The events in the lives General Ulysses S. Grant, General Orville Elias Babcock, General John McDonald and journalist Myron Colony played out against a backdrop of Civil War, Reconstruction, greed, graft, financial panic, and frenzied political drama. People playing pivotal parts in the courses of their lives included Secretary of Treasury Benjamin Bristow and members of the illicit St. Louis, Missouri Whiskey Ring. The final act in the relationship of Myron Colony and Orville Elias Babcock took place as their coffins traveled together on a North-bound train.
Even people succumbing to the temptations of power, money, and influence and earning mixed historical reviews because of yielding to these temptations have ordinary parts of their lives that transcend the unfavorable assessments of historians. General Orville Elias Babcock and Journalist/businessman Myron Colony earned such mixed historical reviews. Brevet General Orville Elias Babcock is deemed a brave Civil War soldier, efficient excellent engineer, loyal aide de camp and private secretary to General and later President Ulysses S. Grant, and amiable companion and affectionate family member. On the negative side, the historical record also suggests his involvement in the St. Louis Whiskey Ring scandal, resulting in his indictment and an unprecedented deposition from President Grant that aided in his acquittal. Despite a second indictment on different charges and the President removing him as his secretary, Orville Babcock persevered.
Some historians consider Myron Colony a reformer who helped to expose the Whiskey Ring scandal and bring its perpetrators to justice, while some fellow journalists and historians considered him to be a spy employed by Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow to collect evidence to be used against President Ulysses S. Grant for political purposes.
The lives and careers or Orville Elias Babcock and Myron Colony intersected with career changing impacts.
From Franklin, Vermont to West Point
Orville Babcock’s journey from West Point to private secretary to President Grant and political controversy began on Christmas Day, 1835 when he was born to Elias Babcock Jr. and Clara Olmstead Babcock in Franklin, Vermont, a small town near the Canadian border. He received his early education in Franklin, and family and cemetery records show that his father Elias Babcock Jr. was a senator and a War of 1812 veteran who fought at the Battle of Plattsburg. Elias was a farmer, manufacturer, and a public servant, representing his Vermont District in the State Legislature for two terms.
In his genealogy of the Isiah Babcock branch of the family, Isaiah Babcock, Sr. and His Descendants, A. Emerson Babcock notes that Orville’s grandfather, Elias Babcock, Sr.,, served through the Revolutionary War and earned a reputation as “a good soldier and full of Babcock grit.”
A combination of the family record of military service and connections and a possible recommendation from Vermont Senator Alvah Sabin secured Orville Babcock an appointment to the West Point Academy. He remained a cadet from July 1, 1856, until he graduated third in his class on May 6, 1861, nearly a month after the Civil War began.
Orville Babcock Engineers in the Civil War
On May 6, 1851, Orville Babcock entered the United States Army’s Engineer Corps as a second lieutenant and by November 17, 1861, he had been promoted to the rank of first lieutenant. In February 1862, he spearheaded the construction of a pontoon bridge at Harper’s Ferry to allow General Nathaniel Banks to advance to Winchester, Virginia. He served on the staff of General W.B. Franklin and was made acting chief engineer of the Department of Ohio The Army promoted First Lieutenant Babcock to captain in the Engineer Corps on June 1, 1863, and when Vicksburg surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, Captain Babcock served with the 9th Corps and witnessed the surrender. He participated in the East Tennessee campaign, including the Battle of Blue Lick Springs and the November 1863 siege of Knoxville, Tennessee.
On March 29, 1864, Captain Babcock received a promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel and the Army assigned him as aide-de-camp to General Ulysses S. Grant. Lt. Colonel Babcock aided General Grant in the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac including the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor and by March 13, 1865, Lieutenant-Colonel Babcock had been brevetted Brigadier-General of volunteers. He delivered dispatches from General Grant to General William Tecumseh Sherman in December 1864 and to General John Schofield at Wilmington, North Carolina. In February 1865, General Babcock delivered General Grant’s demand for surrender to Robert E. Lee and arranged for the two generals to meet at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 to discuss the terms to end the Civil War.
