Author examines scandal
His larceny was cloaked in denial, executed with guile.
Capt. Oberlin M. Carter of the Army Corps of Engineers was a brilliant officer who, by dint of savvy marriage, lived a lavish lifestyle in 19th-century Savannah. Apparently, it wasn't enough.
First in his graduating class at West Point in 1880, Carter had risen to the post of military attache in London by the late 1890s. Savannah mourned his departure.
But it soon came to light that Car-ter had conspired to defraud the U.S. government of more than $3 million (in 1890s dollars) during his years in the city, personally profiting to the tune of $750,000. Placed in charge of improvements to Savannah Harbor, he schemed with two civilian contractors to rig the bidding system.
Recalled to Savannah, his court-martial was the most protracted in Army history to that time. Carter's case would appear before the U.S. Supreme Court on four occasions, owing largely to his skill at clouding the issue with technical data. Mark Twain, who knew him as a cadet, even penned a short story based on his travails.
Carter died in 1944 at 88, still protesting his innocence but convincing no one.
It's a convoluted tale with many a side passage chronicled for the first time in "First in His Class: Captain Oberlin Carter and the Savannah Harbor Scandal" (Heritage Books), the seventh and latest book by Philip
Leon, professor emeritus of English at The Citadel.
"It was a huge story in the newspapers of its day," says Leon, "but no one had done a treatment on Carter after the initial publicity other than an obscure article in a law journal published in 1948. But his case just went on and on interminably, and he kept it alive himself.
"He had nothing to lose by filing appeal after appeal. Carter was articulate and charming and thought if he could just get the right jury, the right judge or the right Senate committee, he could persuade people of his innocence."
Leon learned of Carter's saga while working on a book on Twain, who during one of his visits to West Point met an impressive young cadet he later invited to his Connecticut home.
Twain's short story, "From the London Times of 1904," was inspired by Carter's story. Leon thinks he is the first to make the connection and reveal that fact.
Carter had prepared for his duty in Savannah by inspecting improvements in Winyah Bay near Georgetown for four months in 1884, staying temporarily in Charleston.
"He was learning the job, learning how to construct improvements to river banks, firming up marshland to increase the flow of the river, which naturally deepens the channels," Leon says. "And his intricate engineering work in Savannah improved trade there significantly.
"One interesting point that later muddied the waters (in court) is that Carter married a very wealthy New York socialite who spent half the year in Savannah, where they met," he says.
"She died of typhoid after only two years, but his lifestyle continued. Carter had complete power of attorney from his father-in-law to use the family fortune to buy and sell stock or buy property. That became the filter through which Carter could launder his ill-gotten money. He could take a kickback and hide it."
When the crime was uncovered, Carter's father-in-law refused to testify and fled the country, settling in Italy.
Carter's two civilian conspirators, Benjamin Greene and John Gainor of New York, resisted extradition to Savannah by every means possible. When the French Canadian government declined to extradite the pair, who had taken refuge in Quebec City, they were abducted by U.S. Secret Service agents, leading to a steamboat chase down the St. Lawrence River with all the trappings of a Hollywood thriller, Leon says.
"After many delays, they were ordered to stand trial in Savannah, were convicted and spent time in the Atlanta federal prison," says Leon. "Carter was sentenced to five years in Fort Leavenworth, a penitentiary he had helped design and build. The government, which recovered some of the money, was unable to recover the remainder of more than $200,000 (in 1890s dollars) for which it had sued."
Did Carter come to believe his own protestations of innocence?
"I think his superior intellect simply blinded him; he felt he could do anything. In his own mind, he probably thought he had done nothing wrong, that his crime was merely the price of doing business. He actually did do the work and completed the projects in Savannah, which was part of his rationalization."
Theoretically, the Carter case never should have gone to the Supreme Court since the decision of a court-martial could not be appealed through a civilian challenge, yet Leon says Carter found loopholes to get it into civilian courts and keep it there.
The case also had a marked effect on judicial policy in the military. At the time, a civilian could be compelled to appear before a court-martial but could not be compelled to testify.
"Congress changed that within a couple of years," Leon says, "a direct result of the Carter case."
Reach Bill Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5707.