Doing a Double Take on Mary Doubleday


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

Mary Hewitt (1823-1907)
(United States Public Domain)

1860 December, Charleston, South Carolina: A military wife has joined her husband of eight years as he is serving at Fort Moultrie. At any other time the city would be an engaging time for this couple, but in December of 1861 the city is a tinderbox just waiting for a match to start a roaring fire throughout the country.

Abraham Lincoln is preparing for his new job as the 16th President of the United States and on December 20th, 1860, South Carolina is no longer a part of the country. For Mary and her husband Captain Abner Doubleday of the United States Army these will be difficult and frustrating days. Their lives are further complicated by their fervent abolitionists beliefs and their willingness to share that belief with the public. They are “persona non grata” in South Carolina {1}.

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Unfortunately for those soldiers stationed at Fort Moultrie they were between a lame-duck president in William Buchanan and a new administration, therefore requests for reinforcements and help were tied up in Washington red-tape. The lack of response from Washington and the Buchanan administration prompted Mary to write her sister:

“I feel too indignant. I can hardly stand the way in which this weak little garrison is treated by the heads of the government. Troops and proper accommodations are positively refused, and yet the commander has orders to hold and defend the fort. Was ever such a sacrifice (an intentional one) known? The Secretary has sent several officers at different times to inspect here, as if that helped. It is a mere sham, to make believe he will do something. In the meantime a crisis is very near . . . In this weak little fort I suppose President Buchanan and Secretary Floyd intend the Southern Confederacy to be cemented with the blood of this brave little garrison.” {1}

All would have been well if this letter had stayed between sisters. Unfortunately it found its’ way in the “New York Evening Post” and then was picked up and reprinted throughout the north. Was this a deliberate action on Mary’s part? We will never know.

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On the day after Christmas as the men were moving to Fort Sumter their wives were evacuated to Charleston. During this period letters were carried from the wives to their husband’s building up the defenses at Fort Sumter. In early January Mary boarded a boat carrying workmen out to the fort. When asked to leave their boat she flatly refused so they had no other choice but to bring her along. When she arrived and was greeted by her husband and he was “delighted” to see his wife. It was reported that he broke up an office desk to provide wood to keep her warm while she spent the day at the fort.

On January 8th, 1861 all the wives were taken away from Charleston and brought to New York, however, Mary was not going to be quiet about the situation and conditions at Fort Sumter, after all she was able to give a first hand account, which she did to no other than the new president - Abraham Lincoln.

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Mary continued to support her husband throughout his career. Whenever possible she traveled with him as the Civil War progressed. She joined him at Antietam where he was wounded and for his actions there he was awarded a promotion to General in March of 1863. After Gettysburg he was placed in administrative duties in Washington, D.C.

At the end of the Civil War, General Doubleday reverted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1869, Mary joined him when he was stationed in San Francisco. He took out a patent for the cable car railway but when he was reassigned he signed away all his rights. At Fort McKavett, Texas he commanded an all African-American regiment. He retired from the military in 1873.

Moving to New York they lived until his death in 1893 from heart disease. He was 73. Mary joined him in death in 1907. The couple had no children and they are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Mary Hewitt had a difficult childhood. The daughter of a Baltimore attorney, her mother died when she was eight months old. Throughout her childhood she was handed off to various relatives never enjoying stability. It was in Washington, D.C. that she met the man she was to spend the rest of her life with. He claimed that he was “fascinated by the bright eyes of a Washington belle.” {2} After their 1852 wedding she was a typical military wife of her day. She was not afraid of entering “danger zones” as he served. She was at his side with the Apaches attached their encampment in Texas, when he fought the Seminoles in the Everglades, and when a ship they were on nearly sank in shark-infested waters off the Florida waters. {2}
No wonder she was call a “lady of the Army” {2}. Captain Doubleday aimed the Union cannon that answered the first shot to the Confederate cannon fire on that April day. He would refer to himself as the “hero of Sumter” for this honor. Whether he was or not is for history to debate; but there is no doubt that Mary saw her General as her hero - - - and the General saw Mary - - - as his.


(United States Public Domain)

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1. Gettysburg Wives, by Daniel John Grossman (pages 69-71)
Wikipedia - Abner Doubleday