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Chapter 9: Ellsworth.

It has already been related in a previous chapter how the incidents immediately following the fall of Sumter and the President's Proclamation — the secession of Virginia and the adhesion of other Border States-had doubled the strength and augmented the war preparations of the Rebellion. Upon the Government and the people of the North the experience of those eventful days was even more decisive. Whatever hope President Lincoln and his Cabinet may have entertained at the beginning, that secession could be controlled by the suppression of sporadic insurrections and the reawakening of the slumbering or intimidated loyalty of the South, necessarily faded out before the loss of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and the dangerous uprising in Maryland. Not alone prompt measures to save the capital of the nation were imperatively dictated by the sudden blockade and isolation of Washington, but widespread civil war, waged by a gigantic army and navy, must become the inevitable price of maintaining the Union. For this work the seventy-five thousand three-months militia were clearly inadequate. It marks President Lincoln's accurate diagnosis of the public danger, and his prompt courage and action to avert it, that, as early as April 26th, ten days after the first proclamation, the formation of a new [106] army had already been resolved upon; and the War Department began giving official notice that volunteers in excess of the first call could only be received for three years or during the war, the details of the new organizations, to consist of 42,034 volunteers, 22,714 regulars, and 18,000 seamen, being publicly announced on May 3d. No express provision of law existed for these measures, but Lincoln ordered them without hesitation, because the exigency did not admit of even the short delay of awaiting the assemblage of Congress. He was too true a type and representative of the people to doubt one instant their sure support and approval of a step which the Constitution covered with its paramount authority, and its imperative personal mandate to the President of the United States to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Following the march of the Seventh Regiment, the Annapolis route remained permanently open to the Union troops from the North. Day by day vessels arrived in Annapolis Harbor with volunteer regiments, with provisions and supplies for their maintenance, with war material for their equipment. These were transferred rapidly over the repaired railroad to Washington City, and it was not long before the National Capital resembled a great military camp. Troops found temporary lodgment in the various public buildings; citizen recruits wrote letters home on the senators' desks, spouted buncombe for pastime from the members' seats in the House of Representatives, spread their blankets for bivouac in the ample corridors of the Patent Office; clusters of tents filled the public squares; regimental tactics, practice in platoon-firing and artillery-drill went on in the surrounding fields; inspection and dress parade became fashionable entertainments; military bands furnished unceasing open-air concerts; the city bloomed with national [107] flags. The presence of an army brought an influx of civilians that at once perceptibly augmented the floating population; and this Yankee invasion of a sleepy Southern city gave Washington a baptism of Northern life, activity, business, trade, and enterprise, which, for the first time after half a century of sickly pining, made the metropolitan dreams of its founder a substantial hope and possibility.

Under the vast enlargement of military operations to which the defence and maintenance of the Government was now driven by inexorable events, the utility and employment of the three-months volunteers became necessarily limited and confined to a few local objects. The mature experience and judgment of General Scott decided that it would be useless, considering their very short term of service, to undertake with their help more than the garrisoning of Fort Monroe, the protection of the Potomac, the defence of Washington City, the restoration of the military routes through Baltimore to the North and West, the political control of Maryland, and possibly the recapture of Harper's Ferry-a programme forming practically one combined measure-the defence of the military frontier or line of the Potomac, from the sea to the mountains. Larger projects must be postponed for preparation; ships must be improvised or built to enforce the blockade; a new army must be gathered to open the Mississippi and restore authority in the South.

The rebels, though now seriously checked, were yet industriously working their local conspiracy in Maryland to secure the final complete insurrection and adhesion of that State. The Legislature, apparently under their control, had met at Frederick, and was devising legislation under which to set up a military dictatorship. But the Administration at Washington allowed them no time to gather strength at home, or draw any considerable supplies or help from Virginia. The [108] President authorized General Scott to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus within certain limits, and empowered him to arrest or disperse the Legislature in case they attempted treason. Annapolis was garrisoned and lightly fortified; a military guard was pushed along the railroads toward Baltimore simultaneously from the South and the North; and, on May 13th, General Butler, by a bold, though entirely unauthorized movement, entered the city in the dusk of evening, while a convenient thunder-storm was raging, with less than a thousand men, part of whom were the now famous Massachusetts Sixth, and during the night entrenched himself on Federal Hill. General Scott reprimanded the “hazardous” movement; nevertheless, the little garrison met no further molestation or attack, and soon, supported by other detachments, open resistance to the Government disappeared from the entire State. Independent regiments of Maryland volunteers entered the Federal service; a sweeping political reaction also set in, demonstrating that the Union sentiment was largely predominant; between which and the presence of Union troops the legislative intrigue was blighted, and the persistent secession minority and almost irrepressible local conspiracy were effectually baffled, though not without constant vigilance and severe discipline throughout the remainder of the year.

While the Government was thus mainly occupied in restoring its authority in Maryland, the rebels were busy in military organization in various parts of Virginia. Among the resignations from the Federal army were two officers of especial prominence-Joseph E. Johnston, Quartermaster-General, of the rank of Brigadier-General, and Robert E. Lee, lately promoted to be Colonel of the First Cavalry. Lee was an officer of great promise, and a personal favorite of General Scott, who at once conceived the idea of putting [109] him at the head of the Union army about to take the field; and, on Saturday, April 20th, an informal and unofficial tender of this honor appears to have been made to him by Francis P. Blair, senior, as coming from President Lincoln. In a letter written subsequent to the war, Lee says that he declined this offer. That same evening he wrote a resignation from Arlington, and on Monday hurried off to Richmond, where he was appointed by Governor Letcher, and, on April 23d, publicly installed to command the military forces of Virginia.

