Orville E. Babcock

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Orville Elias Babcock
Orville E. Babcock Brady-Handy Cropped Portrait.jpg
Orville E. Babcock
Born (1835-12-25)December 25, 1835
Franklin, Vermont
Died June 2, 1884(1884-06-02) (aged 48)
Mosquito Inlet, Florida
Place of burial Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Union Army
Years of service 1861–1884
Rank Union Army colonel rank insignia.png Colonel
Union Army brigadier general rank insignia.svg Brevet Brigadier General
Unit United States Army Corps of Engineers

American Civil War:

Other work Private Secretary for President Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877)

Orville Elias Babcock (December 25, 1835 – June 2, 1884) was an engineer, and American Civil War general in the Union Army. An aide to General Ulysses S. Grant during and after the war, he was President Grant's personal secretary at the White House, Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds for Washington D.C., and a Florida-based federal inspector of lighthouses. Babcock continued to serve as lighthouse inspector under Grant's successors Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Chester A Arthur.

A native of Vermont, Babcock graduated third in his class at West Point in 1861, and served in the United States Army Corps of Engineers throughout the Civil War. As Assistant Engineer and aide-de-camp for district commander Nathaniel P. Banks, in 1862 Babcock worked on fortifications to aid in defending the nation's capitol from Confederate attack. Babcock later served as aide-de-camp for Ulysses S. Grant and participated in the Overland Campaign. He was promoted to brevet brigadier general in 1865 and continued on Grant's staff during Reconstruction. In 1867, Babcock warned Grant of a white supremacist insurgency that used Confederate symbolism to intimidate blacks in the South.

After Grant became President in 1869, Babcock was appointed Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds for Washington, DC and Secretary to the President of the United States—in modern terms, the chief of staff—and he served in both posts until 1876. Upon his appointment, Babcock was young and ambitious, and considered the Iago of the Grant administration. In 1869, Grant sent Babcock on a mission to explore the possibility of annexing the island nation of Santo Domingo to the United States.

Babcock's tenure under President Grant was embroiled in scandal, accusations of corruption, and involvement with the manipulation of both cabinet departments and appointments. Grant supported Babcock when Babcock was accused of corruption; Grant's shielding of Babcock from political attack stemmed primarily from their shared experiences on the battlefield during the American Civil War.[1] When Babcock was indicted as a member of the Whiskey Ring in 1875, Grant believed it was an indictment on his presidency. He provided a written deposition on Babcock's behalf—a first for a sitting president—which was admitted at Babcock's 1876 trial and resulted in his acquittal. The news coverage of the Whiskey Ring and other Grant administration scandals caused public opinion to turn against Babcock. Upon is return from St. Louis, Babcock was reluctant to leave his post, as if nothing happened, but under pressure from Secretary Fish, Grant forced Babcock to leave the White House.

In the lasts months of his presidency, Grant did not desert his wartime comrade; in February 1877, he appointed Babcock Inspector of Lighthouses for the Federal Lighthouse Board's Fifth District, a low-profile post that did not attract undue public attention. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur additionally appointed Babcock Inspector of Lighthouses for the Federal Lighthouse Board's Sixth District. Babcock was the chief engineer overseeing plans for the construction of Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse. He died in 1884 on duty when he drowned off Mosquito Inlet in Daytona Beach, Florida. Babcock's historical reputation is mixed; his technical engineering expertise, efficiency, bravery in battle, and Union loyalty were offset by his involvement in corruption, deception, and scandal. Uncommon for his times, Babcock showed no racism in relations with African Americans or mixed race peoples, which was a key factor in Grant's decision to send Babcock to Santo Domingo, whose population was predominantly mixed race, and consisted of individuals with American Indian, African, and Hispanic ancestry.

Early life[edit]

Orville E. Babcock was born on December 25, 1835 in Franklin, Vermont, a small town located near the Canada–US border close to Lake Champlain. Babcock's father was Elias Babcock Jr. and his mother was Clara Olmsted.[1] While growing up in Vermont he received a common education.[2] At the age of 16, Babcock was appointed to the West Point Military Academy (USMA), where he graduated third in a class of 45 on May 6, 1861.[2] His high class ranking enabled Babcock to select his branch, and he chose the Engineers, as did most top graduates of his era.[3][4]

Civil War (1861–1865)[edit]

Constructed Washington D.C. defense works[edit]

