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In all the armies of the Civil War, no two tent-mates were as unlikely a pair as Privates Andrew Ross and George Byron of the 5th New Jersey Light Artillery. In reality, Ross was James Horrocks, a 19-year-old British subject and son of a Lancashire cotton manufacturer. He had fled to America to escape a paternity suit.

Byron, on the other hand, had not merely two identities, but a wide variety of names, ranks, titles, birthplaces, even ages. Depending upon which document he proffered, he was 42, or 51, or 52 years old.

Ross crossed the horizon of history like a meteor, gone in an instant into anonymity, like most people. Byron, on the other hand, continues to confound literary collectors, manuscript dealers, and archivists, even today. Crafting a lifelong career out of his supposed relation to poet Lord Byron, he left a trail of outraged creditors, deceived customers, and naive admirers on both sides of the Atlantic–a trail that included camps and hospitals of the Union army.

It is largely due to Byron’s wide-eyed tent-mate Ross that we have as nearly seamless a self-portrait of George Gordon DeLuna Byron as we are ever likely to have. Ross corresponded copiously with his family in England (and, providentially, they preserved those letters). For months, his letters reported the revelations of the amazing Byron.

When the 5th Artillery was first mustered into service and sent to the defenses of Washington, D.C., in September 1863, Ross wrote home that he had made the acquaintance of a Private (soon to be Corporal) Byron and was astonished to learn from Byron’s own lips that he was the illegitimate son of the late George Gordon Lord Byron, flamboyant British nobleman and famous Romantic poet. Over the weeks that followed, Byron told Ross he was 54 years old, that he had already held the ranks of major and colonel in the American army, that he had served as a cavalry commander under Union Major General John C. Frémont, and that soon he would be speaking to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to procure a new commission for himself. The economic burdens of a wife and three children had forced him to enlist for the bounty, but Byron was quick to explain that this was only a temporary setback.

By day, Ross was busy learning his new duties as an artilleryman. But each evening, Byron became his Scheherezade, unfolding another fresh chapter of a remarkable life. Ross recounted to his family that Byron had been born in Cadiz to the Marchioness DeLuna, who had married Lord Byron in a secret ceremony–secret because British law prohibited nobles from marrying Roman Catholics. The poet had then abandoned his pregnant Iberian bride and married an Englishwoman.

As the days rolled by, Byron revealed further marvels to his new friend: he spoke Spanish, French, Italian, and Persian, the latter picked up while he was serving as an officer in a Persian invasion of Afghanistan, during a hiatus in his 20 years’ service with the East India Company. Private Byron’s inability to step forward and collect his rightful inheritance was due to a problem with “entail,” the legal norm that assigned family riches to certain heirs and not others. Byron had attempted to mend his fortunes by publishing a volume of previously unknown works of his poet father in New York City, but the venture had been a financial failure.

Ross’s rapt attention to his tent-mate’s picaresque life was soon rewarded with a promise: Byron pledged that, during his forthcoming audience with Secretary Stanton, he would secure a lieutenant’s commission for Ross.

While awaiting this much-delayed conference, Ross learned more astounding things about his comrade. Byron told him he had been not just a lowly lieutenant in his Persian service, but a major general in command of an entire army. Based upon these travels, he had been made a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and, consequently, presented privately to the queen. Here a tone of doubt crept into Ross’s correspondence: “Surprising, because Byron is now a mere corporal in the Army of the United States.”

On November 11, 1863, Ross’s hopes reached their zenith: “Byron intends to go to see Stanton tomorrow. When I write again, I shall be able to tell you how he succeeded.” Nine days later, a frustrated Ross confided to his family, “There must be a screw loose somewhere about him. Accident or misfortune is not sufficient reason to satisfy my mind. There is some grand blunder or other on his part. Perhaps he has disgraced himself some way. I don’t know.”

A few days later, Byron went off to the hospital. Ross, not one to turn disappointment into hostility, made visits to Byron’s sick bed. On the day after Christmas, he found Byron’s “lumbago” much improved. The ever-expansive Byron, wrote Ross, had “spoken to a colonel friend who was certain to obtain a commission for me in the Ambulance Corps.” This delighted Ross, since officers could resign, and even if he stayed in the army, ambulance service seemed a great deal safer than the artillery. But Ross’s final comment on “old Byron,” would be one of resignation: “I suppose it is very foolish on my part ever to have expected that he should secure me a commission.”

