top of page

Anna Ella Carroll

August 29, 1815, in Somerset County Maryland – February 19, 1894, Washington, DC 



An American politician, pamphleteer and lobbyist. She played a significant role as adviser to the Lincoln cabinet during the American Civil War.


Early Life

          Anna Carroll was born in 1815 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland into a prominent upper class, mixed Catholic-Protestant family.  Her father was Thomas King Carroll, who served as Maryland governor in 1830 and was owner of a 2,000-acre tobacco plantation in Somerset County. She was the eldest of eight children and was educated and trained by her father to be his aide and likely tutored in the law by him. This allowed her access into the male world of politics. Anna contributed to her family’s income by establishing a girls’ school at their home, Kingston Hall. However, little is known about her life between the ages of twenty and thirty-five.

1850s Political Career

          Carroll entered the national political arena in the 1850s, following her father’s appointment as Naval Officer for the District of Baltimore by Whig President Zachary Taylor.  In 1854, Carroll joined the American Party (the Know Nothing Party) following the demise of the Whigs. At the time much political realignment was going on nationwide.  

           In Maryland, large numbers of immigrants, largely German and Irish Catholics, had flooded into Baltimore following the famines of the 1840s, taking work in the port and railroad yards. Due to this rapid urbanization, street crime became a problem and relief rolls rose. At the same time planters were a strong force in the state with many Catholic and Episcopalian ones residing on the Eastern Shore. In 1853, the Maryland Know Nothing party was formed, initially, from three nativist groups. Yet beginning in February, it took in large numbers of striking laborers from the ironworks factory in Baltimore whom the Democratic party had refused to support. Thus in opposing the pro-slavery Democrats, the Know Nothings became a powerful, but divisive, party in the state, being not pro-slavery, but pro-Union, pro-labor, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant.

          Along with other reformers, Carroll campaigned against urban machine corruption, crime, and what was perceived as the political threat of the power of the Catholic Church. In Maryland the Catholic planter/urban vote could combine to establish a pro-slavery state government. In 1856, the party then split nationally into Northern and Southern factions due to the slavery issue. During the 1856 presidential election, Carroll supported and campaigned on behalf of Fillmore, the South American/Whig candidate, writing many articles and pamphlets and touring the Northeast on his behalf. Considered a moderate, Fillmore carried the state of Maryland, the only one he won.
           For the 1856 campaign, Carroll published two party books that greatly extended her political and press contacts: The Great American Battle, or, The Contest Between Christianity and Political Romanism and The Star of the West, and influential pamphlets such as “The Union of the States”. In 1857 Carroll was the chief publicist for Governor Thomas Holliday Hicks of Maryland and he credited his victory to her writings.  She wrote a series of articles in the New York Evening Express newspaper on the 1860 candidates under the pseudonym “Hancock.” 

Secession Role

          With the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, Carroll freed her own slaves and turned her activities toward opposition to the secession of the Southern states and keeping Maryland loyal. Lincoln’s election set off the secession movement out of the Union which began with South Carolina’s exit on December 20, 1860. In February 1861, the Confederate government was formed in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time Carroll was advising Governor Thomas H. Hicks on compromise efforts in the Congress and sending intelligence on Confederate plans that may have resulted in a coup d’etat of Washington, D.C. had Maryland seceded, once Virginia went out.

           During the summer of 1861, Carroll wrote a political pamphlet in response to a speech given on the floor of the senate by the Hon. John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky who argued that Lincoln had acted in violation of the Constitution by mustering state militias into service following the bombardment of Fort Sumter, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and imposing martial law and a naval blockade. In her reply pamphlet that was widely circulated by the Lincoln administration, Carroll made informed legal arguments, later used by Attorney General Edward Bates, stating that Lincoln had acted in accordance with the United States Constitution. Under a verbal agreement made with the government, by 1862 Carroll had produced three more war powers pamphlets that presented constitutional arguments supporting the federal government’s actions. Governor Hicks wrote that her documents did more to elect a Union man as his successor than “all the rest of the campaign documents together.”

Wartime Role

          In the fall of 1861, Carroll traveled to St. Louis to work with secret agent, Judge Lemuel Dale Evans, to assess the feasibility of an invasion of Texas. Carroll worked on her second war powers paper at the Mercantile Library where she sleuthed out information from the head librarian who was Confederate General Joe Johnston’s brother. She took military matters into her own hands when she initiated an interview with a riverboat pilot Capt. Charles M. Scott about the feasibility of the planned Union Mississippi River expedition. Scott informed her that he and other pilots thought the advance ill conceived because there were many defensible points on the Mississippi River that could be reinforced.             Also, it could take years just to open it up to navigation. Carroll then questioned Scott about the feasibility of the use of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers for a Union invasion. Scott provided Carroll technical navigation details. Based on this information Carroll wrote a memorandum that she sent to Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott and Attorney General Edward Bates in late November 1861, advocating that the combined army-navy forces change their invasion route from the Mississippi to the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.
          Meanwhile in St. Louis, Major General Henry W. Halleck was planning the same movement without Lincoln’s knowledge. Upon learning that Confederates were possibly sending reinforcements west from Virginia, Halleck ordered Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote to immediately move on Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers in a telegram dated January 30. Scott was dispatched to the Midwest to mobilize reinforcements for Halleck on the night of January 29. On February 6, Fort Henry fell to Foote’s gunboats and on February 13, Fort Donelson fell to Grant’s and Foote’s combined forces. These comprised the first two “real victories” of the Civil War for the Union as Gen. William Sherman wrote later. At the time Carroll’s role in the effort was kept secret, and immediately following the war, she herself gave credit for the plan to Capt. Charles Scott in a letter printed in a leading Washington newspaper. Years later Assistant Secretary of War Scott and Senator Wade testified to it before Congress.

          The famous painting “The Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation” by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864 depicts an empty chair, believed by some to be an allusion to Carroll.

Postwar Life and Death

          In the postwar years, Carroll traveled with Lemuel Evans to report on his role in the Texas constitutional convention to draw up a new state constitution. She was active in the Republican Party in Maryland and continued her political writing career. After 1870, however, her life was largely consumed trying to gain payment for $5,000 she insisted that the government still owed her for her wartime publications.
           Anna Ella Carroll died of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment, on February 19, 1894. She is buried at Old Trinity Church, near Church Creek, Maryland, beside her father, mother, and other members of her family. The epitaph on her grave reads, “A woman rarely gifted; an able and accomplished writer.” In 1959, the Maryland Historical Society unveiled a monument to Carroll with the words, “Maryland’s Most Distinguished Lady. A Great humanitarian and close friend of Abraham Lincoln. She conceived the successful Tennessee Campaign and guided the President on his constitutional war powers.”  Curiously, the gravestone has the wrong year—1893—as her date of death, but a Washington, D.C. death certificate lists the correct death year of 1894, and surviving letters in her writing exist from the same year.

Later Evaluation

            Well into the 20th century, Carroll was hailed as a feminist heroine whose contributions were denied because of her sex. Some scholarship, however, has attempted to discredit her tale, arguing that she was more a “relentless self-promoter” than the “woman who saved the Union,” as novelists, playwrights, and suffragists called her. Carroll had condemned the Emancipation Proclamation and recommended colonization of blacks. Yet research published in 2004 unveiled new sources, primarily Maryland political histories and Lincoln administration records, that analyze the Maryland Know Nothing party in a new progressive light and generally supports (but slightly diminishes) Carroll’s role in the Tennessee River campaign, especially since a plan nearly identical to Carroll’s was printed in the New York Times two weeks prior to the date Carroll said she sent her plan to the War Department in Washington.

bottom of page