General Orville Babcock: Some Old Time Corruption

babcockportrait

So far, the ongoing Robert Mueller probe has brought a slew of indictments and some convictions, but that hasn’t yet included any sitting White House officials. Historically, an indictment while still in office is a rare event that last befell Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff, who was indicted in 2005 for lying and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame affair. Before him, it had been one hundred and thirty years since Orville Babcock (right, Library of Congress), Private Secretary to President Ulysses Grant (in essence his Chief of Staff), was indicted for conspiracy to defraud the government in the Whiskey Ring scandal. Although mostly forgotten today, in his time Babcock was at first famous, then infamous. He also had a local connection, owning a farm on Bunker Hill Road in the 1870s. The Brookland Middle School today sits on part of that property. Here’s a portion of the Hopkins map from 1878 that shows the area.:

Babcock’s rise began during the Civil War, when he first joined Grant’s command at the siege of Vicksburg. Coming from the Corps of Engineers, Babcock showed drive and confidence and soon he was a trusted aide-de-camp to Grant. By the end of the war, Babcock was close enough to the commanding general that he was tabbed to coordinate arrangements for Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and accompanied the Confederate general to the McLean House, where he witnessed the capitulation. 

1867 lithograph depicting the surrender. Babcock is fourth from the left.   Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

After the election of 1868, Grant brought Babcock with him to the White House, installing him as Secretary to the President of the United States. The post-war years were heady times that brought forth a new mood in the country, best described by historian Timothy Rives:

Turning from war to peace with a vengeance, Americans busied themselves conquering the western territories, laying great webs of railroad, forming powerful combinations of capital, and manufacturing an unprecedented number of goods. It was a sumptuous and acquisitive age.

Acquiring money, legally or not, became the goal of many men connected to the Grant administration. Not least of them was Orville Babcock, whose closeness to the president made him extraordinarily influential. Grant’s devotion to his loyal friends was noted at the time, and his attachment to Babcock was an especially firm one. 

Orville Babcock and his wife, President Grant and his wife, and companions vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in 1874. The two men were close, and Babcock’s indictment would put Grant in a precarious situation.    Library of Congress. 

Babcock’s background as an engineer stood him in good stead when President Grant added a new duty to his portfolio: Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds for Washington, DC. He took his additional role seriously. Babcock oversaw work on the Anacostia and Chain bridges, the Washington Aqueduct, and various other infrastructure projects. He also oversaw one fiasco. In the 1870s, the United States Fish Commission was enamored of carp, a non-native fish they thought would do well in America. Orville Babcock thought it would be a good idea to turn some of the marshy land around the Washington Monument into ponds to be used as fish hatcheries, and so was born Babcock Lakes:

1888 birdseye view of the mall and the location of Orville Babcock’s lakes. Click to enlarge. Library of Congress

Carp, it turns out, are an invasive species and they quickly spread and began to take over the nation’s waterways. By the late 1880s Washington’s carp breeding experiment was over and the country was looking at carp removal programs for lakes and rivers. Babcock Lakes, sans fish, remained for another two decades, until they were covered over in 1911 with land dredged to form West Potomac Park.  

All during Grant’s first term, Babcock’s influence with the president continued to grow. By the second term, historian John Y. Simon describes the relationship this way:

Babcock is often viewed as the Iago of the Grant administration, the evil genius, the one who makes Grant do the wrong thing, whispers in his ear, who pushes him in the wrong direction.

The Black Friday Gold Panic, the New York Custom Ring Scandal, the Star Route Scandal, the Sanborn Incident, and the worst and most famous of them all, the Whiskey Ring Scandal, all came during Grant’s time in office. Babcock had his fingers in many of the schemes, but was most deeply embroiled in the Whiskey Ring, which involved skimming tax revenue from whiskey sales around the country. To be successful, it demanded collusion up and down the chain of production, distribution and sales.

An 1880 Puck cartoon by Joseph Keppler shows President Grant balancing the various scandals of his administration while considering a third term. Orville Babcock is at lower right, holding onto a “crooked whiskey” ring. Click to enlarge. Library of Congress.

In December 1875, a grand jury in St. Louis indicted Gen. Orville E. Babcock on a charge of conspiracy to defraud the Treasury of the United States. Babcock proclaimed his innocence. President Grant publicly supported him. Instead of a normal trial Babcock, still a member of the Regular Army, requested a military court of inquiry, where his army friends might offer a friendlier venue. He was denied. The civil trial that followed was a media sensation and made Babcock a national celebrity in a way we would recognize today. It also brought about an unprecedented offer from President Grant: he would go to St. Louis and testify on behalf of his friend Orville Babcock.

This had never happened before. A sitting president had never testified voluntarily in a criminal trial. It was an enormously risky proposition for Grant, with very little upside for him or his administration. His cabinet was not pleased with the president’s offer, to say the least. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish pleaded with Grant to recognize the optics the situation would present. 

…should the President go, it would be a voluntary offering of himself as a witness for the defense in a criminal prosecution instituted by the government, of which the President is the representative and embodiment; that it would therefore place him in the attitude of volunteering as a witness to defeat the prosecution, which the law made it his duty to enforce.

Grant relented, but only to a point. He would not go to St. Louis to personally testify in the trial. But he would offer a deposition. On February 12, 1876, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, Maj. Lucien Eaton for the government, and William A. Cook for the defense came to the White House to depose the president. Grant’s prodigious memory seemed to fail him often during testimony, offering a litany of “don’t remember” or “didn’t know until later” excuses. But he backed Babcock to the hilt, speaking to his loyalty and efficiency and how respected he was by his men during the war and after. It was enough. After deliberating only two hours, the jury acquitted Babcock. He was a free man, but he was no longer welcome in the White House. Perhaps Grant’s eyes had cleared somewhat during the trial, for he now recognized the negative effect Babcock’s presence would have on the already damaged reputation of his administration. But he didn’t turn his back on his old friend entirely. Grant appointed Babcock Chief Inspector of Lighthouses, a post he held until June 2, 1884, when he drowned during a storm while on an inspection tour of the Mosquito Inlet lighthouse in Florida. 

As for his farm here, like many wealthy Washingtonians, Babcock had a main house downtown, with a retreat on the city outskirts. He might have spent time on the farm in the summers, but it is most likely he used it as an investment, running the farm on shares with two co-owners. In the late 1870s the property was bought by Lewis Means, who ran the B&O Railroad drove yard on the former Queen farm right next door. The house he lived in, which was there during Babcock’s tenure and lasted well into the 20th century, came to be known as the “Old Means Place,” and was torn down when the Brookland School was constructed there in the 1970s.

The “Old Means Place” as it looked in 1935.    Historical Society of Washington

President Grant decided to not run for a third term in 1876. His reputation as Chief Executive has evolved over the years, from very critical in the 20th century, to a more positive image today. Still, the one thing most people remember about Grant’s presidency are the scandals, in good part caused by his close friend, Orville Babcock.

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Sources:

Carter, Elliott, “Washington’s 19th Century Carp Obsession Is the Government Fiasco You’ve Never Heard Of,” Washingtonian, June 30, 2017.

Pesca, Mike, “Orville Babcock’s Indictment and the CIA Leak Case,” NPR, November 2, 2005.

Rives, Timothy, “Grant, Babcock and the Whiskey Ring,” Prologue, Fall 2000, Vol. 32 No.3.

Simon, John Y. (Ed.), “The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant,” Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

“General Grant’s Old Gardener,” Washington Post, September 4, 1878.

“New Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds,” Evening Star, May 11, 1871. 

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