Caroline’s War (Part 1)

Caroline Jebb Black Crop

On 5 January 1861 Caroline sat down in an army barracks in Florida to write a letter to her older sister. It was a breathless account of all the Christmas parties she had been to, how she had conquered the heart of every officer and triumphed over prettier, better dressed women. Caroline was a clever, vivacious twenty year old with auburn hair who loved being the centre of male attention. She even boasted that one officer had called her ‘a charming little sinner’. Her husband, Lieutenant Adam Slemmer, was ten years older than her. A photograph of him from the time shows a slim, bearded man in uniform, arms folded self-consciously, eyes wary behind rimless spectacles. Caroline was only sixteen when she married him, and perhaps army life offered the prospect of excitement and adventure. But the reality of being an army wife meant moving from barracks to barracks, living far away from her family and a marriage that was less than happy. Flirting with officers helped to pass the time.

Caroline and Adam were based at Fort Barrancas in western Florida, overlooking the sparkling Gulf of Mexico. The country was on the edge of civil war: trouble had been brewing between North and South for months, and the newly elected Abraham Lincoln’s attempts to broker the peace were failing. By January 1861 the Southern states were threatening to break away from the Union. As Caroline sat writing her letter, Confederate troops in Florida were preparing to seize control of all federal forts and navy yards.

Adam had been left in sole charge of the large, strategically important military fort, but with only fifty men he stood no chance of defending it against thousands of armed Confederates. So, on 5 January 1861, he convened an emergency meeting of his officers at their house to decide what to do. Caroline put her pen down and went to listen. The men’s arguments for and against went on for hours. Should they surrender the fort and sail North? Or stay and fight a hopeless battle? Eventually Caroline could stand it no more. She jumped to her feet, saying: ‘Well, if you men will not defend your country’s flag, I will!’

Her heroic enthusiasm settled the matter. Adam made the decision to move his company to Fort Pickens, a disused fort on the tiny, rattlesnake-infested Santa Rosa island just off the coast. Before leaving Fort Barrancas, they spiked the guns and destroyed over 20,000 pounds of gunpowder, then Adam, fifty soldiers and thirty sailors sailed to Santa Rosa Island in a convoy of small boats loaded down with ammunition, provisions and an old mule and cart. They would spend the next four bleak months there waiting for reinforcements. On 10 January Florida seceded from the Union, and on 12 January the Confederates took charge of Fort Barrancas and the naval base.

Meanwhile, Caroline found a few moments to finish her letter to her sister, no longer as a charming little sinner but a fiercely patriotic wife, ready to take up arms and fight alongside her husband. In the end she did not have to. A safe escort was found, and she and the other wives sailed to New York with their children and servants.

The most exciting part of Caroline’s war was just beginning. When she arrived in New York she found that stories about her bravery had got there before her. Later that month she posed, looking beautiful and imperious, for a photographic portrait, copies of which were advertised for sale. She had become the American Civil War’s first pin-up.

In Part (2): how Caroline used her charm on President Abraham Lincoln.

Sources: The Lady Caroline Lane Reynolds Slemmer Jebb Papers at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts; Mary Reed Bobbitt, With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (London: Faber, 1960); ‘Caroline Jebb’ in the  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Caroline’s War (Part 1)’, (July 24, 2016) day/month/year)


An invasion of croquet

Long before he became famous as the gloomy, domineering father of Virginia Woolf, Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a teaching fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. After he left in 1864, he wrote a series of affectionate and sardonic essays about university life, published anonymously in 1865 in a little book called Sketches From Cambridge by A. Don.

In the first chapter, Stephen describes Trinity Hall as ‘the ideal of a college’, with its ancient cloisters and courts surrounded by tall trees, organ music drifting through the air and the sounds of high-spirited young men making their way to lectures, as they had done for centuries. Now this scholarly idyll was under threat: women were encroaching on its hallowed ground.

