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Union Wives and Their Generals

Nearly all the generals who served the North during the Civil War were married. Left behind at home, their wives cared for families, farms, businesses and relatives. A few accompanied their husbands into fields of action. Many generals seemed eager to have their betrothed with them as frequently as possible. And often, the wives of generals had greater access to headquarters than junior officers. A representative sample of portraits of these military couples.

Carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady of New York City.
Carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady of New York City.

Fervent Abolitionist at Fort Sumter

Eight-month-old Mary Hewitt suffered tragedy early in life when her mother died. Upon her passing, Mary was sent to Washington, D.C., to live with an aunt. In 1851, she met Lt. Abner Doubleday, and they married the following year.

Doubleday was soon sent to Mexico to adjudicate Mexican War claims. Mary accompanied him. She followed her husband on other assignments during the 1850s, including on the Texas frontier, Fort Monroe, Va., and, in 1859, at Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor, S.C.

Fervent abolitionists, the couple supported the election of Abraham Lincoln. They became increasingly irate as the outgoing James Buchanan administration moved slowly to respond to rebel activities in South Carolina. Mary may have felt the anti-Union sentiment more than most, for she was the great granddaughter of Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey. In her frustration, Mary wrote a letter to her sister, which found its way into the hands of New York Times Editor William Cullen Bryant. The missive accused Buchanan and Secretary of War John Floyd of “the Southern Confederacy being cemented with the blood of this brave little garrison.” The Doubledays transferred with the rest of the garrison to Fort Sumter, and evacuated after the bombardment of Sumter ended in victory for the South Carolinians.

Doubleday went on to become a major general. But a rift in 1863 with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, effectively ended his war service. He retired from the army in 1873 and died in 1893. The couple was childless. Mary lived until 1907, and was buried next to her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.

Carte de visite by J.W. Black of Boston, Mass. Rick Carlile collection.
Carte de visite by J.W. Black of Boston, Mass. Rick Carlile collection.

The Sister of Robert Gould Shaw

Josephine “Effie” Shaw was born into a wealthy and socially conscious New England family in 1843. Her Unitarian philanthropist parents raised Effie and her four siblings with progressive social values, including the abolition of slavery. She spent part of her youth living abroad, where she became fluent in several languages and obtained a classical education.

At the start of the war, her older brother, Robert, became an officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, and went on to become the colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. He was killed at the head of his African-American troops during the ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner, S.C., on July 18, 1863.

Three months later, 19-year-old Effie married Col. Charles Russell Lowell, a friend of her late brother Robert. After a brief honeymoon she accompanied her new husband to winter quarters in Virginia and became a nurse. Her efforts as a caregiver ended after she became pregnant. At the beginning of the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign, Effie returned to her family on Staten Island, N.Y.

On Oct. 19, 1864, Lowell was wounded at the Battle of Cedar Creek, and died the next day. Their daughter, Carlotta, was born a month later. Effie never remarried. She dedicated her life to service as a leader of progressive social reform and social justice movements. In 1876, she was appointed as Commissioner of the New York State Board of Charities, and in 1890 she formed the New York Consumers League, an organization dedicated to improving the wages and working conditions of women. A memorial fountain located behind the New York Public Library dedicated to her was the city’s first public memorial to a woman. She died in 1905.

Carte de visite of George, his brother Tom, and Libby Custer by Mathew B. Brady of Washington, D.C., and New York City. Steve Meadow collection.
Carte de visite of George, his brother Tom, and Libby Custer by Mathew B. Brady of Washington, D.C., and New York City. Steve Meadow collection.

She Established the Custer Legend

Of all the wives of Union generals, Elizabeth Bacon “Libby” Custer is perhaps the best known. On Feb. 9, 1864, the 22-year-old married George Armstrong Custer, who she called her “Autie,” in her hometown of Monroe, Mich. The beautiful and vivacious daughter of a judge, Libby received a proper ladies education before she married the flamboyant 24-year-old cavalry general. She followed her husband to the field whenever possible, many times in disobedience to orders. When not with Custer, she boarded in Washington, D.C., where she met and socialized with military and political figures. Her influence helped her husband’s military career. The couple spent the post-war years mostly in garrisons with the 7th U.S. Cavalry in Texas, Kansas and North Dakota. She was sometimes referred to as “Mrs. Major-General” in recognition of her role as the vigorous leader of social life in the regiment. After Custer’s death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, she returned to Michigan and donned mourning clothes.

