Was Anna Ella Carroll the forgotten heroine of the Civil War?
By Caitlin Gibson,
They gathered in the banquet room of a waterfront hotel on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, more than 1,000 people assembled to celebrate one woman.
She waited in a chair, petite and poised in a plum-colored dress, hidden from the crowd by a curtain of red cloth. Her fans circulated among the tables as Civil War-era music filled the air.
At precisely the right moment, after the praise-filled speeches and the proclamation of a day dedicated in her honor, the red cloth was pulled away, and there she was: Anna Ella Carroll, captured in brush strokes of oil paint on linen and surrounded by members of President Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet as he prepared to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
There was a sparkle in Carroll’s hazel eyes, a Mona Lisa smile on her lips. She was the star of a new painting by Easton artist Laura Era — an updated version of the original “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln,” painted by Francis Bicknell Carpenter in 1864.
In the original painting, which hangs in the U.S. Senate, Anna Carroll is nowhere to be found; there is only an empty chair with a red scarf draped on the seat.
The new version, titled “Maryland’s Version of the ‘First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation,’ ” was commissioned by a small group in Dorchester County known as the Friends of Anna Ella Carroll. Its 15 members, most of whom are elderly, lifelong Dorchester residents, have doggedly championed the legacy of a woman who hailed from their home county and who they contend played a pivotal, unsung role in the Union’s survival. The Friends of Anna Ella Carroll were the hosts of the grand event at the Hyatt Regency resort in Cambridge last November, where Era’s work of art was first displayed.
To the audience at the painting’s unveiling, Carroll is a local heroine finally taking her place at a table where she always belonged.
Her admirers want this painting to go on tour, to circulate among galleries and government buildings across the Washington region and beyond, to educate the public about Carroll’s accomplishments.
But depending on one’s interpretation of records and events, there is another, very different portrait of Carroll — one that suggests that the throngs of admiring fans were, in fact, honoring a fraud.
It’s fair to say that Anna Ella Carroll has been largely lost to history. Most Americans are unlikely to know her name, and she is not a part of classroom history lessons. The question is why.
Carroll was born in 1815 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the daughter of Maryland Gov. Thomas King Carroll, who helped her gain entry to the male-dominated world of politics.
A gifted writer, Carroll authored a series of pamphlets on issues of constitutional theory in the 1860s — among the most notable were comprehensive arguments against Maryland’s secession from the Union, and several supporting Lincoln’s Constitutional authority to quell rebellion in the South. One early pamphlet, which presented a thorough legal rationale for Lincoln’s actions, was so influential that the U.S. War Department distributed copies of it to members of Congress.
During the Civil War, Carroll traveled west to St. Louis, where her research and an interview with a riverboat captain named Charles M. Scott led her to conclude that the Tennessee River — not the Mississippi — was the key to the Union’s control of the South.
Carroll said she submitted a plan for the Tennessee River Campaign to the War Department in 1861. Though she initially gave credit for the strategy to Scott, she later claimed the idea as hers and petitioned Congress for formal recognition and a proper pension for her service. It was a battle she fought for the remainder of her life and didn’t win.
Carroll’s admirers take the story several steps further, conjuring a woman who was among Lincoln’s closest advisers and who was sent west by the government to spy on the Confederates.
To her champions, Carroll was a brilliant strategist who wrote the plan calling for the Union to invade the South via the Tennessee River. They argue that Carroll’s work helped doom the Confederacy and that her writing laid the legal foundation for the Emancipation Proclamation.Lincoln knew this, they say, and pledged to give her the formal acknowledgment that she’d earned. But he was assassinated before he could fulfill that promise, denying a trailblazing woman of her proper place in history.
“Hands down, she was the most important political woman of the 19th century, suffragists aside,” said C. Kay Larson, an independent scholar who self-published a 2004 biography of Carroll titled “Great Necessities: The Life, Times and Writings of Anna Ella Carroll, 1815-1894.” “Very few can compete with her in terms of political influence, legal influence, intellectual influence and military influence — male or female.”
But some historians describe her differently — as a mercenary self-promoter who did not hesitate to lay claim to a place in history that simply is not hers.
“It really makes me sad that people waste so much time on Anna Ella Carroll, on something she did not do, and try to give her a status that she does not deserve,” said Janet Coryell, a Western Michigan University history professor and author of a 1990 Carroll biography titled “Neither Heroine Nor Fool.”
Jean Baker, a women’s history expert and professor at Goucher College, boiled the debate over Carroll’s legacy down to this:
“There are facts in history, but they are boring.” The heart of history, she said, lies in the interpretation of facts, “and with interpretation, you can also believe what you want to believe.”
Frank Bittner, 58, a retired telecommunications specialist from Baltimore and the founder of the Friends of Anna Ella Carroll, first learned about Carroll through local oral history when he moved to Dorchester County in 1997.