The real truth about Byron’s life is not exactly what he told Ross, but is in many ways even more bizarre. In spite of his inventions, prevarications, and omissions, much of his life can be confirmed. What cannot be clarified is his childhood. He claimed many times to have been born in Spain and sent to private schools and universities throughout Europe after his mother’s death (though he never named a specific school). Yet when he arrived in America in August 1841, at the age of 22 (or perhaps 32), he wrote that he was “returning [emphasis added] to his adopted home amongst the mountains of Virginia.”

Whatever may have been the reality of his early years, from 1841 onward he left a paper trail that documents his movements. His stay in Virginia must have been brief, because he soon appears in the records of New York City as a debtor; one New York boot-maker wrote, “Major George Gordon Byron of the British Army owes me for sundry pairs of boots.” To escape the wrath of the bootmaker and other creditors, in 1842 he fled to Cleveland, Ohio.

Byron seems to have done no better in Cleveland, for in 1843, he turned to a new career: begging. He was no street beggar, though; he displayed and used a knowledge of persons and events in the London literary scene that suggests some prior dealings with that world.

One of England’s foremost publishers at that time was John Murray, who had been born into a family of publishers and was an intimate of Sir Walter Scott, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, and Lord Byron himself (until 1824, when the poet died). “Major” Byron’s opening gun in this correspondence was a request that Murray lend him $2,200 (a vast sum then) to make the final payment on a farm near the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Byron asked also for an autograph of his eponym, the late Lord Byron. Murray provided neither. Undaunted, Byron wrote again the next year, this time asking for $8,000 to purchase a farm on the Hudson River. This letter ended with a remarkable assertion: “Do not, sir, suppose me to be faint hearted–I am a Byron–the bar sinister [his bastardy] notwithstanding–civil law cannot change Nature.” Murray did not give in, but the second letter established Byron’s leitmotif: not only did he claim to be Lord Byron’s son, but his literary style and handwriting had become uncanny imitations of the dead poet’s genuine productions.

In January 1844, Byron braved the stormy North Atlantic to try his fortunes firsthand. In London, he laid siege not only to Murray, but also to the Countess of Lovelace–Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada. She, too, rejected his claims and demands, but then a turn of fortune changed the game. Byron shared a cheap London rooming house with John Wright, an impoverished editor who had in his rooms a considerable mass of Lord Byron’s papers and letters. When Wright died, the landlord sold the paper to George Byron to cover Wright’s unpaid rent. Now Byron had a small library of Lord Byron’s genuine works, with which he perfected his imitation of the poet’s hand and style. Soon, “copies” of Lord Byron’s letters, poetry, and manuscripts flooded the London auction market. In addition to these forged copies, Byron also created what he passed off as freshly discovered works, utilizing the poet’s style, lifting portions out of other manuscripts, and sometimes contributing his own inventions in the Byronic mode. The forgery was thorough. Byron even forged postage cancellations to “prove” the dates of letters.

Having launched his “Lord Byron” career, he began to branch out, producing a series of forgeries of the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which he then offered for sale to Shelley’s widow! This remarkable woman, the author of Frankenstein, was a gifted writer, but innocent in the ways of business; she sent word that she would not buy the collection as a whole, but wanted to set a price for each piece. One can imagine the delight on Byron’s face as he received what amounted to an offer to buy as many forgeries as he could produce. He was happy to please her, and sat in his rooms day after day turning out “Shelley” pieces until she tired of these transactions.

By 1846, Byron was on the blacklist of the Society of Guardians for the Protection of Trade against Swindlers and Sharpers. He countered this difficulty by marrying a 16-year-old Liverpool girl named Henrietta. She was apparently a perfect mixture of innocence and guile and, under a fictitious name, she unloaded enough forgeries upon the London dealers to support herself and her husband. This went on until Byron overstepped himself by advertising that he would publish a book of Lord Byron’s previously unknown works, with the endorsement of Byron’s noble family. There had been no such endorsement, and the threat of legal action by the family threw fear into Byron. In mid-July, he took Henrietta and their two children and sailed for New York aboard the Gladiator.

Unlike the other passengers, the Byrons had not paid for their tickets; George had persuaded the captain that on arrival in New York, the Appleton publishing firm would pay for the passage. Appleton, of course, had never heard of George Byron, and the efforts of the captain to collect the debt came to nothing.

Over the next decade, Byron published various collections of the poet’s letters, most forgeries. Some reviewers thought them an excellent addition to the known works, but the editor of the New York Evening Mirror not only refused the advertisements, but also described Byron in an editorial as a “humbug, with the look of a sneak and the manners of a Jeremy Diddler.” Such negative impressions of Byron were growing in London, too, and though he made several return trips over the next few years, increasing furor over his frauds and misrepresentations (by then a collection of Keats’s manuscripts had been found to be Byron’s handiwork) made permanent residence in England impossible. Through the 1850s, Byron, now a self-proclaimed colonel, published a number of “undiscovered” works by Lord Byron, but still without financial success.

