Baltimore, Civil War, History

So, a Maryland farmer, a Philadelphia lawyer, and the Taliban go to the Bar…

I lived in one former colonial enclave in China (Hong Kong), and visited another one (Macau).  Both cities were returned to native control, and so Britain and Portugal have better odds of having friendly relations with China.

This summer, watching Cuba reopen their embassy in Washington, something brought these former colonies to mind — some of the Cubans wanted us to know, that they’re still angry about our own little U.S. enclave — we continue to occupy 45 square miles of their country at Guantanamo Bay.

I’m not sure why we’re still there, or how useful the naval base is, now that our Navy doesn’t employ a whole lot of coal-fired dreadnoughts.   But I guess it’s just hard to give up such a fantastic rent-controlled lease.  Maybe a better deal than the Dutch got for Manhattan – – we’re paying less than 18 cents a year per acre, and it’s beachfront! And the Cubans refuse to cash the checks!

This is a history site, and not a rant about current events or gulags.

But reading about Guantanamo in 2015…

brought up a 2004 Supreme Court case for a prisoner there, Hamdi v Rumsfeld...

and reading about the Hamdi case, brought up the 1861 Merryman Case, which took place in Maryland, during the Civil War.


IN 1861, we didn’t have Cuba to dump prisoners, so we used Baltimore’s own Fort McHenry.  And both Guantanamo and Fort McHenry were what Hamdi’s lawyer, Lt. Com. Charles Swift (USN),  called “the legal equivalent of outer space”.

I’ll reassure you — we’re gettin’ back to that old-time history just as quick as we can.

So, soon, really soon, I’ll dump Hamdi, Rumsfeld, Cuba, the Taliban, and Antonin Scalia, and all the lawyers in the sea, and we’ll talk about 1861 Maryland in the Civil War.

I have to be honest, I cannot get rid of the lawyers just yet, they have to stay in the story, but I promise to keep them under control.

The only legal term I’ll allow: “habeas corpus.”

We all know what that means.

Wait… no we really don’t, we just pretend.

OK, habeas corpus at its simplest:  you need to have proper legal authority to hold someone as a prisoner.

Yaser Esam Hamdi was born 1980 in Louisiana. He and his parents returned to Saudi Arabia when he was a kid, and eventually he went to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. Whether or not he fought with them is apparently unclear. He was captured by anti-Taliban forces, handed over to the U.S. Army, and shipped to Guatanamo. He was classified as an “illegal enemy combatant.”

His family maintained that, as a U.S. citizen, he was entitled to his civil rights: an attorney, due process, and a trial. They filed a habeas corpus suit, which the government fought all the way to the Supreme Court. In brief, the Court decided that the President does not have the right to hold a U.S. citizen indefinitely without due process. U.S. citizens have a right to (eventually) have their day in court, even if captured as enemy combatants.

Even though Hamdi “won”, the Supreme Court justices were all over the map on what the President and Army should do, could do, and could not do.

And one justice, Scalia, dissented from the whole mishegoss, and said Hamdi should either be tried in a civilian court, or cut loose.   If this be treason, charge him and try him. And when he washed his hands of the decision, he went back to a case from 1861 Civil War Maryland, and a Chief Justice from Maryland, Roger Brooke Taney.

Taney and Scalia believed that only Congress, not the President, and not the U.S. Army, could suspend habeas corpus, and just dump people in a black hole indefinitely.

And yet, in 1861 or 2004, issues are never really 100% clear.

Hamdi was released, free of charges, but only on the condition that he be deported to Saudi Arabia, renounce his U.S. citizenship, and never return. So Hamdi is gone, and this article isn’t about him.


Chief Justice Taney, appearing as Marley’s Ghost. LOC

In fact, this story takes place largely in 1861 Maryland. The three main characters involved are:

Roger Taney, Frederick, Maryland,
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

John Merryman, Hayfields Estate, Cockeysville, Maryland
Farmer & 1st Lt., Baltimore Horse Guards.

George Cadwalader, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Attorney and Major General, Union Army.

George Cadwalader Mexican-American War

George Cadwalader during the Mexican-American War. LOC

On April 12, 1861, Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. The real shooting war had started.