The Grants and Babcocks- At Home in Galena, Illinois
General Babcock picked up the threads of civilian life after the Civil War. On November 8, 1866, he married Annie Eliza Campbell at Galena, Illinois. Born in Galena on November 24, 1839, Annie lived there all of her life and it is likely she welcomed a new family to town in the spring of 1860.
General Ulysses Grant, too, had to make a transition from a fifteen year military career and he had not been successful in business. In the spring of 1860, he hoped to improve his family fortunes by moving to Galena and working in the store that his father owned and his younger brothers Simpson and Orvil managed. U.S. Grant and his wife, Julia, rented a modest brick house on the west side of the Galena River for about $100.00 a year until he left Galena to serve in the Civil War in the spring of 1861.
Like the Grants, the Babcocks had four children, but unlike the Grants who had three sons and a daughter, the Babocks had four sons. Campbell Elias was born in Galena on September 7, 1868; Orville Elias, Jr. was born in Chicago on August 13, 1872; Adolph Boree was born on August 10, 1876, in Washington D.C.; and Benjamin Campbell was born on March 7, 1881, in Washington D.C. and died on July 7, 1881.
The son of James R. and Melissa Colony, Myron Colony was born in 1833 in Ohio. He married Josephine Tuttle who brought her piano along with her when they moved to Douglas, Minnesota in the 1860s. The 1870 census records that the couple had a son named Roy who was 4 months old that year, and that they had moved to St. Louis, Missouri. The 1872 St. Louis City Directory lists Myron Colony as living on Cote Brilliante Street and his occupation as newspaper reporter.
The Whiskey Ring scandal shattered the lives of these three families in jigsaw puzzle pieces and forced them to rebuild them piece by piece.
The Rocky Reconstruction and Gilded Age Roads
In November 1868, Republican Ulysses S. Grant won the first presidential election during Reconstruction against his Democratic opponent Horatio Seymour. President Grant‘s eight years in office (1869-1877) were marked by frequently painful changes and transitions in America. The South fought Reconstruction and civil and voting rights for black people, Americans pushed ever westward to the Pacific Ocean, constructed intricate spider webs of railroads, created and invested abundant capital to construct powerful corporations, and manufactured mountains of goods to supply a growing population of people from across the economic spectrum. The political landscape featured corruption and scandals, but high voter turnout and close elections between evenly matched parties. The dominant cultural issues were Prohibition, education, and recognition and rights for several ethnic and racial groups. Economic issues included tariffs, money supply, civil service reform, and child labor and the eight hour working day.
In 1873, writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published a book about this era in American History that covered the last three decades of the nineteenth century from the 1870s to the 1890s. In their book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, they satirized this period as a time of serious social problems covered by a thin veneer of gold gliding – or, as they christened it, the Gilded Age. Some of the events of the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant seemed to reinforce the idea of a perpetual daily party and scandal tainted friendships of President Grant during the Gilded Age. Grant biography William McFeely wrote that General Orville Babcock, “although unexceptional,” was President Grant’s best friend.
General Babcock Goes to Washington
After the Civil War, General Orville Elias Babcock remained as General Grant’s aide-de-camp and after Grant’s inauguration in 1869, he became private secretary to President Ulysses S. Grant. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, he quickly won many friends with his genial and helpful personality and President Grant often had his private secretary attend social and political events as his representative. In 1869, General Babcock became involved in the American attempt to annex the Dominican Republic when President Grant sent him to Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic) to negotiate the annexation treaty.
There are conflicting accounts about the role of Secretary of State Hamilton Fish in the incident, with some versions saying that in April 1869, Secretary Fish awarded the President’s private secretary General Orville Babcock the status of “special agent” to research and negotiate a preliminary annexation treaty. Drawing on Secretary Babcock’s work, in October 1879, Secretary Fish produced a formal treaty that included paying the Dominican national debt and providing for eventual statehood for the Dominican Republic.
Other versions of the story say that President Grant believed that southern blacks might want to immigrate to the Dominican Republic for refuge so he sent General Babcock, his private secretary, to the Dominican Republic without informing Secretary of State Hamilton Fish of the mission. President Grant’s biographer William McFeely, assigns General Babcock an influential role in the Dominican Republic Treaty and writes that Treasury Secretary Hamilton Fish opposed it, but reluctantly cooperated with President Grant and General Babcock. Ultimately, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles Sumner led 18 other Senators in defeating the treaty.
