Part I: The Reverend
Thomas Nelson Conrad, the man who would become Virginia Tech’s third president, spent a lot of time sitting in Lafayette Square Park in September 1864. To most people passing by, the 27-year-old must have seemed like another resident of Washington, D.C., lounging in the park, trying to forget about the Civil War. It was common for citizens to spend hours relaxing in the park, taking in the view of the White House and watching the federal troops guarding the presidential mansion.
However, Conrad was not out just to enjoy the fall air. Conrad was taking notes on the number of troops, when people arrived and left from the building, and the movements of the president himself. He was on a mission on the authorization of the Confederate secretary of war, one so secret that even the rest of the Confederate cabinet was not allowed to know about his plan.
Conrad was going to kidnap Abraham Lincoln.
If you were to just flip through a history of Virginia Tech, you might think that Thomas Nelson Conrad was not that interesting of a president. He was just the third in a line of bearded ex-soldiers who ran the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC), the school that would become Virginia Tech. His term lasted a little over four years, very short compared to most modern presidents. There is not a single building on campus named for him.
But in fact, Conrad may be the most interesting and controversial president in the history of the school. Although Virginia Tech’s current president, Tim Sands, may be a fascinating person, I do not think he has ever conspired to kidnap the president of the United States.
For a large portion of his life, Conrad was very much on the wrong side of history, fighting to protect a system of racism and oppression. His political changes of heart later in life do little to make up for his activities during the war. The changes in views may have been personally expedient for him more than anything else.
But Thomas Nelson Conrad’s story mirrors the evolution of Virginia Tech before, during and after the Civil War. Before the war, he advocated for secession, going so far as hiring the U.S. Marine Band to play "Dixie” at a high school graduation. During the war, he used his connections in northern Virginia to spy on the federal government. After the war, he aligned himself with Republicans in the Readjuster party and fought for higher education in the state.
This is a story of war and politics. This is a story of loss and redemption. This is the story of Virginia Tech’s Confederate president.
Thomas Nelson Conrad was born Aug. 1, 1837, in Fairfax, Virginia — like a number of future Virginia Tech students. His father, Nelson Conrad, was a wealthy local merchant. Nelson and his wife, Lavenia M. Thomas, had five children, of which Thomas Nelson was the oldest son.
The Conrad family was incredibly wealthy. Conrad grew up in the comfort of what is today known as the Moore House, a large home in the center of historic Fairfax, still standing today. Per an 1850 slave schedule, Nelson Conrad had at least four slaves at the time.
Nelson Conrad owned almost all the buildings in the center of Fairfax until 1853. On Aug. 4, 1853, a devastating fire that started at the printing office of the Fairfax News on Main Street ripped through most of the downtown area. The property was insured, luckily for Conrad, but he decided to immediately sell his land holdings to prevent another such disaster. Nelson Conrad remained in the area for a few more years and sold the Moore House in 1859, moving north to Maryland.
Also in 1853, Thomas Nelson Conrad wrapped up his studies at Fairfax Academy and headed off to college. He chose to attend Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, about 90 miles away from his hometown. The school was a popular choice for Virginians at the time; its alumni included President James Buchanan and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney.
By all accounts, Conrad felt right at home at the school. He was a very active member of the Belles Lettres Literary Society, the oldest student organization there that was a mix between a debate group, book club and fraternity. During his four years at the college, he served as secretary and later president of the club.
Conrad had a bit of a theatrical flair. He was a very active member of a fledgling Shakespeare society on campus, participating in multiple productions. According to the diary of one of his friends, Horatio Collins King, the club turned heads at the school on a few occasions by wearing “the Shakespeare collar” around campus. Also, according to the diary, Conrad played Samson and Lady Capulet in a production of “Romeo and Juliet” in the spring of 1857 as a senior.
King and Conrad, working with several other friends, organized a musical show for the summer of their senior year. The patriotic show, organized for July 4, 1857, featured the college’s Chapel Choir singing “To Thee Oh God Our Savior,” “Pilgrim Fathers” and “America.” The show doubled as a celebration for the literary societies; it was popular enough to become a college tradition for years to come.
During his time at Dickinson, Conrad also joined the school’s first fraternity. The Epsilon chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma was founded in 1854 by Charles Francis Himes with some of his friends from the Belles Lettres society, presumably including Conrad.
The fraternity operated in near total secrecy. Faculty at the time were very strongly against fraternities and secret organizations, believing they were undemocratic and against the principles of the school. In November 1857, after Conrad had graduated, the chapter roll was discovered by a faculty member. The college president used the roll to seek out the brothers, require them to burn their chapter papers and pledge to never meet again.
Phi Kappa Sigma and Belles Lettres would also provide a friendship that would later prove vary valuable to Conrad. On Halloween of 1856, Daniel Mountjoy Cloud, Class of 1858, was inducted into the fraternity at the brand-new Phi Kappa Sigma hall, a small house run without the knowledge of the school. King’s diary references Conrad and Cloud’s friendship; they would stay in contact for years after they graduated.
After leaving Dickinson in the summer of 1857, Conrad took a job as principal of the Georgetown Institute in the District of Columbia. He served as both the head teacher and the preacher at the boys’ school, earning the moniker of “The Reverend.” Apparently, he was quite popular, earning the occasional commendation in local newspapers for the success of his school. In 1860, Dickinson awarded Conrad a master’s degree for his success.
However, as he was earning a reputation as an educator, Conrad was also earning a reputation as an ardent secessionist. In June 1861, Conrad was trying to organize commencement exercises for the Georgetown Institute. Possibly looking for a bit of patriotic flair, he chose to hold the ceremony in the nearby Dumbarton Methodist Church and hired the U.S. Marine Band to play.
In retrospect, it was a fairly poor decision by both the band and Conrad. The U.S. Marine Band has long been known as the “President’s Own,” and the president at the time was Abraham Lincoln. To make matters worse, the church was packed with secessionists and southern sympathizers. Parents chose to send their boys to Conrad’s school for a reason.
At the ceremony, several of the graduating seniors wore badges advertising secession and gave speeches arguing for war. Conrad ordered the band to play "Dixie,” the favorite song of the Confederacy, instead of its usual patriotic tunes.