The American Civil War was beginning as Babcock was graduating; he was commissioned as a Brevet Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, and assigned to duty as an Assistant Engineer for the military district that included Washington. His first mission was the undertaking of efforts to improve the defensive works of Washington, D.C. and protect the city from attack.[1] On July 13, 1861, Babcock was assigned to the Department of Pennsylvania.[1] In August, he received his commission as a second lieutenant, to date from his West Point graduation in May; he was assigned to the Department of the Shenandoah, and constructed military fortifications on the Potomac River and in the Shenandoah Valley while also serving as aide-de-camp under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.[1] From August through November, Babcock worked again on improving the fortifications surrounding Washington, responding to increased apprehension the Union capital was vulnerable to attack and capture by the Confederate Army.[2]

Peninsular campaign[edit]

Orville E. Babcock (left)
and Orlando M. Poe (right),
Union Engineers in Ft. Sander's salient. Photograph by Barnard, 1863–1864.

On November 17, 1861, Babcock was promoted to First Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, and a week later was assigned to the Army of the Potomac.[2] During the months of February and March, 1862, while General Banks moved to Winchester, Virginia, Babcock set up military fortifications at Harper's Ferry and guarded pontoon bridges crossing the Potomac River.[2] During the Peninsular Campaign, Babcock served bravely at the Siege of Yorktown with the Army of the Potomac's Engineer Battalion and was breveted as a captain to rank from May 4, 1862.[2] For the next seven months, Babcock built bridges, roads, and field works. For his service, in November, 1862, Babcock was promoted to Chief Engineer Left Grand Division of the Army of the Potomac.[2]

In December 1862, during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Babcock served on Brigadier General William B. Franklin's engineering staff.[1]

Vicksburg, Blue Springs, Campbell's Station[edit]

On January 1, 1863, Babcock was promoted to permanent captain and brevet lieutenant colonel, and was named the Assistant Inspector General of the VI Corps until February 6, when he was named the Assistant Inspector General and Chief Engineer of the IX Corps.[2] As Chief Engineer of the IX Corps, Babcock surveyed and projected the defensive fortifications at Louisville and Central Kentucky.[2] Moving westward to help secure the Mississippi River from Confederate control and divide the Confederacy in two, Babcock fought with the IX Corps at the Battle of Vicksburg and the Battle of Blue Springs, and the Battle of Campbell's Station.[2]

Knoxville campaign[edit]

After fighting in the Knoxville Campaign, at the Battle of Fort Sanders, he became the Chief Engineer of the Department of the Ohio and promoted to Brevet Major on November 29, 1863.[2]

Overland Campaign[edit]

Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Staff: Ulysses S. Grant (at center table), Orville E. Babcock (right)

Babcock was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the regular army on March 29, 1864 and became the aide-de-camp to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant participating in Overland Campaign against General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.[5] Babcock served in the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, and the Battle of Cold Harbor.[2]

For his gallant service at the Battle of the Wilderness, Babcock was appointed brevet lieutenant colonel, U.S. Volunteers, to rank from May 6, 1864.[6] On August 9, 1864, Babcock, while stationed at Union headquarters in City Point, was wounded in the hand after Confederate spies had blown up an ammunition barge moored below the city's bluffs.[7] As Grant's aide-de-camp, Babcock ran dispatches between Grant and Major General William T. Sherman during Sherman's March to the Sea campaign.[2]

Appomattox: Lee surrenders to Grant[edit]

Robert E. Lee surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean House on April 9, 1865

On April 9, 1865 after being defeated at the Battle of Appomattox, Commanding Confederate General Robert E. Lee formally surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant. Babcock personally chose the site of surrender at the McLean House,[2] personally escorted Lee to the meeting,[2] and witnessed Grant and Lee discussing and signing the surrender terms.[2]

For his meritorious contributions in the Civil War, Babcock was appointed brevet colonel and brevet brigadier general in the U.S. Regular Army to rank from March 13, 1865.[6]

On July 17, 1866, President Andrew Johnson nominated Babcock for the grade of brevet brigadier general in the regular army, to rank from March 13, 1865, and the United States Senate confirmed the appointment on July 23, 1866.[8]


Final promotions, marriage, and family[edit]

Orville E. Babcock's house in Washington D.C.

