She charmed every man she ever met. On the fifth of January 1861 Caroline Slemmer sat down in her home, an army barracks in Florida, to write a letter to her married older sister Ellen. It was a breathless account of all the Christmas and New Year parties she had been to and the countless times she had been asked to dance, how she had conquered the heart of every officer there and triumphed over women who were prettier and better dressed than she was. Caroline was a vivacious, witty twenty-year-old with auburn hair who rather liked the idea that she resembled Thackeray’s scheming Becky Sharp, although, as she said, Becky Sharp would do anything for money, she, nothing. She enjoyed the feeling of power that being the centre of male attention gave her, andboasted to her sister that one infatuated officer had called her a charming little sinner.
What Caroline’s husband made of all this can only be imagined. He was a thirty-year-old army officer called Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer. A photograph of him from the time shows a slim, bearded man in uniform, arms folded self-consciously, his eyes wary behind rimless spectacles. Caroline was only sixteen when she married him, perhaps because army life seemed to promise the excitement and adventure she craved. Their son Bertie was born a year later and she adored him, but her marriage did not bring her much else in the way of happiness. In her long letters to her sister she hardly refers to her husband; it seems that there was nothing much to say about him.
The reality of being an army wife meant moving from barracks to barracks, living far away from her mother and sisters and with no time to build friendships. To pass the time she read, rode her horse and took German lessons, but the skill she worked hardest on was flirting. In the spring of 1860 she and Adam were sent to the military base of Fort Barrancas in the town of Pensacola in western Florida. The barracks overlooked the sparkling blue Gulf of Mexico which had white sandy beaches and year-round balmy temperatures. The nearby naval yard also meant that Caroline could practise deploying her charms on an even greater number of impressionable men. She discovered that naval officers were particularly grateful for attractive female company after months at sea, and every day several of them called to walk with her.
In her gossip-filled letters to her sister during this time Caroline gives no indication that she was aware that the country was on the verge of civil war. Trouble had been brewing between North and South since Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in November 1860 on a promise to abolish slavery. The Southern states wanted to break away from the Union and form their own separate Confederacy, and as President-elect Lincoln was working hard to find a peaceful means of keeping the United States together. All of his efforts were failing, and in December the state of South Carolina declared secession.
In Florida, the next state to secede from the Union, the situation had reached crisis point by the start of 1861. Armed Southern troops prepared to take control of all official United States property, including post offices, courts and the strategically important naval base and federal forts in Pensacola harbour. Fort Barrancas had been built to protect the United States from attacks from the sea. Now it faced an unprecedented threat from the land as the Confederates prepared to seize control, just at the time the commander and second in command of Fort Barrancas had gone on leave, leaving Caroline’s husband in sole charge of this large military outpost. With a company of only fifty men, Adam Slemmer knew that he stood no chance of defending the fort successfully against thousands of Confederate soldiers.
On the fifth of January, he convened an emergency meeting of all the local military and naval officers in their house. Caroline stopped writing her letter and went to hear the men trying to decide on the best course of action. Should they surrender the forts and naval yard, and sail North? Or stay and fight a hopeless battle? The arguments for and against went on for hours. Eventually Caroline, who had been sitting quietly listening to the discussion, could stand it no more. ‘Well, if you men will not defend your country’s flag, I will!’ she said, jumping to her feet.
Caroline’s patriotic enthusiasm settled the matter for the men. Adam decided to move the entire company to smaller fortification which they would defend until reinforcements were sent from the North. This was Fort Pickens, a disused fort on a windswept strip of land just off the Florida coast called Santa Rosa Island. Before leaving Fort Barrancas, they spiked the guns and destroyed over twenty thousand pounds of gunpowder. Then, leaving wives and family behind, Adam led a party of fifty soldiers and thirty sailors to Santa Rosa Island in a convoy of small boats loaded down with ammunition, provisions and an old mule and cart. They would spend the next four bleak months there. On the tenth of January Florida seceded from the Union, and on the twelfth the Confederates took charge of Fort Barrancas and the naval base.
