An American Condottiere: The Antebellum Career of General Charles Carroll Tevis (Part 1)

Tevis
General Charles Carroll Tevis (originally printed in the Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 8th, 1901).

When I first encountered Union Army veteran Charles Carroll Tevis, he was on a special recruiting mission from Pope Pius IX to enlist American Civil War veterans into the Papal Zouaves in the late 1860s. Although further intrigued when I learned he had also been a Fenian, I unfortunately didn’t have time to explore his story further while finishing my book, Excommunicated from the Union.

Recently, however, I stumbled upon him again in my work for the Nau Center while researching the history of Civil War prisons. A number of Confederate prisoners of war, worn down by the harsh conditions in Northern prison camps, enlisted in the Union Army. Called “galvanized Yankees,” Tevis recruited four companies worth of such men held at Fort Delaware for his 3rd Maryland Cavalry Regiment in 1863.

Thus I decided it was finally time to try to research Tevis’s background further, a task made difficult by the fact that he served in a half-dozen different militaries on four separate continents over the course of his life. In my first blog in what will be a three part biography, I will discuss his antebellum life and career. Even before his post-Civil War service in the Fenians and Zouaves, Tevis had already established himself as an American “condottiere”: a mercenary and soldier of fortune.


Washington Carroll Tevis was born in Philadelphia on February 22, 1828. His father was Benjamin Tevis, an Irish American member of the Hibernian Society of that city and a wealthy merchant and auctioneer. His mother was Mary Hunter and he had one sibling, a sister named M. Heloise. The Tevis family were ardent supporters of the Whig Party and its leader, the Kentucky politician Henry Clay.[1]

Tevis entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1842, graduating with an A.B. in 1845. That same year he was appointed at large to West Point. Tevis was neither an exceptional nor poor student, graduating 24th or in the middle of his class of 43 cadets in 1849. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the Mounted Rifles, he went to the Carlisle Cavalry Depot to further his education. According to a West Point obituary, he was “not long… content with the monotonous requirements of garrison service,” so he resigned from the army on May 12, 1850 and left to join the Turkish Army.[2]

Tevis, however, may not have joined the Turks immediately after leaving the United States. He apparently resided in Paris during at least part of the early 1850s, for he was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith by the future Archbishop of Paris, Georges Daboy, in 1853. Sometime during the same year he changed his name to Charles Carroll Tevis. In 1854, Tevis was appointed first a Major and then Lieutenant-Colonel in the Turkish Army, and served in the Crimean War. Despite being involved in the disastrous Turkish defeat at the Battle of Kars, he was awarded the Crimean Medal by Great Britain and made an Officer of the Méjidié in the Turkish Army. A portrait of Tevis, under his Turkish pseudonym of “Nessim Bey,” can be viewed today at the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala, Florida.[3]

Tevis left that army in 1855 to recuperate his health in Paris, where he remained until 1861. He kept himself busy writing a book in French called La Petite Guerre (1855) about guerilla warfare and outpost service and in inventing and registering a patent for a pistol of his own design in both London and Paris in 1856. By this time, Tevis had become notorious among Americans living in Paris for his adventurous yet mercenary life style, earning him the ire of Benjamin Moran, the longtime secretary to the American legation in London. In his journal, Moran referred to Tevis as a “mauvais sujet” and recounted a story of his failure to enlist in the Persian Army in 1858. Armed with what he thought was a commission signed by the Persian Ambassador to France and England, Ferouk Khan, Tevis apparently arrived at the Persian border to find that in fact the letter “proved to be an order in Persian to have him turned back as he was a blackguard, a dangerous character, & not to let [him] even get into the country.” Soon, however, the outbreak of war in the United States in April 1861 would provide Tevis with the opportunity to return home, silence his critics, and prove himself in an active military campaign in defense of his native country.[4]


[1] Thirty-Second Annual Reunion of the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 8th, 1901 (Saginaw, MI: Seemann & Peters, 1901), 86; John H. Campbell, History of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and of the Hibernian Society (Philadelphia: Hibernian Society, 1892), 535; A Testimonial of Gratitude and Affection to Henry Clay: The Proceedings of the Whigs of Philadelphia Assembled in Town Meeting on the 19th Day of December, 1844 (Philadelphia: Cary and Hart: 1845), 218.

[2] University of Pennsylvania: Biographical Catalogue of the Matriculates of the College (Philadelphia: Society of the Alumni, 1894), 144; George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of U.S. Military Academy (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1891), 2: 389; Annual Reunion, 86-87.

[3] L’ami de la Religion, Journal et Revue Ecclésiastique, (Paris, 1853), 590; Cullum, Biographical Register, 2: 389; Annual Reunion, 87; University of Pennsylvania: Biographical Catalogue, 144; “Portrait de Nessim-Bey Campaggne d’Asie, 1855,” Appleton Museum of Art, http://www.appletonmuseum.org/artifacts/g12467.html (accessed on May 27, 2016).

[4] Boston Investigator, November 21, 1855; University of Pennsylvania: Biographical Catalogue, 144; Tevis’s patent applications for his “improved revolver” are recorded in a number of mechanical and engineering journals from the mid-1850s. His original patent applications in France and Great Britain have been reproduced at the following website: “Charles Carroll Tevis,” http://www.littlegun.info/arme%20francaise/artisans%20s%20z/a%20tevis%20gb.htm (accessed on May 27, 2016); Benjamin Moran, The Journal of Benjamin Moran: 1857-1865, edited by Sarah Agnes Wallace & Frances Elma Gillespie (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948), 1: 258-9, 583.