We have a lawn of velvet turf, hitherto devoted to the orthodox game of bowls, but threatened by an invasion of croquet, for female influence is slowly but surely invading our cloisters. Whether, like the ivy that gathers upon our ancient walls, it may ultimately be fatal to their stability, remains yet to be seen.

The young Leslie Stephen was far from being a conservative. He argued passionately for university reform, and, unlike most of his fellow academics, he was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. He was a tall, athletic figure and a keen Alpine mountaineer who once, on a hot day,  walked 50 miles from Cambridge to London for an evening dinner at his club.

In Stephen’s time the University of Cambridge was still an all male institution, as it had been ever since it was founded in 1513. Only a handful of college masters and professors were permitted to marry, and even the name for students was ‘men’. Men lived, studied, taught and dined together as celibates in their colleges (in terms of marriage at least – prostitutes were a thriving town business). Stephen claimed that during the fourteen years he spent at Cambridge, first as a student, then a fellow, he spoke to no woman apart from his bedder (college cleaner) and a handful of masters’ wives.

But now, for the first time, women at Cambridge were becoming a reality. Separate lectures for women were already being held, and by the late 1860s the first ladies’ colleges at Oxford and Cambridge would be established.

The prospect of female students did not worry Stephen particularly. It was another sort of invasion that he feared. He thought that the university wife would break up Cambridge’s exclusively male scholarly world and ‘destroy the strong college spirit which formed such a pleasant bond of union; a married fellow will, I fear, oftener think more of his wife than his college’.

Whether he wanted it or not, the women were coming. After the university reforms of the 1850s, colleges were keen to adapt to changing times and to attract the best students and teachers. Most male academics did not want to have to choose between a university career and having a family, and by the 1870s most colleges permitted their fellows to marry.

By then Stephen had resigned his fellowship because he refused to accept the university’s religious rules. He moved to London,  began an uncertain career as a literary journalist, and married Minny Thackeray. However, he still kept in touch with his Cambridge friends, including the brilliant Irish classical scholar Richard Claverhouse Jebb. After Jebb married the American widow Caroline Slemmer,  Stephen approved, and wrote to him that he was glad that ‘the idiotic rule of celibacy’ had been dropped. When he met Caroline in 1874 Stephen liked her immediately. Although she had received little formal education, Caroline was well-read, clever and charming, and they formed a lasting friendship .

What did she make of him? In a letter to her sister soon after meeting him Caroline summed Stephen up as one of the men ‘whose regular business, not their genius, lies among books… Such men are in harness because they have not combativeness & destructiveness enough to make their largeness of intellect tell in life.’ It was a characteristically astute and insightful assessment of Stephen on Caroline’s part, which seemed to foresee some of the unhappiness of his later life. It would have fitted well into the great work of biographical scholarship that would later dominate Leslie Stephen’s life, the Dictionary of National Biography.

Naturally, one of the first things Caroline arranged when she moved to her new home in Cambridge was a croquet lawn.

Sources:’Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Leslie Stephen Sketches From Cambridge by A. Don (MacMillan, 1865); Mary Reed Bobbitt, With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (Faber, 1960)

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Leslie Stephen: An invasion of croquet’, (July 24, 2016) day/month/year)



to my new website and blog. I started this blog to explore the lives of university wives and women students who came to live in Cambridge at the end of the nineteenth century. The historian Christopher Brooke put it well when he described these women as ‘pioneers and settlers of a new territory’: as the first women to break into a highly traditional male university society, they formed close bonds of friendship.

In future blog posts I’ll investigate some of these women’s stories and their contributions to literature, women’s suffrage, mental and social welfare, higher education and more. This blog will be about wider networks too, revealing their connections to the world outside Cambridge, including Henry James, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.

To paraphrase the modern biographer Daisy Hay, let’s take those figures who have always been at the edge of the stage and shine a spotlight on them, to see what happens.