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Searching for Redemption in the Deserts of Egypt

By James A. Morgan III
9/5/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

Former Civil War soldiers failed as military advisers to Egypt’s army but found unexpected success as explorers.

Egypt is not a place that is normally associated with the American Civil War. There are peripheral connections, such as Egypt having been a source of cotton for British mills shut off from their usual suppliers in the American South. Within a few years of Appomattox, however, more than four dozen former Union and Confederate officers were serving together, as many had done before in Florida, Mexico or other places, but this time as comrades in the Egyptian army.

Some went for the adventure, some to retrieve their fortunes or salvage their reputations. Some remained only a few weeks, others a few years, and one served two khedives over a period of nearly 13 years. One was the son of a Union Navy admiral and another the son-in-law of a Confederate cabinet member. Their collective story is as colorful and complicated as the men themselves.

The tale begins on January 18, 1863, with the ascension to power of Khedive Ismail. Fifth viceroy of Egypt in the dynasty of Mehemet Ali, Ismail was only 32 years old when he came to the throne with the twin goals of freeing Egypt from Ottoman Turkish rule and fully integrating it into European, rather than African, society. Though educated in France, he typified an Oriental despot of his time: selfish, deceitful and cruel. But he was also committed to modernization and built railroads, canals, telegraph lines, bridges and lighthouses. He established regular steamer service on the Nile and created a public school system. He introduced municipal improvements in Cairo and Alexandria, including gas lighting, modern sewage disposal, water distribution systems and a post office. Ismail also presided over much of the construction of the Suez Canal, which opened on November 17, 1869.

But what he wanted first and needed most in his quest for a free and modern Egypt was an efficient, Western-style army. For some time his predecessors had relied on Western military advisers, mostly French (one of his French advisers was Claude-Étienne Minié, inventor of the Minié ball). Ismail initially continued this practice, though he also brought in Austrians, British, Italians and others. It soon became clear to him, however, that their primary loyalty was to their home countries and that those countries, especially France and Great Britain, were more interested in controlling the Suez Canal than in helping Egypt.

By 1866, Ismail was looking across the Atlantic, where the postwar United States had an enormous pool of unemployed officers with first-rate military training, recent combat experience and a high degree of technical expertise with modern weapons. Ismail became impressed with American power as he watched the United States force France to back down from its support of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico and withdraw its troops. Just as important for his purposes, America had no particular interests that conflicted with those of Egypt.

While in Constantinople in 1869, Ismail met former Union Colonel Thaddeus P. Mott, who had both military experience and connections in the Middle East. Mott had fought as a soldier of fortune in Italy and Mexico before the Civil War. During the war he commanded the 3rd New York Independent Battery (“Mott’s Artillery”) and then the 14th New York Cavalry. His father, Dr. Valentine Mott, had for a time been a physician in the court of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Aziz Mejdid. Colonel Mott himself spoke fluent Turkish and was married to a Turkish woman. He became the khedive’s first American recruit.

Given the task of recruiting others, Mott contacted the U.S. Army’s general-in-chief, William Tecumseh Sherman, who recommended several of his former colleagues and former enemies. Many of those who entered the khedive’s service were given Egyptian ranks higher than their last Union or Confederate ranks, and all were paid at U.S. Army rates. They signed five-year renewable contracts that required them to participate in any war declared by Egypt except one against the United States. If they became disabled through illness or wounds, they would be released with generous severance pay. If they were killed, their widows would receive a pension.

Mott’s first two recruits were former Confederate Generals William W. Loring and Henry H. Sibley. William Wing Loring grew up in Florida where, at age 14, he enlisted in the militia and fought against the Seminole Indians. As a captain in the U.S. Regiment of Mounted Rifles, he lost his left arm in the assault against the Belen Gate in Mexico City. He later fought against Plains Indians and Mormons and eventually commanded the Departments of Oregon and New Mexico. When the Civil War broke out, he followed his state and soon was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Loring’s Civil War career was marred by a personal dispute with Stonewall Jackson that dogged him for most of the war and kept him in secondary commands.

Service in the Egyptian army was a welcome opportunity, and Loring readily accepted Mott’s offer. He was commissioned a major general and charged with building up Egypt’s Mediterranean coastal defenses. In 1876 he became nominal chief of staff to the army’s general-in-chief, Ratib Pasha, accompanying him on the disastrous Gura campaign that March, in which the Egyptians were soundly defeated by an Abyssinian army. Loring left in 1878 and later wrote an account of his Egyptian service titled A Confederate Soldier in Egypt.

Henry Hopkins Sibley was a West Pointer (class of 1838) who, like Loring, fought Seminoles, Mexicans and Plains Indians before joining the Confederacy. Also like Loring, he spent most of his time during the war in secondary positions. Known primarily as the inventor of the Sibley tent and Sibley stove, he was largely unsuccessful during the Civil War in trying to secure the Southwest for the Confederacy. Ismail named him a brigadier general and inspector of artillery. He worked closely with Loring on the coastal defenses.

Unfortunately Sibley was an alcoholic, and his health became an issue. Moreover, he never adjusted to living in a culture so different from his own and often had trouble dealing with Egyptians. He also amassed large debts that he never repaid. These problems reinforced each other and led to his discharge by the khedive in 1873.

Mott’s next recruit would eventually supercede him as senior adviser to the khedive. Charles Pomeroy Stone was an 1845 West Point graduate and a rising star in the Union Army at the beginning of the war, but his career was destroyed by petty politics and personal grudges in the aftermath of Ball’s Bluff in October 1861. After spending six months in prison on trumped-up accusations of treason, he served for 10 months under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks in Louisiana and briefly commanded a brigade in the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac. But typhoid and an ongoing smear campaign against him took their toll, and he resigned from the Army in September 1864.

