August 28, 2013
Early in the afternoon of July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt entered the courtyard of the Old Arsenal Prison in Washington, D.C. Behind her filed three other who had plotted to kill President Abraham Lincoln. A sweltering sun beat down on four freshly dug graves and four pine coffins. Only the day before, Surratt had learned that she would be the first woman to be executed by the United States government.
Veiled and dressed in black, she swooned after a few steps. Two soldiers and two priests helped her to the gallows. The hangman bound her arms and legs. She complained that the ropes chafed. They would not hurt long, he replied.
As the 42-year-old widow listened to her jailer read her death sentence, her younger son, the Confederate spy John Surratt, was hiding at a Catholic priest’s residence in a village northeast of Montreal. The federal government had offered $25,000 for his capture.
Mary and John Surratt were America’s most famous mother-son criminal partnership until Ma Barker’s boys shot up the Midwest some 60 years later. Many denounced her as the temptress who, in President Andrew Johnson’s words, “kept the nest that hatched the egg” of assassination. Others insisted she was the innocent victim of the national hysteria that followed Lincoln’s death. And some despised John as a coward who left his mother to die for his crimes.
Both were guilty of plotting against the president.
She was born Mary Jenkins in the early 1823 and spent most of her life in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a tobacco-growing region east and south of Washington that had a long tradition of slavery. During several years in a Catholic boarding school, she converted to that faith. As a teenager, she married a Prince George’s man named John Surratt, who was ten years her senior.
After failing at farming, the Surratts built a crossroads tavern, then added carriage and blacksmith shops and accumulated a half-dozen slaves. John became the postmaster—an employee of the federal government—and gave his name to Surrattsville. Mary increasingly managed the business as he drank more and more. When he died, in 1862, she became the proprietor in name as well.
As the Civil War raged, she and her family remained proudly loyal to the South. Her older son, Isaac, joined the Confederate Army in Texas. Her younger son, John Jr., only 18, joined the Confederate secret service and succeeded his father as postmaster. Her daughter, Anna, helped with the tavern, which became a key communications link for Confederate spies after John—like other postmasters in Southern Maryland—began inserting northbound messages from Richmond spymasters into the U.S. mail.
Special messages and cash required hand delivery, and John was adept at clandestine work. “I devised various ways to carry the messages,” he recalled after the war, “sometimes in the heel of my boots, sometimes between the planks of the buggy.” He dismissed the federals he evaded as a “stupid set of detectives” with “no idea whatever how to search a man.”
John loved the game. “It was a fascinating life to me,” he said. “It seemed as if I could not do too much nor run too great a risk.” Federal forces detained him in November 1863, for undocumented reasons, but only for a few days. John’s adventures were no secret to his mother, whose tavern served Confederate agents and couriers every day.
In the fall of 1864, John Wilkes Booth, handsome scion of America’s leading theater family, began connecting with Confederate agents in Southern Maryland. Soon he met with John Surratt and confided a daring plan to kidnap Lincoln and exchange the president for Confederate prisoners of war. Perhaps, he implied, Lincoln might even be bartered for an honorable peace between North and South.
At the same time, Mary leased her tavern to a neighbor and opened a boarding house in Washington. She may have had economic reasons for the move, but her new home was well located to aid secret activities. Like her tavern, her boarding house became a way station for Confederate agents.
John Surratt and Booth enlisted six men to help them. Most notable was David Herold, who could help with escape routes; George Atzerodt, who could manage the inevitable crossing of the Potomac River, and Lewis Powell, who went by the name Lewis Paine, was a Confederate Army veteran with a taste for violence. He was taken on to subdue the towering and still-strong president.
Through the first three months of 1865, Mary came to know the conspirators as guests in her home. Her favorite was Booth, who came by most frequently, sometimes just to see her. They made an odd pair—the dashing young actor and the middle-aged landlady, often described as stout, who attended daily Mass—but they shared a fiery commitment to the Southern cause in the face of repeated battlefield defeats.
On March 17, Booth, John Surratt and their men armed themselves and set out to kidnap Lincoln as he traveled to a performance for wounded soldiers at a hospital on the outskirts of Washington. When Lincoln’s schedule changed and put him elsewhere, they retreated to Mary’s house, boiling with frustration.
They gathered for a second try in early April—except this time, Booth dropped any pretense of kidnapping. The goal was to murder the president and at least three other Northern leaders: Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward and General Ulysses Grant.
Booth enacted his part in the plot on the night of April 14, when he shot Lincoln during a performance at Ford’s Theater. He and Herold fled to Southern Maryland, with Booth aching with a broken leg he suffered when he leapt from the president’s box to the Ford’s stage. At Seward’s house in Washington, Paine attacked the secretary of state, his two sons and an army nurse, leaving all four grievously injured before he made his escape. Atzerodt, assigned to kill Johnson, lost his nerve while drinking at the vice president’s hotel and slunk into the night. Grant’s unexpected departure from Washington that afternoon foiled any attempt on his life.
Some two weeks before the assassination, John Surratt had left Washington on a mission to Richmond. From there, he carried Confederate messages to Montreal, moving on to Elmira, New York, where he investigated the prospects for an uprising at a large prison camp. He would always claim that on the evening of April 14, he was far away from Washington.