In 1871, President Grant used his influence to have General Orville Babcock appointed superintending engineer of public buildings and grounds. An excellent engineer, General Babcock oversaw the building of Washington aqueduct, the chain bridge across the Potomac River, and the Anacostia Railroad Bridge. He also created the plans for the improvement of Washington and Georgetown harbors and while he established his civilian credentials General Babcock also established a network of friends and influence separate from the his relationship with President Grant. When General Grant was reelected President of the United States in 1869, he chose General Babcock to be his private secretary and confidential adviser, a position he held until March 4, 1876.
President Grant, the Generals and the Whiskey Ring Around the Grant Administration
Historians attribute many scandals and scams to the Grant Administration which featured a cabinet divided by opposing forces of patronage and reform and continually in transition. In 1869, the Black Friday gold speculation ring introduced a litany of scandals spanning President Grant’s two presidential terms. The scandals involved the Navy, Justice, War, Interior, State, Treasury and Post Office departments, although the Democratic Party and the Liberal Republicans also initiated Reform movements in the same time period. Grant’s future Vice-President Schuyler Colfax was implicated in the 1872 Credit Mobilier scandal, a scheme to defraud Union Pacific Railroad investors, and in 1874, President Grant’s Treasury Secretary William Richardson resigned because of a tax collection scandal. The 1875 Whiskey Ring Scandal where senior government officials and local and state administrators stole at least three million dollars in taxes entangled journalist Myron Colony, General Orville Babcock, General John McDonald and President Ulysses S. Grant.
Whiskey distillers had experimented with evading taxes since the beginning of the United States and through the Lincoln into the Grant administration, when they intensified their efforts. During the Grant administration whiskey distillers increased their efforts by bribing Treasury Department agents who helped the distillers avoid taxes to a total of more than two million dollars a year. The agents would overlook a duty of 70 cents a gallon, and then split the profits. They did this by recruiting and extorting and coordinating all sectors of the system, including distillers, storekeepers, revenue agents, and Treasury clerks. The Whiskey Ring originated in St. Louis, Missouri, but soon branches sprang up in Chicago and Peoria, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cincinnati, Ohio; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Whiskey Ring agents told the distillers that the money they collected went into a special fund to help reelect President Grant. Between 1870 and 1874, about 15 million gallons of whiskey a year that would have produced 7.5 million tax dollars went untaxed. President Grant was reelected in 1872.
President Grant’s Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury and Private Secretary
By the end of 1874, rumors about the Whiskey Ring buzzed around the country, including the allegation that Fred Grant, the President’s son, and the President’s brother Orvil were directly profiting from the illegal proceeds. It was time for a federal investigation of the Whiskey Ring which President Grant endorsed, probably without realizing that the major figures in the investigation would turn out to be two friends and a political rival. The President’s friend and Private Secretary General Orville E. Babcock, his appointee and friend General John A. McDonald, and his Treasury Secretary Benjamin Helm Bristow who had presidential aspirations of his own, were at the center of the Whiskey Ring. At the end of 1874, President Grant, some say under political pressure, appointed Benjamin Bristow, who was well respected and who planned to run for president himself, to be his Secretary of Treasury.
One version of the events has it that as one of his first official acts, Treasury Secretary Bristow with the knowledge and aid of President Grant, convinced Congress to allocate money to investigate the charges of corruption in the Internal Revenue Service. The first round of investigation funds went to reporter Myron Colony who was hired to gather evidence against the people responsible for pocketing the excise taxes.
Another version of events says that Secretary of Treasury Bristow grew frustrated with the President and his friends blocking his investigation, so when George W. Fishback, owner of the St. Louis Democrat, wrote to Secretary Bristow recommending a capable person to secretly investigate the Whiskey Ring and guaranteeing results, Bristow hired Myron Colony as a private investigator in early March 1875. Secretary Bristow empowered Myron Colony to head a committee to examine and evaluate alcohol production figures from St. Louis.
