- The Washington Times - Friday, July 8, 2005

A group of American and Egyptian officials gathered in a Cairo cemetery Nov. 6, 2000, to honor a long-forgotten veteran, Maj. Erasmus Sparrow Purdy.

Purdy, a New York native, served with distinction in the Union Army during the Civil War. His grave in Cairo had fallen into disrepair and had been neglected until the late 1990s, when a group of American expatriates there raised the funds necessary to rebuild and rededicate the tombstone.

The reason this Union Army officer spent his final years in Egypt is part of a fascinating but nearly forgotten chapter of Civil War history.

As war raged in America in the early 1860s, the ruler of Egypt sought to expand his nation’s role in Africa and throughout the world.

Khedive Ismail gained the Egyptian throne in 1863, when the nation was still an impoverished satellite state of the Ottoman Empire. However, the country gained great wealth almost overnight as Europeans looked to Egypt as a substitute source of cotton while the American South was blockaded by Union forces.

With these resources, Ismail had grandiose visions of modernizing Egypt by expanding its military and carving out an empire in eastern Africa. He hoped that these efforts would one day secure Egypt’s independence from the Ottomans.

Another of Ismail’s goals was to halt the expanding influence of the French and British, who were providing massive loans to the Egyptians to subsidize the Suez Canal construction project.

By the late 1860s, Ismail realized that he needed experts in positions of leadership to help meet those goals. Along with other world leaders at the time, he looked to the United States.

At that point, there were many restless veterans in America who had just participated in the most technologically advanced war in history. Ismail believed many of those men would find the opportunity to serve in Egypt attractive.

Using a former Union officer as an intermediary, he invited several of the veterans to serve in leadership positions in the Egyptian army. A number of key Civil War figures, including former Confederate Gens. Joseph Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard and George Pickett, considered the proposal. Although each of them ultimately declined, Ismail was successful in signing on nearly 50 Civil War veterans.

The group he assembled consisted of a number of former Confederate and Union army officers as well as a few enlisted personnel.

Among them were ex-Confederate Gens. Henry Hopkins Sibley, who had led the failed invasion of New Mexico early in the war, and William Wing Loring, who had had a troubled career during the war leading troops under Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and John C. Pemberton.

Among the contingent of former Union officers were Brig. Gen. Charles Pomeroy Stone, who had organized the defenses of Washington on the eve of the war, and Brevet Maj. Vanderbilt Allen, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Many of these men were commissioned as high-ranking officers in the Egyptian army and served in key positions such as chief of staff, inspector general of artillery and inspector general of the army. In return, they had to promise to fight in any war for Egypt except against the United States.

According to historian Michael Butzgy, who has researched this subject extensively, the arrangement seemed to get off to a good start. The Americans were credited with establishing schools for Egyptian soldiers, as well as for children, which resulted in a considerable increase in the country’s literacy rate.

They also were praised for exploring and charting vast sections of East Africa. As a result, the Americans discovered several lakes, rivers and desert regions previously unknown to the Egyptians.

By the 1870s, however, a number of problems developed that doomed the American contingent to failure. For one, cultural differences made it difficult for the Americans to work with their Egyptian counterparts, as American methods of organization and bureaucracy did not go over well in Cairo. In addition, sporadic fights broke out between the former Confederate and Union officers, leading some to believe the war was far from over.

However, the biggest problem involved the role Americans played in Egyptian military operations. In an effort to gain additional territory, Ismail deployed a force to invade Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) after diplomatic efforts to work out a territorial dispute failed. With a military leadership team consisting of the American expatriates and Egyptians, the operation was a disaster.

Miscommunication, confusion and hesitation to act plagued the Egyptian invasion and led to thousands of casualties. The conflict, ending in a negotiated settlement, accomplished almost nothing for Ismail except to drain his treasury. Although the Americans fought bravely in the campaign, they were convenient scapegoats for the fiasco and lost favor with the khedive.

By 1878, most of the American expatriates had been decommissioned and sent back to the United States. Many of them later wrote about their experiences, including Loring, whose book “A Confederate Soldier in Egypt” was published in 1884.

Khedive Ismail’s experiment of building an Egyptian empire with American know-how ended in failure. Because of spiraling national debt and growing political pressure from the British and French, Ismail was forced to abdicate his throne in 1879.

Although his successors tried to maintain nominal Egyptian sovereignty, the country was occupied by British troops in 1882 and remained a British colony for the next 70 years.

Ismail died in exile in 1895 and was buried in Cairo.

• Sean Heuvel is a college administrator at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. He and his wife live in Williamsburg.

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