This did not sit well with the band director. He agreed to play the song, but announced to the audience beforehand that he was still a very loyal Unionist. According to contemporary newspaper reports, the crowd grew so rowdy at the sound of “Dixie” that the police who were supposed to monitor the affair walked away. They would not watch such a blatant display of secessionist sentiment.
Conrad’s stunt came only a few months after the battle of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and tensions were high in the city. His position as a preacher and educator could protect him from suspicion no longer. A few days after the ceremony, Conrad was arrested along with a few of his students on suspicions of disloyalty. His students were released soon afterward, but Conrad was sent to the Old Capitol Prison, located where the U.S. Supreme Court now stands.
The little time he spent in the prison was supposedly rather cushy. He would later write in his memoirs that he was “granted every privilege, many individual favors and in no way restricted, except for the general good. (The prison superintendent) treated me like a father would treat a misguided son.”
He managed to obtain a partial parole while awaiting a prisoner exchange with the Confederacy, allowing more dangerous criminals to be held in the jail. Conrad was free to roam the city for six weeks so long as he did not leave the District of Columbia. However, this may have been an oversight on the part of Union officials. Within a few days, he was plotting to kill the highest-ranking general in Washington.
Later in life, Conrad wrote two memoirs on his experiences during the Civil War, "A Confederate Spy” and “The Rebel Scout.” In them, Conrad describes his plot to assassinate General Winfield Scott, the aged Mexican-American War hero sometimes known as “Old Fuss and Feathers.”
The Virginian was at that time in charge of the federal army. To many on the side of the Union, he was a hero, if a little bit out of shape. But to Conrad, Scott was a traitor to his home state who deserved to be assassinated.
After his release, Conrad met up with another Confederate sympathizer and formulated a plan of attack. The elderly general was an easy target; he was in too poor of shape to fight in the field and spent most of his time in his office in the War Department. Conrad and his co-conspirator secured a rusty musket with which to do the deed and sent a telegram to the Confederate government asking for permission.
Of course, the Confederate War Department told him no. If Conrad assassinated Scott, he might be replaced with someone actually competent. According to his memoirs, Conrad and his friend abandoned the idea and the musket, tossing it down a little-used well on Pennsylvania Avenue.
After six weeks, Conrad reported back to the prison for the exchange. He was then shipped down to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, with hundreds of other prisoners. As soon as he was released, he quickly set off to join the Army of Northern Virginia.
It was no longer enough to sit idly by on the sidelines of the war. He was heading to the front lines.
Part II: The Spy
If it was not clear by this point, Thomas Nelson Conrad had a bit of an ego. The theatrical flair and rhetorical ability that he demonstrated during his time at Dickinson College and the Georgetown Institute also translated to a knack for self-publicity, much to the benefit of historians.
In May 1887, Conrad published a series of pieces in The Times, a newspaper based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, detailing his adventures during the Civil War. The pieces did so well (or at least stoked his ego sufficiently) that Conrad decided to turn them into a ghost-written book in 1892 titled “A Confederate Spy: A Story of the Civil War.” Conrad was not happy with just that book either; he also revised and expanded the memoir and re-published it as “The Rebel Scout: A Thrilling History of Scouting Life in the Southern Army” in 1904.
Much of what we know about what Conrad did during the Civil War comes from these books and articles. They are an excellent primary source of information about the Confederate Secret Service, which like most spy agencies did not keep a lot of detailed records.
However, Conrad’s ego is blatantly obvious in the books. He frequently stretches the truth to make the mundane parts of the war seem exciting and sexy. There are a number of retold stories about Conrad that sound completely unbelievable, such as hiding in a woman’s hoop skirt to avoid federal soldiers. Furthermore, “The Rebel Scout” is full of dialogue and stories that Conrad suddenly “remembered” in the 12 years since he wrote his first book.
This is all a disclaimer to say that maybe parts of this narrative may not be perfectly accurate, considering how prone Conrad was to self-mythologizing. However, we do not have many other sources to go by.
We can be reasonably sure that after his release from the Old Capitol Prison in 1861, he went straight to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to enlist.
According to Conrad’s memoirs, one of the first people he met upon his release was Dabney Ball. Ball was a member of the inner circle of Confederate cavalryman James Ewell Brown Stuart (better known as Jeb Stuart).
He held the rank of major, in charge of all the chaplains in Stuart’s cavalry, but he was better known as “The Fighting Parson.” He joined Stuart’s First Virginia Cavalry in July 1861, earning his nickname for his non-ecclesiastical involvement at the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major land battle of the war. According to accounts from other soldiers, Ball rode his horse to the front lines of the battle and fired every shot in his revolver at federal troops from only a few feet away.
Ball took Conrad under his wing, recognizing his intelligence and talent, and personally recommended him for service to Stuart. Jeb Stuart’s cavalry is infamous in Confederate war history for his stunning victories against federal forces. Conrad had great admiration for the cavalryman; he named the horse he rode in the later years of the war after the reliable commander who had treated him so well.
Despite the contradictory nature of the assignment, Stuart gave Conrad two jobs. He would serve as both a chaplain in the Third Virginia Cavalry and as a scout. Conrad had the theological training and experience to pass off as a convincing chaplain. Additionally, he had an intimate knowledge of and a large social circle in northern Virginia, allowing him to slip easily across enemy lines.
According to his memoirs, Conrad was running reconnaissance missions within a few days of enlisting. In the relative calm after the First Battle of Bull Run, he easily snuck into the headquarters of Union generals while disguised as a chaplain with the federal army. Neither side had gotten used to the idea of spies reconnoitering their generals.
His extensive knowledge of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area would prove very useful in his first major assignment. At that point in the war, the Confederate government was desperate for cash because of the extensive federal blockades of their ports. The rebel government realized that the war would not last very long if they could not obtain a foreign loan.
Conrad was called from the first to the War Department in Richmond, where he was told his first assignment. He was to meet British and French agents in Washington and convey them to Richmond without detection.