Baltimore riot

Baltimore Riot. Currier and Ives. LOC

A week later, mobs attacked U.S. troops marching through Baltimore, on their way to defend Washington, and Lincoln declared martial law in Maryland.  If you’ve ever seen the old cannons on Baltimore’s Federal Hill, you may notice, they’re pointed toward the city — Union soldiers built and occupied a fort there after the riot, and stayed throughout the war, not to defend the port from raiders, but to keep the locals under control.

fort on Federal Hill Baltimore

Fort Federal Hill, Baltimore. LOC

Lincoln asked his Attorney General for an opinion on suspending habeas corpus during the emergency. Congress was in recess, and the President looked to the Constitution and read:

  The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when  In Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

There was clearly a rebellion under way, and Lincoln ordered the army to suspend habeas corpus when necessary.

The pro-south Governor of Maryland demanded that no more U.S. soldiers be sent through his state, and when this was refused, he ordered the state militia to destroy the railroad lines and bridges north of town, to prevent any more U.S. troops from entering (and pretty much cutting off Washington from the northern states). Merryman commanded one of the militia units destroying the railroad bridges.

Merryman letterhead LOC

Anyone with such contented-looking livestock cannot be all bad. LOC

Late one night, shortly after the bridges were burnt, Union soldiers arrived at Merryman’s farm.

  • Merryman indicated he was a state militia officer
  • & Just Following Orders.
  • The soldiers accused him of treason, seized him, and tossed him into Fort McHenry.

And there he stayed. His lawyer asked for a writ of habeas corpus, and Justice Taney granted it.

Merryman was now supposed to be brought to court, for a judge to consider the charges.  But General Cadwalader indicated that he could not hand over the prisoner.

  • Cadwalader indicated that he was a federal army officer
  • & Just Following Orders.
  • Taney then ordered General Cadwalader to be arrested for contempt.

So, a U.S. Marshal from Baltimore went to Fort McHenry, to serve an arrest warrant on a Major General in the U.S. Army.

  • The Fort told the Marshal that they weren’t supposed to open the door to strangers.
  • They mentioned that they had a lot of guns,
  • and that it would be a good idea if he went away now,
  • and he did.

fort mchenry

Taney advised the Marshal that he was duty-bound to raise a posse, and to use force if necessary, but when the Marshal pointed out that Fort McHenry really did have a whole lot of guns, even for Maryland, and that it was his professional opinion, that after the Baltimore Riot, the Yankee soldiers at the fort seemed a bit tense and trigger-happy, even for Baltimore, the Chief Justice relented.

Taney instead called on the President to “discharge his constitutional duties” and enforce the court’s decision. President Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, ignored him, and continued to seize people, perhaps 800 of them, throughout the Civil War.

Taney had home-cooked meals sent to Merryman in his cell.

Merryman soon had company. Baltimore’s mayor, city council, and its police commissioners were also tossed in Fort McHenry. Secessionists in the state legislature followed. Later on, Francis Scott Key’s grandson criticized these detentions in an editorial, and he was also sent to the fort.

  • The grandson felt it was ironic, being sent to the fort that his grandfather wrote about in The Star-Spangled Banner, exactly 47 years to the day after the 1814 bombardment.
  • In fact, he published a book about it.
  • So, Lincoln had the publishers arrested.

Chief Justice Taney probably sent meals to Key as well, since they were related by marriage – – Taney  was married to Francis Scott Key’s sister.[1]

Even before he tried to have General Cadwalader arrested, it was probably safe to assume, that Taney already didn’t like Union Major Generals too much — because one of them, Daniel Sickles, had shot and killed his wife’s nephew.  Sickles gunned down Francis Scott Key’s son a few years before the war, within sight of the White House.  Of course, Sickles was not yet a general in 1859 — he was a congressman from NY, and was therefore acquitted of murder on the basis of insanity.

Merryman was released from the Fort McHenry that summer, and was promptly charged by a grand jury with treason…and then went home on bail. Taney blocked any attempts to schedule a hearing, so Merryman never went to trial.  Charges were dropped…in 1867.  So we can see why Lincoln might not have turned to the courts for swift action.

As far as I can tell, no one tried to lock up General Cadwalader, either. Merryman sued him for unlawful imprisonment, but didn’t pursue the suit, and it was dismissed. [2]

Taney died October 12, 1864. The next day, a new state constitution ended slavery in Maryland.

