The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade and Civil War New York

By Wyatt Evans

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.[1]

Figure 1: Everett House, New York Union Square, ca. 1860. Stacy, George, Publisher. Library of Congress

Figure 1: Everett House, New York Union Square, ca. 1860. Stacy, George, Publisher. Library of Congress

The story is also fascinating for the entanglements of class, gender, and political identities in an urban setting during the Civil War. Brinsmade, as described by reporters and in testimony, bore the social and physical trappings of an educated and well-to-do southern belle. Aboard the steamer Fulton to New York City, she was chaperoned by Dr. Phelps, “a sandy-whiskered gentleman with a gold-headed cane,” employed by the New York and Havana Steamship Company as ship’s surgeon.[2] Upon landing in New York, her father’s letters of introduction eased the way, and she put up at the fashionable Everett House on Union Square. Later at the hearings, Brinsmade provoked “a visible stir” among the audience when she appeared to testify dressed in a black silk outfit and blue veil. She was poised on the witness stand and sharp in the answers she gave. When relating her interview with Colonel Lafayette Baker, the War Department provost marshal who threatened to send her back to New Orleans, she had the audience in the packed room laughing:

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).[3]

Of course, the view from the other side was different. Brinsmade’s demeanor raised suspicions even before she reached New York. Reports reached police superintendent John Kennedy that she talked “secesh” aboard the steamer on the voyage up. He assigned city detective Thomas Bowles to “pipe” her (detective jargon for close surveillance) as soon as she disembarked. Bowles took a room at the Everett House to stay close to his charge and then followed Brinsmade to Brooklyn, where she went to visit friends for several days. Then she returned to the city and around September 19, “took the trains” to Washington D.C. where an uncle lived in Georgetown. Aboard the train she befriended Lieutenant Thomas Grapevine of the 4th New Jersey Volunteers. As the detective eavesdropped on their conversation, he became convinced Grapevine was disloyal for agreeing to the “declarations” she made:

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.[4]

Once in D.C., Bowles had his hands full keeping tabs on his subject. Brinsmade put up at the house of her uncle where she received visits from Grapevine. She also contacted Dr. Phelps, back aboard the Fulton for its return trip to New Orleans. She telegraphed she would be glad to see him, and her message intercepted the steamer at Fortress Monroe. When it ascended the Potomac River for a scheduled stop at Alexandria, Virginia, Phelps traveled over to visit her and to repay $100 she had entrusted to him earlier in New York. After several days, worn out by constant surveillance of young Isabella’s hectic social life, Bowles reported to provost marshal Baker and then arrested the whole lot. Grapevine was quickly released; Phelps held longer in the Old Capitol Prison, the notorious stronghold for political prisoners. The New York City detective took Brinsmade, her uncle, and her baggage to Baker’s headquarters opposite the Willard Hotel, a premier Washington rendezvous for politicians, officials, and spies during the Civil War. Baker conducted his interview with Brinsmade and told (or recommended- this would be a sticking point later in the hearings) Bowles to return her to New York City and thence to New Orleans. The uncle, apparently, concurred.

Figure 2: Willard’s Hotel during the Civil War. Library of Congress

Figure 2: Willard’s Hotel during the Civil War. Library of Congress

This Bowles did, at least the first part. Isabella Brinsmade was put up for a day or two at the Willard while travel arrangements were made. Then she and her escorts took an overnight train to New York. Arriving back in the city very early the next morning, Bowles was unable to get instructions from superiors and placed Brinsmade for safekeeping in the 47th Street precinct house while he booked her passage home. When after several days he could find no ship’s captain willing to take her on, he gave up the matter. He visited his charge at the precinct house every week for a couple of weeks, and then resigned from the Metropolitan Police to go work for Baker and the War Department in Washington! And so Brinsmade remained in the precinct house with no one able or willing to order her release or deportation.

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.[5]

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.

But the payback, at least in New York City, was not slow in coming. New Yorkers maintained a split attitude over the war, with many people for the Union war effort while others were decidedly less so. The 1862 midterm elections saw Democrat Horatio Seymour win the New York governorship by virtue of the city vote, and former mayor Fernando Wood and his brother each win a seat in Congress. All three were opponents of Lincoln and the war. The day following the midterms, Lincoln sacked George B. McClellan for a second and final time. The popular general and 1864 presidential candidate found temporary abode in the luxurious double-brownstone at Madison and 43rd Street of his longtime friend and political advisor... Samuel L.M. Barlow.[6]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] “Local Intelligence: The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade,” New York Times, November 21, 1862, 2.

[3] “The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade,” NY Herald, November 21, 1862, 2.

[4] “The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade,” NY Herald, November 25, 1862, 8.

[5] Mark A. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincolns and Civil Liberties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 54.

[6] Ernest A. McKay, The Civil War and New York City (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 159-70.