The Civil War thrust Byron back into the public records. On July 30, 1861, the adjutant of Major General John C. Frémont, commander of the St. Louis-based Federal Department of the West, sent a telegram to Byron at 37 Bowery, New York City, stating, “Come immediately to St. Louis as Captain of Cavalry. Thirty dollars allowed here for traveling expenses.” How Frémont knew of Byron remains a mystery. But army records show he was paid from August 19 to November 12, 1861, as a captain in the Frémont Hussars. When Frémont himself left Missouri under a cloud, Byron’s captaincy also took wing.

No more is known of Byron until August 20, 1863, when he appears on the rolls of the 5th New Jersey Light Artillery as a 44-year-old private. He had “gray eyes, dark hair, dark complexion, and is five feet four inches.” The next month he was promoted to corporal. On November 27, 1863, he was admitted to Lincoln General Hospital (at the corner of Capitol and 15th Street East in Washington, D.C.) with a diagnosis of “paralysis, lower extremities.” In August 1864, he was transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps, but remained a patient in the hospital until 1865, when he was discharged from the army. His paralysis seemed to disappear once he left military life. Although he was “44” when he enlisted, he is described as “over 50 years of age” in his discharge papers.

Byron resumed his civilian occupation. In 1869, he spent several months in Paris, using the title of “colonel” and attempting to persuade the Marquise de Boissy (the former Teresa Guiccioli) of his descent from Lord Byron. The onetime mistress of the poet wrote to a friend that Byron was certainly not the son of Lord Byron, but that he was rather charming in spite of that. Finding no success in Paris, he proceeded to London. The Marquise was amused to note that when he wrote her from London, he asked her to pay his Paris hotel bills.

Byron maintained an office at 40 Broadway in New York City in the 1870s. This office–actually a desk in the corner of another man’s office–was frequented by bill collectors and by the curious folk Byron hoped to interest in his “patent fish tail rudder.” He traveled to Mexico, where his legendary gift of language was not enough to make his newest confidential schemes about “lost” gold mines work. But in 1872 in New York City, Byron published 19 of his forgeries under the title of The Unpublished Letters of Lord Byron. The style and handwriting were such perfect imitations that in 1922, the eminent critic (and master forger) Thomas J. Wise pronounced them genuine.

In 1878, Henrietta and George Byron returned to London. There, George died in 1882 of albuminuria and bronchitis. On his death certificate, his widow gave his occupation as “Colonel in the American army.”

Henrietta applied for a Federal pension, which was granted in 1897. In her application she submitted a number of papers, including a photograph allegedly of Byron in 1861 in St. Louis in a captain’s uniform. (The handwritten date on the back of the photograph is June 1861, a full month before he was summoned from New York City.) Henrietta also attached a newspaper clipping (the date and city are omitted) which reads, in part:

At the outbreak of the Rebellion, Major George Gordon Byron appeared upon the martial scene at the first sound of the tocsin of alarm. He proved a good soldier, although an inveterate martial dandy, inventing an attire of blue velvet jacket, white jean britches and huge Blucher boot, ruthlessly suppressed by a repressive edict issued by the Secretary of War.

The article also says that Byron helped organize two New York regiments in May and June 1861: the Imperial Zouaves and the Lincoln Greens. In a handwritten addendum, Henrietta stated that he had also been instrumental in the organization of the Mozart Regiment and the New York Mounted Rifles. (New York State records show a “Major Byron” at the May 1861 inception of the Lincoln Greens, but he is absent from the histories of the other three regiments.)

An article in the March 1886 American Antiquarian added this obituarial note: “He posed at various times as a litterateur, a journalist, a diplomatist, a government agent, an officer of the British Army in the East Indies, a British naval officer, an officer of the United States Army, a mining prospector, a broker, a merchant, a spy, an agent for cotton claims, a commission agent, an Oriental traveler, a representative of European mercantile interests, a bookseller, a patent rights agent, a gentleman of means, and an aristocratic exile, expatriated and pensioned on condition that he should never reveal his genealogy.”

It cannot be said that Byron did much to save the Union or free the slaves; he spent most of his enlistment in bed with imaginary or feigned paralysis. He was not a hero, but a remarkable, gifted man who squandered his talents in minor frauds and forgeries. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on as, even today, scholars argue the authenticity and value of letters and poems written under the name of Byron 150 years ago.

Thomas Lowry is the author of Tarnished Eagles: The Courts-Martial of Fifty Union Colonels (1997).