Within five hours of the attacks on Lincoln and Seward, federal investigators followed a tip to Mary Surratt’s boarding house. Under questioning, she revealed nothing. When agents returned two days later, her vague responses confounded them again—until a bedraggled Lewis Paine stumbled to her door. Both he and she were arrested. They would never know freedom again. Atzerodt was captured on April 20 in northwest Maryland; Herold surrendered on April 26, when Union troops surrounded the barn in Virginia where he and Booth had sought refuge. Booth took a bullet in the neck and died of the wound.
By then the federal authorities had four others behind bars: Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, accused of being part of the kidnapping scheme; a Ford’s stagehand named Edman Spangler, accused of aiding Booth’s flight, and Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated Booth’s broken leg as the assassin made his way through Southern Maryland to Virginia. Barely three weeks after the first arrests, all eight of the conspirators went on trial. Four of them—the more fortunate four—would go to prison.
With a Confederate army still under arms in Texas, the government insisted that a state of war justified trial before a commission of nine Union Army officers. Public attention focused on the four who were accused of taking part in the assassination—most intensely on Mary Surratt, the lone woman among them.
Prosecutors highlighted her close ties to Booth and her actions on April 14. On that day, she met Booth at her boarding house and then rode to Surrattsville, where she told the tavern manager to expect visitors that night and to give them whiskey and rifles that had been hidden for the kidnapping attempt a few weeks before. When she returned home, she met with Booth again a scant hour before the assassination. That night, Booth and Herold rode to Surrattsville and collected the guns and whiskey. By aiding their getaway, the prosecution contended, Mary Surratt showed foreknowledge of the crime.
The nine commissioners found her guilty of abetting, concealing and assisting the conspirators, but differed over her sentence. They recommended to President Johnson that she be executed, but five of the nine urged him to grant clemency because of her sex and age.
With a black veil concealing her face throughout the trial, Mary became a blank screen on which the public could project its attitudes. Was she an innocent woman of piety suffering for her son’s crimes, or was she a scheming, vengeful harpy? Johnson entertained no doubts. He ignored last-minute appeals to spare her life, and sent her to the gallows with Herold, Paine and Atzerodt.
John Surratt stayed in Canada while his mother stood trial. That September he assumed the name of John McCarty, dyed his hair and put on some face makeup (tricks he might have learned from Booth) and boarded a mail ship for Britain. In Liverpool, he hid at another Catholic church, then moved through France to Italy. In early December, he enlisted as John Watson in the Papal Zouaves in Rome. The zouaves’ mission was to resist Giuseppe Garibaldi’s crusade to create an Italian republic.
But in Rome, John Surratt’s luck ran dry. In April 1866, a fellow zouave from Baltimore, who may well have followed him in pursuit of the reward money, told American officials of Surratt’s real identity. American and papal bureaucracies took seven months to work out the diplomacy niceties, but he was finally arrested in early November—when he managed a last escape, this time to Naples, whence he made his way to Egypt under the name Walters.
On November 23, 1866, John stepped off the steamship Tripoli in Alexandria and into the harbor’s quarantine hall. Four days later, American officials arrested him. A U.S. warship carried him to Washington in chains. He arrived on February 18, 1867, still wearing his zouave uniform.
His trial, in the summer of 1867, was as sensational as his mother’s and involved much of the same evidence. But one crucial factor had changed: With the war over, he faced a civil jury, not a military commission. Some jurors hailed from the South or were Southern sympathizers.
The defense could not deny John’s deep involvement with Booth but insisted that he was not in Washington on the day of the assassination. Several tailors from Elmira testified that they saw the defendant in Elmira on April 14, wearing a distinctive jacket. Thirteen prosecution witnesses countered that they saw him in Washington that day, and prosecutors brandished railroad timetables showing John could have traveled from Elmira to Washington to join the plot, then fled to Canada.
Two months of trial produced a hung jury: eight votes for acquittal and four for conviction. When prosecution blunders prevented a retrial, John walked free.
Surefooted in wartime, John struggled in the postwar world. He made a six-month journey to South America. He taught school. He tried public lecturing, boasting of wartime exploits but denying a role in the Lincoln assassination, but gave that up, too. In the 1870s, he joined the Baltimore Steam Packet Company, a Chesapeake Bay shipping line. More than forty years later, he retired as its general freight agent and auditor.
When John Surratt died, at age 72, in April 1916, a new war engulfed the world because an assassin had murdered Austrian Archduke Ferdinand two years before. Fifty-one years after Lincoln’s murder, few noted the passing of the last surviving member of America’s family of conspirators.
Editor’s Note, August 29, 2013: Thank you to commenter Jenn for clarifying that John Surratt was found not guilty of plotting to assassinate Lincoln. We’ve changed the headline to reflect that.
David O. Stewart has written many historical books and articles. His first novel, The Lincoln Deception, about unraveling the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy, was released today and is now available for purchase.
Andrew C.A. Jampoler, The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt’s Flight from the Gallows, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2008; Michael W. Kaufman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, Random House, New York, 2005; Kate Clifford Larson, The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Lincoln Basic Books, New York, 2008; Edward Steers, Jr., Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln;University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2001; William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall and David Winfred Gaddy, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1988.
August 13, 2013
Consuelo Vanderbilt’s wedding day had finally arrived, and all of New York (and then some) was aflutter. Crowds lined Fifth Avenue, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bride on her way to St. Thomas Episcopal Church. She was quite possibly the most celebrated of all the young heiresses who captured the attention of Gilded Age Americans, and her wedding was the peak of a trend that had, in recent decades, taken the world by storm: American girls, born to the richest men in the country, marrying British gentlemen with titles and centuries of noble lineage behind them.