Myron Colony was well known in the St. Louis business community and as part of his reporting routinely collected business information and statistics. As the Democrat’s commercial editor, people were used to seeing him ask questions and write down information, so his investigative actions did not arouse any suspicions. Editor Colony and his small committee recorded the amount of grain shipped to each distillery, the amount of liquor arriving at the rectifiers and also illegal night distilling. He compared the records of the distillers and rectifiers with the figures that he and his committee recorded, what the producers and refiners reported, and the figures in the shipping and tax records. The figures did not match, but instead revealed glaring discrepancies. In four weeks, Myron Colony and his men gave Secretary of Treasury Bristow the information he needed to arrest the whiskey thieves. Prosecutors later used Colony and his committee’s evidence to convict several St. Louis people involved in the Whiskey Ring.
Gathering his arsenal of reports from Myron Colony and committee and information from other informers in the other distilling cities around the country, Bristow and his Federal lawmen began arresting people on May 10, 1875. Federal agents arrested over 300 ring leaders, and seized distilleries and rectifiers. Along with many others, U.S. Marshals in St. Louis arrested Revenue Agent John A. Joyce, Collector Constantine Maguire, and Supervisor John McDonald, the St. Louis based superintendent of the Internal Revenue, who headed the Whiskey Ring.
General John McDonald Confesses
When confronted with the evidence that Myron Colony had gathered against him, John McDonald confessed to his crimes and pleaded for clemency, while at the same time offering to replace the money in return for immunity, claiming he would get it from the distilleries! John McDonald also dropped the President’s name drawing on a long term relationship with him. Several of Julia Grant’s family friends had recommended John McDonald for his superintendent of Internal Revenue position.
An example of a truly self-made man, John McDonald was born in Rochester, New York, in 1832 and orphaned before he turned ten years old. He worked his way west doing odd jobs around canals, lakes, and rivers, eventually arriving in St. Louis not long after he turned fifteen. Despite his lack of formal education, he worked himself up into high paying and responsible jobs in the river trade and by the 1850s served as a passenger agent for steamboat companies in St. Louis. Eventually he owned and operated his own steamer that carried freight and passengers on the Missouri River.
When the Civil War came, John McDonald, a strong Union man, raised and outfitted the Eighth Missouri Regiment which participated in numerous western campaigns including the Battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh. Major John McDonald counted General William Tecumseh Sherman among his friends, and President Abraham Lincoln appointed Major McDonald a brigadier general, a title people used for the rest of his life.
Not long after Appomattox, General McDonald married Addie Hayes from Memphis, Tennessee, one of the first weddings after the Civil War between a Union officer and a belle from an old Southern family. Along with a new wife, General McDonald accepted a new job as a claims agent, working for clients hiring him to prosecute past due claims against the federal government. He spent much time in Washington D.C. and renewed old friendships and made new ones among the Republican bureaucrats and politicians. General McDonald’s connections served him well and in October 1869, he received a commission to head the Missouri District as inspector of internal revenue.
Soon, General McDonald and his friends created a scheme to keep a percentage of the taxes he was supposed to be collecting. His plan involved underreporting the quantity of whiskey produced and reusing legitimate federal tax stamps that had been painstakingly prepared for easy removal. Local businessmen and some federal officials had to cooperate in this scheme to make it work and some participated willingly while others had to be forced to participate. Federal investigators attempting to expose the suspected fraud were unsuccessful because members of the ring seemed to receive advance warning and when inspectors arrived the suspects were operating as they should. Finally Myron Colony and his committee provided enough evidence against General McDonald to impel him to confess and confess the General did, easing his conscience and implicating his friends General Orville Babcock and President Ulysses S. Grant.
By June 1875, over 300 people including distillers and government employees had been arrested for their part in the Whiskey Ring and President Grant had made it clear that he wanted to continue the prosecutions of people who had stolen the money. The trials opened in Jefferson City, Missouri in October 1875 and in November 1875, during the trial of General John McDonald, prosecutors introduced testimony and evidence that seemed to implicate the President’s Private Secretary, General Orville Babcock. According to a New York Times story, Internal Revenue Agent John A. Joyce had shown dispatches signed “Bab” to his colleagues, claiming that they were from General Orville E. Babcock.