After the War, Babcock remained on Grant's staff throughout America's turbulent Reconstruction Period. On July 25, 1866, Brig. Gen. Babcock was commissioned Colonel of Staff and aide-de-camp for General-in-Chief of the Army, Ulysses S. Grant.[2][9] On March 21, 1867 Babcock received a Regular Army commission as a major in the Corps of Engineers.[2][9]

On November 6, 1866, Babcock married Anne Eliza Cambell in Galena, Illinois.[10] Their marriage produced four children: Campbell E. Babcock, Orville E. Babcock, Jr., Adolph B. Babcock, and Benjamin Babcock. Benjamin died during infancy.[11] Babcock moved to Washington D.C. to serve under Grant while Grant was Commanding General and President of the United States.

Reported on South (1867)[edit]

In mid-April Commanding General Grant dispatched Babcock and Horace Porter, another member of Grant's staff, to report on the progress of Southern Reconstruction.[12] Babcock and Porter were optimistic on the plight of blacks who had embraced citizenship saying the "negro is learning very fast. They will soon be the best educated class in the South, if they continue at their present rate of progress."[12] However, Babcock discovered and informed Grant of a white supremacist insurgency and Confederate symbolism were developing that intimidated African Americans, saying that in Georgia the "police in most of the cities are in a grey uniform, the real confederate uniform."[12]

President Grant's private secretary (1869–1876)[edit]

In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant was elected the 18th President of the United States. In 1869, Babcock was appointed Grant's private secretary.[13] Babcock worked directly for President Grant. Babcock, one of a few men who had daily access to President Grant at the White House, had unprecedented influence over President Grant and planted suspicions in Grant that enemies were out to politically destroy his administration. His influence even extended indirectly into many cabinet departments and he was at odds with reformers, that included Secretary Fish and Secretary Bristow, who both had desired to save Grant's reputation from scandal. When cabinet appointments came available, Grant listened to Babcock's recommendations.[14] Babcock, who was admired by Grant for his Civil War service, was young and ambitious and considered the Iago of the Grant administration.[15]

Gatekeeper to Grant[edit]

Babcock was 33 years old at the time of Grant's inauguration.[16] He retained his position in the U.S. Army under Sherman, who under special arrangement with Grant was allowed to be the President's personal secretary.[17] Babcock did not require Senate confirmation for his appointment, while he retained his military salary.[17] Babcock's duties included involvement in patronage matters, finding dirt on Grant's administration critics, and fed political matter to pro Grant newspapers.[16]

Babcock's office was in an anteroom on the second floor of the White House that led to President Grant's private office.[9] In order to see Grant persons had to go through Babcock serving as a role of gatekeeper to the president.[9] This insider role created resentment towards Babcock for persons who wanted to see Grant overriding Babcock's positive personal qualities[9] Babcock opened and answered most of Grant's personal letters.[9] According to historian Allan Nevins Babcock's office was just as important and more powerful then most Cabinet positions.[9]

Santo Domingo (1869)[edit]

Santo Domingo City 1871

After his appointment, in 1869, Babcock was involved as a special agent of President Ulysses S. Grant in the attempt to annex the mostly black Caribbean island country of the Dominican Republic (18,655 mi²), then commonly called Santo Domingo.[18] At this time, federal land speculation was not uncommon, as Congress had in March 1867, purchased Alaska (663,300 mi²) from the Russian Empire.[19] Like his predecessor, Andrew Johnson, Grant received inducements for Caribbean expansion particularly for Haiti and the Dominican Republic.[20] Speculators William L. Cazneau and Joseph W. Fabens formed the Santo Domingo Company in New York to gain investment backers for the annexation of the Dominican Republic.[20] Grant's Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, was doubtful concerning Haitian annexation, believing the country to unstable, but he was initially more favorable to annexing the Dominican Republic after realizing investors were highly enthusiastic towards investing in the country.[20] Fish, however, became suspicious of annexation when Fabens, representing promoters, approached Fish and asked him to support a plan of American annexation of the Dominican Republic.[18] Grant, who was more favorable to wealthy business leaders and investors, supported annexation.[18] Fish, supporting Grant out of loyalty, agreed to send Babcock on a reconnaissance mission, Grant's appointed special agent to the Dominican Republic.[21]

Babcock was accompanied by Fabens and annexation supporter California Republican Senator Cornelius Cole.[18] Cazneau, who was on the island, formerly introduced the young and ambitious Babcock to the Dominican Republic President Buenaventura Báez, and the two unknown to Fish, made a draft of annexation.[22] According to the annexation draft made in September 1869, Samaná Bay would be sold to the United States for $2 million or the country would be annexed to the United States after paying of the Dominican Republic's national debt of $1.5 million.[22] Babcock was a supporter of Congressional Reconstruction, and he saw Santo Domingo, not as a nation of blacks, but as a source of new opportunities in a post war world.[23]

