Thomas Nelson Conrad

Thomas Nelson Conrad (August 1, 1837 – January 5, 1905) was the third president of Virginia Tech (then Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College) and served in the Confederate Secret Service during the Civil War.[1][2]

Thomas Nelson Conrad
Thomas Nelson Conrad.jpg
3rd President of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College
In office
January 17, 1882 – July 1, 1886
Preceded byJohn Lee Buchanan
Succeeded byLunsford L. Lomax
Personal details
BornAugust 1, 1837
Fairfax Court House, Virginia
DiedJanuary 5, 1905(1905-01-05) (aged 67)
Washington, D.C.
Spouse(s)Emma T. Ball (1845-1900, her death)
Alma materDickinson College
OccupationEducator, soldier, chaplain, journalist, mayor
Military service
Allegiance Confederate States of America
Branch/serviceConfederate Secret Service

Early lifeEdit

Thomas Nelson Conrad was born to Nelson Conrad and Lavenia M. Thomas at Fairfax Court House, Virginia.[2] He received his bachelor's degree from Dickinson College in 1857.[3]

Civil WarEdit

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Conrad taught at the Georgetown Institute in Washington, D.C., who also bestowed a master's degree on him in 1860.[2] While there, he openly expressed his sympathy for the Confederacy, and a few days after the June 1861 commencement, he was arrested and placed in the Old Capitol Prison.[4]: 55 

Conrad was given a letter of recommendation from General Stuart to President Jefferson Davis to spy for the Confederate Secret Service. He met Davis, who endorsed the letter and referred him to other members of the Confederate government. Conrad received gold from Judah Benjamin and his “name placed on the rolls of the secret service bureau”. He then saw Secretary of War Seddon for “papers and outfit”. Davis invited Conrad to his executive mansion to hear his plans.[5]: 93–95 

Captain Conrad went to Washington with his Dickinson roommate and Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity brother Daniel Mountjoy Cloud and M. B. “Tippie” Ruggles, son of General Daniel Ruggles as couriers. His slave William also accompanied them[5]: 95 

Conrad set up his covert intelligence gathering operation in a large home in the heart of Washington D.C.. His wartime exploits included among other things, hatching a plot to assassinate the Commanding General of the United States Army, Winfield Scott, that was vetoed by the Confederate government who feared that the elderly and infirm Scott would be replaced by someone more fit for command; sneaking into the War Office during lunch hour to lift copies of documents describing General McClellan's battle plans for the Peninsula Campaign, a large-scale offensive by the Union Army to capture the Confederate capitol at Richmond from the desk of a friend who was a double agent; and conspiring to kidnap U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.[2]

In September 1864, Conrad and a team went to Washington in an attempt to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln. The members of the team were “Bull” Frizzell (who had been in the Old Capitol Prison with him), Cloud, and slave William. The plan was abandoned because Lincoln was well protected.[6] Conrad denied that the Confederate government knew of his plot except the military secretary of General Braxton Bragg.[5]: 131  However, Seddon wrote an order for John S. Mosby and Lieutenant Cawood to “aid and facilitate the movements of Capt. Conrad.”[5]: 119 

Conrad’s courier Ruggles assisted John Wilkes Booth by giving him a ride on his horse shortly before Booth was killed.[7] Conrad was also a frequent visitor to Mary Surratt's tavern.[8]

Conrad was arrested by a landing party of the Union vessel Jacob Bell on the night of April 16, 1865.[9] He was put aboard a train bound for a Union prisoner of war camp but managed to escape by jumping from the moving train after the soldiers guarding him fell asleep.[2]

In May 1887 Conrad wrote several articles about his activities as a spy for a Philadelphia newspaper. He later reworked these into the 1892 autobiography A Confederate Spy: A Story of the Civil War, which he later revised into the 1904 work The Rebel Scout: A Thrilling History of Scouting Life in the Southern Army.[6]

Post-War CareerEdit

In 1871, Conrad was appointed principal of the Preston and Olin Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, until it reorganized the next year as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Virginia Tech). He then purchased the Montgomery Messenger newspaper.[2]

Conrad served as the mayor of Blacksburg for three months in 1882[10] and was appointed president of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College the same year.[1] During his tenure, the college switched from semesters to the quarter system, which remained in place until the late 1980s. The college spent $2,229.96 on books of fiction and poetry, and a museum was opened. For the first time, the school’s farm became financially successful.[11] In 1886, the Board of Visitors removed all officers and faculty of the college, including Conrad.[1]

Conrad once again became mayor of Blacksburg, this time for one month in 1887.[2] He then joined the faculty of the Maryland Agricultural College, resigning in 1890 to accept a position with the Census Office in Washington D.C. [12][13] He later retired to a farm in Prince William County.[2] He died in Washington, D.C., on January 5, 1905, and was buried in Montgomery County, Virginia.[14][11]

Personal lifeEdit

Thomas Nelson Conrad married Emma “Minnie” Ball on October 4, 1866, and the couple had seven children.[2]

Legacy and HonorsEdit

The Conrad Cavalry, the equestrian unit of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, is named for Conrad who was an expert horseman.[15]


  1. ^ a b c "The Conrad Years". Virginia Tech History: Historical Digest. Retrieved 30 May 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Jones, Matt (2017-03-21). "The Confederate President". Collegiate Times. Retrieved 2020-04-17.
  3. ^ "President Thomas Nelson Conrad". Virginia Tech Special Collections. 19 May 2008. Archived from the original on 21 May 2018. Retrieved 17 April 2020.
  4. ^ Steers, Edward (2005). Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 9780813191515. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d Conrad, Thomas Nelson (1904). The Rebel Scout. National Publishing Co.
  6. ^ a b Furgurson, Ernest B. "Thomas Nelson Conrad (1837–1905)". Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  7. ^ Cress, Joseph (April 11, 2015). "Shadow of Suspicion: Dickinson College grads conspired to kidnap Lincoln months before assassination". The Sentinel. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  8. ^ Hatch, Frederick (2011). Protecting President Lincoln. McFarland. p. 85. ISBN 978-0786463626. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  9. ^ Furgurson, Ernest B. "Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy". History Net. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  10. ^ Boone-Caldwell, Donna. "A Special Place for 200 Years: Blacksburg's Mayors and the Evolution of Town Government". Virginia Tech Special Collections. Archived from the original on 2018-05-21. Retrieved 2020-04-17.
  11. ^ a b "Life & Times of Virginia Tech Presidents". Office of the President of Virginia Tech. Archived from the original on 2007-03-03. Retrieved 2007-08-15.
  12. ^ ’Thomas Nelson Conrad Dead’, The Washington Post, January 6, 1905, p. 10.
  13. ^ Digital Collections at the University of Maryland (2011-09-20), A College Divided: Maryland Agricultural College and the Civil War, retrieved 2020-04-17
  14. ^ "Past Presidents". Retrieved 2020-04-17.
  15. ^