Libby dressed in black for the rest of her long life.

In 1877, nearly broke and desperate for an income, she went to New York to find employment. Influential friends came to her aid, and she went to work as the secretary of the Society of Decorative Arts. In 1885, she authored the first in a series of popular and profitable books that established the myth of Custer, including Boots and Saddles, Tenting on the Plains, and Following the Guidon. On the lecture circuit, she countered criticism against him, and remained his most outspoken defender until her death in 1933.

Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Rick Carlile collection.
Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Rick Carlile collection.

“Cette Terrible Teresa”

As a child, Theresa Griffin was dubbed “cette terrible Teresa” for her indomitable will. The daughter of wealthy New Yorkers, she married Lt. Egbert L. Vielé in 1850, and joined her husband on assignment along the Texas frontier. Much to her chagrin, she discovered that military life was unromantic. Though their stay in Texas was relatively brief—Vielé resigned from the army in 1853—the unpleasant experience prompted her 1859 book Following the Drum: A Glimpse of Frontier Life. A vivid depiction of the primitive conditions in Texas laced with political opinion, the volume was an indictment of crude army living.

Vielé returned to the army in 1861 as a brigadier general, and participated in the capture and Union occupation of Fort Pulaski, part of the defenses of Savannah, Ga. He later served in the expedition against Norfolk, Va., and resigned his commission in October 1863. Teresa likely did not accompany her husband, opting to remain at home with her brood of young children.

While her husband’s post-war professional career prospered, their marriage did not. In 1870, they sued each other for divorce. Teresa charged that her husband was having an affair. He claimed that Teresa was involved in an adulterous relationship with dashing cavalry Gen. William W. Averell. After a great deal of publicity, the couple withdrew the charges and divided custody of the children. Vielé died in 1902. Teresa spent the rest of life engaged in social and political causes. She died in Paris in 1906.

Carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady of New York City. Tom Glass collection.
Carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady of New York City. Tom Glass collection.

The Belle of Dayton, Ohio

Effervescent Kate Phillips, the daughter of a prominent Dayton, Ohio, family, was 24 years old and living at home in the autumn of 1861 when Brig. Gen. Alexander McDowell McCook arrived in town to train recruits. He became a frequent visitor at the Phillips home and entertained Kate and the rest of her family with his wit, storytelling skills and musical ability. McCook initiated weekly balls, during which he danced with Kate. They fell in love and were eager to marry. But his active duties as a division and corps commander, including at the battles of Shiloh and Stones River, postponed their wedding until January 1863.

Kate resided with her husband in the field whenever possible. McCook was relieved of his duties after his troops were routed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863. He served a brief stint as commander of the defenses of Washington, D.C.

After the war, McCook remained in the regular army. Kate followed him to various assignments. The McCooks were close friends with the family of fellow Ohioan, Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes. After Hayes’ election as president in 1876, Kate and first lady Lucy Hayes became close friends. Kate was a regular visitor at the White House.

In 1881, Kate died after a sudden illness. She was 44 years old. Her husband and three young daughters survived her. Gen. McCook retired as a major general in 1895, and lived until 1903.

Carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady of New York City. Rick Carlile collection.
Carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady of New York City. Rick Carlile collection.

German-Born Second Wife

Brig. Gen. Charles Kinnaird Graham and his newlywed, Mary, posed for their portrait in New York studio. Well known in engineering circles, Graham had assisted in building Central Park and the Brooklyn Navy Yard prior to the war. Mary, a native of Germany, was his second spouse. He and his first wife, Sara Ann, appear to have become estranged after the birth of their third and last child in 1860.

Graham began his war service as colonel of the 74th New York Infantry in 1861, and was promoted to brigadier general in March 1863. Wounded and captured during the Battle of Gettysburg, he eventually gained his release, and served the rest of the war in Virginia and North Carolina. He died in 1889 at age 64. Mary had passed a year earlier. Both are buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. The couple was childless.