General Babcock immediately wired the United States District Attorney asserting his innocence and asking for a hearing. The McDonald trial ended that day, with the next case not scheduled until December 15, 1875. General Babcock then asked for a Military Court of Inquiry. His request was granted, but before any evidence could be presented, the Grand Jury of the United States District Court at St. Louis issued an indictment against Orville E. Babcock and John A. Joyce, charging them with conspiring to defraud the United States government. The Court of Inquiry was dismissed and the District Court trial didn’t open until February 1876.
Some Grant scholars offer a different version of the story than the New York Times. This version of the story has it that originally President Grant had said that General John McDonald had “grievously betrayed” him, but after the President discovered that General Babcock had been implicated in the plot he cited General McDonald’s friendship with Babcock as good enough reason to believe him innocent of the charges. Some Grant scholars believe that a series of telegrams that the Treasury Department had in custody tied General Babcock tightly to the Whiskey Ring and President Grant could not afford to have them made public.
The telegrams seemed to indicate that General Babcock had warned General McDonald of the coming Treasury Department investigation because they were dated before General McDonald was accused or indicted. The telegrams also were signed with an odd name – “Sylph.”
According to this version of events, Sylph was a woman who supposedly had an affair with General Ulysses Grant and had pestered him since it had ended. General McDonald had helped his friend and benefactor General Grant by keeping Sylph away from him. General Babcock and General McDonald used the name of Sylph on the telegrams as an insider’s code when they corresponded with each other, perhaps with the idea that the name Sylph would remind the President what he owed to General McDonald and General Babcock.
In his biography of Ulysses Grant, historian William McFeely writes that prosecutors confronted both President Grant and General Babcock with the telegrams. General Babcock insisted that the telegrams pertained to something besides the Whiskey Ring, and the President agreed with him. The Secretary of Treasury and his men didn’t believe the President or his Private Secretary and even though some documents relevant to the case were stolen supposedly by a man that the President had hired, the Missouri Court indicted General Babcock.
In the meantime, General McDonald and his colleagues were tried and General McDonald was convicted and sentenced to three years in the Missouri State Penitentiary and charged with a $5,000 fine. Although his colleagues received lesser sentences, most didn’t serve their full sentences and President Grant awarded General McDonald a presidential pardon on January 26, 1877.
General McDonald later wrote his version of the Whiskey Ring story in a book he called Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring and Eighteen Months in the Penitentiary. In his book he writes that General Babcock, rather than President Grant, was involved with Louise Hawkins, whom he called his “sylph” because of her beauty and grace. After his release from prison, General McDonald returned to St. Louis, but eventually lived in Greenlake, Wisconsin and later in Chicago where he died in 1912.
General Orville Babcock is Tried in St. Louis
On February 8, 1876, reporters from across the United States and hundreds of curious people crowded around the U.S. Post Office and Custom House at 218 North third Street in St. Louis, Missouri. The bailiff faced the crowd and told everyone that they couldn’t get into the courtroom unless they had a pass or had been indicted for whiskey frauds. The trial of General Orville Babcock which would last for eighteen days, had begun. Every day, crowds gathered in front of the Post Office to watch General Babcock, often wearing a silk hat, light jacket, and sky blue pants, walk back and forth from his room at the Lindell Hotel at Sixth Street and Washington Avenue.
Four local men including General John Mc Donald, had already been convicted for their roles in the Whiskey Ring and prosecutors had built a case against General Babcock of what appeared to be incriminating coded telegrams and witness testimony.
Defense lawyers had a unique weapon in their arsenal, a weapon that defense lawyers had never possessed before and haven’t since. They had a deposition from a sitting president that had been taken in the White House on behalf of a criminal defendant, General Orville E. Babcock. Prosecutors introduced President Grant’s transcript on February 17, 1876, and a day later newspapers across the country including the Sacramento Daily Union printed the entire Presidential deposition attesting to General Babcock’s character and integrity.
The same day that the defense read President Grant’s deposition at his private secretary’s trial, General William T. Sherman, then living in St. Louis, took the stand and testified to General Babcock’s very good character. General Babcock’s lawyers depicted the prosecution as attacking President Grant himself, once a farmer in south St. Louis County, through his private secretary.
