Civil War Profiles: The general’s wife: Mary Currey Torbert


Alfred T.A. Torbert resigned from the United States army in 1866 after serving with distinction, including the four years of the Civil War. He held the rank of brevet major general of volunteers until the end of the war in 1865. The citizen of Delaware, born and bred in Georgetown, soon married Mary Elizabeth Currey of Milford.

Although raised by his mother as a Southern gentleman, Torbert had chosen to fight for the North during the Civil War. Mary had an uncle, Truston Polk, and a distant cousin, Leonidas K. Polk, who served in the Confederate army. Her loyalties, however, apparently remained with the North.

A.D. Slade’s biography of Alfred Torbert, “Southern Gentleman in Union Blue,” describes Mary’s background as the daughter of Daniel Currey, a prominent Sussex County businessman. He owned a variety of enterprises, including a grist mill, commercial real estate and a number of large farms. Daniel’s wife, Mary Polk, was related to President James K. Polk, and her brother had served both as Missouri’s governor and senator.

Their daughter Mary was well-educated, having attended an Episcopal seminary, St. Mary’s Hall in Burlington, N.J., with a demanding curriculum, including science and mathematics. Mary became fluent in French, and gave an oration in that language at graduation.

Alfred and Mary’s marriage took place at Christ Church in Milford with Alfred’s military friends, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, Maj. Gen. James Harrison Wilson and Maj. Gen. Alexander Stuart Webb in attendance. Alfred was 32 and Mary 26.

With both of her parents having since passed away, the newly-married couple moved into the stately family home on the corner of North Walnut and N.W. Second Streets in Milford. Torbert had married well given Mary’s inheritance, and he pursued the life of a gentleman farmer.

The couple settled into the Milford community, with Alfred serving a term as city council president. Her alma mater also elected him to the board of trustees of St. Mary’s Hall, which pleased both he and Mary.

When Ulysses S. Grant was elected president of the United States in 1869, Torbert solicited a diplomatic appointment from his former friend and fellow general in the Union army. He brought Grant’s attention to the fact that no one from the state of Delaware had received a Foreign Service assignment from his administration.

Grant approved an appointment of Torbert to El Salvador, and then later to Havana, Cuba. It is not clear whether Mary accompanied him to El Salvador; however, she did serve as his hostess in Havana.

In 1873, the Torberts would be off to Paris after his appointment as consul general, an assignment that Mary was particularly happy about. It was the fashion capital of the world at the time, and she was a fashionable lady who spoke fluent French. They took up residence at No. 3, Rue Scribe.

Mary and Alfred entertained lavishly in Paris, undoubtedly employing funds from her inheritance. Another Civil War colleague, Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, who at the time was Consul to Spain, was quoted as saying, “never in the history of the Consul of Paris has its hospitality been better illustrated than during the time the General and Mrs. Torbert fulfilled it.”

After the new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, replace Torbert with a new consul in Paris, Mary and Alfred sailed from Le Havre for New York on the steamer, Labrador, and returned to Milford. The local ladies were reportedly “amazed by Mary’s elegant furniture, her fashionable Fromentin paintings, and her chic Worth gowns.”

Torbert was soon off on another adventure in August 1880, this time to Mexico at the behest of Grant, who was now a businessman, to negotiate railroad construction rights. Unfortunately, the steamship City of Vera Cruz encountered a hurricane off the coast of Florida.

Although he tried to calm and help the passengers, Torbert was swept from a raft and drowned. His body washed up on the coast near Cape Canaveral. For his heroics aboard the sinking ship, he became a national hero. He was brought to New York where he lay in state for people and dignitaries to view the body.

Eventually Alfred was brought back to Milford for burial, and Mary could not be consoled during the funeral. She twice threw herself on his grave.

Mary Currey Torbert chose to remain a widow, and lived until 1895. She is remembered with pride by the citizens of Milford. She lies beside her beloved husband Alfred beneath an impressive granite obelisk at the Methodist Cemetery on North Street in Milford.

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 www.tomryan-civilwar.com.