Five years after the war ended, Merryman was elected State Treasurer.  And his cattle won a medal at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Now here’s the thing. I admire Abraham Lincoln.

And I do not admire Roger Brooke Taney.
“Chief Justice” seems an ironic title for someone from a slave-owning family, who declared, in the infamous Dredd Scott case, that slaves were essentially not people and could never be citizens, and were:

  beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with   the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…

So, Taney goes down in history with the worst decision ever issued by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But this is what Taney had to say about the Merryman case:

1. The President, under the Constitution and laws of the United States, cannot suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, nor authorize any military officer to do so.

2. A military officer has no right to arrest and detain a person, not subject to the rules and articles of war, for an offence against the laws of the United States [except according to and under the control of civil authority]…it is the duty of the officer to deliver
him over immediately to the civil authority, to be dealt with according to law.

In 1861, Maryland was an anti-Lincoln, anti-abolition, slave-owning state, full of secessionists, Copperheads, spies, and southern sympathizers. The people in power in Baltimore and Annapolis were trying to cut off communications and reinforcements to our nation’s capital during the crisis. I absolutely think Abraham Lincoln did the right thing, locking some of them up.  And I’m not pretending to be a constitutional scholar.

But when you see American citizens getting grabbed by guys in uniforms, who are “just following orders, ” and disappearing into Fort McHenry, or Guantanamo, without a trial, you worry, and you see a guy like Taney, who usually did the wrong things, maybe trying to do the right thing, and sticking up for the Constitution?

Or was he just being a racist creep as usual, helping to sabotage the war effort, and sneak his slavery-loving, saboteur pals out of justly-deserved imprisonment?

So what is History from 1861 telling us about Guantanamo in 2004? I do not know if there is anything meaningful in attempting to draw parallels. But perhaps worth thinking about the issue of locking up Americans without a trial, since it keeps cropping up.  And since “History never repeats itself,” that’s why you need historians – to take notes.


[1]  Even if you’re not crazy about “The Star-Spangled Banner”, Francis Scott Key was a fascinating character.  He was a slave-owner who as a U.S. attorney, prosecuted abolitionists, but who also represented black clients in court pro bono.

And years later, there was also a distant cousin and namesake, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, who became kind of well-known in his own right.

F. Scott Fitzgerald did not write only about the Jazz Age – – he was a Civil War buff, and during his Hollywood years, was called in to work on the dialog for “Gone with the Wind.”  He claimed his father had ridden with Mosby’s cavalry, and he was also related somehow to Mary Surratt, so it’s not surprising he wrote several Civil War pieces, including “The End of Hate“, about the night Lincoln was assassinated.  Another short story , “The Night at Chancellorsville“, was about a trainload of women from Philly, on their way to join General Hooker’s army, to serve as the general’s namesakes.

My personal favorite, was his mock newspaper article about Appomattox, which insisted that General Lee had not meant to surrender, and only handed his sword to Grant, as a courtesy when Grant’s pencil broke, and he needed to sharpen it.

[2]   General Cadwalader became a federal judge after the war, and according to a Philadelphia paper, was known for his “gentleness of manner” and being a “kind-hearted gentleman” on the bench. In 1866, he granted a writ of habeas corpus for John McCall, being held prisoner on a U.S. Navy ship. The ship’s captain appeared in court, and responded that McCall was enlisted as a U.S. Navy Seaman, and was being court-martialed for theft. Judge Cadwalader remanded the sailor into his captain’s custody.  OK that’s the way to do it – – everything ship-shape…and legal.

Merryman, according to his obituary in the Baltimore Sun, was also a “kind-hearted gentleman.”

Chestertown History, Civil War, History, Journalism, politics

President Garfield in Chestertown. The Great Copperhead Riot of 1863.


When I went to college in Chestertown, Maryland, it was a pretty sleepy little place on the Eastern Shore. But it turned out to be rich in history, so I read whatever I could find about its past. This story I ran across reading some old-time newspapers.

Back in 2008, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at George Bush during a press conference.  I had to give the President points for coming back with a joke, “All I can report is, it is a size 10.”  OK it’s not that funny, but he seemed to handle himself pretty well at that moment.  He went on to say something about living in a free society — while Iraqi security guards kicked the crap out of the journalist.