On February 25, 1876, the jury of seven farmers, three blacksmiths, a wagon maker and a bricklayer acquitted General Babcock of conspiracy to defraud the government. “ According to a St. Louis Post Dispatch story recounting the event more than a century later, “The jubilation began on Third Street and moved to the Lindell, where Babcock and friends, including Sherman in uniform, held forth from the balcony over Washington. Babcock told the crowd, “I can only thank you most heartily for your kindness.”
Although he was the only major figure in the Whiskey Ring scandal to be acquitted, General Babcock’s legal troubles weren’t over yet. Less than a month later on March 15, 1876, he was indicted in the Safe Burglary Conspiracy case involving bogus secret service officers framing a critic of the Grant Administration. He was also acquitted of this charge during the trial in September 1876. Like his friend General John McDonald, General Babcock also wrote a book that he called The great trial of Genl. O.E. Babcock, U.S. Army, & private secretary to His Excellency President Grant, which was published in 1876.
General Babcock’s next career move creates another controversy among historians and biographers. Some Grant biographers say that although General Babcock expected to return to the White House after his acquittals and President Grant anticipated the return of his private secretary, his political advisers convinced the President that General Babcock should not return. Although the President still firmly believed in General Babcock’s integrity and capabilities, he realized that he had lost his effectiveness as a presidential private secretary and released him to further his career. Other versions of the story say that President Grant deliberately distanced himself from General Babcock for political reasons.
A letter from President Grant to General Babcock has been passed down in the Babcock family. Datelined the Executive Mansion, Washington D.C., March 1, 1877, the letter relieves General Babcock from the operation of Special Orders No. 75 dated March 3, 1869. It commends him for more than six years of service during President Grant’s two terms of office and expresses confidence in his integrity and great efficiency. The letter is signed U.S. Grant.
After finishing his role in the Whiskey Ring scandal Myron Colony moved to New York and New Haven, Connecticut, and the 1880 census lists him as living in New Haven and employed as a journalist.
Eventually more than 110 people were convicted and over three million dollars in taxes were recovered as a result of the Whiskey Ring investigations and prosecutions. Many people considered the Whiskey ring a symbol of corrupt Republican governments in power after the Civil War. As later scandals swept through the Grant administration, public disillusionment dulled the bright idealism for Reconstruction and President Grant’s presidency ended with the Compromise of 1877.
From the White House to the Mosquito Inlet (Ponce de Leon) Light House
After he had been retired from the White House for less than a month, General Babcock through President Grant’s influence received an appointment as Chief Engineer of the Fifth and Sixth Light House Districts on March 12, 1877. He and his family continued to live in Washington D.C., although he traveled often to lighthouse sites as part of his job.
One of the lighthouses that General Babcock was responsible for planning and building was the Mosquito Inlet (now Ponce de Leon Inlet) Lighthouse twenty miles below the mouth of the St. John’s River on the Florida coast. On May 19, 1884, the General and his company left Baltimore, Maryland on the light house tender Pharos, a two masted schooner, bound for Mosquito Inlet. Leaving Charleston, South Carolina on May 28, the Pharos encountered ferocious winds during the entire voyage. A heavy north east gale began to blow on May 29, but the Pharos made her way through the middle of it and anchored off St. John’s light off the bar with two cables out. The Pharos signaled for a pilot and although the sea ran half-mast high, one of the pilots reached the Pharos. General Babcock sent a message to Dr. J.C. Lengle of Jacksonville, head of steam towing tugs on the St. John’s River, asking that the Seth Low or the Maybie tow the Pharos over Mosquito Inlet Bar and take her in tow if the waves overtook her.
On June 2, 1884, the Pharos anchored off the inlet and General Babcock and his party consisting of Levi P. Luckey of Baltimore; B.F. Sutter of Washington; and one seaman attempted to go ashore in a small boat which overturned in the breakers. All of them were drowned when the boat capsized about 2:30 p.m.
