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 Arlington, Virginia
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch Union Army
Years of service 1861 - 1884
Rank Colonel
Brevet Brigadier General
Unit Engineer Corps

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 American Civil War General in the Union Army. He graduated third in his class as United States Military Academy in 1861. Babcock served in the Corps of Engineers throughout the Civil War. He was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General in 1865. Babcock served as aide-de-camp for Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and participated in the Overland Campaign. After Grant became President in 1869, Babcock was appointed his Private Secretary—in modern terms, the chief of staff—and served until 1876. Upon his appointment Babcock was young and ambitious and considered the Iago of the Grant administration. In 1869, Babcock was sent on a mission by President Grant to explore the possibility of annexing to the United States the Hispanic and mostly mulatto island nation of Santo Domingo.

Babcock's tenure under President Grant was filled with controversy concerning involvement with the manipulation of both cabinet departments and appointments. Grant supported Babcock when he 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] Indicted in the Whiskey Ring, Babcock was defended by President Grant in a historical deposition in 1876 that resulted in acquittal. Babcock was also appointed Superintendent of Public Buildings and Inspector of Lighthouses. Babcock served as chief engineer overseeing plans for the construction of Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse until 1884, when he drowned off Mosquito Inlet in Daytona Beach, Florida. His reputation is a combination of efficiency, loyalty to Grant, and involvement in corruption and scandal.

Early life[edit]

Orville E. Babcock was born on December 25, 1835 in Franklin, Vermont, a small town located near the Canadian border close to Lake Champlain. Babcock's father was Elias Babcock, Jr. and his mother was Clara Olmstead. [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]

Civil War[edit]

Constructed Washington D.C. defense works[edit]

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, immediately upon graduation from USMA, Babcock was promoted Brevet Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, and was assigned duty in Washington, D.C. to protect the city from attack.[1] Working as an Assistant Engineer, Lieutenant Babcock constructed military fortifications to strengthen the national capitol's defenses. On July 13, 1861, Babcock was assigned to the Department of Pennsylvania.[1] The following months through June and August, Lieutenant Babcock was assigned to the Department of the Shenandoah and constructed military fortifications on the Potomac River and the Shenandoah Valley and served as aide-de-camp under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.[1] From August through November, Lieutenant Babcock, worked on military defenses surrounding Washington D.C. since there was at that time dire apprehension the Confederate Army would capture the nation's capitol.[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, Br. Cap. Babcock was promoted to 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 Lieut. Col. 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, Lieut. Col. 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)

On March 29, 1864 Babcock was promoted to lieutenant colonel and became the aide-de-camp to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant where he participated in the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and Battle of Cold Harbor. These battles were part of the Union armies Overland Campaign against General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia[2]

For his gallant service at the Battle of the Wilderness, Babcock was later brevetted as a colonel.[2] 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.[3] 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]

Babcock delivered Grant's surrender demand to General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia, and escorted Lee to his meeting with Grant at the Appomattox Court House. Babcock chose the place at Appomattox where Lee and Grant would meet for the surrender of the Army of Virginia.[2]

For his meritorious contributions in the Civil War, Babcock received two brevets in the U.S. Regular Army to rank from March 13, 1865 - first to Brevet Colonel, and then to Brevet Brigadier General.[2] 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.[4]


Further information: Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant

Final promotions, marriage, and family[edit]

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] On March 21, 1867 Babcock received a Regular Army commission as a major in the Corps of Engineers.[2]

On November 6, 1866, Babcock married Anne Eliza Cambell in Galena, Illinois. Their marriage produced four children: Campbell E. Babcock, Orville E. Babcock, Jr., Adolph B. Babcock, and Benjamin Babcock. Benjamin died during infancy.[5]

President Grant's private secretary[edit]

In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant was elected the 18th President of the United States. In 1869, Babcock was appointed Grant's private secretary.[6] 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.[7] Babcock, who was admired by Grant for his Civil War service, was young and ambitious and considered the Iago of the Grant administration.[8]

Santo Domingo[edit]

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

After his appointment, in 1869, Babcock was involved in the attempt to annex the Dominican Republic. While Grant believed the southern blacks might want to seek refuge in the Dominican Republic, Babcock, without informing the current Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, negotiated an agreement with the Dominicans. This attempt for a treaty split Senator Charles Sumner away from the Radical Republican Party. During the negotiations, Babcock treated the mulatto leaders on Santo Domingo as equals.