Consuelo’s catch was considered one of the finest—Charles Spencer-Churchill, the future Ninth Duke of Marlborough, who stood to become lord of Blenheim, an estate second only to Buckingham Palace. The bride, already considered American royalty, would become a duchess, bestowing upon her family the highest social standing (for which her mother, Alva, who was often snubbed by “old New York”, and who viewed her husband’s money as gauche, was desperate).
And yet on November 6, 1895, the bride was less than thrilled:
I spent the morning of my wedding day in tears and alone; no one came near me. A footman had been posted at the door of my apartment and not even my governess was admitted. Like an automaton I donned the lovely lingerie with its real lace and the white silk stockings and shoes…. I felt cold and numb as I went down to meet my father and the bridesmaids who were waiting for me.
Conseulo Vanderbilt loved another—a rich other, but an American without a title or an English country estate. But her marriage to Marlborough was non-negotiable.
Beginning in the 1870s, American girls with money had been flocking to Britain in droves, ready to exchange railroad cash and mining stocks for the right to call themselves “Lady.” (“Downton Abbey” fans will surely recognize Cora Crawley as one of their ilk.) The appeal was clear. The heiresses, unlikely to be admitted to the highest ranks of New York society, would gain entry to an elite social world, and who needed Mrs. Astor’s drawing room when she could keep company with HRH the Prince of Wales?
And Britain’s upper crust would get a much-needed infusion of cash. For a British gentleman to work for money was unthinkable. But by the end of the 19th century it cost more to run a country estate than the estate could make for itself, and the great houses slid dangerously close to disrepair. By marrying a Vanderbilt or a Whitney, a future duke could ensure not just the survival of his family’s land and name, but also a life enhanced by easy access to money, something he certainly wouldn’t get if he married a peer.
By 1895 (a year in which America sent nine daughters to the peerage), the formula had coalesced into a relatively simple process. Mothers and their daughters would visit London for the social season, relying upon friends and relatives who had already made British matches to make introductions to eligible young men. Depending on the fortunes of the girl in question, several offers would be fielded, and her parents, weighing social and financial investments and returns, would make a selection. So such marriages were basically transactional alliances. Even in 1874, the union of Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill—which would give the Western world both Winston Churchill and a great deal to talk about—would reflect the beginnings of the trend.
Born in Brooklyn in 1854, dark-haired Jennie captivated Lord Randolph, son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough, with startling suddenness. Within three days of their initial meeting, Jennie and Randolph announced their plans to marry.
Neither the Jeromes nor the Randolphs were thrilled. Jennie’s parents thought Lord Randolph, in proposing to their daughter before consulting with them, was in serious breach of etiquette. Not to mention that, as a second son, he wouldn’t inherit his father’s title.
The Randolphs were aghast at their son’s choice of an American bride from a family no one knew anything about, and the more they learned about the Jeromes, the more they disliked the match. Leonard Jerome, Jennie’s father, was a flamboyant speculator in stocks and a noted chaser of comely opera singers; her mother, Clara, was occasionally accused of having Iroquois ancestry. Despite owning property in the right part of town (the Jerome Mansion stood at the corner of 26th Street and Madison Avenue), the Jeromes were not considered worthy of the upper echelons of New York society.
Jerome, the duke wrote to his lovestruck son, “drives about six and eight horses in New York (one may take this as an indication of what the man is).” Despite his daughter’s charms, he was a person “no man in his sense could think respectable.”
The Jeromes, though, had two advantages that could not be overlooked. The first was a personal endorsement of the match by Edward, Prince of Wales, who had met Jennie in social settings and liked her. The second was pecuniary.
Randolph had no money of his own, and the measly allowance his father provided would not have been enough for the couple to live on. The Jeromes would be aligning themselves with one of Britain’s most noble families, and for that they were expected to pay handsomely. Leonard Jerome came up with 50,000 pounds plus a 1,000-pound yearly allowance for Jennie (something unheard-of in British families), and the deal was done. In April 1874, Jennie and Randolph were married.
Seven months after the wedding, Lady Randolph gave birth to Winston. (She claimed a fall had induced premature labor, but the baby appeared full-term.) A second followed in 1880, though motherhood did not seem to have slowed Jennie’s quest for excitement. She and Randolph both had extramarital affairs (she, it was rumored, with the Prince of Wales, even as she remained close with Princess Alexandra, his wife), though they remained married until his death, in 1895. (The jury is still out on whether he died of syphilis contracted during extracurricular activities.)
Jennie came to have great influence over the political careers of her husband and son, and remained a force on the London social scene into the 20th century. She also came to represent what the British saw as the most vital kind of American girl—bright, intelligent and a bit headstrong. When Jennie’s essay “American Women in Europe” was published in the Pall Mall Magazine in 1903, she asserted, “the old prejudices against them, which mostly arose out of ignorance, have been removed, and American women are now appreciated as they deserve.” They were beautiful (Jennie Chamberlain, an heiress from Cleveland, so charmed the Prince of Wales he followed her from house party to house party during one mid-1880s social season), well-dressed (they could afford it) and worldly in a way their English counterparts were not. As Jennie Churchill wrote:
They are better read, and have generally traveled before they make their appearance in the world. Whereas a whole family of English girls are educated by a more or less incompetent governess, the American girl in the same condition of life will begin from her earliest age with the best professors…by the time she is eighteen she is able to assert her views on most things and her independence in all.