A devastated President Grant said of General Orville Elias Babcock, his faithful aide-de-camp and private secretary, he “was a very able man and a brave and good soldier.” General Babcock’s body was returned to Washington D.C. for burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Work on the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse continued and today the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is the tallest in Florida. It is one of a handful of 19th Century light houses with all of its original buildings intact.
Orville Babcock and Myron Colony Reunited
The Atlanta Constitution of June 14, 1884, printed a poignant follow up story connecting General Orville E. Babcock and Myron Colony. The story said that a letter just received from a gentleman residing at Jacksonville, Florida said that Myron Colony moved to that city and became a member of a firm of real estate agents, move that must have taken place between 1880 and 1884, because the 1880 census lists him as living in New Haven, Connecticut.
The story goes on to say that the same night General Babcock’s body arrived in Jacksonville, June 5, 1884, Myron Colony died and the two bodies were taken to the same undertaker. They were embalmed together and sent North on the same train as far as Washington D.C., “where General Babcock’s body will be left while Colony’s will go to his friends in New Hampshire. It is somewhat remarkable that these two men should thus unconsciously meet death so far from the scene of former strife, and travel to their graves together.”
On May 8, 1886, Annie Campbell Babcock, the widow of Orville Elias Babcock with three young sons to provide for, applied for a pension. The 1900 census shows Annie Campbell Babcock living in Chicago. with her sons Campbell, Orville, and Adolph. Campbell Elias, born in 1868, became a captain in the United States7th Infantry and served with the Rough Riders. He never married and died on June 21, 1917. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery along with his mother and father. Orville Elias Jr., born in 1872, became a manufacturer in Chicago. He and his wife Ellen had two sons. Adolph Boree, born in 1876, became a stockbroker in Chicago.
The New York City Directory 1889 records that Myon Colony’s widow, Josephine, lived in New York City. Myron and Josephine Colony’s only child, a son Roy, became a professor at Columbia University in New York City.
The year 1884 proved to be a fateful one for former President Ulysses Grant as well as for General Orville Babcock and Myron Colony. In May of 1884, he learned that he was bankrupt and in the fall his doctors informed him that he was dying of throat cancer. After he left the presidency in 1877, former president Grant and his family embarked on a world tour, leaving him short of money. Now nearly 60, he looked for employment opportunities. In 1880 he sought the Republican nomination for president but the party nominated James Garfield instead. In 1881, he moved to New York City to go into business with his son Ulysses S. Grant Jr., and another investor by the name of Ferdinand Ward.
At first the Grant & Ward firm did well and the former president and his family and friends poured money into the venture, but eventually investors discovered that Ferdinand Ward had been spending their money on personal items. In May 1884, Grant & Ward failed, leaving Ulysses S. Grant penniless. In the fall of 1884, former President Grant’s doctors diagnosed him with terminal throat cancer. Grant began a race with death. After striking a publishing deal with his friend Mark Twain, he began writing his memoirs, striving to finish and publish them to provide his family income after his death.
.Ex-president Grant wrote furiously through the final months of his life, sometimes finishing 25 to 50 pages a day. In June 1885, his family moved to Mount MacGregor, New York, to a more comfortable home and climate and friends and even a few former Confederate enemies came to his home to pay their respects. He finished his memoirs on July 18, 1885 and died on July 23, 1885, winning the race with death and leaving his family in favorable financial circumstances.
President Grant, General Babcock and the Historians
Many historians including Alan Nevins and Grant biographers including William McFeely have interpreted the Gilded Age and the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant unfavorably, depicting it as a time of financial instability, scandal, and chaos. Grant himself, they characterized as scrupulously honest, but financially naïve and not politically savvy enough to pick honest cabinet members and associates. They believe that he carried his loyalty to family and friends to the extremes of believing that they were incapable of dishonesty and thus paved the way for one of the most scandal ridden administrations in United States history.
The list of Grant’s accomplishments is impressive. He allowed Radical Reconstruction to prevail in the South, supporting the policy with military might when necessary. He countered the power of the Ku Klux Klan, and protected freedmen’s civil rights. In 1870, he ratified the Fifteen Amendment that prohibited people from being denied the vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. He stabilized the currency, negotiated peace with the Plains Indians, and appointed the first black person to West Point as a cadet.
