Anna Ella Carroll

Anna Ella Carroll (1815-1893) was a political writer and aid to Presidents Lincoln and Grant during the civil war and reconstruction. Her patriotism and diligence helped secure a victory for the north.

On August 29, 1815, Anna Ella Carroll was born in a lavish, twenty-two-room manor called Kingston Hall, which rested on a large Maryland plantation stocked with cotton, wheat, and tobacco. Anna was a bright, blue-eyed baby with dark red curls and a fair complexion. She had in girlhood a fierce temper and an independent spirit, balanced with an equally strong tendency to shower her family with love. Her sense of independence would remain with her, carrying her through the adventures that lay ahead.

For generations, the Carrolls had been an influential family in America. Thomas King Carroll and Juliana Stevenson Carroll, Anna's parents, were extremely wealthy and well-respected people of the South. As a teenager, Juliana had been an accomplished organist for the Episcopal church. Thomas Carroll was a powerful lawyer whose partners included Francis Scott Key, the composer of America's national anthem. Anna Carroll's paternal grandfather, Charles Carroll, signed the Declaration of Independence. Her maternal grandfather, Doctor Henry Stevenson, served as an officer and a surgeon in the British navy during the Revolutionary War. He operated on Tory soldiers and American prisoners of war alike, earning the respect of men on both sides.

Life at Kingston Hall

Anna Carroll was the first of eight children, only two of whom were boys. She soon became Anne to her family and friends, rarely using her real birthname, even in adulthood. Anne led a privileged life as a child, with a slave caretaker, Milly, to care for her every need from the time she was born. She also had a personal servant, a beautiful slave girl her own age named Leah, who tended her for many years. Anne and Leah became friends, yet they always observed the boundaries of their positions as mistress and servant.

From a very early age, Anne was the favorite of her well-educated father. In his eldest daughter, Thomas Carroll recognized the thirst for learning he had had as a boy. Proving that he did not subscribe to the popular notion that girls should not be educated, Thomas spent many hours reading Shakespeare's plays to his daughter. His readings continued as she grew older so that by the age of eleven she was reading with her father essays by the Scottish historian Alison. By the age of twelve, Anne had learned to assist her father in his work by finding legal passages from his law books for use in his debates with Southern legislators.

Father's secretary

In the spring of 1829, when Anne was thirteen, democrat Andrew Jackson was elected president, and Thomas ran for and was elected governor of Maryland by a Jackson-supporting legislature. His new position took him to Annapolis, Maryland, away from his family. Back at Kingston Hall, Anne took on new responsibilities as her father's secretary, screening visitors and answering letters on his behalf. She even started a book of newspaper clippings for him, selecting articles dealing with the ever-increasing tension between the Southern planters and the people in the North, whose views and life styles were very different. In the spring of 1831, Anne and her family traveled to Annapolis to visit Thomas. She was excited by this opportunity to observe firsthand the workings of the government.

Several years later, in 1837, after Thomas had returned home from his governorship, the nation fell into a terrible depression, and the Carrolls lost much of their fortune. The plantation and Kingston Hall were becoming too much to afford financially. Though they had at least 200 slaves to account for, they were not willing to sell them to slave traders who would separate the families that had been kept together. Luckily, a distant relative returning to the States from South America had enough money to buy the house and well over half the slaves. The remaining slaves went with the family to a smaller plantation, up the Choptank River, called Warwick Fort Manor.

Off to Baltimore

After her family was settled in their new environment, Carroll decided it was time to leave home and try to make her own way in the world. Now twenty-two, she announced to her parents that she and Leah would head for Baltimore, Maryland, the second-largest city in the United States at the time. She hoped they could not only support themselves but have enough money left over to send back home.