As identification, he was given a note from the War Department that described a gash on his tongue and a scar on his left index finger. He shaved his full beard down to long sideburns, bought norther-made shoes and replaced his plug chewing tobacco with the short-cut tobacco popular in the north. Wearing a gray civilian suit, he set out on his trusty scouting steed — named Jim Crow, I kid you not — for enemy territory.
Getting into the city was the easy part. Conrad stealthily crossed the Potomac River into Maryland at an unmonitored ford and then simply walked into the city, appearing as another farmer from Maryland.
After searching the registers of local hotels, he managed to find the agents as well. They were easily convinced by the gash on his tongue that they had the right man. With the help of a sympathetic cobbler, he stowed the agent’s documents in their shoes and rented a carriage from another friendly Confederate.
The hard part of the mission was getting back into Virginia. The borders of the city were crawling with guards who would have questioned the presence of the agents.
Conrad was forced to go underground (quite literally). Along the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which paralleled the river into Maryland, there was a large culvert that allowed a small stream to flow by.
There was one problem: the roof of the carriage was too high. Thinking quickly, Conrad drove to the house of another Confederate sympathizer, who ordered his slave to get Conrad a handsaw. In “A Confederate Spy,” Conrad recalls spending nearly an hour sawing off the roof. He describes it as “the hardest job I ever had.”
The effort paid off for Conrad. The mission was ultimately successful and the agents made it to Richmond, negotiating a $3 million loan that would help finance the war. Conrad also earned a reputation as a scout who could cross back and forth from Washington easily, transferring valuable information for the Confederacy.
After that mission, Conrad began making regular trips to Washington, D.C., developing a spy network that would serve the Confederacy later in the war. Initially, he frequently spent nights outside the city at the hotel of John Surratt Sr., who was an interesting character himself.
The entire Surratt family was heavily involved in the Confederate cause. One of his sons, Isaac, enlisted in the 33rd Confederate Cavalry, and his other son, John Jr., was a courier for the Confederate Secret Service. Throughout the war, the Surratts were suspected of operating a secret courier network from the hotel. John Surratt’s wife, Mary Surratt, was executed after the war for aiding John Wilkes Booth’s escape after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
However, Conrad later decided to move his operations closer into town. One of his old Washington friends, Thomas Green, owned a house in the heart of the capitol at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street. Green had bought the old Van Ness house, located where the Organization of American States is today, in 1846, and during the Civil War, it was one of the most prominent private residences. Green, a Confederate sympathizer, had aided Conrad in his adventures since his release from the Old Capitol Prison and was likely more than happy to help.
By the spring of 1862, Conrad writes that he had set up a relatively strong intelligence-gathering operation based around the house. Conrad used multiple double agents in the federal government to gain critical military information, which he then covertly relayed to Richmond.
One critical component was a friend in the federal War Department who worked as a clerk and occasionally passed him information. Early in the war, the clerk copied the contents of a file describing a major campaign planned by George McClellan, who was leading the Union army at the time. The clerk left the copy of the documents sitting on his desk during his lunch break. Conrad, living close by, simply walked into the office and picked them off of the desk.
The documents described troop and equipment movements in McClellan’s planned Peninsula Campaign which was supposed to capture the Confederate capitol in Richmond. However, Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army were able to beat back the federal forces, possibly using the information obtained by Conrad. The campaign also made Jeb Stuart famous after he rode his cavalry around the entire Union army.
However, Conrad may have needed to put more thought into his choice of headquarters. If you are running a covert spy ring in enemy territory, it may not be the best idea to locate it in one of the most famous houses in the area. Furthermore, Green was fairly well known as a Confederate sympathizer and already on the federal government’s radar.
Another one of Conrad’s old friends from the Confederate Army, Edward Norton, had wormed his way into the ranks of the U.S. Federal Detective Police. According to Conrad, he was one of the right-hand men of Lafayette Baker, the chief of the agency in charge of intelligence and counterintelligence.
Conrad and Norton would regularly meet to exchange information, which worked fairly well until about the middle of the war, when Norton found out that Baker was planning to raid the old Van Ness house. To top that, Norton could only meet Conrad to tell him a few hours before the raid was planned to occur.
As soon as Norton told him, Conrad fled the city as fast as he could. According to his memoirs, he had a serendipitous meeting with the mother of one of his former Georgetown Institute pupils as he was trying to leave town. She loaned him the money that he needed to pay off a boat captain to let him pose as a crew member. He avoided detection by federal inspectors and made it successfully to a hideout in King George County, a little way outside of Fredericksburg and 50 miles from the detectives on his trial.
However, this did not happen until much later in the war (Conrad never lists a date in his memoirs beyond that it happened after the summer of 1863). In the meantime, Conrad was working his way up in the ranks of the Confederate secret service.
Two days after the Battle of Fredericksburg ended in December 1862, Conrad made his way to Richmond to visit Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Conrad suggested to Davis that he might better serve the Confederate cause as not just a scout but as a spy in command of a handful of men. Davis agreed to write an order to the commander of fortifications in Richmond asking him to promote Conrad, but with a warning.
“'I cannot bear to think of our young men being shot down or hanged as spies, but go back to your camp and think well of the results,'” said Davis, quoted by Conrad in his memoir. “'Then if you can reach no other conclusion, the detail shall be granted.'”
Conrad says that he had no change of heart that night. The next day, he went to the commander and was promoted to the rank of captain. No longer just a scout, he was now a real Confederate spy.
Part III: The Kidnapper
If you were just to read Thomas Nelson Conrad’s second memoir, “The Rebel Scout,” you would imagine him as a 19th century James Bond, dodging bullets and charming women at every turn. His story is certainly exciting, and the anecdotes we have seen so far are only the tip of the iceberg. He presents himself as a likable protagonist, motivated by love of his home state and skilled at the art of deception.
But unlike James Bond, Conrad is fighting for the wrong side of history — very much so. Although both sides of the war committed atrocities, Conrad was fighting for slaveholders and discrimination, whether he saw it that way or not. In his memoirs, he often mentions how he frequently traveled with a “negro servant” named William Chapman, who he describes as a devoted “slave.”
