A few days ago whilst weeding some of my old Civil War periodicals collection – because that’s what I’ve been reduced to during this quarantine – I came across something interesting. In the August 1961 issue of Civil War Times I found a letter to the editor from Mabel Tidball, daughter of Captain John C. Tidball, a very fine and oft-overlooked Army of the Potomac artilleryman.
First, how cool to have the daughter of a prominent Civil war officer reading about her father in the magazine a century after his exploits? Mabel was so pleased to have found her father’s photo on the cover of the June 1961 issue of Civil War Times that she decided to casually write in and share some details about his life.
Tidball was an 1848 graduate of West Point, making a career in the military and was seemingly at every major eastern battlefield during the Civil War. He earned five commissions, rising to the rank of Brevet Major General of Volunteers. He published a heavy artillery tactics textbook. Served as the third Commander (Governor) of the Department of Alaska. Even still Tidball is one of those names that flies under the radar. Lets put it this way…if you ever find yourself in a future American Battlefield Trust “Civil War Fantasy Draft,” Tidball would be a good late round sleeper to command your artillery.
Mabel was born in 1875 to Tidball’s second wife, the daughter of Major General Napoleon J.T. Dana. If you’re keeping track that essentially makes Mabel Tidball akin to Civil War royalty in 1961. She would live to just a few days short of her 99th birthday, passing away in 1974! This is why I try to explain to my eight year old daughter – who is really getting into history, by the way – that we aren’t so far removed from the Civil War. At 36 years old I’ve had the good fortune to know a few grandchildren of Civil War veterans and others who have vivid memories of meeting veterans. Talk about Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon…
In her letter to the editor, Mabel identifies each soldier posed in the most recognizable of Tidball wartime photos, taken at Fair Oaks on June 1, 1862. She even points out the out-of-focus soldier in the back as her father’s orderly, holding Tidball’s horse, which was killed later in the war. But it was one particular line that struck me…
“My father, J.C. Tidball, was Virginia-born, same as Robt. E. Lee, and had served under both Lee and Grant.”[i] Huh? Dear Mabel was in her late 80s at the time she wrote the letter so for a few minutes I chalked that up to her confusion. That’s cute…
But the more I thought about it, the more that line kept coming back to me. I knew Tidball was a career military man. Had he served under Lee at some point before the war? I had to know. And as it turns out, he did.
In October 1859 Tidball was in command of Battery B, 2nd U.S. Artillery at Fort Monroe. With news of John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry, President Buchanan ordered a detachment of Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee to proceed to the ferry and quell the uprising. Buchanan likewise ordered three companies of artillery to the scene, among them Battery B. Tidball made it as far as Baltimore before learning that the raid had been suppressed, and was ordered back to Fort Monroe.
On arriving back at the fort the guns were immediately turned around and again ordered to Harpers Ferry with orders to garrison there as a deterrent to any further violence. Tidball would recall…
“When we arrived the men were quartered in vacant warehouses or any buildings where space could be found for them, while officers took up their abodes wherever they could find room, chiefly in office rooms of the shops amid the whirl of machinery and the grime and dust of work going on. The armory was in full operation, turning out muskets, rifles, pistols and swords to its utmost capacity…”[ii]
Tidball’s guns would remain at Harpers Ferry until December 1859. And who was in command at the ferry during that period, you ask? Colonel Robert E. Lee. Tidball would later write of Lee during this period…
“He was then in the prime of mature manhood, being fifty-two years of age. With a fine masculine figure, perfect in every proportion, he had a handsome, manly face. Altogether he was a perfect specimen of manhood. The dignity of his bearing, devoid as it was of all arrogance or affectation, arrested the attention of all who came within its influence. The affability of his manners made him approachable and agreeable under all conditions. He was exceedingly punctilious in points of etiquette, and I well recall that although we officers were quartered around in the buildings in the most inconvenient places, he took special pains to seek us all out and make a friendly call upon each one. His pleasing manners put everyone at ease, and his conversation was gentle and mild. Although scrupulously particular in dress and personal neatness, he had none of the airs of foppishness about him.” [iii]
At Harpers Ferry Lee would institute daily dress parades on the armory grounds, instilling pride in the artillery and infantry troops there. On being ordered back to Fort Monroe that December, Tidball was seated next to Lee on the train out of Harpers Ferry. He would later recall their conversation as “most charming, and little then did I then think that within less than five years he would be marching his Rebel hosts over this region for the purpose of dismembering the union which he had for so many years honorably served.”[iv]
Should I feel bad for questioning the faculties of an aged daughter of a Civil War veteran? Not hardly. But thanks, dear Mabel, for the pleasant quarantine distraction.
[i] “A Letter from Tidball’s Daughter” Civil War Times, Vol. III, No. 5. August 1961. 2.
[ii] Tidball, Eugene C. No Disgrace To My Country: The Life of John C. Tidball. Kent State University Press. 2002. 161
[iii] ibid, 162
[iv] ibid, 163