Leah, a skilled seamstress, found employment almost immediately working for wealthy families in Baltimore. As she worked in their homes, she would listen carefully to their gossip about new businesses and bring the word directly to Anne. Anne learned to act quickly on Leah's leads, tracking down new business owners and using her writing ability to compose letters for mailing lists, generate publicity, and create advertising. Her public relations work soon earned her enough to send home a few extra dollars to her brothers and sisters. She worked steadily for seven years in Baltimore, making a name for herself as a skilled publicity writer.

From railroads to politics

At the age of twenty-nine, Carroll began writing press releases for railroad companies in Baltimore. Her work for the railroads, as well as her family's strong political background, allowed her to easily slip into the world of politics that was so familiar to her. She became affiliated with the Whig party, meeting such people as the army chief of staff Winfield Scott. With Carroll, Scott discussed his war strategies in the invasion of Mexico, which resulted in the acquisition of California, New Mexico, and parts of Utah, Arizona, and Colorado.

Because of her acquaintance with Scott, Carroll began sitting in regularly at the visitors' gallery in the Senate, where she met many powerful men and future presidents, such as James Buchanan, whom she briefly dated. She also became close friends with Millard Fillmore in the early 1850s, shortly after he was sworn in as president following Zachary Taylor's death.

Frees slaves

In the midst of her budding political career, Carroll had many discussions with Northern abolitionists about slavery. To satisfy her personal belief that slavery was wrong, Carroll freed all twenty of her slaves, whom she had inherited from her father. This was a dangerous move in 1853, a year in which any freed slaves were considered fair game for recapture. So Carroll used her political influence to persuade abolitionists to accompany her former slaves to safety in Canada.


In 1854 Fillmore began seeking Carroll out as a confidante and, because his first wife had died, as a possible second wife. But Carroll had a personal agenda to fulfill. She wanted to make an impact in the political world but not as the president's wife. Although she refused Fillmore's proposal, she continued to help him in his campaign for the presidency in 1856, which he lost to James Buchanan.

Also in 1856, Carroll met railroad mogul Cornelius Garrison. Her knowledge of railroads, which she had gained from writing press releases for various railroad companies, impressed Garrison so much that he hired her as an assistant planner for new railroad lines. Railroads, in fact, prompted Carroll to write her first major political essay, "The Star of the West," in which she discussed the importance of building railroad lines in order to keep the Union together and improve the economy.

"The Star of the West" was quite successful among Union supporters when it was published in 1856. Carroll's writing caught the interest of Republicans, many of them former Whigs, who shared her earnest desire for the Union to stay together. She met with Republican senators, wrote other pro-Union essays, and, in 1860, optimistically watched Abraham Lincoln sworn in as president of a nation divided by the argument over secession and slavery.

Politics over marriage

When she was forty-five, Carroll became romantically involved with Lemuel Evans, a member of the secret service assigned to protect President Lincoln. Evans offered Carroll her second marriage proposal, which she refused. She was concentrating on her political writing at the time. Carroll began working on a new document, Reply to Breckenridge, in which she spoke out against the anti-Lincoln Southerners, headed by such people as Senator Samuel Breckenridge, who wanted the nation divided. She even touched on strategies for keeping the nation united. In one part of the Reply, Carroll stated, "There can be no equivocal position in this crisis; and he who is not with the Government is against it, and an enemy to his country" (Wise, p. 110). Her powerful writing caught Lincoln's eye and, in the summer of 1861, he not only demanded government funding to publish 50,000 copies of the manuscript and distribute them throughout the states, but he also sent Carroll a telegram inviting her to the White House for a confidential interview.

A woman advises the president

Upon meeting Lincoln, Carroll was impressed by his loyalty to the Union, a sentiment which she fully shared. Although they had met in social situations before, this was the first time they were able to talk in depth about the state of the nation. Lincoln spoke frankly with Carroll about his need for her expert strategical mind and extensive political background. He had a war on his hands and he needed all the help Carroll could offer. Lincoln asked her to become an unofficial member of the Cabinet, acting as a top adviser to him, with access to the White House at any time of the day or night. She enthusiastically accepted the offer.