A few years later, somebody in Philly threw a book at Obama, but apparently he was just a desperate author following a suggestion from a blog called “Low Cost PR You Can Do Yourself.”

Going farther back, when Richard Nixon was Eisenhower’s VP, he was hit by a rock, while trying to talk to a crowd of college students in Lima, Peru.  Nixon also wins some points, for standing his ground and yelling “What’s the matter?  Are you afraid to talk to me?”  His car was also egged, during a South American goodwill tour that didn’t go so well.  Nixon would have also have rocks and tomatoes thrown at his car during his inauguration.

And going even farther back…we arrive in Chestertown, Maryland, with another egging and a future President.

General Garfiled LOC

General Garfield Library of Congress

In 1863, James Garfield was Chief-of-Staff for the Army of the Cumberland, fighting in Tennessee.  Despite the army’s bloody defeat at Chickamauga, he actually enhanced his military reputation by helping to stabilize the Union rear guard, after the general in command had decided the battle was lost, and suddenly remembered he had a dentist’s appointment in Chattanooga.  By the end of that horrific day, the larger Confederate army had actually suffered greater casualties than the retreating Yankees.

That fall, Garfield was promoted to major general, but resigned his commission, as he’d been elected to Congress as a “Radical” Republican.  (In those days, “Radical” meant he was anti-slavery.)   Another Ohio politician-soldier, General Schenck, who had been assigned to keeping Maryland’s secessionists under control, was also elected to Congress.

Garfield and Schenck traveled through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, speaking at Republican rallies.  On October 28, 1863, along with Salmon Chase, Garfield attended a mass pro-Union meeting and procession in Baltimore, promoting emancipation in a city where a mob had attacked Union troops on their way to Washington, only two years before.

But on 11/6/63, the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial printed this one-sentence news item:

“On Saturday night General Garfield was mobbed by a gang of Copperheads at Chestertown, Md.”

A few days later, another Pennsylvania paper reported

“Gen. Garfield, while speaking for the Union, in a strong slave-holding locality, in Maryland, was mobbed by a crowd of copperheads”.

This sounded exciting – – a pro-slavery mob in Chestertown, attacking a future President!

The only problem – – it just wasn’t true.

A few days later, a Cleveland paper printed a retraction:

Your correspondent telegraphed you…that General Garfield was mobbed…by a few Copperheads and slaveholding ruffians…it appears…that [this] was incorrect…”


The mob attack had been somewhat scaled back.

To one guy.

And a single egg.

So, mostly, a “cautionary tale” as they used to say.  The incident reveals a bit about taking news reports (then and now, in the Age of The Internet) with a grain of salt.  And a bit about Chestertown, and about Garfield — when he handled it with aplomb.  The reporter could not remember Garfield’s exact language, but reported the gist of it:


One scoundrel threw a bad egg at the General, whereupon…he coolly remarked that a few weeks since he was face to face with the companions of the miscreant on the field of battle.  “They carried more dangerous weapons,” said the General, “and as I did not run there, it is not probable that I shall run now;  and as I fought then, if necessary, I shall fight now!” 


The Cleveland Daily Leader reported it this way:

When somebody aimed a missile at General Garfield, during his speech in a pro-slavery Maryland neighborhood, the General quietly remarked that not long ago he had been meeting men on ‘Chickamauga creek, who defended the same cause with more dangerous weapons, and if it became his duty, he supposed he might renew the fight.’ 

They cheered the soldier politician to the echo, flogging some fellow soundly on suspicion,  though he earnestly protested that he didn’t throw the egg, and wound up by going off into a regular emancipation jubilee.  Residents, understanding the temper of the crowd, declared the rotten egg had made them dozens of votes in the immediate vicinity.

 Apparently, the crowd blamed the wrong person for the egg-throwing, but the beating he got from the Unionists “had an excellent moral effect upon the Copperheads present.”

egg beater 1885 patent

U.S. Patent Office

I believe attacks on politicians should be limited to debate, and maybe sarcasm, or even mockery — but not eggs, not spit, not rocks, not violence.