Carte de visite by Banks of Helena, Ark. Tom Glass collection.
Carte de visite by Banks of Helena, Ark. Tom Glass collection.

A Widower Finds Love in the Midwest

Before the Civil War started, recently widowed former soldier Napoleon Buford found love in the Midwest. An 1827 West Point graduate from Kentucky who had resigned his commission in 1835, Buford settled in Rock Island, Ill., and prospered in business. Around 1859, he met Mary Ann Greenwood, who had moved to Illinois, following the death of her husband. They married in 1860.

Buford returned to the army in 1861 as colonel of the 27th Illinois Infantry. He received his brigadier’s star in April 1862 and command of a brigade in the Army of Mississippi. In late 1862, he served on the court martial of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, and then spent the remainder of the war as commander of the District of East Arkansas. Mary Ann accompanied her husband to his headquarters in Helena, Ark., where this portrait was taken. After the war, Buford held several government appointments that required a great deal of travel. He died in 1883. His wife joined him in death in 1903 at age 88.

Carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady of New York City. Tom Glass collection.
Carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady of New York City. Tom Glass collection.

She Went In Search of Her Captured Husband

The Texas frontier in the late 1850s could be a lonely place for troops in the isolated post of Ringgold Barracks. The garrison had at least one bright spot, though—Fannie Lawrence Ricketts. The wife of Lt. James Ricketts, she helped her husband keep up the morale of the men. The daughter of a wealthy English family, Fannie had been born in New Jersey in 1828. At some point, she met Ricketts. They married in 1856, and soon left for Texas.

At the start of the war, Fannie took up residence in Washington, D.C., where her husband was assigned to the capital’s defenses. On July 21, 1861, Ricketts was wounded and captured at the First Battle of Bull Run. Fannie used her military connections to obtain a pass from Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart, and went in search of her husband. She eventually found Ricketts with wounds so serious that he could not be moved for several weeks. She remained by his side during his recuperation in prison, and nursed him and other Union officers. Ricketts was exchanged in December 1861, and returned to Washington in the company of his wife.

She nursed him back to health twice more during the war—after his horse fell on him at the Battle of Antietam, and again during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, when he suffered a gunshot to the lung. With Fannie’s care, he survived. He resigned in 1867 due to his wounds.

Ricketts died in 1887 and Fannie, in 1900. Two children survived them.

Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer of Sibley with Nancy, left, and two of their children. Tom Glass collection.
Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer of Sibley with Nancy, left, and two of their children. Tom Glass collection.

Frontier Wife, Harsh Military Life

Unlike other army wives, Nancy Davenport Sibley never enjoyed the relative comforts of big city military garrisons. During her 38 years of marriage to Brig. Gen. Caleb Chase Sibley, she mostly lived in isolated frontier posts. The daughter of a Mackinac Island, Mich., fur trader and farmer, she had married Sibley in 1831, just two years after he had graduated from West Point.

At the start of the Civil War, Sibley commanded a battalion at Matagorda Bay, Texas. Compelled to surrender his forces to Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dorn, Sibley was exchanged and sent to New York. He was eventually paroled and served in non-combat assignments for the remainder of hostilities. He died in 1869. Nancy lived until 1903.

Carte de visite by Silsbee, Case & Co. of Boston, Mass. Rick Carlile collection.
Carte de visite by Silsbee, Case & Co. of Boston, Mass. Rick Carlile collection.

“Quiet, Unpretentious Dignity”

Strong-willed and opinionated Mary Theodosia Palmer was born in poverty in Charlestown, Mass., and toiled in a cotton mill for much of her early life. In the late 1830s she began an eight-year courtship with another mill worker, Nathaniel P. Banks. The couple married in 1847. Banks by this time had become active in politics and went on to serve, with Mary at his side, as Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives and governor of Massachusetts. According to one sketch of her life, “Mrs. Banks was never fond of society, though her husband’s success in public life entailed upon her the necessity of occupying a conspicuous social station during a large part of her life.”