As a spy, Conrad committed acts that were sometimes clever but in retrospect were often reprehensible. The same man who would introduce the bachelor’s degree to Virginia Tech also plotted to kidnap Abraham Lincoln with one of his old fraternity brothers. The contrasts are hard to comprehend.
One of the things that Conrad is most famous for is the creation of a key Confederate courier system often called “the doctors’ line.” After receiving his commission in December 1862, Conrad and his men (initially two oarsmen, a courier and Chapman) set up a semi-permanent camp on a cliff above Boyd’s Hole on the Potomac River in King George County. They were on orders from the Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon to set up a new communication link between Richmond and Washington.
Conrad recruited three local physicians, because they could ride at night claiming they were on house calls without drawing suspicion. The three formed the doctors’ line. By passing messages between the doctors from Washington to Boyd’s Hole, a message could be sent from Richmond to Washington in less than 24 hours. The system continued to exist until the end of the war, and Conrad claims in his memoir that it was “of a nature invaluable to our Chiefs.”
He called the post at Boyd’s Hole, located near modern-day Caledon State Park, “Eagle’s Nest” for its height above the Potomac and the number of eagles that regularly nested there. A small wharf allowed Conrad and his men to land and stow the boat that they would take back and forth across the river. They called their rag-tag navy the “Potomac Flotilla,” even though flotilla seems like quite the exaggeration.
On one occasion near Eagle’s Nest, Conrad’s spying adventures (and his life) were nearly ended. There is some discrepancy between the two memoirs he wrote on what happened. In the first he was out searching for supplies, but in the second, he was on a daring mission at the behest of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Either way, he was arrested near the Union army’s picket line near Eagle’s Nest and shipped to Point Lookout in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Luckily, the soldiers did not recognize Conrad as a spy — then he would have been shot on the spot. However, he realized quickly that the prison, which held over 50,000 men over the course of the war, would be incredibly difficult to escape from.
According to his memoir, Conrad put some his acting skills to use in escaping the prison. He convinced a Union doctor that he had smallpox, which led to his transfer to a smaller quarantine prison camp. There he escaped easily, and after two days of walking was back at Eagle’s Nest.
Also, according to his memoir, Conrad almost succeeded in engineering the fall of Washington to the Confederacy while at Eagle’s Nest. In the summer of 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was advancing through the Shenandoah Valley, following federal forces under the command of Joseph Hooker. Lee had just delivered a major shellacking to the Union army at the Battle of Chancellorsville, one of the most stunning Union defeats of the war. The men of the Confederate army were eager to drive Hooker well into northern territory and settle the war once and for all.
Hearing the news that Lee would be passing near Washington, Conrad rode from Eagle’s Nest up to the old Van Ness House in the city. At the time, his source within the War Department was still feeding him information. Conrad learned after talking to Confederate agents in Washington that the city was almost completely undefended.
He then had the idea that if he could get in contact with Jeb Stuart, whose cavalry was participating in the campaign, he could lead them into the capital without much of a fight. He rode out to the front lines, passing what he described in his memoirs as “department clerks” manning fortifications outside the city, but was unable to reach the Confederate lines. Before he could try again, reinforcements were brought into the city, making Conrad’s plan unfeasible.
Throughout the rest of 1863 and 1864, Conrad continued to run intelligence missions along the front lines in Virginia. But Conrad’s most outlandish mission came in September of 1864. By then, the war had shifted strongly in favor of the Union, and it looked increasingly impossible for the Confederacy to continue — much less win — the war.
In what was likely not his brightest moment, Conrad had the idea of kidnapping President Abraham Lincoln and holding him as ransom for peace. In his memoir, he acknowledges that the idea was completely ridiculous. But, at a time when things were looking desperate for the Confederacy, it didn’t seem that bad.
“Even had we succeeded in capturing Mr. Lincoln or any two or three members of his cabinet besides, a child could conclude in the light of subsequent events that the move would have accomplished no tangible good to the Confederacy,” Conrad wrote in “A Confederate Spy.” “The Scheme was nothing more than a wild, visionary longing ‘to do something.’”
Conrad subsequently rode to Richmond, where he convinced an initially resistant Secretary of War James Seddon to go along with the plan (I wonder why he was initially resistant). Seddon warned Conrad that violence could not be used and that the order must not be traced back to the Confederate government at all costs.
However, Seddon was also trying to keep the plan under wraps in case something went wrong. Apparently, Seddon never told the rest of the Confederate cabinet of the plan. He also wrote orders to John Mosby, a cavalry officer known for his independence, and Charles Cawood, who was in charge of a signal station on the lower Potomac, telling them to help Conrad. But, the orders neglected to tell the men exactly what they were supposed to be helping with.
Although Conrad had only limited support from the Confederate government, he did have the support of two loyal friends: Edward Norton, in the U.S. Federal Detective Police, and Daniel Mountjoy Cloud, his old fraternity brother who was also from Virginia.
Cloud had not been idle during the war. Much like Conrad, he had taught at schools in Maryland and New Hampshire after graduating from Dickinson. But also like Conrad, the siren song of protecting his home state was too strong.
He fought briefly in the Seventh Virginia Cavalry before moving to the Confederate secret service in 1863. There he rose to the rank of captain, the same as Conrad, and helped coordinate spies in Washington, D.C. Conrad and Cloud frequently crossed paths during the war, and collaboration was nothing new to them.
In “A Confederate Spy,” Conrad writes that he started scoping out Lincoln’s movements as soon as he made it back to Washington. He spent hours each day sitting on a bench in Lafayette Square Park where he had a good view of the White House. The park was also frequently visited by Washington residents looking for fresh air, making Conrad much more inconspicuous.
Conrad felt that he had Lincoln’s routine down pat after several days. Lincoln usually in the evenings took a carriage to the Soldier’s Home in the northern part of the city, riding out on 14th Street to Columbia Road and then up a wooded hill to the cottage. He figured that this was the time Lincoln was both the most accessible and most unguarded.
The plan was relatively simple. Conrad and Norton would follow the carriage along 14th Street to Columbia Road on horseback, disguised by the darkness of evening. At Columbia, they would meet Cloud, who would be driving a carriage by himself.