Garfield and daughter LOC

President Garfield with one of his children

Garfield deserved better.  He was smart, honest, and progressive.  He grew up poor, and worked his way through college, where he rose from janitor to president in just a few years (no wonder Horatio Alger wrote his campaign biography!) and also became both a minister and attorney.  As a volunteer soldier, who quickly became a respected general, he survived Shiloh and Chickamauga, and then campaigned for the civil rights of African-Americans.  He took office as President on his birthday, started reforms immediately…and 120 days later was shot in the back.

An insane person was able to walk into a store, buy a $10 handgun, and shoot President Garfield.  It took him another 80 days to die.

It’s too bad that people in our country don’t stick with words, and honest, courteous debate, face-to-face.  And if that’s just too old-fashioned, at least, stick to eggs.

Chestertown History, Civil War

1861 Chestertown and the pirates


Chestertown 1861   —   “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”

(Ok we’re sitting on a dock on the Chester River, not Chesapeake Bay, but I love Otis Redding.)


The Eastern Shore of Maryland was not a battlefield of the Civil War.  But the war did touch life there once in a while.  This story reflects two old sayings, often reproduced in abbreviated form:

“War is Hell.  Even when you don’t have to wear a corset”

“They also serve, who only stand and wait, on a dock in Chestertown”


I went to college in Chestertown, MD, and during a couple of rainy weekends, read everything I could find about the town in the old days, in the digital archives of old newspapers.  This is one of the stories I ran across.  And be forewarned, this tale is compiled from period newspapers, chock-full of inaccuracies, speculation and outright fabrications.


Sometimes a historian feels entitled to an educated guess.

In college, I was taught to call it a hypothesis.

So, on Tuesday, July 9, 1861, I am hypothesizing, there was a crowd of passengers on the dock in Chestertown, waiting for the Chester, the regular ferryboat from Baltimore, and getting more and more irritated.

Because the ferryboat was not coming to Chestertown that day.

It was, instead, chasing pirates.


Steam Paddle Wheeler



That day, the Chester was at its dock in Baltimore with a full head of steam, ready for its routine trip to Chestertown, when the Provost Marshal of Baltimore suddenly commandeered the craft, and directed it to Fort McHenry.

Nobody at the fort had seen any action since 1814, and anyway, everyone likes a boat ride, so it was not hard to persuade a company of gunners to climb aboard, and bring a couple of 24-pounder cannons with them.

The heavily-armed ferryboat then steamed off to Chesapeake Bay looking for a schooner full of pirates.

Leaving the Chestertown passengers cooling their heels on the dock, wondering where their ride had gotten to, and if the entire Civil War was going to be like this.




The people they were chasing, who the soldiers considered pirates, were considered by others to be, in fact, privateers and patriots.


They had already captured four ships, they were armed and dangerous… and their leader wore a dress.


I found the story not in a history book (although I’m sure it’s there, somewhere, as another strange footnote to the Civil War) but reading old newspapers online, looking for news of Chestertown.  So this is not a fact-checked history, but mostly a tale drawn from the often-unreliable journalists of the time.

The story begins, as do so many stories of weirdness and woe, with two Marylanders.


One of these Maryland gentleman-adventurers was named Richard Thomas.

Raised on a plantation in St. Mary’s County that was once owned by Lord Baltimore, his father was the Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, and his uncle had been governor.

A West Point dropout, Thomas claimed to have served as a mercenary in China and Italy, under the name Zarnova.

He returned to America, and rather than enlist in the Confederate army, which limited your fashion choices to gray or butternut, he decided instead to serve as a secret agent.

During this story, he would be known as Madame Zarona.  Or Madame LaForce, or Serano, etc. the newspaper accounts disagree;   some reporters just called him “The French Lady”.


George Nichols Hollins

Commodore George Nichols Hollins, Confederate Navy. LOC

The second man was from Baltimore, and was a genuine seadog.

George Nichols Hollins began as a midshipman in the War of 1812, serving under Stephen Decatur, and rose through the ranks.  He seems to have been somewhat impulsive, as shown by “The Bombardment of Greytown”.

In 1854, he was captain of a sloop-of-war off the Miskito Coast (Nicaragua) when Americans in Greytown complained of mistreatment.

Hollins responded by bombarding and destroying the town.

This seemed just a bit of an overreaction to some people, and created a bit of a diplomatic fuss, since the town was under British protection, but just then the British were busy dying of cholera in the Crimean War, and it blew over.

