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Beyond the war, a fascinating life
He was a farmer, scientist, author, journalist, soldier, lawyer, investigator and teacher--the list of accomplishments goes on and on for Henry Steele Olcott. By Mac Wyckoff

 Henry Steele Olcott was likely headquartered with Gen. Ambrose Burnside at Chatham in 1862 during the Civil War. Later, he distinguished himself in a number of fields.
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Date published: 7/16/2005

F OR MOST SOLDIERS who par- ticipated in the Civil War, it was the biggest event of their lives. It was something they never forgot and were influenced by for the rest of their lives. However, there were a few soldiers whose Civil War experiences, important as they might have been, were simply blips on the radar screens of their lives.

One such soldier was Henry Steele Olcott. He was born in 1832 in Orange, N.J. While Olcott was attending Columbia University in 1851, his father's business failed. Olcott dropped out of school and moved near three of his uncles, who were farmers in Ohio. His uncles encouraged his interest in the paranormal, including mesmerism, in which he found he had some ability. He successfully mesmerized a neighbor during a dental surgery, preventing her from suffering pain.

He also developed an interest in agriculture. He soon returned to the East Coast, where he began to study the science of agriculture. He established a farm school, which pioneered the teaching of agriculture. He went to Europe to further his study and, by 1858, had published two books. He became the agricultural correspondent for several newspapers, including the New York Tribune.

In 1859, when Virginia banned Northern journalists from attending the hanging of John Brown, Olcott was the lone Northern reporter to witness the event. His eyes met Brown's just before death--a look that he would never forget.

In 1860, Olcott married Mary Morgan.

With the outbreak of war, Olcott joined the Signal Corps and served with Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Olcott participated in Burnside's campaigns on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and along the Rappahannock River during the early stages of the second Manassas Campaign. There is no documentation, but it seems likely that while Burnside was headquartered at Chatham in August 1862, Olcott strolled the hallways of the stately mansion overlooking the city of Fredericksburg. He then became seriously ill with dysentery. Upon Olcott's recovery, Burnside recommended that he be detailed to investigate corruption in the army's supply system. Olcott found the corruption so widespread that he was given a large staff to assist him. Eventually, hundreds of cases were investigated. His efforts earned him a promotion to colonel and a special recognition from Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war.


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