Despite their joie de vivre, not all American brides were as adaptable as Lady Randolph, and their marriages not as successful. The Marlborough-Vanderbilt match, for one, was significantly less harmonious.
Alva Vanderbilt determined early on that only a noble husband would be worthy of her daughter. She and a team of governesses managed Consuelo’s upbringing in New York and Newport, Rhode Island, where the heiress studied French, music and other disciplines a lady might need as a European hostess. Consuelo was meek, deferring to her mother on most matters. Before the wedding she was described by the Chicago Tribune as having “ all the naive frankness of a child,” an affectation that may have endeared her to the American public, but would be no match for the heir to Blenheim. After they met at the home of Minnie Paget (nee Stevens), a minor American heiress who acted as a sort of matchmaker, Alva went to work ensuring the union would take place. It was settled that the groom would receive $2.5 million in shares of stock owned by Consuelo’s father, who would also agree to guarantee the yearly sum of $100,000 to each half of the couple.
“Sunny,” as the future duke was known, made little effort to hide his reasons for favoring an American bride; Blenheim Palace needed repairs his family couldn’t afford. After the wedding (it is rumored that in the carriage ride after the ceremony, Sunny coldly informed Consuelo of the lover waiting for him in England) he went about spending her dowry restoring the family seat to glory.
Consuelo, for her part, was less than pleased with her new home:
Our own rooms, which faced east, were being redecorated, so we spent the first three months in a cold and cheerless apartment looking north. They were ugly, depressing rooms, devoid of the beauty and comforts my own home had provided.
Unlike her previous American residences, Blenheim lacked indoor plumbing, and many of the rooms were drafty. Once installed there, some 65 miles from London, Consuelo would travel little until the next social season (she was lucky, though; some American brides wound up on estates in the North of England, where getting to the capital more than once a year was unthinkable), and in the drawing room she was forced to answer questions nightly about whether she was yet in the family way. If Consuelo failed to produce an heir, the dukedom would pass to Winston Churchill (Lady Randolph’s son), something the current duchess of Marlborough was loath to see happen.
Consuelo and Sunny’s relationship deteriorated. He returned to the womanizing he’d done before their marriage, and she looked elsewhere for comfort, engaging for a time in a relationship with her husband’s cousin, the Hon. Reginald Fellowes. These dalliances were not enough to keep the Marlboroughs happy, and in 1906, barely ten years after their wedding, they separated, divorcing in 1921.
If the Vanderbilt-Marlborough marriage was the high point of the American ascent to the noble realm, it was also the beginning of a backlash. Sunny’s courtship of Consuelo was seen as almost mercenary, and the men who followed him in the hunt for an heiress looked even worse. When Alice Thaw, daughter of a Pittsburgh railroad magnate, agreed to marry the earl of Yarmouth in 1903, she hardly could have guessed that on the morning of her wedding the groom would be arrested for failure to pay outstanding debts and that she would have to wait at the church while her intended and her father renegotiated her dowry.
American fathers, too, began to doubt the necessity of having a duchess in the family. Frank Work, whose daughter Frances’ marriage to James Burke Roche, Baron Fermoy, would end with Frances accusing her husband of desertion, went on record as strongly opposing the practice of trading hard-earned money for louche husbands with impressive names. His 1911 obituary, printed in the New-York Tribune, quoted from an earlier interview:
It’s time this international marrying came to a stop for our American girls are ruining our own country by it. As fast as our honorable, hard working men can earn this money their daughters take it and toss it across the ocean. And for what? For the the purpose of a title and the privilege of paying the debts of so-called noblemen! If I had anything to say about it, I’d make an international marriage a hanging offense.
Ideal marriages, wealthy fathers thought, were like the 1896 match between Gertrude Vanderbilt and Henry Payne Whitney, wherein American money stayed put and even had the chance to multiply.
Much of the Gilded Age matchmaking that united the two nations occurred under the reign of Edward VII, who as Prince of Wales encouraged social merriment equal to that of his mother Queen Victoria’s sobriety. When Edward died, in 1910, the throne passed to his son George V, who, along with his British-bred wife, Mary, curtailed the excess that had characterized his father’s leadership of Britain’s leisure class. Nightly private parties throughout a social season began to seem vulgar as Europe moved closer to war. In New York, Newport and Chicago, the likes of Caroline Astor began to cede social power to the nouveaux riche they had once snubbed, and as the American economy became the domain of men like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, their daughters had little reason to spend their inheritances restoring 17th-century castles when they could stay home and be treated as royalty by the press and the public.
Though American girls quit looking for husbands across the pond, the influence of the ones who did become duchesses and baronesses left an indelible mark on the British landscape. American women financed the repair and restoration of once-shabby estates like Blenheim and Wrotham Park, backed political ambitions (Mary Leiter, a department-store heiress from Chicago, used her father’s money to help her husband, George Curzon, become the viceroy of India), and, in the case of Jennie Jerome, gave birth to children who would lead Britain squarely into the 20th century.
The women, too, were changed. Jennie Jerome, after her husband’s death, married two more Englishmen (one of them younger than her son Winston), and other American girls who divorced or outlived their first husbands stayed on in their adoptive country, occasionally marrying other peers and tending to the political and marital careers of their children.
After she divorced Sunny, Consuelo Vanderbilt married Lt. Jacques Balsan, a French balloonist and airplane pilot, and the two would remain together until his death in 1956, living primarily in a château 50 miles from Paris and, later, a massive Palm Beach estate Consuelo called Casa Alva, in honor of her mother.