The Evening Star, a Washington, D.C. paper, described Hollins as “pompous” and “notoriously weak in the upper story”, but this could just have been sour grapes, because by then, he’d resigned from the U.S. Navy to join the Confederates.

It was ironic that in his younger years, Hollins had fought the Barbary Pirates, and would now begin his new naval career by becoming one, at least from the Union point of view.



The plot Thomas and Hollins came up with was simple.

The St. Nicholas, a steam-powered paddlewheeler, was making regular runs from Washington to Baltimore, carrying passengers & freight, and supplies for US Navy ships.

They would seize the ship, and use it to approach, board, and overpower the Pawnee, a Union warship patrolling the Potomac.

Pawnee sketch by A. R. Waud 1860

The USS Pawnee. Sketch by A. R. Waud, 1860. from the Library of Congress

The Pawnee was built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and is usually described as a ten-gun sloop-of-war,  although one source lists it as a much more disreputable-sounding “second class steam sloop (screw)”.

It had been bombarding Confederate shore batteries and blockading the river.  In May, the ship steamed up the Potomac to Alexandria, Virginia, and demanded its surrender.  (This was the same day that Col. Elmer Elsworth got shot there, taking down a secessionist flag –the first Union officer to die in the war).


Thomas and Hollins approached Governor Letcher of Virginia with the plan of attack. The operation called for revolvers, carbines, cutlasses, and a full-skirted dress with crinolines and hoops.

I have been unable to discover a really satisfying description of the dress, so this will require another historical hypothesis.



“Pagoda” sleeves over engageantes were popular that year, and mauve and purple were still au courant, but speaking as a professional historian, I believe a Confederate secret agent would choose a gown in “magenta”.  It was one of the brand-new chemical dyes, and named for the Battle of Magenta, during the Italian War of Independence.

Somehow this seemed important to me when I looked it up.  I don’t remember why.  But I thought maybe you’d want to know.



John Letcher, Governor of Virginia. Lawyer, Editor, Politician, Spymaster.

Governor Letcher liked the plan to seize the irritating Pawnee, was apparently OK with magenta, and advanced $1000 to hire a crew.

Thomas and Hollins were behind enemy lines, and needed to quickly assemble a band of desperate rogues and cutthroats.

But luckily, they were in Baltimore and knew some guys.


Actually, it was undoubtedly an easy place to recruit – this was only two months after the Baltimore Riot (a mob attacked soldiers passing through on their way to Washington) demonstrated the temper of the city.  Southern sympathizers called the riot the “Pratt Street Massacre” and when the soldiers finally shot some of the mob, this was the source of the “patriotic gore…That flecked the streets of Baltimore” in Maryland’s state song.[1]


Norwich Paddle steamer

Paddle steamer. LOC


On June 28, 1861, sixteen of the Confederate conspirators boarded the St. Nicholas,  disguised, depending on the newspaper account, as “passengers”, “mechanics”, or “New York Zouaves”.

Except for Thomas, who was now disguised as Mme. Zarona, a French fashionista, and by some accounts, was flirting with the ship’s officers from behind a Spanish-style fan.


At first, it was still not clear to me why he was wearing a dress.


But he was portraying a fashionista, and the ruse was to justify hauling a load of steamer trunks onto the ship, supposedly loaded with the latest Paris fashions.

Apparently no one noticed that a box of French hats felt a lot like a crate full of revolvers.



3b50487r LOC poster Zouave remember Ellsworth

A Zouave, exulting in his comfortable, loose-fitting, yet stylish trousers. LOC

At some point during the voyage, Thomas changed into a Zouave uniform — very possibly more spectacular than the dress.

Zouave uniforms (based on those of French colonial soldiers in North Africa) usually involved red pantaloons, an embroidered blue jacket – – and you got to wear a fez, too!

Thomas opened up the trunks, distributed pistols and cutlasses to his band, and locked the ferryboat’s crew in the hold.

The Confederates were now ready to board and capture the Yankee warship.


But the target of this exercise, the warship Pawnee, was gone.


