Part of the fun of doing the Forgotten Cavalrymen series is bringing forgotten heroes back into the spotlight. I take great pleasure in doing that. However, it’s also great fun to commemorate a scoundrel every now and again. I’ve done that a few times in the past, such as when I profiled Col. Sir Percy Wyndham and Col. Napoleon Bonaparte Knight. Today, we’re going to profile another.
Having spent so much time working on the Michigan Cavalry Brigade over the years, I was of course familiar with the first colonel of the 7th Michigan Cavalry, William d’Alton Mann. When I was finishing up the revision to my 2002 book Protecting the Flank: The Battles for Brinkerhoff’s Ridge and East Cavalry Field, Battle of Gettysburg, July 2-3, 1863, I decided to see if I couldn’t add just a little bit of personal information on Mann to the manuscript, so I did a little digging. And wow, was I surprised at what I found. Colonel Mann was a world-class scoundrel with a fascinating story that just begged to be told here. So, here goes….
William d’Alton Mann was born in Sandusky, Ohio on September 27, 1839, of what he described as “Puritan stock.” His father’s name was William R. Mann, a staunch Jeffersonian Democrat who was a veteran of the War of 1812. Young William was one of 13 children, including a brother named Eugene who was born as late as 1855. That year, the family relocated to Adrian, Michigan. After studying civil engineering, Mann settled in New York City in 1858, where he met and made the acquaintance of a burly, wealthy South Carolina planter named Wade Hampton.
In 1858, Mann celebrated both his 19th birthday as well as the birth of his daughter, Emma, having married somewhere along the way. The next year, a relative died and Mann inherited about 100 acres of farmland near Grafton, Ohio. The property featured a run-down inn that Mann re-opened upon his return from New York. He abandoned the project in 1861, leaving behind lots of debt and the first of many failed business ventures.
After the surrender of Fort Sumter, Mann sought and obtained a commission as a captain in the 1st Michigan Cavalry, which became a fine, reliable unit. He enlisted in Detroit on August 22, 1861. Led by Col. Thornton Brodhead, the 1st Michigan fought against Stonewall Jackson’s army during the 1862 Valley Campaign, and then participated in the Second Bull Run Campaign, where the first brigade-sized cavalry battle occurred (Brodhead was mortally wounded in this fight, at the Lewis Ford on Bull Run, which was the closing engagement of the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 30, 1862). Not long after the end of the Second Bull Run Campaign, the cavalry brigade that included the 1st Michigan Cavalry was assigned to serve in the defenses of Washington, D.C. It spent most the winter and spring of 1863 chasing after Maj. John Singleton Mosby’s Rangers.
Mann later claimed that he was a leading advocate of the theory that the Union cavalry should include mounted infantrymen, and he was detailed to Detroit to help raise a new regiment that became the 5th Michigan Cavalry, and was appointed its lieutenant colonel on August 14, 1862. He also claimed that he provided the suggestion that the men of the 5th Michigan be armed with seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles, a weapon that the 5th Michigan used to great effect during the summer of 1863. He was then assigned to raise another new unit, which became the 7th Michigan Cavalry. “During all of that time I served without pay and paid my own expenses,” he claimed years later. “By the way, the Government has never paid me yet for that service, and I presume never will. I forgave it, because I got reward enough in the splendid record” achieved by the 7th Michigan. Mann was commissioned colonel of the 7th Michigan on November 1, 1862.
Three new regiments–the 5th, 6th, and 7th Michigan Cavalry Regiments–were brigaded with the 1st Michigan to form the Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the winter of 1863. Brig. Gen. Joseph T. Copeland, the original colonel of the 5th Michigan, commanded the brigade, which was part of a division commanded by Maj. Gen. Julius D. Stahel. On May 28, 1863, Mann took on Mosby and his Rangers near Catlett’s Station on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Mann led an aggressive saber charge against Mosby’s command that was repulsed by the fire of Mosby’s mountain howitzer. Mann rallied his troopers and led them in two more charges before Mosby’s command ran out of ammunition and withdrew. “It was the main Mosby engagement in Virginia, the only time he stood and made a determined fight against a Union force,” boasted Mann years later, after Mosby’s death.
Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the temporary commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, craved Stahel’s division to augment his Corps, but Stahel outranked him, and if the division joined the Cavalry Corps, Stahel would get Corps command by virtue of seniority, something that Pleasonton was bound and determined to prevent from happening. After some political conniving, Pleasonton succeeded in getting Stahel relieved of command, the division assigned to the Cavalry Corps, and assigned Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick to command it. Pleasonton also arranged for two of his staff officers, Capts. Elon J. Farnsworth and George A. Custer, to be promoted to brigadier general in order to assume command of the two brigades. Custer was assigned to command the Michigan Brigade.