In the midst of all this upheaval Caroline somehow found a few moments to finish her letter to her sister. It was written in a very different tone to how she started it four days before. She describes how the little town of Pensacola feels warlike, its residents now openly hostile towards them, and she criticizes the United States government for not sending orders or reinforcements. She says that she would be prepared to join her husband in Fort Pickens, no matter how bleak a place it is, and help him to defend it against Confederate attackers. The transformation is remarkable. In a matter of days Caroline has changed from a flirtatious young woman with her head full of parties to become a patriotic wife, prepared to stand at her husband’s side and fight for the Union. In the end she did not have to. A safe escort was found, and she and the other wives packed up their luggage and set sail for New York with their children and servants.
The most exciting part of Caroline’s war was just about to begin. When she arrived in New York she found that stories about her bravery had got there before her. One newpaper article described Caroline’s beauty and brilliance in glowing terms, and said that she was worthy to be the wife of an American soldier. Another headline ran: ‘Mrs Slemmer Arrested As A Spy’. It was rumoured that she had tried to infiltrate Fort Barrancas to take notes and report back to her husband. Caroline’s version of events was was more believable, and only slightly less thrilling. She told a Harper’s Weekly reporter that before leaving Penscacola she had tried to go back into the barracks to fetch some of her husband’s clothes, and when she was not allowed to enter she had threatened to return and man one of the guns herself. A Washington journal reported that Caroline’s bravery had caused a sensation among the patriotic ladies there, who were preparing a suitable testimonial for her. Later that month she posed, looking beautiful and imperious, for a photographic portrait, and engravings of it were advertised for sale in newsagents. Caroline had become the Civil War’s first patriotic pin-up.
While she was basking in all of this attention, Adam and his company were having a miserable time at Fort Pickens. The old fort was in a delapidated condition and the island was infested with rattlesnakes and vipers. Adam’s company spent almost four months defending the fort against an invasion which never happened. When the long awaited federal reinforcements arrived in April many of the men were found to be suffering from scurvy. Their prolonged defence of this lonely outpost was worthwhile, however: Fort Pickens was one of the few Southern forts to remain in Union hands throughout the Civil War, and it was an important base for the North in the Gulf of Mexico during the blockade of the Southern states.
The first shots of the Civil War were actually fired at another besieged island six hundred miles away, Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour, which was attacked by Confederate troops on the twelfth of April and forced to surrender two days later. The Fort Pickens siege was largely forgotten about after that, and Caroline’s brief period of fame faded. She was all the more disappointed to discover after her husband returned that he was still a mere lieutenant, especially since she had read in the newspaper that less experienced men were being given commissions in the new military regiments. So once again she decided to take matters into her own hands. On the tenth of May she wrote to the President directly, suggesting that Adam should be recognized for his bravery at Fort Pickens. She was given an appointment to go to Washington D.C. to see Lincoln. Caroline’s great-niece, Gwen Raverat, in her memoir Period Piece, tells the story that when her beautiful ‘Aunt Cara’, accompanied by her two brothers-in-law, went along to the arranged interview with the President they found him sitting at his writing table, working. The conversation was difficult at first; Lincoln was understandably preoccupied and perhaps Caroline let the men do the talking. So she did something very simple and very effective. She moved closer, put her hand lightly on the President’s shoulder, and gently explained to him why she thought her husband should be promoted. Lincoln smiled, placed his hand on hers for a moment, and listened.
In the Abraham Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress there is a list in Lincoln’s handwriting of the names of the officers he wished to promote that month. After the name Lieutenant Slemmer, Lincoln has scribbled a note: ‘his pretty wife says a Major or First Captain.’ Adam Slemmer was made a Major soon afterwards, and Caroline had succeeded in charming the most important man in the land.
My thanks to Karen Kukil for permission to quote from the Lady Caroline Lane Reynolds Slemmer Jebb Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass. I have also consulted Mary Reed Bobbitt’s With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (London: Faber, 1960) and Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece: The Cambridge Childhood of Darwin’s Granddaughter (London: Faber 1960). The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress for July 1861 can be found at the web source below:
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/P?mal:2:./temp/~ammem_GlfT::(accessed 10 April 2015)