid the groundwork that women frequently lied about being raped, and it was very difficult for men to prove their innocence. At the time of the Civil War, chastity was regarded as a virtue, so a woman was expected to put up a fight in order to be believed. If she had no bruises or any kind of trauma to her body, she was regarded with suspicion and believed to have most likely given her consent.

An interesting side note: Sir Matthew Hale was also a judge for witchcraft trials. At least two women were hanged when he presided.

So if a man held a gun to a woman’s head and said he would kill her, and if the woman was scared to death and submitted, that would have counted as consent? And did that actually happen?

An unidentified African-American woman in the Civil War era. Both black and white women were victims of rape in the Civil War.

Unidentified African American Woman, United States, 1860-1870. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. No known restrictions on publication.

Yes to both questions. In one particular case, Private Ennis went to the home of Mary Harris in North Carolina. At gunpoint, he asked the women of the household if either would have sex with him. When they said no, he threatened them.

Mary said she was an “old woman with a heap of children.” The private turned to her daughter, Caroline. He took her to another room and locked the door behind them. At that point, he put his gun down, then raped her.

On the same day, Ennis had robbed another man at gunpoint, then attempted to rob another. The second man was also armed and turned Ennis in to the authorities.

At the court martial, Caroline was repeatedly badgered by Ennis in cross-examination. During the Civil War era, the accused often couldn’t afford an attorney, and there was no right to free representation during this time, so the defendants frequently represented themselves. As a result, a woman often faced intense questioning from her rapist.

Ennis never denied what happened but claimed that Caroline “yielded from fear of death.” He was found not guilty for rape, but guilty on the robbery charges, even though the man offered no resistance during the robbery.

And the age of consent was ten? Are there cases of girls that young who got raped and were deemed to have consented?

The age of consent was ten in most states. Kentucky, Virginia, Indiana, and Iowa set the age at twelve. Arkansas established the age to coincide with a girl’s first period, which tended to be several years later than modern girls.

If the case went to trial, a girl of ten was more likely to be believed than an adolescent or an adult. Many girls’ ages, especially slaves, were not given in the records, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how old some were. So yes, I’ve come across records where young girls were raped and said to have consented. When young girls were involved, the soldiers were found guilty more often, but the girls were still frequently asked questions during the testimony as to whether they had contributed to the act.

In one case of a ten-year-old girl, she was raped at gunpoint. A doctor confirmed she had been raped and feared she might die from blood loss. Yet, at court-martial, she was asked questions that indicated she might have tempted her rapist by touching him. The private was found guilty on several charges in addition to rape and was sentenced to be shot, but most of the charges, including rape, were dropped on a technicality because the locality where the rape had taken place wasn’t listed. In the end, the private escaped to Canada.

What has been the scholarly reaction to your book?

I’ve received a couple of excellent reviews, including one from Choice, but the Civil War historians have pretty much ignored the book. I have a feeling they find the topic of rape in the Civil War uncomfortable.

Thank you, Kim!

Kim Murphy's book, I Would Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War.

Kim Murphy’s book, I Would Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. Book cover image courtesy of Kim Murphy.

 About Kim Murphy:

Award-winning author Kim Murphy has written historical and historical-fantasy fiction. Her published articles consist of a wide range of subjects, from seizures in the Belgian sheepdog to various topics of the 17th and 19th centuries. From her research for her fiction, Kim learned that historians incorrectly assumed rape was rare during the Civil War. Seven years of researching and writing went into her only nonfiction title to date, I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. The title was taken from a rape survivor’s testimony during a court-martial case. Her Civil War ghost stories, Whispers from the Grave and Whispers Through Time, have won several awards, including ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, an IPPY (Independent Publisher Book awards), as well a nomination for RT Reviewer’s Choice award.

Kim Murphy maintains a website at www.kimmurphy.net.

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Kate Warne: First Female Detective

Kate Warne was a master of disguise.

Kate Warne was a master of disguise. Photo from Pixabay.

Undercover Female Detectives

Men can do some things better than women. It’s no different in the world of undercover investigation. Men’s strength and ability to infiltrate male society makes men uniquely suited for certain undercover tasks.

