Civil War Profiles: Eastern Shore spy devises a military plan


Anna Ella Carroll is a member of the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. She earned this recognition because of her political savvy, service to President Abraham Lincoln and work as a spy during the Civil War.

Carroll was born in Kingston Hall, Somerset County, Md., in 1815. Her father, Thomas King Carroll, a slave owner, was governor of the state from 1831 to 1832. She was involved in his political and legal activities from an early age and became an active member of the Whig Party — particularly engaging in party development and policy-making roles. She was credited with ability to “scheme, connive and maneuver as well as any man.” (http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/carroll.html)

By the time of Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, Anna Carroll had become an anti-slavery spokesperson and decided to free her own slaves. She opposed secession and worked diligently to keep Maryland in the Union. Her skills as a propagandist toward this end caught the eye of the Lincoln administration.

Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott hired Carroll to write and publish a pamphlet that criticized the secession of the Southern states, titled “The Reply.” In her sketch of Carroll’s life in “Blue and Gray Roses of Intrigue,” Rebecca D. Larson points out that Lincoln personally assigned her the task of writing other pamphlets that argued secession was unconstitutional and that formation of the Confederacy was an act of rebellion.

The president’s faith in Carroll’s abilities soon led to a commission for her to undertake an espionage expedition to St. Louis, Mo. She and a companion, Lemuel Evans, received orders to scout Confederate fortifications and to deliver information to Union officials located in that area.

Carroll completed her scouting and courier mission successfully. Being by nature an innovative person, however, she went beyond her original directive by persuading a ship captain to allow her to view his charts and maps of the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers. From this, she figured out that, since the Tennessee flowed northward, the Union army could send its troops up the river to capture Confederate forts defending the waterways.

Although the military brass back in Washington downplayed Carroll’s proposal, undoubtedly because it emanated from a woman, the plan would later be adopted and implemented successfully — with no credit going to Carroll. Nonetheless, her spying mission to Missouri was considered a success, and she continued working for the Lincoln administration throughout the war. Afterwards, she was involved in reconstruction of the Southern states.

Lincoln recognized what Carroll had indeed accomplished with her proposal for the military movement up the Tennessee River and promised her a reward of $60,000. His assassination soon after the war’s conclusion, however, ended her chances of collecting on that promise.

Those in the Lincoln administration who were aware of Carroll’s accomplishments and influence often referred to her as an unofficial member of the president’s cabinet. Reinforcing this is the belief that, in Francis B. Carpenter’s painting of Lincoln and his cabinet, titled “The Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation,” he included an empty chair with maps and notes on the table in front of it as an allusion to Carroll’s unrecognized role.

Other attempts to compensate Carroll for her wartime accomplishments ended without success, until Congress finally passed a bill in the 1880’s to award a small lifetime pension for “important military service rendered by her during the late Civil War.” Even for this measly sum, she had to petition Congress and apparently benefited from the Women’s Suffrage Movement that loudly protested on her behalf.

Anna Ella Carroll died in 1893 at age 77 and is buried at Old Trinity Church Cemetery in Church Creek, Dorchester County. Her epitaph reads “A woman rarely gifted; an able and accomplished writer.”

She was a daughter of the Eastern Shore who used her considerable talents, including as a spy, to help the nation survive the bitter struggle during the Civil War.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.