When Lincoln’s carriage reached the relatively secluded forest around the cottage, Conrad and Norton would overtake the driver. They would then force (“by means of a pistol” at their heads, according to Conrad) Lincoln into Cloud’s waiting carriage, which would then whisk the president to the Potomac River. They would make contact with Cawood at the signal station at the river, who could then help ferry Lincoln across.
But as it turns out, Seddon had been Lincoln’s best bodyguard. Throughout the war, Mosby had a reputation of doing his own thing. His cavalry, often called Mosby’s Rangers or Mosby’s Raiders, was made up of insurgent guerillas that were famous for their ability to disappear into thin air.
Mosby had independently had the same idea as Conrad and sent half a dozen men to Washington. But unlike Conrad, Mosby never felt the need to tell Seddon, and because Seddon never told him that Conrad was doing the same thing, two groups of people were soon trying to kidnap Lincoln at the same time. To make matters worse, the men from Mosby’s command planned to capture Lincoln in almost the same manner and take him back to the old Van Ness house, where he would be ferried across the Potomac to Mosby’s camp.
However, according to Conrad, Mosby’s men became a bit too familiar with the bar at the hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue where they were staying. Word quickly reached federal detectives that Confederate agents were planning to kidnap Lincoln on one of his rides to the Soldier’s Home. Before Conrad or Mosby’s men could put their plan into action, additional guards were assigned to the route to protect the president.
It would not be Conrad’s last hair-brained scheme of the war. That winter, he sent one of the lieutenants in his command to be captured and sent to the Old Capitol Prison. The plan was that the lieutenant would organize a massive escape, and Conrad’s Potomac Flotilla would help ferry them to join Lee’s army. However, Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Courthouse and essentially ended the war before the escape could be arranged.
On April 15, 1865, only a few days after the surrender, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre. Booth had previously plotted to kidnap Lincoln with several of his friends during the ride to the Soldier’s Home, making them the third group plotting to kidnap the president in the same way.
Booth frequently met his co-conspirators at the boarding house of Mary Surratt, the same hotel where Conrad frequently stayed early in the war. That boarding house was also used by Booth and his co-conspirators after he assassinated Lincoln to store weapons for their escape. After the assassination, Mary Surratt was convicted and hanged for aiding and abetting the assassination. Conrad devotes an entire chapter of his first book, “A Confederate Spy,” to arguing that Surratt’s hanging was “murder in legalized form.”
The day after the assassination, Conrad was arrested by soldiers from the U.S.S. Jacob Bell while sleeping at the house of a farmer. He had abandoned his post at Eagle’s Nest, refusing to surrender and planning to return to his parents' house.
Conrad was taken aboard the steamer, where he was threatened with death for supposedly aiding in Booth’s escape, which he denied doing. He escaped death there, but was transported to Washington where he was met by a jeering crowd. His mustache at the time resembled Booth’s, which led the mob to charge him, threatening to kill him.
He managed to escape with his life after a soldier intervened, but not with his dignity. In his memoir, Conrad writes that he was frustrated to read newspaper accounts of his capture that described him as a “noted guerilla and spy.” According to Conrad, he was only ever a spy.
Part IV: The Traitor
Thomas Nelson Conrad certainly felt like a traitor in the Old Capitol Prison in April 1865, sitting in a cell adjacent to that of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators. According to his memoirs, he was held in solitary confinement for days for his suspected role in the assassination.
Conrad was innocent, but he must have feared for his life just a little bit. If the mob outside thought that he deserved to die, what would the military officers in charge of the prison think? And even if they accepted his pleas of ignorance, would they still hang him for his espionage activities?
Things turned out quite well for Conrad however. Also in his memoirs, Conrad writes that the Old Capitol Prison had always treated him well; the prison superintendent, William Wood, was exceptionally kind to the Confederate prisoners-of-war in his charge. Conrad later found out that Wood had been a Union spy during the war. His life had been spared several times by Confederates; maybe he was just returning the favor.
It was Wood who ensured Conrad’s release. The story is once again hazy in Conrad’s memoirs, but in “A Confederate Spy,” Conrad describes Wood taking him to meet Lafayette Baker, the head of the U.S. Federal Detective Agency who had nearly arrested him on multiple occasions. According to Conrad, Wood introduced him to Baker quite casually while getting permission to put him on a steamer back to Virginia.
“‘Colonel Baker, I take pleasure in introducing to you a noted rebel spy and scout, Captain Conrad, who wishes to return to Virginia,’” Conrad writes. “Colonel Baker shook me warmly by the hand, said his men had often tried to capture me and smilingly answered to Colonel Wood: ‘He shall have the pass and the steamer.’”
All of his worrying had been for naught. Within three weeks of his arrest by federal forces, he found himself back at Eagle’s nest, where he had run his intelligence operation during the war.
Despite the fact that he had permission from Baker to roam the country freely, Conrad could not yet return to his old life. Although the Confederate army had surrendered, bands of former soldiers continued to fight. Conrad writes in his memoirs that he still felt similar feelings to those guerillas.
“In the joyful prospect of soon being once more among those of my own kith and kin, I could not, did not realize that the war was really over and I lost nothing more than the humblest of humble exponents of the ‘lost cause,’” Conrad writes in “A Confederate Spy.”
Conrad also had good reason to fear for his life. In July 1865, Conrad was traveling through Virginia with his “faithful negro servant” William Chapman, visiting old friends. One night, he was a visiting a certain lady-friend at a house outside of Fredericksburg when a federal cavalry dispatch arrived at the house.
Chapman quickly alerted Conrad, who realized that there was no easy escape. He handed Chapman some of his papers and ordered him to wait for him at Eagle’s Nest, expecting that he would be there within 48 hours. With that, he walked out and surrendered to the soldiers, who declined to accept Baker’s pass and immediately arrested him.
He was taken to Fredericksburg briefly and then ordered onto a train to another, larger prison accompanied by four guards. Once on the train, Conrad tried to strike up a conversation with one of them. According to his memoirs, the guard refused to talk with him, saying that Conrad had a reputation as “an oily customer” and was not allowed to speak, lest he wind up with a fresh bullet wound.
