“The Woman Who Saved the Union”
February 3, 1862. Suffragists in the 1890s lauded her as “the woman who saved the Union,” and yet today the name Anna Ella Carroll is rarely mentioned despite her key connection to the secret plan for the Union’s strategically important invasion of the Tennessee River Valley in the winter of 1862. The resulting capture of Fort Henry on February 6 and nearby Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River the following week would represent the most important Union victories of the war to date, help launch the military career of Ulysses S. Grant, and kick off a persistent historical controversy over the invasion’s strategy.
On November 30, 1861, Maryland-born pamphleteer and politico Anna Ella Carroll (1815-1894), a staunch Unionist and theorist of Lincoln’s war powers, penned a strategy memo regarding the Union’s proposal to split the Confederacy by moving south, down the Mississippi River. Writing to her contact in the War Department, Carroll transmitted crucial intelligence she had gleaned on a visit to St. Louis from a riverboat pilot. The Mississippi River was impenetrable, she argued; “the true key to the war in the Southwest” was the Tennessee River. More navigable and less defensible than the Mississippi, the Tennessee River would also, if captured, allow Union forces to “cut the enemies lines in two.” (Matilda Joslyn Gage, Who Planned the Tennessee Campaign of 1862?, p. 6-7) Carroll’s memo gained immediate attention from the Lincoln administration and impressed Edwin M. Stanton, whom shortly thereafter, Lincoln appointed Secretary of War.
By late January, with Stanton heading the War Department, the President had apparently pressured Major General Henry W. Halleck, who was in St. Louis, to heed Carroll’s advice, despite the general’s previous reluctance to act due to what he considered insufficient military strength. With orders from Halleck, Grant, who had envisioned a similar approach as Carroll, coordinated a combined naval-army invasion, opening up Tennessee to Union ships and raiding parties. Concluding that Fort Henry was indefensible, Confederate Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman surrendered to naval officer Andrew Hull Foote and his fleet of ironclads even before Grant’s infantry was at hand. Tilghman retreated to Fort Donelson, where Confederate troops withstood a combined naval-army assault before abandoning the fort and withdrawing on February 16.
Anna Ella Carroll’s role in the invasion was quickly eclipsed by Northern euphoria over the twin victories, and later, by Grant’s military prowess and success, but she remained a military strategist and active partisan. Well-known in Maryland as a publicist and political writer for the Whig and Know-Nothing parties, Carroll had not been a champion of either black or women’s rights before the war. But in 1860 she freed her inherited slaves and voiced fierce opposition to secessionists. It was her outspoken defense of Lincoln’s exercise of war powers that attracted his attention and support within the War Department. However, she opposed the Emancipation Proclamation on legal and strategic grounds, and favored the colonization of former slaves in British Honduras (Belize).
Years later, when Carroll sought recognition and compensation from Congress for her wartime work and writings, she portrayed herself as the lone strategist of the invasion plan, reaping accolades from post-war suffragists. Political and military leaders acknowledged her timely advice, but her monetary claims went largely unfulfilled.
Controversy over her role among military and women’s historians persists to this day, in part because she did not sign her key strategy memo. Carroll clearly served the nation through her influential writings, her intelligence gathering, and her advice, notably without regard for the gender proscriptions that inhibited most women of her time.
– Submitted by Marilyn S. Blackwell
Sarah Ellen Blackwell, A Military Genius Life of Anna Ella Carroll of Maryland (1891); [EBook #21909, Release date, June 23, 2007
C. Kay Larson, Great Necessities: the Life, Times and Writings of Anna Ella Carroll, 1815-1894 (2004)