Gold Ring[edit]

In 1869, Babcock invested money in what was known as the Gold Ring through the Jay Cooke & Company Bank. The Gold Ring was a scam created by Jay Gould and James Fisk to corner the gold market and artificially drive up the cost of gold. Gould had convinced President Grant not to release gold in the gold market from the U.S. Treasury. In September 1869, to defeat the Gold Ring, Grant released $4,500,000 in gold from the Treasury Department. The price of gold collapsed, Gould and Fisk were thwarted. This resulted in a collapse of stock prices on Wall Street that lasted a few months. Babcock and other investors lost $40,000 in their gold investments. To recoup his losses Babcock put up a trust deed on his property. This information was not revealed to Grant until 1876.[9]

Corruption: Whiskey Ring[edit]

During the early 1870s there was a profit-making tax evasion swindle on the part of whiskey distillers to defraud the United States government millions of dollars each year. This organized network of tax fraud and bribery, known as the Whiskey Ring, extended nationally and involved "the printing, selling, and approving of forged federal revenue stamps on bottled whiskey."[10] Secretary Bristow, whom President Grant put in charge of the Treasury in 1874, immediately discovered the corruption, investigated, indicted and forcefully prosecuted members of the ring. Secretary Bristow, along with Attorney General Pierrepont, was intent on prosecuting the ring leaders. One of these suspected ringleaders was Babcock.

In December 1875, Babcock was indicted in St. Louis as a member of the Whiskey Ring, but was acquitted, partially due to testimony given by Grant and partially due to the prosecution leaking important documents to Babcock.[11] After the Whiskey Ring trial, Grant learned that Babcock had been involved with a plot to corner the gold market in 1869. President Grant then distanced Babcock from the White House retaining the position Superintendent of Public Works. In 1874, prior to indictment in the Whiskey Ring scandal, Babcock apparently had laundered Whiskey Ring profit money from distillers by purchasing grove land in Crystal Lake, Florida[disambiguation needed].[12]

Safe burglary conspiracy[edit]

In September 1876, Babcock was named in the Safe Burglary Conspiracy case when a critic of the Grant Administration was framed by bogus secret service officers and thieves. Babcock was acquitted during the trial. President Grant, at public urging, removed Babcock from the White House.

Inspector of Light Houses and Death[edit]

In 1877, Babcock was appointed Inspector of Light Houses at Mosquito Inlet, Florida. As part of this job, Babcock, a capable engineer, was responsible for the planning and building of the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse.[13] Before construction could begin, Babock drowned in Mosquito Inlet when the boat ferrying him to shore from a schooner overturned during a storm. He was 48. [13]


  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. ^ Catton (1969), p.349.
  4. ^ Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0-8047-3641-1. p. 732.
  5. ^ Inventory of the Orville E. Babcock Papers (2008)
  6. ^ Reeves, Thomas C. (1975). Gentleman Boss. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 59. ISBN 0-394-46095-2. 
  7. ^ Woodward (1957), The Lowest Ebb
  8. ^ Simon 2002, p. 249.
  9. ^ Simon The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant: January 1-October 31, 1876 , pages 47, 48
  10. ^ Fredman (1987), The Presidential Follies
  11. ^ Reeves, Thomas C. (1975). Gentleman Boss. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 80–81. ISBN 0-394-46095-2. 
  12. ^ Robison (Jan 6, 2002), Deeds, Letter Prove General's Ties to Sanford
  13. ^ a b Mike Pesca (November 2, 2005). "Orville Babcock's Indictment and the CIA Leak Case". Retrieved 01-02-10.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)


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