In October 1862, the New York City Metropolitan Police held Mrs. Isabella Brinsmade for over a month without charge in the precinct house on West 47th Street. The twenty-year old Louisiana native had arrived in New York that August, sent by her merchant father who thought she would be safer there than in Union-occupied New Orleans. Her husband was away fighting in the Confederate Army, and she does not appear to have maintained any special affection for him. By all accounts Mrs. Brinsmade was intelligent, high-spirited, very attractive, and... liked to talk.
The most charitable explanation for her apprehension and detention is that the Metropolitan Police acted on orders from federal War Department agents. The feds wanted Brinsmade quarantined as a possible spy until she could be returned to New Orleans. The truth was more complex, with complicity on both sides. In the end Brinsmade was released unharmed and her ordeal became a cause célèbre in New York City for opponents of the Lincoln administration. The police commission hearings that followed her release were the first public airing of grievances against the government’s system of arbitrary arrests. “The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade,” as it was referred to in the press, sheds light on politics in wartime New York, police practices of the day, and the interaction of federal and local officials in the latter half of 1862.
I told him he could not do so for I had done nothing: he said I was indiscreet in saying that Stonewall Jackson was the only man that could fight; that was the only indiscreet word I used — (laughter) — and that was the only thing that could be proved against me, and which of course I acknowledged (laughter); ... Q. Did he examine your private papers and what did he say about them? A. He examined them and said there was no evidence to hold me as a rebel spy Q. What did he say about your private letters? A. That they were very friendly. Q. What did he say about your photographs? A. Nothing, but that they were good looking. Q. What did he (Baker) propose to do with them? A. To keep them: he promised to return my letters the next day, when he had shown them and my pictures to the Secretary of War. (Laughter).
Q. What were those declarations? A. Calling his attention to the military we saw along the [rail]road, the officers we met at different places, and making jesting remarks and drawing comparisons between them and the officers of the rebel army ... Q. Do you recollect any expressions she made use of? A. She said that we had better have better men than them before we undertook to put the South down. Q. Is that all you remember? A. She was talking all the time.
Near the end of October, she finally got word out to two women acquaintances, the wives of “respectable merchants’ in New York City. They in turn informed Samuel L.M. Barlow, a corporate lawyer and pro-slavery Democrat with a taste for sumptuous living. Barlow had just acquired an interest in the New York World, whose editor was intent on turning the struggling paper into a leading Democratic Party organ. Barlow sent a letter, quickly published in the World and other New York dailies, to Simeon Draper asking the reasons for the young woman’s apparent illegal detention. Draper was active in New York Republican circles, a real estate investor and bank president, and always alert to political opportunities. At the time he was serving as the federal Provost Marshal General (PMG) for matters relating to desertion and the arrest of disloyal persons. After inquiring with superintendent Kennedy and by telegraph with the War Department, Draper ordered Brinsmade’s immediate release. This was right before, it so happened, New York’s November 4, mid-term elections.
Public outcry of the young woman’s treatment led to a call for police commission hearings on whether superintendent John Kennedy was liable for her detention. The public hearings three weeks later painted the officers of the Metropolitan Police and War Department in a bad light. Their explanations exposed errant judgment and the state of confusion between federal and local authorities in prosecuting the Union’s war against its domestic enemies—imagined and real. Finger-pointing between Kennedy and Colonel Baker; ignorance on the part of Draper who as PMG should have known of Brinsmade’s incarceration; a lack of instruction for Thomas Bowles who wasn’t even sure by whose authority he was acting—to say she fell between the cracks of local and federal law enforcement is an understatement. And to top it off, Brinsmade accused Baker and Bowles of improper conduct while she was under their control. Bowles called her “Bella” and “Deerie” on the train back. Baker visited her at the 47th Street precinct house ostensibly concerning her release but then asked her to go horseback riding with him and even to come away with him to Philadelphia!
“The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade” may be read as a social and gender comedy in which a young southern woman’s innocent escapades were misread as espionage by the northern working class lawmen who tracked and apprehended her. These officers included Bowles, Baker, and to a lesser extent, Kennedy. They were likely emboldened by recent War Department and presidential orders suspending the writ of habeas corpus nationwide and authorizing local law enforcement to assist in arresting deserters and disloyal persons. Their missteps offer an excellent illustration of “Dogberrys unleashed across the land” — historian Mark A. Neely Jr.’s humorous characterization of the impact these orders sometimes had.
And for this reason the affair served New York City’s influential Democratic opposition as a perfect opportunity to attack the Lincoln administration, its policies, and its federal and local agents. In the final analysis, this is what the “Case of Mrs. Brinsmade” really was about. Recent events had fueled their ire. Lincoln’s Preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation issued on September 22 following Antietam produced heated invective by opponents of the war. War Department and presidential orders through the summer and fall aimed at curtailing desertion and stamping out disloyal practices generated increasing opposition as improper arrests and detentions piled up. Brinsmade had unintentionally wandered into a system that was being erected at the exact time she traveled north. It was a system Neely described as,
amateurish, disorganized, and rather unfeeling... The overall effect of the orders of August 8 [among the orders referred to above] was to allow a horde of petty functionaries to decide without any legal guidelines one of the highest matters of state: precisely who in this civil war was loyal or disloyal.
As for the other characters in this story: Bowles kept on with Baker’s detective force, and in late 1864 investigated counterfeiting operations with the newly formed Secret Service Bureau. Lafayette Baker earned the admiration of some, and the enmity of many for his forceful raids and arrests. He returned to New York City in early 1865 to run sting operations against bounty brokers and corrupt enlisting officers. He headed up the capture of Lincoln’s killer, for which he was brevetted a brigadier-general before Andrew Johnson cashiered him in early 1866. Kennedy was exonerated in the Brinsmade case, but not without criticism. During the New York City draft riots in July 1863, he was severely beaten by rioters who rendered him permanently lame. He held his office until 1870 when the Tweed Ring forced him out. And Isabella Brinsmade and Dr. Phelps — the only notice found is that they were married towards the war’s end.
Wyatt Evans is associate professor at Drew University in Madison, NJ, where he teaches U.S. history from the Civil War era to the Great Depression. His publications include The Legend of John Wilkes Booth: Myth, Memory, and a Mummy (Kansas, 2004), “The Lincoln-Obama Moment,” in Remixing the Civil War (Johns Hopkins, 2011), and various short pieces. He is currently working on a biography of Lafayette Baker for Oxford University Press.
 William Blair, With Malice Towards Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014). Kindle location 2526. Blair’s account focuses upon the entanglements of local and federal officials, and the consequences that resulted from their actions.
 “Local Intelligence: The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade,” New York Times, November 21, 1862, 2.
 “The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade,” NY Herald, November 21, 1862, 2.
 “The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade,” NY Herald, November 25, 1862, 8.
 Mark A. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincolns and Civil Liberties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 54.
 Ernest A. McKay, The Civil War and New York City (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 159-70.