“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?”