Guns, Secession, and a Secret Message in a Spool

Posted on Tue., Feb. 6, 2024 by Olga Tsapina
A spool of thread and a written note on folded paper.

This secret message, written from one United States Army officer to another, was hidden inside a spool of thread so that it could pass undetected through enemy lines. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Most manuscript collections come with an assemblage of newspaper clippings, invitations, menus, handbills, holiday cards, wedding announcements, and other non-manuscript items. These material remnants of someone’s life constitute valuable primary sources for historians.

Such is the case with an envelope of materials in The Huntington’s Edward Davis Townsend collection. Townsend (1817–1893) was a career army officer, amateur author and artist, and the grandson of Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), the governor of Massachusetts who became the unwilling namesake of the practice of gerrymandering and, later, the fifth vice president of the United States.

Townsend lacks the name recognition afforded to the great field generals of the Civil War era, but he occupied an important position in the United States Army: the head of the Office of the Adjutant General in Washington, D.C. His appointment to the position in 1869 was preceded by a succession of military posts from the Midwest to California, then on to D.C., where he served as a staff officer to Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the United States Army. Townsend remained the adjutant general until his retirement in 1880.

A black-and-white photo of an Army general, seated in uniform.

Gen. Edward Davis Townsend (1817–1893), between 1860 and 1865, digital file from the original glass negative. Civil War photographs, 1861–1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Townsend served as the U.S. Army’s adjutant general from 1869 to 1880. The spool of thread was discovered among Townsend’s papers at The Huntington.

Given the extraordinary depth and richness of the contents in the Townsend collection—which contains not only his illustrated diaries of his service in California, but also his grandfather’s correspondence with the likes of John Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and Thomas Jefferson—it is small wonder that a large envelope filled with various non-manuscript materials never attracted much attention.

Yet the envelope’s contents turned out to be rather curious. There are several labeled items, apparently intended for a museum of the War Department that Townsend was trying to develop after the Civil War. Along with a piece of a British flag captured in 1781 at Yorktown and a length of red tape used by Confederate President Jefferson Davis during his detention at Fortress Monroe, there was a spool of thread wrapped in a piece of paper.

Spools like this were found in the numerous sewing kits (known as “housewives”) carried by U.S. soldiers. But it was the wrapper that caught my eye. It contained a typescript message dated 1861—several years before the typewriter was invented. A note written in Townsend’s hand along the bottom of the page read: “Sent this way to pass thru rebel lines. Message in spool of thread from one Union officer to another.”

A spool of thread and a typed note on folded paper.

This is the typed transcript of the note that was scribbled in pencil, hidden inside a spool of thread, and directed to the commanding officer at Fort Duncan, Texas. Along the bottom is a note, written in Edward Davis Townsend’s hand, that begins: “Sent this way to pass thru rebel lines.” | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

I peered into the hole of the spool. Sure enough, inside was what appeared to be a tightly rolled piece of paper. I immediately contacted The Huntington’s superb conservation lab, where project conservator Cynthia Kapteyn managed to extract the paper and smooth it out. (You can watch a video of the extraction here.) The unrolled page revealed a handwritten message, hastily scribbled in pencil. The text matched the typed transcription.

The humble spool and the grubby note shed new light on the dramatic events that unfolded shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860.

The raging secession crisis was accompanied by chaos in Washington, with the lame-duck President James Buchanan trying to placate the slave-holding South while Congress and his own administration were rapidly shedding Southern members.

In mid-December 1860, Buchanan decided against reinforcing the U.S. military installations in South Carolina. The decision provoked an outcry in the North and prompted the protest resignation of the secretary of state, Lewis Cass. It was no use: A week later, on Dec. 20, the Palmetto State voted to leave the Union, becoming the first state to do so. (A few weeks afterward, Mississippi and Florida would follow suit.)

Preoccupied with the South, the administration paid little attention to the West. On Dec. 13, 1860, David Emanuel Twiggs (1790–1862), the commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of Texas, wrote to his old friend Winfield Scott to warn him that Texas would soon secede and asked what to do about the “property in [the] charge of the Army,” referring to munitions and other related military equipment. In the coming months, Twiggs would repeat this question in three more communications to the capital. He never received any meaningful response. In part, this was because the administration was trying to avoid an appearance, as Scott put it, of “waging war or acting offensively against any State.”

Two sepia-tone photos of Army generals in uniform.

Left: Mathew Brady, Gen. David E. Twiggs (1790–1862), between 1860 and 1862. A veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War (1846–48), Twiggs commanded the U.S. Army’s Department of Texas starting in 1857. Right: Mathew Brady, Gen. Winfield Scott (1786–1866), 1862. Known as the “Grand Old Man of the Army,” Scott was the longest serving commanding general of the U.S. Army, holding the position from 1841 to 1861. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

There was also a lag in communications. The telegraph lines had not yet reached San Antonio, and it took about two weeks for a letter sent from Texas to reach Washington. The full exchange of correspondence between the U.S. Army’s Department of Texas and the command in the capital took almost a month. (The chronology of these communications can be pieced together from material filed with the War Department and published, under Townsend’s supervision, in the first volume of The War of the Rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies.)

The letter that Twiggs wrote to Scott about Texas on Dec. 13, 1860, happened to arrive in Washington on Dec. 28, the very same day when South Carolina, which had already seceded, seized the U.S. Army’s arsenal in Charleston. On the next day, Dec. 29, the Virginia-born secretary of war, John B. Floyd, resigned.

