Caroline’s War (Part 1)

Caroline Jebb Black Crop

On 5 January 1861 Caroline sat down in an army barracks in Florida to write a letter to her older sister. It was a breathless account of all the Christmas parties she had been to, how she had conquered the heart of every officer and triumphed over prettier, better dressed women. Caroline was a clever, vivacious twenty year old with auburn hair who loved being the centre of male attention. She even boasted that one officer had called her ‘a charming little sinner’. Her husband, Lieutenant Adam Slemmer, was ten years older than her. A photograph of him from the time shows a slim, bearded man in uniform, arms folded self-consciously, eyes wary behind rimless spectacles. Caroline was only sixteen when she married him, and perhaps army life offered the prospect of excitement and adventure. But the reality of being an army wife meant moving from barracks to barracks, living far away from her family and a marriage that was less than happy. Flirting with officers helped to pass the time.

Caroline and Adam were based at Fort Barrancas in western Florida, overlooking the sparkling Gulf of Mexico. The country was on the edge of civil war: trouble had been brewing between North and South for months, and the newly elected Abraham Lincoln’s attempts to broker the peace were failing. By January 1861 the Southern states were threatening to break away from the Union. As Caroline sat writing her letter, Confederate troops in Florida were preparing to seize control of all federal forts and navy yards.

Adam had been left in sole charge of the large, strategically important military fort, but with only fifty men he stood no chance of defending it against thousands of armed Confederates. So, on 5 January 1861, he convened an emergency meeting of his officers at their house to decide what to do. Caroline put her pen down and went to listen. The men’s arguments for and against went on for hours. Should they surrender the fort and sail North? Or stay and fight a hopeless battle? Eventually Caroline could stand it no more. She jumped to her feet, saying: ‘Well, if you men will not defend your country’s flag, I will!’

Her heroic enthusiasm settled the matter. Adam made the decision to move his company to Fort Pickens, a disused fort on the tiny, rattlesnake-infested Santa Rosa island just off the coast. Before leaving Fort Barrancas, they spiked the guns and destroyed over 20,000 pounds of gunpowder, then Adam, fifty soldiers and thirty sailors sailed 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 waiting for reinforcements. On 10 January Florida seceded from the Union, and on 12 January the Confederates took charge of Fort Barrancas and the naval base.

Meanwhile, Caroline found a few moments to finish her letter to her sister, no longer as a charming little sinner but a fiercely patriotic wife, ready to take up arms and fight alongside her husband. In the end she did not have to. A safe escort was found, and she and the other wives sailed to New York with their children and servants.

The most exciting part of Caroline’s war was just beginning. When she arrived in New York she found that stories about her bravery had got there before her. Later that month she posed, looking beautiful and imperious, for a photographic portrait, copies of which were advertised for sale. She had become the American Civil War’s first pin-up.

In Part (2): how Caroline used her charm on President Abraham Lincoln.

Sources: The Lady Caroline Lane Reynolds Slemmer Jebb Papers at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts; Mary Reed Bobbitt, With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (London: Faber, 1960); Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Caroline Jebb’ in the  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Caroline’s War (Part 1)’, (July 24, 2016) day/month/year)

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