Then he did some reading of his own, including an 1891 biography of Carroll by Sarah Ellen Blackwell, a suffragist, and a 1952 volume by married historians Sydney and Marjorie Greenbie. Both books drew conclusive connections among Carroll, the Tennessee River Campaign and Lincoln. Bittner was impressed.
“I am not a historian, and I was never digging deep into the details,” Bittner said. “What touched me here in Dorchester is that there were many people who knew of her and were always irked by the dirty politics of Washington, and how the Washington establishment basically took her credit.”
The Friends of Anna Carroll commissioned the painting, Bittner said, to provide a “storybook ending” to the tale of a wronged woman.
“We have always believed that the empty chair was Lincoln’s way of including her or making reference to her involvement,” he said. That conviction is bolstered by generations of local folklore and the belief that the documents proving Carroll’s role were deliberately lost or destroyed.
“We know that she was not a fraud,” Bittner said. “That is what some folks have made her out to be, but we know better. All we’re looking for in Dorchester County is the truth.”
If the new painting reignites the debate over Carroll’s claim and draws more attention to her story, “this is serving our purpose,” he said. “The feeling always was that some day, somebody’s going to take notice.”
Kay Larson took notice of Anna Ella Carroll as a high school student in the mid-1960s after picking up a copy of “Woman with a Sword,” a 1948historical novel by Hollister Noble based on Carroll’s life. Larson said she never forgot Carroll.
Larson is not sure that Carroll belongs in Era’s painting of the Emancipation Proclamation. “It is possible, but I’m not entirely convinced,” she said.
Carroll’s thoughts on emancipation were complex, Larson said. Though she freed her own family’s slaves, she also argued in favor of establishing a freedmen’s colony, and voiced concern that forcing Confederate states to surrender their slaves might cost Lincoln the support of Southern Unionists.
There is also no evidence suggesting that Carroll was present at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation — nor did Carpenter, the original painter, mention Anna Carroll in his book chronicling the six months he spent in the White House working on the portrait.
But Larson, who spent years researching Carroll’s life, has no similar doubts about her proposal to launch a Union campaign on the Tennessee River. She maintains that Carroll delivered a memo to Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott in November 1861 detailing her plan, and that Lincoln appointed Edwin Stanton as secretary of war in January 1862 to execute the strategy.
Larson’s conclusion is based largely on the testimony of Ohio Sen. Benjamin F. Wade and Thomas Scott, as well as the testimony of Judge Lemuel D. Evans, with whom Carroll traveled to St. Louis. The three men supported Carroll’s claims, as did four separate congressional committees who voted in her favor, Larson noted.
Among the most convincing evidence is a letter from Sen. Wade written in 1876, when Carroll was in the midst of a futile, decades-long appeal to Congress to acknowledge and pay her for her contribution:
If ever there was a righteous claim on earth, you have one. I have often been sorry that, knowing all this, as I did then, I had not publicly declared you as the author. …
As the expedition advanced Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Stanton, and myself frequently alluded to your extraordinary sagacity and unselfish patriotism, but all agreed that you should be recognized for your most noble services, and properly rewarded for the same.
“She was instrumental in seeing that the Tennessee campaign was mounted and came to a victorious conclusion,” Larson said. “I think she was the most important woman to the Union cause in the Civil War and one of the most important women in American history.”
“Believe me, I wanted it to be true.”
This is Janet Coryell, the history professor who wrote the entry on Carroll for the authoritative “Encyclopedia of the American Civil War.”
“I was really disappointed when I found out it was a myth,” Coryell said.
Like Larson, Coryell also spent years researching Carroll, initially with the belief that she’d uncovered one of the great, lost women of the Civil War. What she found instead was that Carroll may well have been the principal architect of her own claims to history, aided and abetted over more than a century by a steady stream of well-meaning advocates.
The problem, according to Coryell: A couple of months before Carroll said she submitted her report to the War Department, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had advanced his troops to the mouth of the Tennessee River, a clear sign that he already understood its strategic significance. Also problematic: There is no concrete evidence proving that Carroll did, in fact, deliver a memo to Assistant Secretary of War Scott, nor has any copy of Carroll’s actual plan been found. And two weeks before Carroll allegedly delivered her report, a letter from a Tennessee resident laying out the same plan was published in the New York Times.
Then there’s the fact that Carroll initially gave credit for the plan to Charles Scott, the riverboat captain she’d interviewed in St. Louis, in a 1865 letter to the National Intelligencer newspaper — an assertion that Carroll only recanted years later, “when she needed money,” Coryell said.
In Lincoln’s papers, Carroll’s name is mentioned only once in passing, Coryell said, and she is notably absent from the diaries of Lincoln’s Cabinet members and presidential secretaries. Most of the evidence suggesting that Carroll was particularly close to the president comes from her own written recollections.
And the letter from Wade, supporting Carroll’s claim?
