The following curious letter was submitted anonymously to the Governor of New York making him aware of two individuals who might be southern sympathizers and therefore traitorous to the U. S. Government.
The first individual named was Samuel “Selden” Hetzel (1837-1897), the son of Capt. Abner Riviere Hetzel (1803-1847) and Margaret Phebe Jack (1815-1899). Margaret was the daughter of a planter in the West Indies and no doubt had a proclivity to lean south in her allegiance despite the fact that her husband had served as a Captain and the Assistant Quartermaster in the US Army during the Mexican War. He was posted primarily at Vera Cruz during the war but became ill and died in Louisville, Kentucky, before he could get home in July 1847.
A family history confirms that Selden received an appointment to West Point by virtue of a letter of recommendation by Gen. Winfield Scott in 1853 but was expelled for not responding promptly to orders and for “muttering” in the ranks. Jefferson Davis opposed the decision by Superintendent John G. Barnard but the decision stood. In 1856, Selden was reinstated to the Academy but he was finally discharged for similar offenses in February 1858. In a letter dated 8 June 1861 by Lt. Samuel S. Partridge of the 13th New York Infantry, Sam wrote his brother that that his cousin, “Sed Hetzel acted so disgracefully and abused Judge Selden’s generosity and hospitality to such an unbearable degree that the judge gave him $500 and a revolver and a new outfit and started him for Pikes Peak. The last heard of him was in a Hell at Denver City.” [“The Civil War: A Soldier’s Letters Home 1861-1863, page 14.]
Selden was not long in returning from Denver, however. In October 1861, he volunteered and was commissioned a Major in the 77th New York Infantry. Muster Rolls indicate he was discharged 15 May 1862 after tendering his resignation but he was curiously reinstated as the Major again on 3 July 1862. A newspaper article appearing in Rochester, N. Y. papers reported that Selden deserted at Yorktown. “He was a West Pointer, a very genial fellow, but a relative of Mr. Jeff Davis, ” according to the paper. It went on to say that “he was very bitter on Mr. Seward because he had prevented his promotion by having alleged that he was a ‘sympathiser.’ [Leavenworth Daily Conservative, May 17, 1862]
Another reference to Selden can be found in the letters by his cousin, Lt. Samuel S. Partridge of the 13th New York Volunteers. In a letter dated 16 June 1862, it was stated that Selden, the “late Major…had been dismissed [rather than resigned] from the service. His mother has secured the influence of Alf—Ely—Preston, King, Sherman and others to get him reinstated, but when discharged by order of A. Lincoln and G. B. McClellan, I don’t think they can do [much]. Poor Aunt Margaret, I’ve thought. All the while sick, and sometimes distressingly so; her only son always in trouble. She has cares enough to wear her out.”
The second individual suspected of being a southern sympathizer was Mary Gilliat (Gray) Harris, the wife of John Harris (1793-1864) who was the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Mary was the only daughter of William Gray, Esq., later her Britannic Majesty’s Consul for the State of Virginia, located at Norfolk, Virginia.
Western N. York
January 20th 1862
The Hon. Gov. Morgan
As there are so many traitors in our midst, loyalty to my country impels me to disclose to you the following facts. First, that Mr. Selden Hetzel who received at Albany some months since the commission of Major in the National Army, belongs to a strong secession family. He is the son of the late Capt. Hetzel of the United States Army who died in the service of his county during the Mexican War. His widow received through the influence of Jefferson Davis & the late General Jessup between $20 and $25,000 from the government in consideration of services rendered by her husband during that campaign. 1
The son was subsequently admitted to West Point, when after a short period he was expelled for insubordination. By the influence of friends, he was again received & a second time discharged upon the same ground. Consequently he is not a graduate of that institution.
It is the opinion of those who know Mr. Hetzel that pecuniary considerations were paramount to all others in the selection of his present vocation.
Mrs. Hetzel has long been a personal friend & correspondent of the Davis family even to the present time. Nor do they hesitate in presence of their friends to to avow their secession sympathies. The public journals have at various times stated that Mrs. Hetzel had been arrested at Washington but it was incorrect. Although a resident of Washington, she left there early last summer & has not yet returned.
Secondly, I would suggest that the lady of the officer at the head of the Marine Corps [John Harris] now residing at the barracks should not be overlooked by the investigating committee. Said officer is believed (to be by all who knew him intimately) perfectly loyal to his country. His lady is the daughter of the late British Consul long resident at Norfolk. I would recommend caution in this latter case and have ground for suspicion that all is not right in that department by some now holding commissions.
May I beg, Sir, that you will consider this communication as confidential. I have struggled long between duty & inclination having know the above parties many years, & independent of their secession sympathies, with but one exception, esteem them all—knowing that early associations have produced this unhappy result.
I leave it to your own judgement to make any use of the above facts as you may deem most judicious. Be assured they are reliable.
The present crisis requires every sacrifice for our country’s good & were it the case of my own child, I as a mother would feel justified in making the disclosure.
— A true friend to the country.
1 Among the Papers of Jefferson Davis: 1849-1852, it is reported that on June 17, 1850, Davis “supports bill for relief of Capt. Abner R. Hetzel’s widow, Margaret (Congressional Globe 31:1, 1237-38).” The claim was not actually a “widow’s pension” such as might have been awarded for service to the widows of fallen servicemen during the Civil War but for the legitimate claim of a commission (percentage of funds handled and disbursed) by the quartermaster in the 1830s during the Cherokee removal. Apparently this was done to dissuade such handlers of large sums of the government’s treasury from misappropriating funds. Hetzel’s widow claimed that the government still owed her husband approximately $12,000 from this period of time which had never been closed out prior to his death because he had never left military service. The claim was debated on the floor of the 31st Congress for some months because the practice of allowing this commission had ended in the intervening years.