Consuelo’s autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, appeared in 1953 and detailed just how miserable she’d been as the Duchess of Marlborough. But perhaps, during her time as a peer of the realm, something about that life took hold of Consuelo and never quite let go. She died on Long Island in 1964, having asked her family to secure her a final resting place at Blenheim.
Balsan, Consuelo, The Glitter and the Gold, 1953; Lady Randolph Churchill, “American Women in Europe,” Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine, 1903; DePew, Chauncey, Titled Americans 1890: A List of American Ladies Who Have Married Foreigners of Rank; MacColl, Gail, and Wallace, Carol McD., To Marry an English Lord, Workman Publishing, 1989; Sebba, Anne, American Jennie: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007; Cannadine, David, The Rise and Fall of the British Aristocracy, Vintage, 1999; Lovell, Mary S., The Churchills, Little Brown, 2011; Stuart, Amanda Mackenzie, Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and Mother in the Gilded Age, Harper Perennial, 2005; “Frank Work Dead at 92”, New-York Tribune, 17 March 1911; “The Marriage of Marlborough and Vanderbilt,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 27 October 1895; “She is Now a Duchess,” New York Times, 7 November 1895.
August 1, 2013
Friedrich Engels’ life appears replete with contradiction. He was a Prussian communist, a keen fox-hunter who despised the landed gentry, and a mill owner whose greatest ambition was to lead the revolution of the working class. As a wealthy member of the bourgeoisie, he provided, for nearly 40 years, the financial support that kept his collaborator Karl Marx at work on world-changing books such as Das Kapital. Yet at least one biographer has argued that while they were eager enough to take Engels’s money, Marx and his aristocratic wife, Jenny von Westphalen, never really accepted him as their social equal.
Amid these oddities lurks another—a puzzle whose solution offers fresh insights into the life and thinking of the midwife of Marxism. The mystery is this: Why did Engels, sent in 1842 to work in the English industrial city of Manchester, choose to lead a double life, maintaining gentleman’s lodgings in one part of the city while renting a series of rooms in workers’ districts? How did this well-groomed scion of privilege contrive to travel safely through Manchester’s noisome slums, collecting information about their inhabitants’ grim lives for his first great work, The Condition of the Working Class in England? Strangest of all, why—when asked many years later about his favorite meal—would a native German like Engels answer: “Irish stew”?
July 16, 2013
Chapultepec Castle is not, by Mexican standards, particularly old. Though the 12th-century Toltecs named the 200-foot-high outcrop on which the castle stands the “hill of the grasshopper”—chapoltepec in Nahuatl, probably for the huge numbers of the insects found there—the castle itself wasn’t built until 1775, as a residence for Spain’s viceroy. It was converted to a military academy in 1833, which was the extent of its martial history until September 13, 1847, when two armies faced off there in the climactic battle of the Mexican-American War.
After more than a year and a dozen engagements on land and sea, the U.S. had yet to suffer a defeat. General Zachary Taylor had crossed the Rio Grande with an expeditionary force of a little more than 2,000 men and defeated much larger Mexican armies at Monterrey and Buena Vista. Winfield Scott, America’s most senior general and the hero of the War of 1812, had taken Veracruz with a brilliant amphibious assault and siege, and defeated Mexico’s caudillo and president Antonio López de Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo. Then he had taken Puebla, Mexico’s second-largest city, without firing a shot.
There are any number of reasons why the Americans dominated the fighting. They had better artillery in front of them (rockets, siege weapons and highly mobile horse-drawn howitzers that could fire canister—20 or more lead balls packed in sawdust and cased in tin, which turned the American six-pounder cannons into giant shotguns). They also had a stronger government behind them (in 1846 alone, the Mexican presidency changed hands four times). However, the decisive American advantage was not in technology or political stability, but in military professionalism. The United States had West Point.
Though neither Scott nor Taylor nor their division commanders learned the military art at the U.S. Military Academy, virtually every junior officer in the Mexican campaign—more than five hundred of them—had. Under Sylvanus Thayer, who became superintendent in 1817, and his protégé Dennis Hart Mahan, the academy became more than just a fine engineering school. In accord with legislation Congress passed in 1812, the course of studies at West Point required cadets to master all the skills not only of an officer, but of a private and a noncommissioned officer as well.
It made for a revolution in military education. Mahan, an advocate for turning the military into a profession equal to that of physicians or attorneys, had completed a fundamental study of the art of war, which he would publish in 1847. The first American professional military journals—the Army and Navy Chronicle, the Military and Naval Magazine and the Military Magazine—all started publication between 1835 and 1839.
This environment produced the staff and line officers who accompanied Taylor across the Rio Grande and Scott from Veracruz to Chapultepec. One of them, Ulysses S. Grant (USMA Class of 1843), wrote, “A better army, man for man, probably never faced an enemy than the one commanded by General Taylor in the earliest two engagements of the Mexican War.” Scott shared his “fixed opinion that but for our graduated cadets the war between the United States and Mexico might, and probably would, have lasted some four or five years with, in its first half, more defeats than victories falling to our share, whereas in two campaigns we conquered a great country and a peace without the loss of a single battle or skirmish.”