Coryell acknowledges that Wade backed up Carroll’s assertions but notes that the most emphatic of Wade’s letters, dated 1876, was not published until 1881 — three years after Wade’s death — and no original has been found. The only reprinted copy is part of a report by a House committee on military affairs.
Larson argues that the committee members would not have reprinted the letter as part of a government report if they didn’t trust its authenticity; Coryell is unconvinced.
“What they have is that this was a letter printed in a pamphlet that Carroll wrote to support her claim,” Coryell said. “If you look at the Wade collection of letters, it doesn’t exist there. It doesn’t exist in Carroll’s papers, either. So, you have to ask yourself: What evidence do we have that this letter existed in the first place?”
Yes, Coryell is suggesting that Anna Carroll might have forged the letter. And, yes, she understands that some people will view this as just one more smear campaign against a female war hero. As a female historian who champions women in history, Coryell said, the situation frustrates her profoundly.
“I just wrote a textbook for McGraw-Hill, a history of women in America. And there are so many stories out there of women who have done wonderful things and have been completely ignored by historians and the general public,” Coryell said.
Carroll doesn’t deserve to be dismissed entirely, Coryell said.
“She was one of the earlier constitutional theorists who said, ‘This is why it’s okay for Lincoln to do what he needs to do,’ ” she said. “In that sense, as a historic figure, that’s where her importance lies. But the problem is that it’s not sexy. Whereas being a lone woman with a game-changing strategy — that’s sexy.”
When it comes to Carroll’s presence in the new Emancipation Proclamation painting and the idea that the portrait might be used to teach the public about Carroll, Coryell has harsher words.
“I am appalled,” she said. “To try to promote this nonsense through legitimate venues is just embarrassing.”
Jean Baker, the Goucher College women’s history expert, agrees that teaching false history isn’t something to be applauded, but she admires Carroll’s supporters in Dorchester for their determination to remember her.
“They are reenacting the past from their present-day, local patriotism,” Baker said. “And they do have a body of information that, to some extent, supports their position. This is a woman who became a lobbyist even before there were lobbyists, who really spoke out of conviction for what she believed in.”
While it’s “ludicrous” for her champions to add Carroll to the Emancipation Proclamation painting, Carroll was “an important political woman, which is a huge contradiction in the 19th century,” Baker said.
Carroll “was very single-minded about what it was that she wanted to do, and did it,” Baker said. “I wish they would dial it back a bit and focus on that.”
In other words: Those accomplishments should be enough.
In the most literal terms, no one really knows Anna Carroll’s face.
If you believe the etched portrait that is most commonly associated with her name, she was a rather modest-looking woman, somewhat pudgy-chinned, with formal ringlets framing an inscrutable stare.
Former Ohio representative Albert Gallatin Riddle described Carroll in his 1895 memoir as “a short, stout, middle-aged maiden lady” who listened to congressional debates through an ear trumpet.
Then there’s the cover of the historical novel“Woman with a Sword,” where Carroll is a sultry blonde with high cheekbones and crimson lips, her arms crossed in a provocatively defiant pose.
Descriptions of her personality have been more consistent. Carroll was bold, intelligent and deeply passionate about politics. According to a quote from Winifred Gertrude Helmes’ 1977 volume “Notable Maryland Women,” Carroll could “scheme, connive, and maneuver as well as any man.”
Frank Bittner describes her with admiration: “She was not reverent to men, and she could actually match wits with the most intelligent of them.”
Laura Era painted and re-painted Carroll’s face more than a dozen times. She shifted the line of her mouth, adjusted the style of her auburn-brown hair, lightened the color of her eyes. She made Carroll pretty but not too pretty.
“I made her looking at you, the observer,” Era said. “I thought that was a poignant thing to do. This is her time. The look on her face, I wanted it to be a look of confidence. I wanted it to say: It’s about freakin’ time.”
The Friends of Anna Ella Carroll are preparing for the next annual Anna Ella Carroll Recognition Day, which will be celebrated Aug. 27 in Dorchester County. The event will begin with a wreath-laying at Anna Carroll’s grave, in the historic cemetery of Old Trinity Church. The epitaph reads: “A woman rarely gifted; an able and accomplished writer.”
There will be an afternoon tea and a screening of “The Lost River,” a film based on Carroll’s life that was premiered in November in Cambridge. Once again, the Anna Ella Carroll of the “Maryland’s Version of the ‘First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation’” portrait will be presented before a gathering of admirers.
Laura Era and the Friends of Anna Ella Carroll would love to see the painting travel to the National Portrait Gallery or to the Maryland statehouse in Annapolis. Maybe even to the Capitol. But there have been no takers, not yet.
So Anna Ella Carroll still sits in the studio at an Easton gallery, propped on a table surrounded by art supplies and other commissioned portraits, her firm gaze fixed on the opposite wall.
She’s been waiting 150 years for wider recognition, Era said. She’ll just have to wait a little longer.
Caitlin Gibson is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.