The 7th Michigan, under its new brigade commander, fought in the June 30, 1863 Battle of Hanover, and had some slight involvement in the July 2 encounter at Hunterstown. However, the 7th Michigan had its great moment the next day, July 3, during the fighting for East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg. Along with the 1st Michigan Cavalry, the 7th Michigan had been held in reserve during the brutal dismounted fighting for the Rummel farm buildings that occupied most of the day on July 3. During the afternoon phase of the battle, Col. John R. Chambliss, Jr.’s brigade of Confederate cavalry (actually Brig. Gen. W. H. F. Lee’s brigade, but Lee was wounded and had been captured) made a mounted charge. Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg called for Mann and ordered him to charge with the 7th Michigan. With Custer leading the way, bellowing, “Come on, you Wolverines!”, Mann and his men drew sabers and charged, crashing into the Confederates and getting tangled up in a stout fence line that separated the troopers of both sides. Mann’s Wolverines broke up and blunted Chambliss’ charge, prompting Custer to write, “Colonel Mann is entitled to much credit” when he penned his report of the campaign.
Gettysburg marked the zenith of Mann’s military career–the charge on East Cavalry Field was clearly his finest hour. Mann led his regiment through the retreat from Gettysburg, and then back into Virginia. Like the rest of Kilpatrick’s division, the Wolverines broke and ran during the rout of the Union cavalry by Jeb Stuart’s cavaliers at Buckland Mills on October 19, 1863, a debacle that became known as the Buckland Races. Mann led his Wolverines into the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac near Brandy Station in Culpeper County, Virginia. On March 1, 1864, Mann resigned his commission and received his discharge from the army. He did, however, ride with the 7th Michigan Cavalry during the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac in May 1865.
Mann resigned his commission because he had invented and patented a gizmo that was intended to help balance out the weapons carried by cavalrymen in the field, and had some success. He sold 20,000 of them to the army and started the Mann Patent Accoutrement Company. This venture soon failed, but not for lack of effort on Mann’s behalf. He spent most of the summer and fall of 1864 visiting Union camps, trying to peddle his wares and visiting with his old comrades from the Cavalry Corps. When the company failed, he turned his attention to a new industry–oil, which had recently been discovered near Titusville, Pennsylvania.
He solicited investors (including five former brigadier generals and Col. Russell Alger, the former commander of the 5th Michigan Cavalry) to start an oil company and raised a large sum of money to do so. He purchased some useless land near Titusville, but the company never launched, and he was eventually charged with theft by deception and tried for the felony. Mann was acquitted of the felony charges after a trial of nearly two months’ duration. He was called a swindler for years after this, even though he was never convicted of a crime.
Mann then settled in Mobile, Alabama, where he purchased and published the Mobile Register newspaper. He ran for Congress as a Democrat and received a majority of votes,but was denied the victory by carpetbaggers in the state government, and was considered to be a carpetbagger himself. He was not a gracious loser, which did not endear him to the local citizenry. Mann eventually sold the newspaper to focus his energies on a new invention, this time a luxury sleeping car for railroads. Although not well-built, the Mann sleepers were important innovations that included hallways to pass from car to car. Mann obtained a patent for his invention and went head-to-head with the Pullman company. Like his other business ventures, the railroad car venture also failed, and the Mann Boudoir Car Company went out of business after its assets were sold.
Mann then moved to London for a decade, where he came upon the idea of founding and publishing a gossip-based periodical based on some of the British tabloids. He returned to New York and established Town Topics, which was “dedicated to art, music, literature, and society.” It soon became a scandal sheet, faithfully reporting high-society peccadilloes and often identifying perpetrators by name. Mann himself wrote the real gossip column, called “Saunterings,” using the pseudonym “The Saunterer.” The Saunterer’s identity was not very well hidden.
Mann declared war on the monied class. “I believe that the possession of great wealth, the presence of continual luxury and an existence of a sybaritic case are sufficient to lead voluptuous natures into a system of sensual gratification more intensely and ingeniously base than is found in the humbler walks of life,” he proclaimed in 1891. “The Four Hundred [the wealthiest and most influential members of New York society] is an element so shallow and unhealthy that it deserves to be derided almost incessantly.” And Mann did just that with his weekly publication.