The academy graduates proved extraordinary in Mexico (and even more so in their subsequent careers in a far more bloody conflict). When Scott landed at Veracruz, his junior officers included not only Grant, but also Robert E. Lee (USMA 1829; commanding general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862). Captain Lee led his division through the “impassible ravines” to the north of the Mexican position at Cerro Gordo and turned the enemy’s left flank. The path to Mexico City, over the 10,000-foot pass of Río Frío, was mapped by First Lieutenant P.G.T. Beauregard (USMA 1838; general, Army of the Mississippi, 1861) and First Lieutenant George Gordon Meade (USMA 1835; commanding general, Army of the Potomac, 1863). Captain (soon enough Major) Lee found the best route to the relatively undefended southwestern corner of Mexico City, through a huge lava field known as the pedregal that was thought to be impassible; American engineers—accompanied by First Lieutenant George McClellan (USMA 1846; commanding general, U.S. Army, 1861)—improved it into a military road in two days, under regular artillery fire. The Molino del Rey, a mill that Scott mistakenly thought was being converted into a cannon foundry during a cease-fire, was occupied, after some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, by Lieutenant Grant and First Lieutenant Robert Anderson (USMA 1825).
So it’s scarcely surprising that when the final attack on Chapultepec Castle began on that September morning in 1847, one of the columns was led by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Johnston (USMA 1829; commanding general, Army of Tennessee, 1863). Or that, when the Americans were pinned down after they’d fought to the top of the hill, Second Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson (USMA 1846; lieutenant general and corps commander, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862), commanding two six-pounder cannon at the far left of the American line, rushed forward in support. As he did so, a storming party of 250 men reached the base of the castle wall and threw scaling ladders against the 12-foot-high fortification. There, Captain Lewis A. Armistead (USMA, 1838, though he never graduated; brigadier general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1863) was wounded; so was the officer carrying the regimental colors of the 8th Infantry, First Lieutenant James Longstreet (USMA 1842; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862), which were then taken by Second Lieutenant George E. Pickett (USMA 1846; major general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862). In an hour, the castle was taken.
And, in less than a day, so was Mexico’s capital. Jackson, who had been under fire for more than 12 hours, chased more than 1,500 Mexicans down the causeway that led into the capital “for about a mile…. It was splendid!” Grant, commanding a platoon-sized detachment, dragged a six-pound howitzer to the top of a church belfry, three hundred yards from the main gate to the city at San Cosmé, and put a withering fire on the Mexican defenses until he ran out of ammunition. A day later, Scott rode into the Grand Plaza of Mexico City at the head of his army. Though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo would not be signed until February of 1848, the battles of the Mexican-American War were over.
Not, however, the battle over the war’s narrative: its rationale, conduct and consequences. Los Niños Heroes—six cadets who from the Chapultepec military academy who refused to retreat from the castle, five of them dying at their posts and the sixth throwing himself from the castle wrapped in the Mexican flag—synthesize the Mexican memory of the war: brave Mexicans sacrificed by poor leadership in a war of aggression by a neighbor who, in one analysis, “offered to us the hand of treachery, to have soon the audacity to say that our obstinacy and arrogance were the real causes of the war.”
The enlargement of the United States of America by some 500,000 square miles, plus Texas, was certainly a valuable objective, but it’s uncertain that achieving it required a war, any more than the 800,000 square miles of the Louisiana Purchase did. Grant himself opined that the Mexican war was “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Even more uncertain is the argument, voiced by Grant, among others, the American Civil War “was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War.” The sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery might have been different without Monterrey, Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec, but no less pointed, and the Civil War no less likely—or less bloody.
However, it would have been conducted very differently, since the men who fought it were so clearly marked by Mexico. It was there they learned the tactics that would dominate from 1861 to 1865. And it was there they learned to think of themselves as masters of the art of war. That, of course, was a bit of a delusion: The Mexican army was no match for them. They would prove, tragically, a match for one another.
What the Mexican War created, more than territory or myth, was men. More than a dozen future Civil War generals stood in front of Chapultepec Castle in 1847—not just the ones already named, but First Lieutenant Simon Bolivar Bruckner (USMA 1844; brigadier general, Army of Central Kentucky, 1862), who fought alongside Grant at Molino del Rey and would surrender Fort Donelson to him in 1862; Second Lieutenant Richard H. Anderson (USMA 1842; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia 1863); Major John Sedgwick (USMA 1837; major general, Army of the Potomac 1863), the highest-ranking Union Army officer killed during the Civil War; Major George B. Crittenden (USMA 1832; major general, Army of Central Kentucky, 1862); Second Lieutenant A.P. Hill (USMA 1846; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1863); and Major John C. Pemberton, (USMA 1837; lieutenant general, Army of Mississippi, 1862), who joined Grant in the steeple of the church at San Cosmé and defended Vicksburg against him 16 years later.
The Duke of Wellington spent his life denying he had ever said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Much more apt to say that the Battle of Chapultepec was won on the parade grounds of West Point, and that the Battles of Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg were won—and lost—in the same place.
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July 8, 2013
Major General William Rosecrans, leader of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland, had a problem.
“Old Rosy,” as he’d been nicknamed at West Point, was a handsome Ohio-born history buff and hobbyist inventor with a reputation for getting nearer to combat than any other man of his rank. He had led his troops to a series of victories in the Western theater, and by 1863 he was, after Ulysses S. Grant, the most powerful man in the region. Rosecrans’ men were spending a great deal of time in Nashville, a city that had fallen to the Union in February 1862.
