Caroline’s War (Part 2)

From January until April 1861 Lieutenant Adam Slemmer and his garrison defended Fort Pickens in Florida against repeated attempts by the Southern militia to seize it. They had a pretty miserable time of it. The dilapidated old fort, on tiny Santa Rosa Island in the Gulf of Mexico, was infested with rattlesnakes and vipers and food supplies were limited. When the long awaited federal reinforcements arrived, many of the men were suffering from scurvy.

The first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour 600 miles away, which was seized by Confederate forces after a fierce battle in April 1861. Thanks to Adam and his men, Fort Pickens was one of the few Southern forts retained by the North throughout the Civil War, and was an important naval base during the blockade of the Southern states.

Back in Washington, Caroline Slemmer was disappointed to discover after the siege that her husband had not been promoted, especially since less experienced men were being given commissions in the hastily formed new military regiments. On 10 May 1861 she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln directly about it, and was given an appointment to see him.

Accompanied by her two brothers-in-law, Caroline went along to the arranged interview. The president was busy working at his writing table, and they found it difficult to get his attention. So she did something very simple and very effective. She moved closer, put her hand lightly on his shoulder, and gently spoke to him about her husband’s bravery at Fort Pickens. Lincoln looked up, placed his hand on hers for a moment, and listened.

Adam Slemmer was made a Major soon afterwards. 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 in July 1861. After the name Lieutenant Slemmer, Lincoln has scribbled a note: ‘his pretty wife says a Major or First Captain.’ Caroline had managed to charm the most important man in the land.

Sources: Lady Caroline Lane Slemmer Reynolds Jebb Papers at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton MA; Mary Reed Bobbitt With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (London: Faber, 1960); 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 here.

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Caroline’s War (Part 2)’ day/month/year)

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