Banks tended his services to President Abraham Lincoln when the Civil War began. The Lincoln Administration valued his skills as a recruiter and fundraiser. His abilities as a general however, were not respected. In December 1862, Banks succeed another Massachusetts political general, Benjamin Butler, in command of New Orleans. Mary and their three children joined him there in October 1863 and remained until August 1864. During this time, she sponsored social events, and assisted her husband in his attempts to win over the local populace.

After the war, Banks supported Mary and the family in business enterprises and political appointments until his death in 1894. The couple had been married 47 years. Mary died in 1901 at age 81. According to her obituary, “She passed through almost every social grade open to an American woman, and in every sphere bore herself with a quiet, unpretentious dignity which one her the respect of all who knew her.”

Carte de visite of the Ords and a daughter by Mathew B. Brady of New York City. The family is pictured in the Confederate White House with the surrender table from the McLean home at Appomattox Court House. Molly eventually sold the table, which is now at The Chicago Historical Society. Tom Glass collection.
Carte de visite of the Ords and a daughter by Mathew B. Brady of New York City. The family is pictured in the Confederate White House with the surrender table from the McLean home at Appomattox Court House. Molly eventually sold the table, which is now at The Chicago Historical Society. Tom Glass collection.

A Model Army Wife Crosses Paths With the First Lady

By all accounts, Mary Mercer Thompson “Molly” Ord was a model army wife. Dedicated wholly to her husband, Maj. Gen. Edward Otho Cresap Ord, the religious Molly raised seven children to maturity in a household filled with affection and humor.

Stationed in San Francisco at the beginning of the war, the Ords left for Washington, D.C., soon afterwards. Molly was a thorough Union patriot, though she hailed from a Southern family. Her father, attorney Robert Thompson, was a former U.S. Congressman from Virginia and a member of a prominent slaveholding family in Culpeper County. After the death of her mother, her father married a sister of future Confederate Gen. Jubal Early.

Ord served with distinction through the war. A trusted ally of generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, he led the Army of the James during the Appomattox Campaign.

Molly, always the supportive spouse, became involved in an unfortunate incident with first lady Mary Todd Lincoln in March 1865. During a military review, Molly, an accomplished horsewoman, briefly rode next to President Lincoln. The furious first lady launched a verbal attack on Molly that reduced her to tears and stunned the reviewing party.

Ord continued in the army until his retirement in 1881. He died two years later. The widowed Molly lived until 1894.

Carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady of New York City. Tom Glass collection.
Carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady of New York City. Tom Glass collection.

She Stood By Her Man

Born into an army family in 1836, Mary Ellen “Nelly” Marcy spent her early years with her mother and siblings far from the frontier forts where her father, West Pointer Maj. Randolph Marcy, was stationed. When she was 18, Nelly met one of the young lieutenants who served with her father in the West, George B. McClellan. He was immediately captivated by her beauty and pursued a relationship. He had plenty of competition. Her looks attracted a number of suitors—nine courtiers offered marriage, including Ambrose P. Hill, who would later serve the Confederacy as a general. Finally, in 1860, she married McClellan. By this time, he had left the service and landed a lucrative job as a railroad executive.

Within weeks of the firing on Fort Sumter, McClellan returned to active duty as a general, and became a household name across the Union as commander of the Army of the Potomac. He wrote daily letters to Nelly that revealed his complexities and conflicts, his massive ego, and his genius for organizing and motivating men. He also wrote of the deteriorating professional relationship with Commander-in-Chief Abraham Lincoln, which ended in McClellan’s separation from the army in 1862.

Nelly stood by McClellan during his falling out with Lincoln, and his failed bid for president in 1864. She remained devoted to him after the war as he tackled a career in business and served a stint as governor of New Jersey. After McClellan died in 1885, she resided mostly in Nice, France, until she passed away in 1915. A daughter, May, and son, George Jr., survived her.

Tom Glass is a retired professor of leadership at the University of Memphis. He has been a long time collector of civil war cartes de visite and is author of Lincoln’s Senior Generals: Photographs and Biographical Sketches of the Major Generals of the Union Army (Schiffer Publishing).

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