Grant's Secretary of Interior Cox dared to question Santo Domingo annexation

When Babcock returned to the White House having a treaty, Fish and Secretary of Interior Jacob D. Cox were alarmed, since Babcock had no official standing.[24] Fish told Cox, "Babcock is back...I pledge you my word he had no more diplomatic authority than any other casual visitor to the island."[24][25] At the next cabinet meeting Babcock was there in person and Grant told his silenced cabinet that Babcock was back and that he approved of the treaty, while it only needed a signature from the U.S. consular in Santo Domingo.[26] Cox spoke up and said, " But Mr. President, has it been settled, then, that we want to annex Santo Domingo ?" Grant was embarrassed and began puffing on his cigar, while the other cabinet members said nothing, Cox's question remained unanswered.[27] Fish threatened to resign over the matter, but Grant convinced him to stay on the administration telling Fish he would not go around him again and he needed Fish's guidance and support.[27] Fish agreed to remain on the cabinet, although he hoped Grant would drop the Santo Domingo annexation treaty.[27]

Grant, however, did not drop the treaty, having believed annexation would help alleviate violent suppression of African Americans in the Southern states, as blacks would have a safe environment to work and live, in the Dominican Republic. Fish sent Babcock back to the Dominican Republic on November 18, accompanied by Quartermaster Rufus Ingalls, this time having official State Department status and instructions to draw up two formal treaties, signed on November 29, 1869.[28] Grant, however, kept the treaties secret from Congress and the public, until mid-January 1870.[18] After earnest public discussion, the treaties was formerly submitted to Congress in March, whereupon Senators joined in the debate.[18] Senator Charles Sumner strongly opposed the annexation treaties objecting to Babcock's secret negotiations, his use of naval power, and desiring to keep Santo Domingo an autonomous African American nation rather than annexation and potential statehood as Grant had proposed. The people of Santo Domingo overwhelmingly desired annexation voting 15,169 to 11 in its favor, according to a plebiscite held by Báez.[21] Senate Republicans led by Sumner split the party over the treaty while Senators loyal to Grant supported the treaty and admonished Babcock. The treaties however failed to pass the Senate causing continued bitterness and hostility between Grant and Sumner, both stubbornly trying to control the Republican Party. Although Babcock was suspected of being given investment land on Samaná Bay, a Congressional investigation found no conclusive evidence that Babcock would financially gain from the country's annexation.[29] Babcock in the minority report was criticized for acquiescing in the imprisonment of Davis Hatch, an American abroad, who was an open critic of Báez.[30]

Gold Ring (1869)[edit]

In 1869, Babcock invested money in the Jay Cooke & Company Bank's Gold Ring, a scam by Jay Gould and James Fisk to drive up the cost of gold by cornering the market. As part of this effort, Gould had convinced Grant not to release gold from the U.S. Treasury, helping make it scarce and driving up the price. When Grant became aware of the full extent of the attempt to corner the market in September 1869, he ordered the release of $4,500,000 in gold, which caused the price to collapse. Gould and Fisk were thwarted, but at the expense of a stock market decline that lasted several months. Babcock and other Gold Ring investors lost $40,000, and to cover his losses Babcock had to put up a trust deed on his property. The extent of Babcock's involvement was not revealed to Grant until 1876, when his complicity was uncovered during the investigation into the Whiskey Ring.[31]

Corruption: Whiskey Ring (1875–1876)[edit]

Thomas Nast cartoon depicting the Whiskey Ring, published in Harper's Weekly (March, 1876)

Dating back to the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln it was common for distillers and corrupt Internal Revenue agents to make false whiskey production reports and pocket unpaid tax revenue.[32] However, during the early 1870s, the corruption became more organized by distillers, who used the illegally obtained money for bribery and illegal election financing, to the point where every agent in St. Louis was involved in corruption.[32] This organized network, known as the Whiskey Ring, extended nationally and involved "the printing, selling, and approving of forged federal revenue stamps on bottled whiskey."[33]