The prevailing scholarly interpretation of Grant’s administrations is that a series of financial scandals closely involving his corrupt associates and including the Gold Ring Scandal, the Financial Panic of 1873, and the Whiskey Ring Scandal overshadowed his accomplishments. Despite his personal honesty, President Grant’s corrupt associates and the aftermath of the Administration scandals discredited his presidency. By the end of his second term the economy was depressed and racial extremism again dominated the South. This interpretation of Grant deems him a weak and ineffective president and some scholars focus on his private secretary, Orville Elias Babcock, as representing the President and his susceptibility to the foibles and follies of his associates.
During the Gilded Age, newspapers were blatantly partisan, unashamedly favored certain social movements and took sides in general. While they were crucial in exposing scandals and investigating the crimes of public officials, journalists also investigated the policies of particular politicians whose viewpoints they opposed. A quick look at two newspaper articles concerning Orville Babcock’s Whiskey Ring involvement illustrates the differences in coverage of the same event. The Sedalia Daily Democrat of November 19, 1875, said that “the evidence indicates that Orville Babcock and others are guilty and Grant must have known and participated since he was so close to Babcock.”
The Helena Independent, of Helena, Montana dated January 13, 1876, expressed the other side of the spectrum when it suggested that any number of people have claimed the honor of being the first to unearth the crooked whiskey frauds, and none are so positive as one J.B. Woodward of St. Louis, who claims a large percentage on two million dollars, the sum he alleges he saved for the Government. Fishback and Myron Colony, formerly commercial editor of the old Democrat, also claim that they led the exposure. “It would be well for some of those fraud developers to indicate how much crooked whiskey money they had themselves handled.”
By the same token, historians including Frank Scaturro, Brooks Simpson, and Joan Waugh have a more favorable view of Ulysses S. Grant and his presidency. They suggest that reformers exaggerated charges of corruption in his administration, especially since President Grant was the first President to initiate Civil Service reform. Several of President Grant’s Cabinet members also worked to end abusive civil service practices that they had inherited from previous administrations.
Max J. Skidmore, Curator’s Professor of Political Science and Thomas Jefferson Fellow at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, advocates new interpretations and perspectives of late 19th century presidents, including President Ulysses Grant. He writes in his book, Maligned Presidents: The Late 19th Century that approaching the late 19th century from a broader point of view “would bring more thorough- and one would hope more realistic – assessments of the presidents then in office.”
References and Further Reading
Brands, H.W. The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. Anchor: Reprint edition, 2013.
Catton, Bruce. U.S. and the American Military Tradition. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1954.
Craughwell, Thomas J. Presidential Payola: True Stories of Monetary Scandals in the Oval Office that Robbed Taxpayers to Grease Palms, Stuff Pockets, and Pay for Undue Influence from Teapot Dome to Halliburton. Fair Winds Press, 2011.
Garland, Hamlin. Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Character. New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1898.
Grant, Ulysses S. Memoirs and Selected Letters: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant/Selected Letters, 1839-1865. Library of America, 1990.
Kirshner, Ralph. The Class of 1861. Southern Illinois Press: Carbondale, 1999.
McDonald, John. Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring: And Eighteen Months in the Penitentiary. St. Louis: W. S. Bryan, 1880.
McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition, 2002.
Nevins, Allan. Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1936.
Perret, Geoffrey. Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President. Modern Library, Reprint Edition, 1998.
Scaturro, Frank J. President Grant Reconsidered. Madison Books, 1999.
Simon, John Y. (Editor). The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 26: 1875. Southern Illinois University Press; 1st edition,2003.
Simpson, Brooks D. Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000.
Skidmore, Max J. Maligned Presidents: The Late 19th Century. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Sloan, W. David, ed. The Gilded Age Press, 1865-1900. The History of American Journalism, Number 4, Westport, CT. Praeger, 1967.
Smith, Jean Edward. Grant. Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition, 2002.
Waugh, Joan. U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth. The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
The great trial of Genl. O.E. Babcock, U.S. Army, & private secretary to His Excellency President Grant. Unknown Binding- Januar 1, 1876. by Orville Elias Babcock (Author)