So, Conrad decided to put his acting skills to the test once again. He pretended to fall asleep and snored very loudly, convincing the guards that he had dozed off for the night. After a while, the guards fell asleep themselves, leaving Conrad unguarded.
Once he was sure they were not aware of what was going on, Conrad got out of his seat and jumped off the speeding train. By the time the train could stop, he was too far gone to catch. According to Conrad’s memoirs, he was at Eagle’s Nest by noon the next day.
For the next few months, Conrad hung out at various haunts in western Virginia with Chapman attending him. For a few months, he stayed at a distillery near Luray and then later at a friend’s home in the area. The jump from the train might have saved his life; if he had gone to the prison, he would have likely been shot or hanged for his role in the war.
However, there was some good that came out of the post-war period for Conrad. The lady who he was calling on when he was captured in July 1865 was named Emma “Minnie” Ball, the daughter of William Broomefield Ball and Fannie Rawlins. Conrad may have been visiting close to her 20th birthday; she was born July 23, 1845 in King George County.
The two were married on Oct. 4, 1866, in King George County after Conrad decided to finally come out of hiding. In “A Rebel Scout,” Conrad points out humorously that he married a “Minnie Ball,” a nickname for the round bullets fired from rifles of the era. Their first child, Thomas Nelson, Jr., was born Aug. 26, 1868. By 1883, they had three daughters and four sons: Thomas; Heath; Emma; Percy, who died in childhood; Lillie; Fairfax; and Fannie.
Conrad writes that he was smitten with Ball almost as soon as he met her and that it was she that convinced him to give up his radical lifestyle.
“The young lady at whose house I was captured, had captured me long before that cavalry did. To win her smiles and gain her hand, had inspired me in more than one instance,” he writes in “A Confederate Spy.” “The uniform of Confederate gray has long since been cut to smaller dimensions and worn out by the romping first-born.”
As he was courting Ball, Conrad was also preparing for his return to the field of education. In the summer of 1866, Conrad followed his father to a new town: Upperville in Fauquier County, Virginia. The town, which today is little more than a wide spot on U.S. Highway 50, was home to a small school called Upperville Academy.
The school was founded in the early 1800s, offering students a classical education in Greek, Latin, mathematics and other topics. The Virginia General Assembly gave the school an official charter in 1835; it operated out of a two-story building built in the early 19th century east of Upperville.
According to Conrad’s second book, “A Rebel Scout,” he purchased the school that summer. It opened its doors in September 1866 with a large cohort of students, which was a feat in and of itself. Many schools at the time were suffering from the effects of the war, which had drawn in many of the nation’s top educations and students. Conrad continued to serve as principal until 1868.
In 1869, Conrad headed back to Maryland, where he had spent so much time during the war. He settled in Rockville, becoming the principal of the listing Rockville Academy.
The school was in a bit of a rocky patch as well after the Civil War despite the fact that it had been running since 1812. A statewide law in 1860 required the establishment of public schools in every Maryland county, leading to a precipitous decline in enrollment in small private schools like the ones Conrad worked at.
He did not manage to save the school either; it continued to decline until a wealthy donor in the 1880s left enough money to keep the school afloat into the 1920s. The site of the school is now a public park.
While Conrad was continuing his career as an educator, a new school was forming in southwest Virginia that would soon become a defining feature of his life.
In 1850, the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Church purchased five acres on the edge of the small town of Blacksburg, Virginia with the intention of starting a Christian school for boys. The school was named the Olin and Preston Institute after Stephen Olin, a popular Methodist minister, and William Preston, a local politician who briefly served as Secretary of the Navy.
The small school in the middle of rural southwest Virginia opened its doors to students in 1851, and in 1854, it received an official charter from the state. In 1855, a three-story school building was constructed northeast of modern-day Henderson Hall, close to Moss Arts Center and facing Main Street. The small brick building was fairly Spartan by today’s standards containing three classrooms, 24 bedrooms and a chapel.
William White, a minister from Georgetown, D.C. served as the first principal of the school. He had been the head of the Baltimore Conference, and after the Civil War, he became the first superintendent of the free public school system in West Virginia.
Other faculty included William Dawson, a Detroit-born educator who taught math, French and Latin. According to family legend, his mother was captured by Native Americans when he was a boy and taken Kentucky. When he came of age, he supposedly set off to find her but only got as far as Blacksburg.
Dawson is believed to have been the principal of the school when it closed near the start of the Civil War. However, the school had fallen on hard times financially before the first shots were fired. It relied heavily on funds from the Methodist Church, which had been racked by in-fighting between Confederate- and Union-aligned factions.
In 1859, the school was sold to John Lyle, who ran the nearby White Sulphur Springs summer resort. The sale was likely to settle outstanding debts from the construction of the school building in 1855, which Lyle is believed to have supervised.
According to local lore, Lyle allowed the school to stay open for a few years after the sale because of the love of a lady. At the time, he was courting a Blacksburg woman who refused to marry him if shuttered the school. However, it didn’t matter in the long run. The school petered out during the Civil War as students and instructors left to fight on the front lines.
The school sat mostly abandoned until 1869, about the same time Conrad was starting in Rockville. It had been briefly occupied by George Cook and his troops during the Civil War while his division passed through Blacksburg after the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in 1864.
In 1869, Blacksburg Methodist minister Peter Henry Whistner decided that it was time that Blacksburg had a boy’s school again. Lyle had passed away during the war, leaving the school to his son who was eager to settle the estate. Whistner used some creative legal maneuvering to get Lyle’s son to sell the school to a new board of trustees, putting it back under the control of the church. On Jan. 2, 1869, the Virginia General Assembly chartered the school under a slightly different name: The Preston and Olin Institute.
Conrad was a natural fit for the school. He may have passed through the area while he was hiding near Luray during the year after the war. By training, he was a Methodist minister, which had helped his disguise as a chaplain and helped him land his job at the Georgetown Institute. Additionally, he had an extensive knowledge of English literature and rhetoric, developed during his time at Dickinson.