But women can do some things better . They can more easily gain the confidence of other women. They’re sometimes better at reading nonverbal signals. In the 19th century, people were less likely to suspect a woman of spying than a man. Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, recognized that. Pinkerton’s became the first detective agency in America to employ female PIs.

Pinkerton Hires Kate Warne

Pinkerton  had only been operating his detective agency for one year when a young widow entered his office seeking a most unusual job, at least for a 19th century woman. Kate Warne wanted to become a detective. Pinkerton dismissed the idea at first, but Warne was persistent. A woman is far better in worming out secrets from other women, she pointed out. A female detective can befriend wives and girlfriends of suspects and charm her way into their confidence. Besides, men tend to become braggarts in the presence of females. Who knows what they might say?

Pinkerton, impressed with her arguments, hired Kate Warne in August, 1856.

Kate Warne helped solve a murder by posing as a fortune teller.

Kate Warne helped solve a murder by posing as a fortune teller. Photo (c) Shutterstock; with permission.

An Expert in Disguises

She was an immediate success. Kate Warne’s had a talent for disguises and could mimic foreign accents. Allan Pinkerton could count on her to slip into any social setting without arousing suspicion.

Her first case dealt with embezzlement in a delivery firm. By befriending the suspect’s wife, Warne gleaned crucial evidence. Combined with evidence obtained by the other detectives, it was enough to convict the thief.

Kate Warne later helped solve a murder case. The murder suspect’s girlfriend, Pinkerton determined, was the type to fall for a fortune teller. Warne disguised herself as a fortune teller and started telling fortunes in the girlfriend’s town. The girlfriend came for a consultation. Armed with confidential information about the girlfriend that Pinkerton’s detectives had obtained, Warne gained the woman’s trust. Convinced that Warne really had powers, the girlfriend confided her secrets, which helped lead to an arrest.

A sketch of the carriage transfer in Baltimore from Pinkerton's 1884 book, The Spy and the Rebellion. Lincoln is depicted wearing a shawl. One of the women was probably Kate Warne.

A sketch of the carriage transfer in Baltimore from Pinkerton’s 1884 book, The Spy and the Rebellion. Lincoln is depicted wearing a shawl. One of the women was probably Kate Warne. Public domain.

Abraham Lincoln Assassination Plot

Kate Warne’s most famous case involved Abraham Lincoln.

In 1861, Pinkerton sent Warne to Baltimore to scout out rumors of a plot to assassinate President-elect Lincoln en route to Washington, D.C. Warne adopted a southern accent, and posing as a belle from Montgomery, Alabama, she charmed her way into Baltimore society. Kate Warne not only confirmed the plot, she could provide new details. Agitators planned to kill Lincoln as he transferred by carriage from Baltimore’s north train station to the south train station.

Lincoln hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to protect him, and part of Pinkerton’s plan was to send Lincoln to Washington, D.C. ahead of schedule. Kate Warne accompanied him. Lincoln abandoned his signature cylinder hat and wrapped himself up in a shawl. Warne played a sister travelling with her “invalid brother,” even embracing him and greeting him as a brother. The rest is history, because Kate Warn successfully delivered the president-elect to Washington, D.C.

Pinkerton hired several female detectives but made Kate Warne their superintendent. Unfortunately, Kate Warne didn’t survive long after the Civil War. She caught pneumonia and died in 1868. No contemporary images survive, and even her true name is unclear. She went by a variety of names ranging from Kate Warne to Kitty Warren. Her cover was so good, in fact, that it is hard to track her down in the archives today.

Whatever her true name was, Kate Warne played a role in American history and did it well.

Which of Kate Warne’s accomplishments impress you the most?

A female detective can do some things better than a male one.

Undercover women can do some things better than undercover men. Morguefile photo.

Literature on point

Allan Pinkerton, The Somnambulist and the Detective; The Murderer and the Fortune Teller (New York: G. W. Dillingham: 1875)

Allan Pinkerton, The Spy and the Rebellion (Toronto: Rose, 1884)

Eve Stephenson, Pinkerton’s Belle: Kate Warne, America’s First Female Detective (2013).

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