Anna Ella Carroll, strategic mastermind or relentless self-promoter?

April 24, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Was Anna Ella Carroll the “military genius,” the “strategic mastermind,” and the “forgotten heroine” of the American Civil War that many of her adherents claim? What she the shadow member of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, unacknowledged because of her gender?

Or was she simply a relentless self-promoter?

Much time and effort among historians, both professional and amateur, have been spent during the last 150 years attempting to sort out the real story of what, by any measure, this remarkable woman did or did not do in the fight to preserve the Union?

Anna Ella Carroll was born in 1815, the daughter of hey rich Maryland tobacco planter whose family had been prominent in the state’s public life for generations. Her father Thomas Carroll was involved in politics and eventually became governor of the state in 1830. He often took his daughter with him on political trips, and her interest in politics grew as she developed into an adult.

Carroll involved herself fully in the raucous and confusing national and local politics of the 1850s. She supported Millard Fillmore for president in 1856 and wrote numerous articles and pamphlets on his behalf. Maryland is the one state the Fillmore carried during that election, and many people then and later attributed that victory to her influence. At some point during this period, she became an ardent abolitionist, but she did not free her own slaves until after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

As the nation divided itself between secessionists and unionists, Carroll was a vocal proponent of preserving the Union and again used the power of her written word to persuade Marylanders that secession was a bad idea.

She also wrote articles and pamphlets that clearly set forth Constitutional justifications for many of President Lincoln’s actions in preserving the Union. Her writing established her as a Constitutional thinker of the first order, and many of those who have examined her life since then have concluded that this was her greatest contribution to the war effort.

Lincoln undoubtedly was grateful for all of the help that came from any quarter, but Anna Ella Carroll wanted a larger role than simply that of a Constitutionalist thinker. She inserted herself into the Lincoln Administration and was assigned to accompany an army officer to assess prospects for the war in the West. Here, her role in the administration becomes murkier. She worked out a plan for attacking the South beginning at the mouth of the Tennessee River. She later claimed sole credit for the plan, but such a plan has already appeared in the New York Times two weeks before she had submitted it to the Army.

Carroll also claimed an advisors’ role for Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and she was an advocate of colonizing freed slaves to locations in and around the Caribbean.

After the war, Carroll made bold, public claims about her role as an advisor to the Lincoln Administration, and she said Lincoln had promised to acknowledge that role once the war had ended. Lincoln, of course, was assassinated, and no such acknowledgment was ever made. Carroll also claimed the government owed her $5,000 for her expenses and as payment for the strategic plan did she had submitted.

Carroll spent much of the next 30 years pressing that claim. Her case was made before various courts, administrative tribunals, and congressional committees. She always received sympathetic hearings and often positive conclusions, but Congress never authorized the money for her.

Her cause was taken up by the burgeoning suffrage movement as yet another case where a woman’s contribution to public life had been ignored or dismissed because of her gender. Sarah Ellen Blackwell, one of the leaders of the movement, even wrote a biography of her:  A Military Genius: Life of Anna Ella Carroll of Maryland,

Carroll died in 1894, officially unacknowledged and uncompensated. The stories and myths about her actions during the Civil War grew throughout the next 125 years. Today the state of Maryland has made her a member of its Hall of Fame. She was a forceful and intelligent writer who believed deeply in the sanctity of the Union. Her interest in military matters went beyond simple map-reading.

The lack of documentation and the general dismissal of women from these areas, however, has put her real role in the war in doubt, and those doubts continue today.

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