When civil war broke out between the Federal and the Confederate states, Philo Duncan offered the United States Navy a half dozen of his sleekest Baltimore clippers from the Duncan Cargo Line for conversion to sloops of war.
He also volunteered himself for a naval command. Although the ships were accepted at once, no word came about the command. Several months passed before a telegram arrived at Duncan Cargo's main office in Baltimore, inviting Philo to Washington to meet with the President.
Abraham Lincoln received him in the White House study. "I want to thank you, young man," the President said with a mischievous grin, "for lending us your ships. It's a mighty fine gesture, but not near enough. Why not give us all you've got?"
The presidential joke set Philo at ease.
"I must apologize for letting you hang on for so long, however, in the matter of asking for a command," Lincoln went on, "but the Secretary of the Navy saw fit to put your request directly into my hands. What a mistake! As you must have noticed when you fought your way through the crowd at my door, there ought to be two of me." An irrepressible twinkle danced in his eyes. "'Cept I reckon our nation doesn't need another country lawyer at the helm."
"Like this war," he added, his smile fading in a frown, "our nation's got its hands full with just one." Lincoln shook his head and looked Philo in the eye. "It's not going well, Mister Duncan. Johnny Reb's giving us a fight. They are brave, these Southern folks. Our Union boasts brave warriors, too, but each must occupy his proper place for the battle to be won. That's what I have to say to you, sir. How can Duncan Cargo do without your expertise? We still need to transport supplies from abroad, preferably on American ships run by men loyal to our cause."
Philo leaned forward. "Mister President, I have instructed my Boston agent to come to Baltimore if I am asked to serve. I shall put him in charge for the duration. He's a knowledgeable man, and a patriot. Duncan Cargo can continue its work without me."
Lincoln twisted the hair on his bearded chin and studied Philo closely for a moment or two. He saw a man nearly as long-legged as himself, in superb physical condition, clear blue eyes staring back earnestly under a shock of curly blond hair spilling over a broad face set in the square, determined jaws of a Scot.
In a sudden gesture of decision, the President stood up and extended his hand. "Congratulations on your new command, Captain Duncan," he said with a grin. "It may not be quite what you expect, sir. You've given us six Baltimores already, but I wonder if you've another ship, something faster and smaller, something to give a Rebel blockade runner a real run for his money?"
Accepting Lincoln's hand, Philo gave it a hearty shake. "Thank you, Mister President! I've got a ship in mind. She's a pretty little clipper, a wedding gift from my late father. I've named her the Ora Nelle, after my wife."
"Splendid, Captain Duncan!" roared Lincoln, sitting down again and indicating for Philo to sit as well. "We need to stop the privateers racing in from the Bahamas and Bermuda to break our blockade around the Southern ports. They smuggle weapons and other provisions from Europe, then race back again. If we're to win the war, it's got to stop!"
Philo beamed. "I'll put her in dry dock at once and have her gone over with a fine-tooth comb. She'll be ready by Christmas."
Lincoln nodded his approval. "In the meantime, there is other work that you can do, if you'd like to volunteer. We've a mind to whip a few Rebs in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia down Fredericksburg way. General Burnside needs someone to supervise the movement of troops and munitions via the Potomac River. They'll load freight cars on barges, and passenger coaches as well, transport them to Aquia Creek by water, thence by railroad track to the battle area."
Philo leapt to his feet. "When can I begin, Mister President?"
Lincoln chuckled. "Yesterday, Captain, yesterday!"
With a smart salute, Philo turned to leave. "Hold on, sir," the President smiled, rising from his chair. Taking up a Federal blue hat, he presented it to Philo with a flourish. "This bit of felt haberdashery was designed by Ambrose Burnside, leader of the Army of the Potomac," he explained.
Black feathers fluttered grandly from the rolled brim pinned back with golden eagles to a tall crown encircled by yellow braid tipped with acorns and knotted at the front. Lincoln tapped it with a laugh. "The general says the sailor who handles this job will need the army's Burnside to keep his brains dry!"
On the train back to Baltimore, Philo felt redeemed by the prospect of active duty. A peacetime graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1856, he had never fulfilled his commitment to serve. His powerful father had used his influence to keep his son at home. Resentful at first, Philo had soon perceived the value of Duncan Cargo to the commercial shipping interests of the United States.
Sam Ardmore, Philo's roommate at Annapolis, had introduced his sister Nelle to Philo when she visited from Savannah. They fell in love. Philo continued his courtship in ardent letters, and on graduation day married Nelle in the Academy's chapel. Their joy over the birth of a son a year later was marred by the diagnosis that Nelle should never bear another child.
For Nelle's sake, Philo had tried not to show his disappointment. Nelle, naturally overprotective of Ardie as the only baby she could ever have, doted on her child. Philo immersed himself in work at his father's side, but Bradley Duncan fell dead of a heart attack in the spring of 1860, thus catapulting his son to the forefront of American shipping. Philo was just twenty-six.
Within a year, Abraham Lincoln had issued a call to arms to put down rebellion in the South. Grim apprehension gripped Baltimore. Many who prayed their state would secede openly espoused the Southern cause.
Philo remembered the day in April 1861 when Nelle's buggy clattered to a halt in front of Duncan Cargo's office. His wife leapt down, shouting as she tethered her horse to the lamppost, "Thousands of people are fighting on Pratt Street!" Dragging their son by the hand, she dashed inside. "Folks are saying President Lincoln's sent the troops to kill all the Southerners in Baltimore! Can't we take the Ora Nelle and sail to Savannah? Oh, Philo, I want to go home!"
"Calm down, Nelle. There's nothing to fear!" He took her into his arms and tenderly stroked her hair. "Sweetheart, Mayor Brown has everything under control now. There's been shooting, and some people on both sides have been killed, but the 6th Massachusetts Regiment was just passing through on its way to Washington. It's the Southern sympathizers who attacked them, not the other way around. It's all over now anyway. President Lincoln has promised to keep peace with the citizens of Baltimore by sending no more troops through here."
Calmer then, Nelle pulled away and released her grip on Ardie. Knowing the facts made her feel foolish in front of the office clerks, but each of them went to her and expressed such sympathy and concern that her embarrassment was assuaged.
The incident led to a talk between them that night as they prepared to retire.
Pivotal were her brother, Sam, and her mother, both still in Savannah.
"After all, if it weren't for Sam, we would never have met," Philo said. "He was best man at our wedding, which makes him not only brother, but friend. Will this war make us enemies? God help us, Nelle. Only He can guide us now. I may be a Yankee, but I gave my heart to the South when I fell in love with you."
"Just as I gave myself over to the North when I married you, darlin'...for better...or for worse, " she whispered. "I got a letter from Momma today, smuggled in on the postal pipeline. I declare, some of these Baltimoreans are more Southern than I am! You'd think there wasn't even a war on! She wrote that Sam has mixed feelings, like us. He thinks the South was foolish to break away, but what can he do? Georgia's his country. It's the Confederacy, right or wrong. He's resigned from the Federal Navy even though the Confederates don't have one yet, and he's seen fit to forgive you in advance for what he reckons you'll do. Is he right, Philo? Are you goin' to volunteer?"
She collapsed in his arms when the expression on his face left no doubt of his