The major general thought Nashville was a good place for his troops to gather strength and sharpen their tactical abilities for the next round of fighting, but he underestimated the lure of the city’s nightlife.
According to the 1860 U.S. Census, Nashville was home to 198 white prostitutes and nine referred to as “mulatto.” The city’s red-light district was a two-block area known as “Smoky Row,” where women engaged in the sex trade entertained farmers and merchants in town on business.
By 1862, though, the number of “public women” in Nashville had increased to nearly 1,500, and they were always busy. Union troops a long way from home handed their meager paychecks over to brothel keepers and street walkers with abandon, and by the spring of 1863, Rosecrans and his staff were in a frenzy over the potential impact of all that cavorting. But Rosencrans, a Catholic, wasn’t worried about mortal sin. He was worried about disease.
Syphilis and gonorrhea, infections spread through sexual contact, were almost as dangerous to Civil War soldiers as combat. At least 8.2 percent of Union troops would be infected with one or the other before war’s end—nearly half the battle-injury rate of 17.5 percent, even without accounting for those who contracted a disease and didn’t know it or didn’t mention it—and the treatments (most involved mercury), when they worked, could sideline a man for weeks.
Union officials in Nashville, certain the city’s ladies of the night were responsible for the sexual plague, hit upon what seemed like the simplest solution: If they couldn’t stop soldiers from visiting local prostitutes, local prostitutes could simply be made non-local.
In the first days of July 1863, Rosecrans issued an order to George Spalding, provost marshal of Nashville, to “without loss of time seize and transport to Louisville all prostitutes found in the city or known to be here.”
The dutiful Spalding, a Scottish immigrant who’d spent the prewar years teaching school in a Michigan town on the shore of Lake Erie, began carrying out the order, and on July 9, the Nashville Daily Press reported, the roundup of the “sinful fair” began, though not without some protest and maneuvering on the part of targeted women:
A variety of ruses were adopted to avoid being exiled; among them, the marriage of one of the most notorious of the cyprians to some scamp. The artful daughter of sin was still compelled to take a berth with her suffering companions, and she is on her way to banishment.
Finding Nashville prostitutes was easy, but how was Spalding to expel them? He hit upon the answer by the second week in July, when he met John Newcomb, owner of a brand-new steamboat recently christened the Idahoe. To Newcomb’s horror, Spalding (backed by Rosecrans and other officials) ordered Newcomb to take the Idahoe on a maiden voyage northward (ideally to Louisville, but Spalding wasn’t particular) with 111 of Nashville’s most infamous sex workers as passengers. Newcomb and his crew of three were given rations enough to last the passengers to Louisville, but otherwise they were on their own. The local press delighted in the story, encouraging readers to “bid goodbye to those frail sisters once and for all.”
For many Civil War-era women, prostitution was an inevitability, especially in the South, where basic necessities became unaffordable on the salaries or pensions of enlisted husbands and fathers. Urban centers had long played host to prostitutes catering to every social class (an estimated 5,000 prostitutes worked in the District of Columbia in 1864, and an estimated three to five percent of New York City women sold sex at one time or another), and an enterprising prostitute working in a major city could earn almost $5 a week, more than three times what she might be able to bring in doing sewing or other household labor. While some prostitutes adopted the sex trade as a lifelong occupation, for many it was interstitial, undertaken when money was tight and observation by friends or family might be evaded.
Little is known about the prostitutes banished from Nashville, though it’s likely they were already known to officials of the law or had been accused of spreading venereal diseases. All 111 women aboard the Idahoe had one thing in common: their race. The women heading for points north were all white. And almost immediately upon their departure, their black counterparts took their places in the city’s brothels and its alleys, much to the chagrin of the Nashville Daily Union:
The sudden expatriation of hundreds of vicious white women will only make room for an equal number of negro strumpets. Unless the aggravated curse of lechery as it exists among the negresses of the town is destroyed by rigid military or civil mandates, or the indiscriminate expulsion of the guilty sex, the ejectment of the white class will turn out to have been productive of the sin it was intended to eradicate…. We dare say no city in the country has been more shamefully abused by the conduct of its unchaste females, white and Negro, than has Nashville for the past fifteen or eighteen months.
It took a week for the Idahoe to reach Louisville, but word of the unusual manifest list had reached that city’s law enforcement. Newcomb was forbidden from docking there and ordered on to Cincinnati instead. Ohio, too, was uneager to accept Nashville’s prostitutes, and the ship was forced to dock across the river in Kentucky—with all inmates required to stay on board, reported the Cincinnati Gazette:
There does not seem to be much desire on the part of our authorities to welcome such a large addition to the already overflowing numbers engaged in their peculiar profession, and the remonstrances were so urgent against their being permitted to land that that boat has taken over to the Kentucky shore; but the authorities of Newport and Covington have no greater desire for their company, and the consequence is that the poor girls are still kept on board the boat. It is said (on what authority we are unable to discover) that the military order issued in Nashville has been revoked in Washington, and that they will all be returned to Nashville again.
A few, according to the Cleveland Morning Leader, which rapturously chronicled the excitement happening across the state, tried to swim ashore, while others were accused of trying to make contact with Confederate forces who might help them escape. The women, according to reports, were in bad shape:
The majority are a homely, forlorn set of degraded creatures. Having been hurried on the boats by a military guard, many are without a change of wardrobe. They managed to smuggle a little liquor on board, which gave out on the second day. Several became intoxicated and indulged in a free fight, which resulted without material damage to any of the party, although knives were freely used.