In June 1874, President Grant appointed Benjamin Bristow as Secretary of Treasury, with authority to investigate the Whiskey Ring and prosecute wrongdoers. Bristow, a Kentuckian and Union Army veteran, was known for his honesty and integrity, and had served as the nation's first Solicitor General, also appointed by Grant.[34] Bristow immediately discovered whiskey tax evasion among distillers and corrupt officials in the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Bureau.[35] Bristow and Bluford Wilson, the Treasury Solicitor obtained Grant's permission to use secret agents appointed from outside the Treasury Department; as a result of the evidence they obtained, on May 10, 1875 Treasury Department agents raided and shut down corrupt distilleries in St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee, seizing company financial records and other files.[35] Bristow then prosecuted the offenders by working with Grant's newly appointed Attorney General, Edwards Pierrepont, a popular New York reformer who had been involved in shutting down the Tweed Ring.[35] Information was soon discovered that Babcock was informing ring leader John McDonald in St. Louis of inspections by Bristow's agents, giving them time to hide incriminating evidence before agents arrived.[36] Bristow believed Babcock received thousand dollar bills hidden inside cigar boxes in exchange for this information.[36] McDonald was indicted in June, when Bristow obtained indictments against 350 distillers and government officials.[36]

In July 1875, Bristow and Pierrepont met Grant, who was vacationing at Long Branch, and gave him evidence that Babcock was a member of the ring. [37] Grant told Pierrepont "Let no guilty man escape..." and said if Babcock was guilty then it was the "greatest piece of traitorism to me that a man could possibly practice."[36] In October, Babcock was summoned in front of Grant, Bristow, and Pierrepont at the White House to explain two ambiguously signed "Sylph" telegrams hand written by Babcock.[38] The first message said, "I have succeeded. They will not go. I will write you." (December 10, 1874) and the second one said, "We have official information that the enemy weakens. Push things." (February 3, 1875)[39] Bristow had shown these messages to Grant at a cabinet meeting the same day.[40] Babcock said something to Grant, unintelligible to Bristow and Pierrepont, while Grant appeared satisfied by Babcock's interpretation of the messages.[41] Pierrepont and Bristow, believing the matter to be crucial, demanded a written explanation sent to his telegraphic correspondent, and that he go east to give his version of the messages.[42] After Babcock took his time, Pierrepont walked over to Babcock in his office room, and found him writing to revenue agent John A. Joyce, to be on his guard in St. Louis.[43] Infuriated, Pierrepont grabbed Babcock's pen and dashed through his message yelling at Babcock, "You don't want to send your argument; send the fact, and go there and make your explanation. I don't understand this."[42] Grant, on the other hand, was divided between the loyalty he had for Babcock, and his desire for Bristow and Pierrepont, trustworthy members of his cabinet, to prosecute the Whiskey Ring.[36] Since Babcock had no acceptable explanation for his messages, he was soon indicted November 4, 1875 for tax fraud.[44]

Bristow believed Babcock was taking $1,000 kickbacks in exchange for insider information protecting the Whiskey Ring.

As a military officer, on December 2, 1875 Babcock requested of Grant a military court martial, believing that an army tribunal would be favorable to his defense.[45] On December 8, 1875, U.S. Attorney David Dyer followed Bristow's instructions to deny Babcock a court martial, setting his St. Louis jury trial for February, 1876.[40] When Babcock's trial in St. Louis came up in February, Grant decided to testify in Babcock's defense.[46] By this time Grant had come to believe that his critics were using Babcock to go after his own presidency.[40] After cabinet members objected to Grant testifying in St. Louis as unseemly for a President, it was settled that Grant would give a deposition at the White House.[46] The deposition took place on February 12; it was notarized by Chief Justice Morrison Waite and witnessed by both Bristow and Pierrepont.[46] At the deposition Grant fully supported the Whiskey Ring prosecutions, but he willfully refused to testify against Babcock, despite having been informed by Bristow of Babcock's duplicity, saying he had "great confidence" in Babcock's integrity, and that his confidence in Babcock was "unshaken".[47] Grant's deposition and Babock's shrewed defense council, led to Babcock's acquittal by the St. Louis jury.[46] A rumor spread that Pierrepont had leaked information to Babcock that aided in his acquittal, but Pierrepont denied this and suggested that Babcock himself had started the rumor.[48]