Carroll was immediately assigned to work directly with the Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Scott. Her first assignment was to travel by train to St. Louis, Missouri, to observe and report the general sentiment of the soldiers stationed along the Mississippi River. As a woman, she probably would not be suspected of being an informer to the president, for women in government were unheard of at the time. The trip proved to be a strenuous one for Carroll, with hours of traveling in hot, overcrowded railroad cars. The farther along the river she traveled, the more she discovered that hopes in the Union army were not high. Many of the soldiers confessed to her that the current plan of attack, to move down the Mississippi and take the Southern army head-on was simply too obvious. The Confederate army was ready and waiting at the mouth of the river. In the event that a Northern gunboat became disabled, it would float, with the southerly flowing current, right into the hands of the enemy. The soldiers feared that too many lives would be lost with this unimaginative battle plan.

By the time she arrived at her hotel in St. Louis, Carroll felt an impending sense of doom for the Union army. She knew that too much blood had been shed already and sought to hasten the end of the war. Under the light of an oil lamp, she studied the crude maps of the land for a better route, one that would take the South by surprise. After many hours, a brilliant alternative dawned on Carroll: the Tennessee River!

The Tennessee River Plan

Carroll worked all night on her discovery, devising a plan that would cut the Southern forces in half by intercepting the very railroad lines she had helped design years earlier. The South was now using these lines to transport supplies to their troops. If troops could not get food and ammunition from the Charleston and Memphis railroads, they would be forced to surrender immediately. The Union army could use the Tennessee River to surprise the Confederate army from an angle they were not expecting. Moreover, the Tennessee River flowed north, so any troubled gunboats would float with the current back to the safety of the Northern army bases.

Carroll had masterminded an amazing plan, but she still had some crucial questions to answer: Was the Tennessee deep enough to hold gunboats? What were the water current speeds? Where were the points of landing? She wasted no time in seeking out a river pilot loyal to the North. Charles Scott knew the Tennessee River well and he gave Carroll the information she needed to ensure that her plan would succeed. He even pointed out that the Tombigbee River, which flowed directly to Mobile, Alabama, was a short distance from the middle of the Tennessee. With this information, Carroll added to her outline the taking of Mobile via the Tombigbee. Wasting no more time, she drew up a comprehensive version of the Tennessee River Plan, and sent one copy to the secretary of war and one to the president in mid-November 1861.

"Relief, joy and hope"

According to Secretary of War Scott, when Lincoln received Carroll's proposed battle plan, he expressed "overwhelming relief, joy and hope" (Greenbie and Greenbie, p. 295). The president ordered the plan to go into effect as a military strategy in February 1862, keeping very silent about whose idea it was. Many gunboats under the command of Ulysses S. Grant were ordered up the Tennessee River and, within two weeks, two Confederate forts, 13,000 prisoners, and sixty-five guns were captured. The enormous success of the mission made people across the nation want to know who could have come up with such a successful scheme. There were rumors of a woman working in Washington, but Carroll's name was not leaked to the public. Meanwhile, Kentucky had been defeated, Tennessee was struggling, and, in accordance with Carroll's plans, Northern troops were heading for Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The war was far from over, however. As it raged on, Carroll continued to work side by side with Lincoln and Grant until the war's end in 1865. During the final months of war, Lincoln began planning the reconstruction of the country, with Carroll at his side offering advice.

On March 1, 1865, while Carroll and the president looked for ways to pick up the pieces of the shattered country, she received an anonymous letter from Fort Delaware. It read: "Madame: It is rumored in the Southern army that you furnished the plan or information that caused the United States Government to abandon the expedition designed to descend the Mississippi River, and transferred the armies up the Tennessee River in 1862. We wish to know if this is true. If it is, you are the veriest of traitors to your section, and we warn you that you stand upon a volcano. Confederates" (Greenbie and Greenbie, p. 415).