Desperate to get the remaining 98 women and six children off his ship, Newcomb returned the Idahoe to Louisville, where it was once again turned away, and by early August the Cincinnati Gazette was proven correct—the ship returned to Nashville, leaving Spalding exactly where he’d started, plus with a hefty bill from Newcomb. Demanding compensation for damages to his ship, Newcomb insisted someone from the Army perform an inspection. On August 8, 1863, a staffer reporting to Rosecrans found that the ship’s stateroom had been “badly damaged, the mattresses badly soiled,” and recommended Newcomb be paid $1,000 in damages, plus $4,300 to cover the food and “medicine peculiar to the diseased of women in this class” the Idahoe’s owner had been forced to pay for during the 28-day excursion.
George Spalding was unconcerned with Newcomb’s hardships. His plan to rid the city of cyprians had failed. Resigning himself to the fact that prostitutes would ply their trade and soldiers would engage them, he reasoned that the women might as well sell sex safely, and so out of sheer desperation, Spalding and the Union Army created in Nashville’s the country’s first system of legalized prostitution.
Spalding’s proposal was simple: Each prostitute would register herself, obtaining for $5 a license entitling her to work as she pleased. A doctor approved by the Army would be charged with examining prostitutes each week, a service for which each woman would pay a 50 cent fee. Women found to have venereal diseases would be sent to a hospital established (in the home of the former Catholic bishop) for the treatment of such ailments, paid for in part by the weekly fees. Engaging in prostitution without a license, or failing to appear for scheduled examinations, would result in arrest and a jail term of 30 days.
The prospect of participating in the sex trade without fear of arrest or prosecution was instantly attractive to most of Nashville’s prostitutes, and by early 1864 some 352 women were on record as being licensed, and another hundred had been successfully treated for syphilis and other conditions hazardous to their industry. In the summer of 1864, one doctor at the hospital remarked on a “marked improvement” in the licensed prostitutes’ physical and mental health, noting that at the beginning of the initiative the women had been characterized by use of crude language and little care for personal hygiene, but were soon virtual models of “cleanliness and propriety.”
A New York Times reporter visiting Nashville was equally impressed, noting that the expenses of the program from September 1863 to June totaled just over $6,000, with income from the taxes on “lewd women” reached $5,900. Writing several years after war’s end, the Pacific Medical Journal argued that legalized prostitution not only helped rid Rosecrans’ army of venereal disease, it also had a positive impact on other armies (a similar system of prostitution licensing was enacted in Memphis in 1864):
The result claimed for the experiment was that in Gen. Sherman’s army of 100,000 men or more, but one or two cases were known to exist, while in Rosecrans’ army of 50,000 men, there had been nearly 1500 cases.
Once fearful of the law (particularly the military law, given the treatment they’d received), Nashville prostitutes took to the system with almost as much enthusiasm as those operating it. One doctor wrote that they felt grateful to no longer have to turn to “quacks and charlatans” for expensive and ineffective treatments, and eagerly showed potential customers their licenses to prove that they were disease-free.
Regulated sex commerce in Nashville was short-lived. After the war ended, in 1865, and the city was no longer under the control of the Union army, licenses and hospitals quickly faded from public consciousness. Today, the handful of U.S. counties that allow prostitution, such as Nevada’s Lyon County, rely on a regulatory system remarkably similar to the one implemented in 1863 Nashville.
Rosecrans, after making a tactical error that cost the Union army thousands of lives at the Battle of Chickamauga, was relieved of his command by Grant; he finished the war as commander of the Department of Missouri. After the war he took up politics, eventually representing a California district in Congress in the 1880s. (In the ’90s, Spalding would follow the congressional path, representing a Michigan district.)
One man who had a bit more difficulty moving on from the summer of 1863 was John Newcomb. Nearly two years after the Idahoe made its infamous voyage, he still hadn’t been reimbursed by the government. Out of frustration, he submited his claim directly to Edward Stanton, Secretary of War, after which he was furnished with the money he was owed and certification that the removal of the Nashville prostitutes had been “necessary and for the good of the service.”
Even after collecting nearly $6,000, Newcomb knew the Idahoe would never again cruise the rivers of the Southeastern United States. “I told them it would forever ruin her reputation as a passenger boat”, he told officials during one of his attempts to be compensated. “It was done, so she is now & since known as the floating whore house.”
Books: Butler, Anne, Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery, University of Illinois Press, 1987; Lowry, Thomas, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War, Stackpole Press, 1994; Clinton, Catherine, “Public Women and Sexual Politics During the American Civil War, in Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War, Oxford University Press, 2006; Denney, Robert, Civil War Medicine, Sterling, 1995; Massey, Mary, Women in the Civil War, University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
Articles: “A Strange Cargo,” Cleveland Morning Leader, July 21, 1863; “George Spalding,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress; “William Rosecrans,” Civil War Trust; “The Cyprians Again,” Nashville Daily Press, July 7, 1863; “Round Up of Prostitutes,” Nashville Daily Press, July 9, 1863; “News from Cincinnati,” Nashville Daily Union, July 19, 1863; “Black Prostitutes Replace White Prostitutes in Occupied Nashville,” Nashville Daily Press, July 10, 1863; “Some Thoughts about the Army,” New York Times, September 13, 1863; Goldin, Claudia D. and Frank D. Lewis, “The Economic Cost of the American Civil War: Estimates and Implications,” Journal of Economic History, 1975.