When Babcock returned to Washington, he went back to his White House office, as if there has been no trial. Grant's Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, was furious, and pressured Grant to force Babcock to leave, saying that Grant merely had to dismiss Babcock, because he was a military officer. Additionally Grant had been informed by Solicitor Wilson that Babcock was involved with a plot to corner the gold market in September, 1869.[49] Grant finally dismissed Babcock him from the White House, appointing his son Ulysses Jr. in Babcock's place.[46] It was later discovered Babcock had laundered Whiskey Ring kickbacks from distillers by purchasing a place and grove land in Crystal Lake, Florida on Christmas Day 1874.[50]

Safe burglary conspiracy (1876)[edit]

Babcock was also named as a participant in the Safe Burglary Conspiracy.[51] In September 1876, several corrupt Washington, DC building contractors attempted to frame a citizen who had testified against them.[51] The contractors hired corrupt Secret Service agents to break into the safe of the district attorney, using explosives to make it obvious that a burglary had occurred.[51] They then planted in the home of Columbus Alexander, the witness who had testified against them, materials that were supposedly stolen from the safe.[51] At that point, the Secret Service agents arrested two other conspirators who were the supposed burglars, and had them sign affidavits implicating Alexander in the burglary.[51] The conspiracy was supposed to have included Babcock, who was said to have wanted to silence Alexander, a prominent Grant administration critic.[51] The conspiracy collapsed when the Secret Service agents admitted at Alexander's trial that the charges were false, and Alexander was acquitted.[51] Babcock was exonerated of direct involvement, but Babcock's continued ties to scandal and corruption increased public pressure on Grant to remove him from the White House.[52]

Superintendent of public buildings and grounds (1869–1877)[edit]

In addition to being Grant's private secretary Grant had appointed Babcock, a trained and experienced engineer, Superintendent of public buildings and grounds, that included public works in Washington D.C.[53] Babcock's supervision included the chain bridge over the Potomac River and the Anacosta bridge.[53] Babcock also supervised the construction of the east wing of the new state war and navy departments.[53] Babcock retained this position after he was dismissed by Grant from the White House as his private secretary in 1876, and kept the position until March 3, 1877, when the Grant administration ended.

Inspector of lighthouses (1877–1884)[edit]

On February 27, 1877 President Grant appointed Babcock Inspector of Lighthouses of the Fifth District.[53][54] On August 24, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur Babcock appointed Inspector of Lighthouses for the Sixth District.[55][54] Babcock served under the next four presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Arthur, under whom he headed both the Fifth and Sixth Lighthouse Districts.

Grant, shown in a cartoon as an acrobat hanging from rings, holding up multiple politician/acrobats
Puck, a Democratic magazine, in 1880 lampooned Babcock and Grant's alleged support of "rings" of corruption among his associates.

Presidential election (1880)[edit]

In September 1879, Grant had returned from his famous world tour, and was very popular around the country. There was talk among Stalwart Republicans that Grant be nominated for a third term presidential bid. Democrats were aware of Grant's national popularity and sought to discredit his two term presidency from 1869 to 1877, including his cabinet and political appointees. The following year, on February 4, 1880, prior to the Republican convention, in a color illustration by artist Joseph Keppler in the Democratic Puck magazine, Keppler ridiculed Grant and his associates while Grant was President, including Orville E. Babcock, for alleged involvement in corrupt rings.[56] Babcock was then serving as Inspector of Lighthouses under President Hayes, who had refused to run for a second term.

On May 14, 1880, Connecticut Democratic Senator William W. Eaton read a memorial to Davis Hatch, who in 1868, had been arrested and subject to the death penalty in Santo Domingo, that led to the charge that Babcock, when he was visiting the island nation in 1869 to secure an annexation treaty, interfered in his release.[57] Although Hatch's sentence was commuted to banishment, Hatch said he was imprisoned on false charges and Babcock was directly complicit in Hatch's five month prison term.[57] Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling defended Babcock, saying that the Senatorial investigation committee majority report had fully exonerated Babcock and that Eaton was bringing this issue up because it was an election year.[57]

In June 1880, the Republicans held their national convention in Chicago. Former President Ulysses S. Grant was nominated by his main Stalwart Republican backer Senator Roscoe Conkling, who had the previous month defended Babcock in the Senate. The Republicans had mixed feelings about Grant, and selected James A. Garfield as their presidential candidate. Chester A. Arthur was selected for the vice presidential nomination, and Garfield went on to win the general election, defeating Democratic nominee Winfield S. Hancock.