In 1871, Conrad took over the job as principal from Whistner, who taught English and moral philosophy at the school. He apparently liked Blacksburg quite a bit, staying there for 16 years, which is just about the longest he ever stayed in one town.
Although the Preston and Olin was growing under Whistner and Conrad, it was not growing quickly enough. By 1872, the school had only 60 boys enrolled, each paying about $17.75 a month in tuition and board for 10 months. It was divided into two departments: a preparatory, which prepared students for non-academic pursuits, and a collegiate department, which taught them the classics to prepare them for college.
Despite the solid program, the school was struggling financially. It remained under the control of the Methodist, and there still was not widespread support for the school or its programs outside of Blacksburg. Something would need to change dramatically in order to save the school and Conrad’s job.
Part V: The President
While Thomas Nelson Conrad was teaching at the Preston and Olin Institute, a debate was raging in Richmond that would dramatically alter the course of his life.
In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act. The law stated that each state would be given 30,000 acres of land in the unsettled western parts of the country for each senator and representative, which the state could then sell off. The resulting funds must then be used to start at least one military, technical and agricultural college. The law had two purposes: not only did it encourage western expansion, it also improved access to technical and agricultural education in the eastern states.
The law did not apply immediately to Virginia since it had seceded with the rest of the Confederate states. But as soon as the war was over, the establishment of a new school became a hot topic. In 1865, Governor Francis Pierpont publicly argued that the land should be accepted and a “polytechnic school” built in the state. However, no one knew where to set up such a school.
Many of the existing schools in the state began to fight a rhetorical battle to earn the right to become Virginia’s new flagship mechanical college. The ensuing debate was sometimes referred to as the “War of the Colleges” for its intense and divisive nature. When Virginia was finally readmitted to the Union in 1870, the state quickly set up the sale of the land, earning $285,000 from the transaction two years later.
Peter Whistner, the minister who had restarted the Preston and Olin Institute, and Dr. Harvey Black, a Blacksburg physician and longtime member of the school’s board, heard the debate. This led to an idea to save the institute, which was listing badly.
Whistner and Black, probably with the support of Conrad, proposed that the new polytechnic school be opened on the Preston and Olin campus. The school already had existing facilities, which would save the state the money of building an entirely new campus. Additionally, there was widespread support in Montgomery County for the college. Residents later voted overwhelmingly to issue a $20,000 bond to help fund the new school.
With the prospect of the bond and the support of the area, the General Assembly decided to devote $190,000 to the establishment of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC) in Blacksburg. The remaining money went to the new Virginia State University (VSU), the country’s first fully state-supported four-year college for black Americans.
Conrad at the time must have thought it was a pretty sweet deal. Not only was his school going to be flush with cash, he also had the perfect background to become the first president. He had been a Confederate secret agent; who better to teach military tactics and English?
However, the newly formed board of visitors did not feel the same way. Instead of Conrad, they chose Charles Landon Carter Minor for the presidency. The University of Virginia graduate and former Confederate staff officer was a professor of Latin at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
In a further snub, the runner-up candidate was not even Conrad. Charles Martin, a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, was supposedly behind Minor by only one vote. Martin then became chair of the English department; Conrad was left completely out in the cold.
Not one to sit idly on the sidelines, Conrad moved to Christiansburg and purchased the fledgling Montgomery Messenger, a small paper that had only been publishing since Dec. 1, 1869. He quickly turned the paper into his personal vehicle for attacking the college’s administration, the board of visitors and the leaders of the state government.
At the time, the state of Virginia was controlled mostly by Democratic politicians. Although Conrad had been a faithful Democrat throughout his time at Dickinson College and during the Civil War, he had a bit of a change of heart by 1866. By the time he had purchased the Messenger, he had allied himself with the Readjuster Party, a multi-racial coalition of reformers that was closer politically to the Republican Party.
At the time, Virginia was suffering under the weight of debt accrued during the Civil War. Under the leadership of William Mahone, a former Confederate general and U.S. senator from 1881 to 1887, the Readjusters sought to refinance the state’s debt, in contrast to Democratic politicians (the “Funders”) who believed that the subsequent interest must be paid in full.
However, the Readjusters’ progressive policies were not limited to just financial matters. They also sought to reform the tax collection system, eliminate poll taxes, stop the use of whipping posts as punishment for African-Americans and transform higher education in the state. The coalition received a great deal of support from poor and rural whites and blacks, and it put into office a number of African-American politicians. The Readjusters were partially responsible for the formation and growth of VSU.
How did a Confederate spy who had once tried to kidnap Abraham Lincoln wind up on the side of Republican Party in the 1870s? Maybe it was because their pro-education stance benefited him personally. Maybe the many African Americans who helped him during the war had changed his position on racial equality. Maybe it was just politically expedient at the time.
In any case, Conrad’s political stance put him in direct opposition to the leadership of VAMC, at the time stacked with prominent Democrats.
Although Conrad’s political views may have kept him away from the school, it may have been for the best. The school during those first few years was racked by nasty political fights.
To make matters worse, the school was faltering after a period of initial growth. During the 1879–80 academic year, only 50 students were enrolled, down from 277 in 1876–77. There was also significant dissent over whether VAMC’s future was as a military institution like the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) or an academic institution like the University of Virginia.
In one notable dispute, Minor was advocating a disciplinary system like those found in civilian colleges to deal with rowdy cadets who had been wreaking havoc in Blacksburg. Meanwhile, James Lane, the commandant of cadets, wanted a more military system of discipline. He had been a Confederate general before the war, and before that, the principal of Upperville Academy (the same one Conrad purchased in 1866).
At a faculty meeting in 1878, Minor was attempting to address the faculty on the matter when Lane started to interrupt him. According to Minor’s later accounts, Lane then left his seat and walked up to Minor, waving his fist in Minor’s face. The president, not intimidated by Lane’s threats, responded by punching the commandant in the face. The fallout afterwards was massive, and the Montgomery Messenger made sure the incident was highly publicized.
Around this time, Conrad managed to regain a position at the school as a professor of English, giving him a foot in the door as chaos ensued in the school’s administration. The board of visitors reorganized the college in 1879, firing Minor. In his place, they hired John Lee Buchanan, the former president of Emory and Henry College.