The warning worried Carroll, but everyone, it seemed, was receiving threats from bitter Confederates. She was never harmed in any way, unlike Lincoln. His plans for reconstruction were cut short with his assassination in April 1865. Exhausted from work and grief, Carroll was now fifty. Yet she by no means intended to quit the business of government simply because of the war's ending.

Carroll advises Grant

Grant, with whom Carroll had communicated by telegraph from Washington many times when he was in the battlefield, was being backed by an overwhelming number of people for the office of the presidency. Grant asked Carroll to do what she did best—advise him from his post as general of the Union army to his job as president of the United States.

The quest for recognition

Carroll needed Grant as much as he needed her. Feeling that the time had come for her to be officially recognized for her invaluable duties to the United States government, Carroll sought Grant's support. Also, she still had unpaid bills to printing companies, who printed copies of her speeches and pamphlets, equaling over $6,000. The Carroll family fortune had been used up, and Carroll had lived very modestly throughout her period of service to several presidents.

Carroll prepared a statement for Congress, "A Memorial," and published it on June 8, 1872. In it were quotes from some of the most influential men in government, who argued that she be given the recognition and monetary compensation she was rightly due. She quoted such statements as this one from Benjamin Wade, president of the Senate in 1869: "I know that some of the most successful expeditions of the war were suggested by you, among which I might instance the expedition up the Tennessee River…. I also know in what high estimation your services were held by President Lincoln … I [hope] that the Government may yet confer on you some token of acknowledgement for all these services and sacrifices" (Greenbie and Greenbie, pp. 436-37).

Secret remains a secret

Carroll also had the backing of Thomas Scott and Lemuel Evans, who was now chief justice of the supreme court of Texas. To their testimonies, she added her own: "I cannot … detract from our brave and heroic commanders to whom the country owes so much; and … I believe that … they would be gratified to see me or anyone properly rewarded" (Wise, pp. 189-90). This may have been true, but unfortunately there were too many men in the government who wanted this secret of a woman military adviser to remain just that. They would not recognize her role in any official sense.

Although Grant knew the truth about Carroll's responsibility in the war, other top advisers chose to bury the truth and promote Grant as the real war hero. Grant did not argue with this decision, causing Carroll to lose her faith in her former friend. Her "Memorial" and other claims for recognition disappeared from government files several times over, drawing the process out for years. In fact, Carroll did not receive any promise of payment from the government until James A. Garfield was elected in 1880 and Congress considered a bill demanding that Carroll receive back-pay as a major general in quarterly installments from November 1861 to the end of her life. However, this bill disappeared at the same time that Garfield was shot, and it was replaced with another in 1881, offering fifty dollars a month from the passage of this new bill until the end of Carroll's lifetime. This offer was financially incomparable to the salary of a major general, and an insult to such an important political figure. Nevertheless, Carroll had no choice but to accept it, for during her nine-year fight for recognition, she had grown ill and needed the money to take care of herself.

Final days

Carroll and her younger sister, Mary, lived together in Washington, D.C., on Carroll's meager government pension. Under Mary's devoted care, Carroll continued her writing well after she was bedridden. In a room piled high with books and letters, next to a vase of fresh flowers Mary brought almost daily, Carroll enjoyed the last years of her life by a window that gave her a view of the West. She accepted visitors until her last days, including her long-time love, Lemuel Evans.

On the morning of February 19, 1893, Anna Ella Carroll died, surrounded by family and friends. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried in the churchyard of the Old Trinity Church in Cambridge, Maryland, next to her father, mother, and other members of the Carroll family. She remains revered by those who recognize her selfless devotion and vital contributions to her country.

Further Reading on Anna Ella Carroll

Greenbie, Sydney, and Marjorie Barstow Greenbie, Anna Ella Carroll and Abraham Lincoln, Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 1952.

Wise, Winifred E., Lincoln's Secret Weapon, New York: Chilton Company, 1961.

Young, Agatha, The Women and the Crisis: Women of the North in the Civil War, New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959.