Shrouded Veterans: Hero in War, Swindler in Peace

Sketch of Lorimer Graham (aka John Spreadbury) by Edgar H. Klemroth (William L. Clements Library)
Sketch of Lorimer Graham (aka John Spreadbury) by Private Edgar H. Klemroth. (William L. Clements Library)

“There is living here in London an old gentleman named Graham, who is absolutely destitute,” wrote Harold Frederic, London correspondent of the New York Times to Daniel S. Lamont, private secretary to President Grover Cleveland. Frederic told Lamont that the old soldier had served as an officer during the Mexican War and Civil War, was brevetted for gallantry, and had been severely wounded. Frederic applied for a pension for Graham, but the application was delayed when the Pension Bureau demanded proof of Graham’s identity, as he had enlisted under an assumed name during the Civil War. Meanwhile, Graham was only kept from starving by the generosity of Frederic and others, and even turned to pawning his false teeth for money. Pension Bureau officials eventually granted Graham a meager $7.50 a month. When he received the upsetting news, Graham fainted in Frederic’s office.

Lorimer Graham, the old veteran to whom Frederic was referring in his 1885 letters to Lamont, gave up a law career to serve in the Mexican War nearly four decades before. On February 25, 1847, President James K. Polk appointed the oldest son of the prominent lawyer and New York City postmaster general, John Lorimer Graham (1797-1876), as a second lieutenant. In April, Graham was assigned to the newly organized 10th U.S. Infantry, but was instead attached to the 1st Dragoons.

On August 13, 1847, Graham was brevetted first lieutenant for “gallant and meritorious conduct” when he rescued 2nd Lt. Schuyler Hamilton, the grandson of Alexander Hamilton, who had been badly wounded during the reconnaissance of a foundry near the town of Mira Flores. A Mexican lancer thrust his lance into Hamilton’s back, puncturing his right lung and exiting near his collarbone. With only 13 men, Graham staved off a unit of Mexican lancers until help arrived.

Major General Wesley Merritt and staff. Graham (Spreadbury) is standing second from right. (Library of Congress)
Major General Wesley Merritt and staff. Graham (Spreadbury) is standing second from right. (Library of Congress)

Graham accused 1st Lt. George J. Adde of abandoning Hamilton and demanded his arrest. Captain Alphonse M. Duperu, Adde’s superior, claimed that Hamilton, who survived the ordeal, said Graham had lied and that Adde had “covered himself with glory” during the skirmish. Graham retracted his accusation of cowardice and issued an apology to Adde, saying he had mistaken a “judicious retreat to a good position” for a “shameful flight.” Adde was exonerated of all charges and restored to his command.

Seven days after the incident, Graham was wounded in the left bicep by an enemy bullet during Capt. Philip Kearny’s charge at San Antonio Gate. Unlike Kearny, who had his left arm amputated after being crushed by a Mexican cannon shot, Graham kept his limb. Graham was again brevetted for gallant and meritorious conduct, this time to the rank of captain. He spent the rest of the war on recruiting duty. When he returned to New York City, the state assembly presented him with a gold medal.

On October 31, 1853, Graham resigned from the U.S. Army due to poor health, allegedly at the insistence of his father. He lived beyond his means, and in one instance, New York lawyer Washington Murray wrote to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis asking for assistance in collecting debts owed by Graham for room and board. Probably to escape debtors and find employment, Graham left the States for Europe, where he supposedly served in the Austrian and Turkish armies under an alias.

Graham's damaged marker (Find A Grave)
Graham’s damaged marker. (Find a Grave)

In May 1858, Graham approached Robert D. Owen, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Naples, Italy, asking Owen to introduce him to a banker since he hadn’t received an anticipated letter of credit. Owen agreed and helped Graham obtain $300. Over tea, Graham told Owen he had been on extended leave from the U.S. Army and was one of the American officers selected to observe the Crimean War. Owen suspected something was amiss, so he looked up Graham’s name in the Army List for 1858, which didn’t appear since he had resigned in 1853. Also, Graham gave the incorrect names of who should have been his superior officers in the 1st Dragoons had he been serving with the unit that year.

Owen confronted him, and Graham gave the excuse that his name must have been omitted by mistake and that his superior officers must have changed since he had been on leave. He offered to repay Owen the $300, giving the diplomat a fraction of it and a gold watch and chain, promising to return the rest at a later date. Through the British consul, Owen discovered that Graham used the alias “Lawrence Grantham” on another passport, committing forgery in a banking house around the same time Owen vouched for him to obtain the loan. The U.S. chargé d’affaires to the Papal States, Lewis Cass, confirmed that another U.S. diplomat suffered the loss of several hundred dollars to the same man.

Graham's new veteran headstone.
Graham’s new veteran headstone at Littlehampton Cemetery.

In 1864, Graham returned to the U.S. to participate in the Civil War. In November, the con man was mustered in as first lieutenant in the 22nd New York Cavalry under the name of his valet, “John Spreadbury.” Graham served on the staff of Maj. Gen. Wesley Merritt as an assistant inspector general during Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign to Appomattox. In August 1865, Graham was mustered out with his regiment and was brevetted major “for gallant and meritorious service.”

After the war, Graham returned to Europe and resumed his old swindling ways. Harold Frederic said Graham came to him desperate for money, ragged, broken, and very ill. Thomas M. Waller, the U.S. consul-general to London, England, tried to help by appointing him a “rag inspector” at the U.S. consulate. Graham married Annie Collingwood Shum, the daughter of British Army Capt. Charles Francis Shum, in 1887, more than 30 years his junior. Together they had a son, Ronald, in 1891. Frederic wrote that Graham’s “subsequent failure to behave himself disgusted and alienated all the Americans who had been helping him,” which left him without benefactors and, ultimately, destitute.

Graham spent his last years in and out of British prisons for passing bogus bills and checks. He generally operated under the pseudonym “Sir Charles Caff” and later adopted the name “Lochiel Lorimer Graham.” In 1891, the Clerkenwell Sessions Court sentenced him to three years’ penal servitude. A few years after finishing his sentence, Graham pleaded guilty at the West Sussex Sessions Court for defrauding three Horsham shop owners. The 75-year-old was sentenced to 12 months in prison.

Graham died roughly four months before the outbreak of World War I at the age of 91. He was buried at Littlehampton Cemetery in Littlehampton, England. His epitaph on the marble cross erected over his grave has chipped away over time. Shrouded Veterans arranged for a government-issued headstone to be installed at the site to honor this enigmatic officer for his service in the Mexican War and Civil War.

Shrouded Veterans is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing the neglected graves of 19th-century veterans, primarily Mexican War (1846-48) and Civil War (1861-65) soldiers, by identifying, marking, and restoring them. You can view more completed grave projects at facebook/

3 Responses to Shrouded Veterans: Hero in War, Swindler in Peace

  1. Why waste funds on a marker for this rogue? Deserves anonymity throughout the coming ages.

  2. Very sad story. His “Find A Grave” writeup doesn’t mention his wife Annie Shum or their son Ronald; does anyone know what happened to them? Seems odd that someone with clear talents and good connections couldn’t find a better way. He had six siblings, one of whom outlived him.

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