NY Zouave

NY Zoave. LOC


Admiral Dahlgren aboard the Pawnee, his flagship, leaning on one of his namesake cannons.  I think this photo was taken at the end of the war, after one of his sons had been killed during a cavalry raid on Richmond, possibly attempting to assassinate Jeff Davis. LOC

If they’d asked, the Confederate Secret Service Bureau could have revealed the Pawnee’s movements to the privateers.  Governor Letcher ran a string of spies, and the head of the Confederate Secret Service, in fact, was from Baltimore County. [2]


Or, alternatively, the Confederate raiders and secret agents could have…just picked up a newspaper.

During the Civil War, the movements of warships were listed in the paper, just like any other shipping.

Apparently the secret agents did not read the Baltimore Daily Exchange that day, which reported a fight the day before at Mathias’ Point.

During the fighting while Union forces attempted to erect a shore battery, the captain of a gunboat had been killed.  The Pawnee was carrying his body back to the Navy Yard.


Stern Wheelers

Stern Wheelers

So instead of stalking the Yankee warship, the dread rebel privateer St. Nicholas paddled off toward the Rappahannock.

On the way, they captured three civilian ships:  the Monticello (3500 bags of Brazilian coffee), the Mary Pierce (200 tons ice), and the Margaret (270 tons coal).


The Confederate war machine now had the capability of making a lot of hot coffee, or alternatively, iced coffee.

The Governor of Virginia, delighted, and possibly highly caffeinated, promoted Hollins to commodore, and Thomas to colonel.  The ferryboat freebooters had a big parade in Richmond, and everybody got to wear Zouave uniforms.



All this happened in June.

So all through this tale, you’ve been wondering, if you’ve paid attention, why were the Chestertown passengers waiting around on the dock in July?


Baltimore spy

Harper’s Weekly “A Female Rebel in Baltimore…” LOC

Apparently, Thomas/Zarnova/Madame X decided to repeat the stunt.  According to one account, he was onboard the Columbia, sister ship to the St. Nicholas, but was recognized by the St. Nick’s captain, who had been released by the Confederates and was returning home as a passenger.

But according to the NY Daily Tribune, Colonel Thomas/Madame X was caught by a police officer, who’d boarded the Mary Washington, looking for one of the rioters who had attacked the Sixth Massachusetts soldiers marching through Baltimore in April.  The policeman recognized Thomas & some of his men, stopped the boat at Fort McHenry, and got a company of  soldiers to arrest the Confederates.


It took an hour’s search to find Thomas.  He was hiding in a large bureau drawer in the ladies’ cabin.

He really did seem to have a thing for women’s clothing.


Thomas and his men were treated as pirates, rather than POWs, and were sent to prison.

The southern press complained of the “villainous and inhuman” treatment of Confederate privateers.

(They’d been sent to Philadelphia.)


A Memphis paper reported them as being held in damp, dark cells for felons, often in double irons;  they were entitled to rations costing sixteen cents per day, but a Union officer was quoted as saying they managed on a nickel.  Governor Letcher of Virginia reportedly threatened to subject Union soldiers to the same treatment, and at some point, the privateers were released.

Thomas headed for France and stayed there for the duration.



After Thomas’ arrest, the Chester (the ferryboat-turned-pirate-hunter)  was pressed into service to look for a schooner that was reportedly hanging around with the rest of the raiders onboard.

But I don’t know if they ever found it.

Or when they finally picked up the Chestertown passengers.

Or if they had to give the cannons back.


The Civil War fostered many huge leaps in military technology.  Aerial observation, electronic communications, ironclad warships with turrets,  breech-loading weapons, landmines, etc. But was also one of the last gasps for cavalry charges with sabers and plumed hats…and also for privateers.


After the Crimean War, the Europeans had banned privateering, and country after country, even the Ottoman Empire, signed on.  Queen Elizabeth I had graciously smiled upon Drake and Raleigh, and all the gold they’d looted from the Spanish, but Victoria was not amused.  In the 19th century, somehow privateering (and having the Queen have to share the prize money), just didn’t seem very…Victorian.

But even if An Englishman Would Not Do That, the British shipyards were happy to build the CSS Alabama and other commerce raiders for the Confederates.

Lincoln and his successors were not amused by this, and after many years of Exchanging Stiff Notes, and finally, international arbitration, Gladstone actually coughed up fifteen million dollars so he didn’t have to listen to any more gripes.


(There were commerce raiders in WWI, but they were ships of the Imperial German Navy, not privateers working on spec.)


