by Terry Rogers
In March, Dave Kenton and Marvin Schelhouse presented information on General Alfred A.T.A. Torbert as part of the Milford Museum’s monthly history program. General Torbert served as a Major General for the Union Army in the Civil War.
“My interest in General Torbert began 55 years ago,” Schelhouse said. “I was 26 years old and a U.S. Marine. I had just returned from an overseas tour and was assigned to Quantico, Virginia. My wife and children eventually joined me at Quantico. One weekend, we wanted something to do, so we hopped in the car and went to Fredericksburg where we toured the battlefield and museums. When I got home, I called my mother and told her that I was interested in learning more about the Civil War after visiting Fredericksburg. My mother told me about a Civil War general who lived in Milford named General Torbert and I became fascinated.”
Schelhouse explained that General Torbert’s name had never been mentioned when he was in school, even though he was considered a hero, so he decided to give him the recognition he deserved and began doing extensive research on the general. He made the decision to have a statue erected in town in honor of General Torbert and reached out to Kenton for assistance. The two men then worked to raise $90,000, an amount unheard of at the time, to erect the statue on the property of the Milford Museum, one that still stands today.
Alfred Thomas Archimedes Torbert was born July 1, 1833 in Georgetown. His father, Johnathan Robinson Torbert, was the son of William Torbert, a wealthy merchant living in Camden at the turn of the 18th century. Johnathan was only nine when his mother died and his father soon remarried. At 17, Johnathan took a job as a private tutor for the family of Arthur Milby, who lived in Milton, rather than work in his father’s company. Catherine Milby, Arthur’s daughter, ended up marrying in 1830.
Johnathan, despite holding positions as a teacher, farmer, bank teller and Methodist minister as well as being highly educated, was not successful. He and Catherine had ten children, starting with William in 1831 and Alfred in 1833. Five of their children died young. Catherine worked hard to keep up social appearances in order to disguise the financial difficulties the family faced and this helped mold Alfred into a “southern gentleman” who was honest, chivalrous, social and with great integrity.
His charm and unassuming nature led Judge E. Wooten of Georgetown to extract a promise from Congressman George R. Riddle to appoint Alfred to West Point once he graduated from high school. Although the Congressman attempted to get out of the promise, Judge Wooten held him to it as he knew the Torbert’s were poor and he felt Alfred needed a boost.
Alfred arrived at West Point while Robert E. Lee was superintendent. He was instructed by Robert Garnett and William Walker, both killed while fighting for the Confederacy. Other instructors included George Thomas and James B. McPherson who became Union Generals during the war. He attended school with J.E.B. Stuart, John B. Hood, Phil Sheridan, David Gregg and Henry Slocum, all of whom gained recognition on the battlefield, some for the Union and some for the Confederacy.
Described as studious but not quick to learn, Alfred was said to be a friend to all. Johnathan died in 1853, leaving Alfred as the sole means of support for his mother and four younger siblings. His mother and two youngest sisters moved to Philadelphia where they remained throughout the war. After he graduated from West Point, Alfred was stationed in Fort Clark, Texas, where he was a scout and helped build roads. In 1856-57, he was sent to Florida to suppress Seminole Indians. While serving in Florida, he suffered the first of many malaria attacks. He then served in the Mormon Valley in Utah under Albert Sidney Johnson who would go on to be a Confederate general.
When the Civil War began, General Torbert had strong ties to the south, but felt he should honor his commitment to the United States Army.
“The United States government has given me an education and I should be a pretty disgraceful pupil if I used it against the country,” Torbert told his friend, Senator Willard Saulsbury, who was a supporter of the southern cause.
General Torbert fought in many major battles during the Civil War. His greatest achievement was at South Mountain where he told a superior officer that his men “will storm hell, sir, if I give the command.” It was during this battle that Torbert’s passionate side became evident.
“During this battle, John Lidell, a Confederate soldier, was wounded in the face and left to die,” Schelhouse said. “He wrote a letter after the war to Mrs. Torbert telling her of her husband’s compassion that day. Torbert came upon Lidell and got him the medical attention he needed, saving his life.”
Torbert and his men fought in Antietam and Fredericksburg. He was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in February 1863 and fought in the Battle of Gettysburg in July of that year. That winter, Torbert and his men were stationed near Warrenton, Virginia, and, in April 1864, he was promoted to Major General.
