Anna Ella, the forgotten Carroll

A member of the distinguished Maryland family and the daughter of a governor formulated two pivotal Civil War battle plans

November 13, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Anna Ella Carroll, a Somerset County anti-slavery and political activist who was a military strategist and a "secret member" of President Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet, has remained a shadowy and almost enigmatic figure in Maryland's history.

But hopefully, that's all about to change.

The Friends of Anna Ella Carroll, in partnership with the Maryland Women's Heritage Center, are hosting the world premiere of "The Lost River," a film telling the story of Carroll's remarkable life, at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay in Cambridge on Saturday.

Carroll, a descendant of the famous Colonial Carrolls — including Charles Carroll of Carrollton — was born in 1815, the eldest of eight children, into the tidewater barony culture of Southern Maryland.

She was raised at Kingston Hall, her father's plantation, and as a young woman studied law, philosophy and history.

She was a companion, secretary and adviser to her father, Thomas King Carroll, a slaveholding aristocrat who became an outstanding lawyer-statesman and was elected governor of Maryland in 1829.

After serving as governor for one term, Carroll retired to care for an ill wife, but relied on his daughter to maintain his political visibility in Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington.

With her father's fortune largely wiped away by the depression of 1837, which included the loss of his land and slaves, she moved to Baltimore and went to work as a publicist for several businessmen. She later worked in Washington as a paid lobbyist promoting the building of railroads.

Even though she was a woman and could not vote, Carroll helped organize the American Party, a new political organization better known as the "Know-Nothings."

Carroll, a prodigious writer and publisher of political pamphlets, wrote the expansive 500-page manifesto for the "Know-Nothings," "The Great American Battle," and by the time the Civil War began, she was a well-known figure in Washington political and government circles.

Carroll was an outspoken advocate for the election of Lincoln in 1860, and used her own and borrowed money to print and distribute thousands of pamphlets she had written.

Perhaps one of her most famous pamphlets was "Reply to Breckinridge," about the role John C. Breckinridge, who had served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate from Kentucky, played in a secessionist plot to capture Washington.

When Lincoln won the election, she celebrated by freeing her slaves.

She was also keenly aware that sympathies from the slave-owning counties on both shores of the Lower Bay lay with the South, while much of the Western Shore sided with the Union.

Her anti-slavery views have been credited with helping arouse Lincoln's interest in the plight of the nation's African-Americans held in slavery.

With the coming of the Civil War and inevitable secession of the Southern states, Carroll became a paid consultant to the War Department, but her influence was still felt in Maryland.

"Her influence over Maryland's wartime Governor Thomas Hicks and her knowledge of the intrigues of the State Legislature are credited with playing an important part in preventing Maryland's secession from the Union," said The Sun in a 1948 article.

In 1861, Carroll embarked on a journey that should have brought her lasting fame and glory.

On Lincoln's orders, she slipped behind enemy lines on a secret mission to study the Confederacy's defenses along the Mississippi River, which brought her in contact with Charles Scott, an experienced steamboat captain.

Her theory, based on discussions with Scott, supported a strategy of splitting the Confederacy by seizing control of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, giving the Union army a direct water route to the interior of the South while bringing Nashville, Memphis and upper Alabama under Union jurisdiction.

Carroll's Tennessee River Plan, presented to the War Department, challenged the prevailing view of launching a campaign along the well-fortified Mississippi River.

When Carroll returned to Washington and presented her plan to Col. Thomas A. Scott, assistant secretary of war, his "countenance brightened," reported The Sun at her death in 1894.

"Miss Carroll, I believe you have solved the question," Scott said.

He then went to the White House and showed the strategy to Lincoln.

"When the president had read it, Mr. Scott said, he had 'never witnessed such delight as he evinced,'" reported the newspaper.

The plan was adopted by Lincoln, and the Union army successfully captured Forts Henry and Donelson in January 1862. Later, it also carried out Carroll's plan for the capture of Vicksburg.

Therein were the seeds of controversy that would frustrate Carroll for the remainder of her life. Who was responsible for the formation of the plan? Carroll? Scott?

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