Back in the 1850’s, the U.S. was asked to sign the ban on privateering, but in those days, our fleet was still dwarfed by those of the European powers, and folks still remembered the successes of the Baltimore clippers during the War of 1812.  And all that lovely prize money.

Secretary of State William Marcy, a good New York lawyer after all, wanted the U.S. to keep its options open.  His response echoed Geo. Washington’s admonition to avoid Large Standing Armies, and powerful navies.  He told the international community, that this ban on privateers sounded very expensive, as we’d have to purchase a Great White Fleet somewhere, and we’d have to think about it.

And we still are.  Thinking it over.  The U.S. has never signed the ban, so technically, we’re still free to seek letters of marque and reprisal,  put on a dress, and go seize a ferryboat.



[1]   Have you actually read the original lyrics of the Maryland State Song?  Kind of amazing.   The state of Georgia gets a fantastic tune by Hoagy Carmichael, and Maryland gets a 2nd-hand Xmas carol with propaganda — which rhymes “bravely meek” with “shriek”.

I really resent someone contaminating “O Tannenbaum” with this crap.  OK, “gore” and “Baltimore” do rhyme, sort of, and Baltimore/gore is still a very appropriate association, but seriously, what an artless anthem of  negativity to teach school kids.  Like the rowdies killed in the “Boston Massacre”, Baltimore’s “anointed throng” was basically a bunch of thugs attacking people with rocks.  Maybe I sound a bit opinionated.

[2]  At the NSA’s Cryptologic Museum, they have a Confederate “cipher cylinder” the agents used to send coded messages.

(I’ve been to the museum, but cannot reveal to you where it is.)

(OK, it’s in Annapolis Junction.)

(On Route 32, behind the Shell station)

(and it has a gift shop!)


Most of the photos of old steamboats, Hollins, and Adm. Dahlgren, and the A. R. Waud sketch of the Pawnee, are from the Library of Congress.  I was unable to find the Chester, but these pictures give you an idea of the age of steam and paddle wheelers.

P. S.   Putting cannons onto a ferryboat was not quite as crazy as it sounds.  In 1861, the U.S. needed to blockade Southern ports and capture the Mississippi, but only had a handful of ships.  The Navy began frantically building warships.  They could build a complete ship in an amazingly short time.  The “Liberty ships” of WWII got it down to five days, but they had prefab sections.  During the Civil War, the Northern shipyards up and down the Eastern seaboard, including Maryland, built serviceable warships from scratch in three months.  These “90-day gunboats” were then sent on blockade duty.

But in the meantime, the Union bought and converted hundreds of civilian ships — clippers, schooners, barks, whalers, tugs, stern-wheelers, side-wheelers, screw steamers, paddle frigates, steam sloops, etc.

The list of ship types gives you some idea of the floating menagerie assembled by the U.S. — one of the most diverse navies ever assembled.

Former civilian vessels were used as mortar boats, tenders, dispatch boats, tugs, coalers, survey boats, pilot boats, transports, etc.

Some had iron plates or heavy timbers slapped on the sides, and became gunboats.  The Confederates even sent “Cottonclads” into combat, using huge bales of cotton in lieu of armor.

Ferryboats and tugs were powerful and sturdily built, and apparently were favorites for conversion to warships.

Newspaper articles available via LOC about the privateers:

3/21/61;  3/28/61 Evening Star (Wash DC);  4/20/61 Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, OH);  4/21/61 Nashville Union and American (Nashville, TN);  4/20/61 The Daily Green Mountain Freeman(Monpelier VT);  4/22/61 The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA);  7/2/1861 The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA);  7/2/1861 Evening Star (Wash DC);  7/2/61 The National Republican (Wash DC);  7/2/61 The Daily Wabash Express (Terre-Haute, IN);  7/2/61 The Daily Exchange (Balt., MD);  7/6/61 The Daily Exchange (Balt.MD);  7/9/61 New-York daily tribune;  7/10/61 The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD);  12/23/62 Staunton Spectator (Staunton, VA);  8/14/62 Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, TN)

The Washington Times, October 6, 2007 Saturday, TRAVEL; THE CIVIL WAR; D03, 2339 words, Rebel raider disguised in hoop skirt, By Richard P. Cox,