That same month, Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to General of the Army. Known to be a man of few words, General Grant came to Warrenton to review the 6th Army Corps as they were considered the best. General Torbert rode his white horse during a review that included thousands of soldiers. Officers noted that, only once, General Grant leaned over to say something to General Sedgewick. When he was asked later what the general said, General Sedgewick replied that the general’s only remark was that “Torbert rode a good horse.”
When the war ended, General Torbert wanted to remain in the Army, but there were so many good men vying for just a few positions, he decided to resign and return to Delaware. He moved to Milford and married Mary E. Currey on January 17, 1866. She was the only child of Daniel Currey who was a merchant and landowner in Milford. It is unclear where the couple met but it is believed it was while General Torbert was in New Jersey mustering troops and Mary was attending St. Mary’s Seminary in Burlington.
The couple moved into a beautiful home on North Walnut Street where they entertained frequently. The Torbert’s were well respected in Milford and the General served as President of Town Council, what would now be the Mayor’s position, in 1868 through 1869. He was nominated for Congress in 1868 but lost to a Democratic candidate.
On April 1, 1869, General Torbert was appointed as Minister to the Republic of El Salvador but he was unable to serve for long due to his malaria which was aggravated by the tropical climate. On July 10, 1871, he served two years as Consul General to Havana. On November 7, 1873, General Torbert was appointed Consul-General to Paris. His wife joined him in France, captivating the consulate with her fluency in French. While in Paris, the Torbert’s entertained President and Mrs. Grant in 1877. In August 1878, Rutherford B. Hayes replaced General Torbert in Paris and the couple returned to Milford. However, by 1880, the general was working with President Grant on a plan to develop railroad rights in Mexico.
On August 23, 1880, General Torbert left Milford and traveled to New York where he boarded a steamer, The City of Vera Cruz, which was bound for Mexico City. Off the coast of Georgia and Florida, the steamer encountered a hurricane on August 28-30, 1880. Instead of turning around or coming into port to ride out the storm, the steamer continued traveling. It broke up off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida.
“Survivors talked about General Torbert’s bravery,” Kenton said. “There are eye witness accounts that Torbert went around spreading cheer and optimism as the hurricane reached its peak. He made an effort to save a small boy named Attridge before waves broke over the ship and swept him out to sea. The last person to see Torbert alive stated that he was bleeding from the cheek from a wound and had been washed from a small raft, exhausted.”
General Torbert’s body washed up on shore August 30, 1880, still warm. All efforts to resuscitate him failed and he was pronounced dead at the age of 47. He was transported to Daytona, Florida, where he lay in state and was temporarily buried on September 1, 1880. He was exhumed and transported to New York, arriving September 29, 1880, where he was met by military escorts. Following a military funeral at Trinity Church in New York, a special train transported his body to Philadelphia, Wilmington and finally, Milford.
“His funeral was one of the largest ever held in Milford,” Kenton said. “Governor John Wood Hall, Senator Willard Saulsbury, Judges Wooten and John Houston plus every prominent person in Kent and Sussex County were in attendance. The procession traveled to the corner of Church Street where Reverend J. Leighton McKim gave the burial service. The body was carried to its tomb in the Old Methodist Cemetery on North Street and, while the militia fired a burial salute, General Torbert’s wife threw herself on his grave and had to be pulled back. The service continued and Mrs. Torbert broke free again, throwing herself on her husband’s grave. According to close friends of the family, it was one of the most distressing funerals ever attended.”
In 1969, a decision was made to demolish the Torbert home to make room for the bank parking lot. Schelhouse wrote a letter to local legislators asking them to intercede and protect the home. He was being sent to Vietnam as a Marine and could not remain behind to fight to save the home. He learned as he traveled overseas that the home had been demolished. A plaque now stands on the corner of the parking lot where the stately Torbert house once stood. In a strange twist of fate, Schelhouse now lives in a home that belonged to Torbert’s family.
“Marvin wanted to restore a home that was historic,” Kenton said. “He purchased a home in Georgetown and had it moved to Milford. It was only later he learned that the home was the Milby home where General Torbert spent time in his youth. Much of the furnishings in the home now owned by the Schelhouse’s were accumulated by the Torbert’s while they were in Paris.”
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