Mosquito Inlet lighthouse and drowning (1883–1884)[edit]

Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse

The Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse project started in 1883, and Babcock was the supervising engineer.[58][55] On June 2, 1884, Babcock and his associates were on duty were aboard the government schooner Pharos to deliver construction supplies, and were anxious to get to land because a sudden storm created hazardous ocean conditions.[55][58][54] The captain decided not to cross over the inlet bar during the storm because the construction supplies weighed down the ship. As the storm worsened, Captain Newins of another ship, the Bonito led seven men in a row boat to the Pharos in order to retrieve the passengers.[55] In debating whether to wait out the storm on the Pharos or try to make land, Babcock told his associates that since Newins and his crew had rowed safely to the Pharos, then they should be able to row to shore on tidal floods created by the storm.[55] After eating their lunch on the Pharos, Babcock and his associates boarded a rowboat and started for the shore. As they approached the inlet bar, the swells capsized the boat several times, and it took on water. Babcock was thrown clear, but another person on the boat attached him to it by a lifeline.[55] The boat and crew were battered by waves, oars, and other debris, and Babcock's lifeline was torn loose from the boat, which resulted in his drowning death. Upon reaching the shore, others who had been in the boat recovered Babcock's body and unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate him. Three others, including two of Babcock's associates, were also killed; the bodies of Babcock's associates, Levi P. Luckey and Benjamin F. Sutter, were recovered several days later, but the body of the fourth victim, a member of the boat's crew, was not found.[55][59] The lighthouse construction project continued after Babcock's death, and was completed in 1887.

Historical reputation[edit]

Scholars note Babcock's high class standing at West Point, engineering skills, and bravery during the American Civil War.[16] Babcock also has been noted positively for his association with the antislavery views of the Radical Republicans, and for his dealings with African Americans from a position of equality, a trait which was uncommon for the white people of his era, even those who opposed slavery. Historians also make positive mention of Babcock's post-White House career, noting that he served for eight years as a government lighthouse inspector and engineer, and did so capably and honestly.

However, historians are critical of Babcock's political power, shielded by President Grant, as his White House military aide, not subject to resignation.[60] Historians heavily scutinize and are highly suspicious of Babcock's pre-unauthorized Santo Domingo annexation agreement, and secretive role he played as President Grant's controversial "aide-de-camp". Babcock's reputation was also marred by his involvement in the Gold Ring, the Whiskey Ring, and Safe Burglary Conspiracy. Most historians agree that Babcock betrayed Grant while President, and remain perplexed at Grant's loyalty to his wartime comrade, including providing a deposition that was likely untrue in a successful effort to keep Babcock from being convicted at trial and imprisoned, and to protect Grant's own presidency and family.

With Babcock's reputation largely narrowed to observations about his corruption, loyalty to Grant, and wartime bravery, historians are generally not able to consider him in a wider context because he did not author an autobiography, nor has he been the subject of an extended biography. Historian William McFeely criticized Babcock of ignoring ethical values in the spirit of opportunism and personal gain.[23]

On November 22, 2016, Mississippi State University Libraries announced the digitalization of Babcock's private diaries.[61] Babcock's diaries are part of Mississippi State University Libraries Ulysses S. Grant's digital collection.[61] Babcock's diaries began in 1863 during the height of the American Civil War, including his perspective on the siege of Vicksburg and his wartime experiences in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia.[61] The diary collections also includes his famous post-war visit to Santo Domingo in 1869 serving as President Grant's special agent and personal secretary.[61] The collection includes Babcock's supplementary materials of speeches, correspondence, and newspaper clippings.[61] The Mississippi State University Libraries said that Babcock's brokerage of the annexation of Santo Domingo, "began what became a string of controversies and scandals surrounding Babcock and his position as aide to the President."[62] The scandals culminated in Babcock's involvement in the Whiskey Ring having been indicted for tax fraud in 1875 and put on trial in St. Louis 1876.[62] Throughout these scandals President Grant gave Babcock his confidence.[62]