Stone was superintendent of the Dover Coal Mining Company in Virginia when opportunity knocked. Joining the khe dive’s service effective March 30, 1870, he sailed for Egypt only three weeks later with his wife, Jeannie, and four children ranging in age from 13-year-old Hettie to 8-month-old John. Stone would remain in Egypt for 12 years.

Initially made a brigadier, Stone became Ismail’s chief of staff—apparently because of a report Loring had submitted in which he recommended the creation of such a position. Loring probably wanted the job for himself but held no grudge when it went to Stone. The two men remained friends.

Stone eventually reached the rank of lieutenant general, the highest rank available to a foreigner in the Egyptian service. As chief of staff, he tried to introduce an American style of efficiency via a staff system that was deeply at odds with the highly personalized “pasha system” of the Egyptian army. In Egypt each regimental commander traditionally had treated his unit as his own private property, personally overseeing every aspect of regimental life. These men resented and resisted Stone’s attempt to coordinate and regularize training, logistics and operations, considering it unwarranted interference in their legitimate prerogatives. This grossly inefficient system was the fundamental cause of the defeat at Gura.

Stone never overcame the resistance, and with only minor and temporary exceptions, none of the Americans ever directly commanded Egyptian troops in the field. Stone earned the respect of the khedive, however, and of Minister of War Shahine Pasha, who became one of his biggest supporters.

Early in 1872, Stone and Mott disagreed over how to equip the Egyptian army. This dispute actually revolved around the problematic American consul, George H. Butler, who was a nephew of the U.S. congressman and former Union major general Benjamin Butler. The younger Butler obtained his position through his uncle’s influence and sought to repay him—and make some money himself—by convincing the khedive to purchase Winchester rifles for the Egyptian army. Not coincidentally, Benjamin Butler was the owner of the U.S. Cartridge Company, which made ammunition for the Winchesters.

Stone preferred the Remington rolling block rifles, of which some 60,000 were already in the Egyptian inventory. Mott, apparently having been offered a cut if the Winchester deal went through, backed Butler. Butler’s abrasive and bullying personal style did not work with Ismail, who would not be intimidated by a minor American diplomat. Both he and Shahine Pasha sided with Stone. Angered by the outcome, Mott left Egypt in something of a huff in May 1872 and never returned. Stone replaced him as the khedive’s senior and most trusted American adviser. Many of the Americans who came to Egypt afterward had served with Stone before and during the war.

Not long after Mott’s departure, Butler and two of his subordinates precipitated a public brawl with General Loring and two other American officers known to be friends of Stone. This ended with one of Butler’s men shooting one of Loring’s men in the leg. Butler was justifiably blamed for the scandal and left the country in disgrace soon after the incident.

Realizing that he could not overcome the established pasha system of organization, Stone settled into a role that focused on education and exploration. He established several battalion schools for the enlisted men as well as a military academy modeled after West Point.

The battalion schools were created because Stone convinced Ismail to decree that no soldier could be promoted unless he could read and write. Literacy among the enlisted men was virtually nonexistent, but necessary if they were to become qualified noncommissioned officers. Within four years of the opening of the schools, the literacy rate in the army jumped to 76 percent. As the soldiers often brought their sons with them to class, Stone’s schools also boosted the overall literacy rate in Egypt.

Stone was also one of the founders of the Khedival Geographical Society, which is undoubtedly his primary legacy in Egypt. Through it, he promoted and organized more than a dozen major and numerous smaller exploratory expeditions up the Nile. These were designed with mostly military motives in mind, as Ismail wished to expand his domain to the source of the Nile and eastward toward the Indian Ocean. But they also provided detailed information on the geography, mineralogy and social anthropology of the region.

This work suited the Americans. Stone himself had surveyed and explored parts of northern Mexico in the 1850s, and the U.S. Army had a long tradition of conducting such pathfinding expeditions in the American West. Many of the later exploratory successes of the British in this part of Africa relied heavily on Stone’s work.

On June 26, 1879, the Ottoman sultan deposed Ismail in favor of his son, Tewfik. This was instigated mostly by the British and French for financial reasons. Ismail had nearly bankrupted Egypt with his modernizations, wars, explorations and vast personal expenses. He owed huge sums of money to several European banks, and the only solution for the Europeans was to depose him and find a more pliable khedive. The sultan cooperated because he was worried about Ismail’s increasingly independent behavior.

A year earlier, following Ismail’s reluctant decision to allow a British-French commission to oversee Egypt’s finances, all the Americans except Stone were in effect fired. The action was justified by the commissioners as a cost-saving measure. After the British formally took control of Egypt, Stone resigned and returned to the United States early in 1883 to become chief engineer on the Statue of Liberty project. Often credited only with building the statue’s base, he in fact oversaw the entire project, including the assembly of the statue. Stone fell ill the following winter and died of pneumonia in New York on January 24, 1887. He is buried at West Point.

As a collective military mission, the khedive’s Americans must be judged a failure. They never managed to get the Egyptian army anywhere close to Western standards. As a scientific mission, however, they were a profound and lasting success because of their exploration and surveys of the Nile and large portions of northeastern Africa. These soldiers of misfortune, each looking for a kind of personal redemption, pulled themselves together after the Civil War and left an American mark on Egypt that deserves to be remembered.

 

James A. Morgan III writes from Lovettsville, Va. For further reading, see: Khedive Ismail’s Army, by John P. Dunn; The Blue and the Gray on the Nile, by William B. Hesseltine and Hazel C. Wolf; and Americans in the Egyptian Army, by Pierre Crabites.

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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