However, two days after he assumed the presidency, the state legislature replaced the entire board in an effort to make sure that it remained politically friendly. The school was then reorganized in June 1880. Afterward, the board offered the presidency of the reorganized school to Buchanan. He declined.
The board then offered the job to Scott Shipp, the commandant of cadets at VMI who had led students during the Battle of New Market in the Civil War. However, he quit after less than two weeks, realizing that the board would be constantly interfering with his job. The rest of the 1880–81 school year, the college was led by John Hart, reportedly a professor who desperately did not want to be president.
Finally, Conrad had his chance to shine. The Readjusters had taken control in Richmond during the 1881 elections, meaning that a new board and president that were politically palatable would be needed. After nearly a decade of trying, Conrad assumed the position as VAMC’s third president (Shipp’s tenure was so short that Virginia Tech records typically ignore him) on Jan. 17, 1882.
Conrad immediately reinstituted the 1879 reorganization of the college, and within a few years, the school was flourishing. For the first time, VAMC offered bachelor’s degrees to students in literature, science, civil engineering and mining engineering. The school added a business department. A traditional summer vacation was instituted, and the school moved from a semester-based system to a three-quarter schedule.
The arts program at the school grew rapidly under Conrad, a lover of literature since his time as a member of the Shakespeare society at Dickinson College. A librarian was hired who spent $2,229.96 on poetry and fiction books for the college library housed in the school’s second academic building, which was built in 1877.
Even the military training program flourished under Conrad. The Virginia superintendent of public instruction, R. R. Farr, told newspapers that the program made cadets look as though “they were all veteran soldiers; notice their gentlemanly deportment and you would be satisfied with the morals and discipline of the institution … (The) college deserves the hearty support of the people of Virginia and seems to be receiving it.”
Morale was arguably at an all-time high. Conrad even served as mayor of Blacksburg for three months in 1882. But, Conrad’s politics came back to bite him.
Within a few years, the Readjuster coalition had disintegrated, partially over disagreements about race. In 1883, Democrats regained control of the Virginia General Assembly. Then, in 1885, Democrat Fitzhugh Lee was elected governor, allowing him to stack the VAMC board of visitors with Democrats.
While at the Montgomery Messenger, Conrad had made many enemies in the Democratic Party. He caught flack throughout his presidency all over the state for his political activism. The Richmond Dispatch recounted a story in September 1883 in which Conrad, who had a speaking engagement in Winchester, got into an argument with a local Democratic politician. According to the paper, even the Readjusters had a hard time supporting Conrad in his political tirades.
When Lee’s new Board of Visitors met for the first time in March 1886, they voted to sack Conrad and the entire faculty of the school.
This came only a year after Conrad’s son Heath was killed at the age of 15. According to an issue of the Alexandria Gazette from Oct. 22, 1885, Heath had been bird hunting with another student. The other student’s gun became tangled in some brush, leading it to accidentally fire.
According to a Lutheran newspaper, Our Church Paper, the blast hit Heath in the face, crushing his skull nearly two inches inward. He slipped into a coma that lasted two days before he died. The death of his son was a devastating blow to Conrad that would haunt him the rest of his life.
After his firing, Conrad served a one-month term as Blacksburg’s mayor in 1887. In April, Conrad reportedly got into a fistfight much like the one between Minor and Lane that he had mocked so much. The fight was with the editor of the Montgomery Democrat, who had published an article disparaging Conrad’s character.
Although there had been speculation that Conrad might run for the Virginia legislature, he decided to return to Maryland instead. In 1887, he took a teaching job at the Maryland Agricultural College, now known as the University of Maryland, College Park. It was the same school where Charles Minor had served as interim president between 1867 and 1868.
It was that at this time that Conrad had his first sliver of success as a writer. In 1887, he published a series of articles in a Philadelphia newspaper that publicized his wartime exploits. Those articles led to the 1892 ghostwritten memoir “A Confederate Spy” and the 1904 revised edition “The Confederate Scout.”
In the summer of 1890, Conrad left his job at the college to move to Washington, D.C. During his time as president of VAMC, he had learned a great deal about agriculture in the state of Virginia and was frequently quoted in local newspapers discussing farming. This may have led to his job with the Census Bureau collecting statistics about tobacco planting.
After working there for a few years, he retired to a farm near Dumfries in Prince William County. The rest of his life passed quietly. His wife passed away in 1900, and in 1905, Conrad died at the age of 67.
Conrad is interesting as a Virginia Tech president partially because of how little of a physical legacy he left on campus. After his death, there was a move to get a marble tablet in his memory placed on the campus in Blacksburg. In 1972, the Corps of Cadets named their equestrian team Conrad’s Troopers in his honor.
However, there is no Conrad Hall on campus. For that matter, there isn’t a Minor Hall or a Buchanan Hall. The only man from that turbulent era of Virginia Tech’s history to have a building named after him is James Lane, for whom old Barracks Number One was named.
Maybe that’s for the best. All of those men fought in some capacity for the Confederacy and against their country. Thomas Nelson Conrad conspired to kidnap the president of the United States. It would be rather uncomfortable to build a statue for him on campus.
But then again, Lee Hall is named for Claudius Lee, an 1896 graduate who was listed in that year’s Bugle yearbook as being a member of the KKK. It was later determined that the listing was meant to be a joke, but Virginia Tech is no stranger to uncomfortable conversations.
Conrad’s story is much more complicated than even that. Not only did he try to kidnap Abraham Lincoln during the war, he aligned himself with African-American politicians as a Readjuster afterwards. The amount of moral ambiguity there is astounding.
Whether you think Conrad’s actions in the Civil War were patriotic or treasonous, whether he was a selfish braggart or a talented educator, he had an outsized influence on the evolution of the university of today.
Virginia Tech is proud of its traditions such as Ring Dance, the Skipper cannon, the Old Hokie chant. With these traditions comes a legacy. Thomas Nelson Conrad, Virginia Tech’s own Confederate president, is just one of the people of the past whose left an indelible impact on the school, in every bachelor’s degree awarded, in every book of poetry checked out of the library.