According to presidential historian Charles W. Calhoun, Babcock emerged as Grant's "political majordomo, if not his jackel."[16] Grant's Secretary of State Hamilton Fish said Babcock "has brains & very many excellent & gentlemanly qualities but is spoiled by his position & a want of delicacy & consideration for the official responsibilities & proper authority (official) of civilians."[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Dictionary of American Biography (1928), Babcock, Orville E., p. 460
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r New York Times (June 4, 1884) , Gen. Babcock Drowned
  3. ^ Jones, Evan C.; Sword, Wiley (2014). Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-8071-5512-7. 
  4. ^ Babcock, Stephen (1903). Isaiah Babcock, Sr. and his descendants. New York, NY: Eaton & Mains. p. 776. 
  5. ^ White 2016, p. xvii.
  6. ^ a b Eicher, John H.; Eicher, David J. (2001). Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-8047-3641-1. 
  7. ^ Catton (1969), p. 349.
  8. ^ Eicher, 2001, p. 732.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Kirshner 1999, p. 133.
  10. ^ Kirshner 1999, p. 132.
  11. ^ Inventory of the Orville E. Babcock Papers (2008)
  12. ^ a b c Chernow 2017, p. 588.
  13. ^ Reeves, Thomas C. (1975). Gentleman Boss. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 59. ISBN 0-394-46095-2. 
  14. ^ Woodward (1957), The Lowest Ebb
  15. ^ Simon 2002, p. 249.
  16. ^ a b c d e Calhoun 2017, p. 78.
  17. ^ a b Calhoun 2017, p. 77.
  18. ^ a b c d e f Pletcher 1998, p. 164.
  19. ^ Chernow 2017, p. 661.
  20. ^ a b c Pletcher 1998, p. 163.
  21. ^ a b Pletcher 1998, pp. 164-165.
  22. ^ a b Pletcher 1998, p. 164; White 2016, p. 508.
  23. ^ a b McFeely 1981, p. 340.
  24. ^ a b Brands 2012, p. 453.
  25. ^ Pletcher 1998, p. 164; White, p. 508.
  26. ^ Brands 2012, pp. 453-454.
  27. ^ a b c Brands 2012, p. 454.
  28. ^ Pletcher 1998, p. 164; White 2016, p. 509.
  29. ^ McFeely 1974, p. 138; McFeely 1981, p. 343.
  30. ^ McFeely 1974, p. 138.
  31. ^ Simon The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant: January 1-October 31, 1876 , pages 47, 48
  32. ^ a b McFeely 1974, p. 154.
  33. ^ Fredman (1987), The Presidential Follies
  34. ^ White 2016, p. 556.
  35. ^ a b c White 2016, p. 557.
  36. ^ a b c d e White 2016, p. 562.
  37. ^ White 2016, p. 562; McFeely 1974, p. 156.
  38. ^ White 2016, p. 563; Brands 2012, p. 557; McFeely 1981, p. 410.
  39. ^ Smith 2001, p. 591.
  40. ^ a b c White 2016, p. 563.
  41. ^ White 2016, p. 563; McFeely 1981, p. 410.
  42. ^ a b Brands 2012, p. 557; McFeely 1981, p. 411.
  43. ^ McFeely 1981, p. 411.
  44. ^ Brands 2012, p. 557.
  45. ^ McFeely 1974, p. 157.
  46. ^ a b c d e White 2016, p. 564.
  47. ^ White 2016, p. 564; Chernow 2010, p. 806.
  48. ^ Reeves, Thomas C. (1975). Gentleman Boss. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 80–81. ISBN 0-394-46095-2. 
  49. ^ Brands 2012, p. 560.
  50. ^ Robison (Jan 6, 2002), Deeds, Letter Prove General's Ties to Sanford, Accessed on February 9, 2017
  51. ^ a b c d e f g Coffey 2014, p. 282.
  52. ^ Coffey 2014, p. 276.
  53. ^ a b c d BDOA_1906.
  54. ^ a b c Government Printing Office 1898, p. 224.
  55. ^ a b c d e f g Garmon_2009.
  56. ^ Michael Alexander Kahn, Richard Samuel West (October 2014), What Fools These Mortals Be!, p 49 --- Illustration by Joseph Keppler (February 4, 1880),Puck, v. 6, No. 152, pp. 782-783
  57. ^ a b c New York Times (May 15, 1880).
  58. ^ a b Mike Pesca (November 2, 2005). "Orville Babcock's Indictment and the CIA Leak Case". 
  59. ^ "The Mosquito Inlet Disaster: Captain Anderson's Account of the Drowning of Gen. Babcock and Mr. Luckey". Washington Evening Star. Washington, DC. June 27, 1884. p. 4. (Subscription required (help)). 
  60. ^ Calhoun 2017, pp. 78, 527.
  61. ^ a b c d e MSU Libraries digitize Civil War diaries and letters.
  62. ^ a b c Orville Babcock Diaries.




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