On Jan. 15, 1861, Twiggs wrote to Washington, tendering his resignation. As a “Southern man,” he saw no place for himself in a country that would no longer “be the United States,” adding that as soon as his native Georgia “has separated from the Union I must, of course, follow her.” Georgia voted to secede four days later.

With his letter of resignation slowly winding its way to Washington, Twiggs received a communication on Jan. 20, 1861, from Sam Houston, the outgoing governor of Texas. Houston warned Twiggs that “an effort will be made by an unauthorized mob” purporting to act “on behalf of the State” to “take forcibly” the U.S. Army’s property. Urging Twiggs to defend “the forts, arms, munitions, and property of the Federal Government,” Houston encouraged him to surrender the property to the official representatives of the state. Twiggs replied that he was “without instructions from Washington” and would work with the “executive of the State” after the secession.

A grayscale illustration on sepia-tone paper. A large man wields a bat labeled “liberty & union,” as he faces a snake-like monster with paws and many human heads.

Currier & Ives, The Hercules of the Union, Slaying the Great Dragon of Secession, 1861. Winfield Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army, depicted as Hercules slaying the many-headed hydra, or dragon, of the secession. David E. Twiggs appears as Treason. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

On Jan. 28, 1861, Joseph Holt, the newly appointed secretary of war, signed the orders relieving Twiggs from his command of the U.S. Army’s Department of Texas and appointed Carlos A. Waite to replace him.

Twiggs, however, remained in charge for three more weeks. The orders for his dismissal did not reach San Antonio until Feb. 15, 1861. Waite could not replace him until Feb. 19 because he was stuck in Camp Verde, the Texas headquarters of the U.S. Camel Corps, preparing to defend it against “a mob of reckless men” who might attempt to “seize the public property, the most valuable of which consists of fifty-three camels.”

On Feb. 1, 1861, the Texas Secession Convention had voted to leave the Union. Three days later, on Feb. 4, Twiggs, writing to Washington with the secession news, mentioned nothing about the disposition of the Army property. His decision had already been made. He would indeed sign over all U.S. military installations in Texas to the state just two weeks later.

Twiggs did offer his assurances that the U.S. troops would retain their “clothing and provisions” (not arms) and be safely evacuated out of the state. The extent of Twiggs’ commitment was not clear. There were persistent rumors that the troops in Texas would not be allowed to leave the state and that they might even be taken over by the “Southern republic.” Unable to influence the events in San Antonio, the War Department focused on salvaging the weapons located at the forts along the Rio Grande.

Henry Lee Scott, Winfield Scott’s son-in-law, had been ordered on Jan. 30, 1861, to charter a steamer bound for Texas. The steamer, under the command of Fitz-John Porter, was to proceed from New York to Brazos Santiago, a port along the Gulf Coast. There, it would pick up five artillery companies (and their guns) stationed in Fort Duncan and Fort Brown and take them to Florida to reinforce endangered U.S. military installations on the Florida Keys.

A black-and-white portrait of an Army general in uniform.

Gen. W.H. French (1815–1881), between 1855 and 1865, digital file from original glass negative. Brady-Handy photograph collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. The message hidden in the spool was addressed to the commanding officer of Fort Duncan, most likely French.

And this is where the message in the spool comes in. Addressed to the commanding officer of Fort Duncan, most likely William H. French, it reads: “Move instantly with the Artillery companies upon Brazos Santiago, take your arms guns and necessary equipment, and camp equipage. Have your horses on embarkation—the formal orders have been intercepted—Texas will demand the guns of the batteries. A steamer will be ready to take you by sea.”

On Feb. 8, 1861, Winfield Scott’s chief of staff warned Porter, the commander of the steamer, that he should expect complications as “proper orders” failed to reach Fort Duncan and Fort Brown. Indeed, the commanding officer at Fort Brown complained that “official letters” were being “intercepted.”

Even though the message in the spool is countersigned “By order of General Twiggs,” it bears the signature of the Pennsylvania-born William Augustus Nichols (1818–1869). As the adjutant general of the Department of Texas, he was authorized to issue orders on behalf of Twiggs, the department’s commander.

View of a spool of thread from above. The text on the label reads “Andrew Coats United States.”

The spool of thread, manufactured by the Scottish firm J. & P. Coats, was supplied to the United States Army by the company’s agent, Andrew Coats. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The date of the spool’s message is curious. The War Department sent the instructions about the evacuations to San Antonio on Jan. 31, 1861, but they were not received in San Antonio until Feb. 14, four days after the date on the note.

It appears that Nichols knew about the plan well in advance, probably from a contact of his own in Washington. Is it possible that his contact had been Townsend? The two men attended West Point from 1833 to 1837 and served together in the Midwest.

The steamer arrived in Brazos Santiago at the end of February 1861, and a month later, the five artillery companies safely disembarked along the Florida Keys. The cannon that evaded confiscation in Texas helped ensure that the Florida forts remained in the hands of the United States until the end of the Civil War.

On March 1, 1861, Twiggs was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army “for treachery to the flag of his country.” In May 1861, he received a commission in the Confederate army, but he retired five months later.

View of a spool of thread from the side. The text on the label reads “B, No. 1.”

The label on the side of the spool was attached by Townsend, who intended to display it in a museum of the War Department. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Olga Tsapina is the Norris Foundation Curator of American History at The Huntington.