Mann’s wealthy targets could buy their way out of his crosshairs–an ample donation could get a story spiked and put the donor on Mann’s “immune” list. The main method used by the Saunterer was to print an innocuous article with the name of the individual on which it had a piece of hot gossip. The other side of the page included a blind piece going into the scandal without the name of the person involved. By separating the identification and the scandal separately, Mann managed to avoid liability for extortion and libel.
In 1904, Mann took aim at Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was just beginning her career as a socialite. “From wearing costly lingerie to indulging in fancy dances for the edification of men was only a step. And then came—second step—indulging freely in stimulants. Flying all around Newport without a chaperon was another thing that greatly concerned Mother Grundy. There may have been no reason for the old lady making such a fuss about it, but if the young woman knew some of the tales that are told at the clubs at Newport she would be more careful in the future about what she does and how she does it,” wrote Mann. “They are given to saying almost anything at the Reading Room, but I was really surprised to hear her name mentioned openly there in connection with that of a certain multi-millionaire of the colony and with certain doings that gentle people are not supposed to discuss. They also said that she should not have listened to the risqué jokes told her by the son of one of her Newport hostesses.” Mann’s bullying of Alice Roosevelt infuriated a lot of wealthy and powerful people, who vowed revenge.
The Alice Roosevelt episode was just one of many instances where Mann’s Saunterings wreaked havoc on the lives of the rich and famous of the Gilded Age. This was a time when the wealthiest members of society did all they could to remain out of the unblinking view of the public eye. Mann was hated by most and feared by all, and they held their noses and paid his extortions to keep their names out of Saunterings.
In 1905, Mann badly miscalculated by blackmailing Emily Post’s husband, Edwin. Post was a struggling Wall Street stockbroker mired in an unhappy marriage. Mann learned that Edwin Post was supporting a Broadway dancer in a Connecticut love nest. Mann demanded that Post pay $500 to kill the story, but Post did not have the funds to do so. Instead, he confessed to Emily. Instead of paying the requested hush money, Emily Post instead advised her husband to contact the district attorney and set up a sting operation. Mann’s agent, Charles P. Ahle, was arrested in Post’s Wall Street office on July 11, 1905, and he was prosecuted and convicted of extortion.
Reacting to the prosecution of Ahle, Collier’s magazine published a series of harshly worded articles disclosing that Mann had been paying a city juvenile court judge, Joseph Deuel, to vet Town Topics. Norman Hapgood, the editor of Collier’s, tried to bait Mann into suing the magazine, but the Colonel would not take the bait. Instead, Deuel filed a libel suit against Hapgood that went to trial, providing entertaining headlines for weeks. The testimony adduced demonstrated that Deuel was, indeed, on Mann’s payroll, and the jury took just seven minutes to find Deuel not liable. Mann testified at the trial, and was crucified. His extortion schemes were exposed, as was his employment of a sitting judge to vet the content of his publication. During his testimony, Mann also denied signing a document that placed someone on his exempt list, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. After the trial, the district attorney then preferred perjury charges against Mann. He was tried and acquitted of the felony charges, once more dodging a prison sentence, but the trial pretty much wrecked Town Topics as a profitable business. However, Town Topics continued on, with the Colonel still penning Saunterings, and did not cease publication until more than a decade after Mann’s death.
Mann also founded a literary magazine called The Smart Set in 1900. The Smart Set was founded to publish fiction by The Four Hundred as a means of entree into society by Mann, and he ran the publication profitably for 11 years. He sold it in 1911, and the publication continued in print until it finally failed in July 1930. Authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, O. Henry, and many other literary lights all graced its pages. Mann was rightly proud of The Smart Set.
To his credit, Mann offered to publish Asa B. Isham’s history of the 7th Michigan Cavalry at his own expense for free distribution to the alumni of the regiment. The book was published by the Town Topics Publishing Company in 1893. The book included a register of the regiment’s officers and an identification of the members of the unit who did not survive the war. He was also an active member of the Loyal Legion of Military Order of the United States and the Army and Navy Club, and was justifiably proud of his service in the Civil War.
William d’Alton Mann died of complications of pneumonia at the age of 81 at his home in Morristown, New Jersey, in May 1920. His funeral was held at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan. An American flag draped his coffin, which was adorned with the Colonel’s Gettysburg saber. Three colonels and a major general attended the service, and a bugler from the 7th Michigan Cavalry played Taps. Mann was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. He was described as “a rousing, bouncing, noisy, vigorous, open-hearted, choleric, old man.” Possessed of a keen intellect and a swindler’s soul, William d’Alton Mann is remembered as the man who robbed the robber barons.
Here’s to the scoundrel, Col. William d’Alton Mann, forgotten cavalryman and extortionist.Scridb filter