Lee did not share the radical clamor of many of the Richmond conspirators for an immediate advance to capture Washington. He discouraged mere reckless enthusiasm, and urged a defensive policy and methodical and thorough military preparation. Carrying out this policy in his orders, directions were issued, and officers sent to different localities to call out and organize the State militia, to drill recruits, and collect materials and stores. Under his management companies and regiments soon sprang up, and Virginia, like the other Southern States, gradually became a general camp. It was not a great while before the presence of a military force at the principal points along the Potomac became evident. Its concentration and offensive action either to close the river to navigation, or, when sufficiently strong, against Washington, was, of course, only a question of time. The contact of hostile armies unavoidably provokes conflict.

These changing conditions of Virginia required new precautions for the defence of Washington. As early as May 3d it was ascertained by the local officers and engineers that the Capitol building was only three and a half miles from Arlington Heights on the Virginia side of the river, the Executive Mansion and various department buildings but two and a half, and Georgetown within one mile. The enemy [110] already had a detachment quartered at Alexandria; reinforcements from the South might, in a single night, occupy the heights and destroy the Virginia end of the bridges, and, speedily erecting mortar batteries, could destroy the city with bombs, unless they were attacked at a disadvantage and dislodged. It was, therefore, decided that the Union forces must occupy Arlington Heights to insure the safety of the city, though the necessary troops could not as yet be spared from the operations to secure Maryland; and by reason of various delays, three weeks more passed away before the full preparations for the enterprise were completed.

Finally, at two o'clock on the morning of May 24th, three columns crossed the Potomac and entered on the “sacred soil” of the Old Dominion: three regiments by the Aqueduct at Georgetown, four regiments by the Long Bridge from Washington, and one regiment, Ellsworth's Zouaves, from their camp below the city directly by steamer to Alexandria, the war steamer Pawnee being anchored off shore to protect the landing. The movement met no opposition; no considerable rebel force was stationed at the bridges, and the detachment at Alexandria, excepting a small troop of cavalry, which was captured, evacuated that place on receiving a notice, sent without authority by the commander of the Pawnee, to surrender or retire.

It had been a beautiful moonlight night; all the regiments were filled with an eager enthusiasm for the march; the preparations were careful, the officers to supervise it intelligent and competent, the movements promptly begun and successfully completed. The whole enterprise seemed on the very point of conclusion without an accident, when sudden news of the assassination of Colonel Ellsworth not only saddened the camps on both sides of the Potomac, but [111] cast a new gloom, and spread a feeling of bitter vindictive ness throughout every loyal State.

Colonel Ellsworth was a young man of twenty-four, who by the possession of a phenomenal combination of genius, energy, and self-confidence, had won the attention and admiration of the whole country. But a few years ago, foiled by misfortune in an attempt to begin professional life in Chicago, he had suddenly found himself without money or friends-almost without bread. By the endurance of extreme privations, the pittance which he managed to earn with some temporary writing kept off starvation. His energetic nature made active occupation a necessity; and perhaps as much to consume the evening hours, as with any other fixed purpose, he became interested in studying and teaching others the manual of military drill. This led to the formation of a little volunteer company of about sixty Chicago youths-clerks and business employees — under his command. Into their instruction he threw such a degree of enthusiasm, such originality in remodelling and adapting old methods, such a grasp of purpose, and such a genius of control, that, after about a year's training, he not only carried off the prizes for drill at the fairs and exhibitions in the neighboring counties, but confidently formed the bold project of showing to the public of the great cities that he had the best-drilled company in America.

They had no money, no commissariat, no transportation, but a friendly railroad gave them free tickets from Chicago to Detroit; from there the proceeds of an exhibition drill carried them to the next city, and so on. At every step of their progress, their actual dexterity in the manual of arms carried admiration and applause by storm. Arrived at New York, they achieved a double triumph; first before the uniformed city militia in the open field, and afterward at night [112] on the stage of the Academy of Music, before as fashionable an audience as ever packed the walls or split their kid gloves to encore the most famous prima donna. For three days the metropolitan newspapers were full of descriptions of their performance and their personal appearance and historyabove all, of their youthful commander, Ellsworth, the visible creator, embodiment, and inspiration of their admirable accomplishment. Determined to leave no test unchallenged, they went even to show their proficiency to the military school at West Point, where the only criticism that could be passed upon them was that they did not follow the “regular” drill of the text-books. When they finally returned to Chicago, after a full tour, in which they had reaped uninterrupted encouragement and acclaim, the name and fame of Ellsworth and his “Chicago Zouaves” were a part of the just interest and pride of the whole country.

Nevertheless, no one appreciated better than Ellsworth himself that this was but a possible beginning of better things. He had no ambition to remain either a mere drillmaster or a raree showman, though his necessities had compelled him to make a somewhat spectacular beginning. There is not room here to trace his higher purposes and ideals of a general militia reform; it is sufficient to say that for the brain of a boy of twenty-four they were serious and comprehensive. There was then no thought of war; and when Lincoln became President, Ellsworth sought his favor and was readily permitted to accompany him to Washington as one of his suite. The inauguration over, the President made him a second lieutenant of dragoons. Then came Sumter and the call for volunteers, and Ellsworth saw his opportunity. Hastening to the city of New York, he called together and harangued the fire companies of the metropolis; in three days he had twenty-two hundred names inscribed [113] on his recruiting lists; out of these he carefully selected a regiment of eleven hundred men, who chose him their colonel, and, bearing half a dozen beautiful presentation flags, one of them publicly donated by Mrs. Astor, followed him to Washington, where they were mustered into the service among the earliest three years volunteers.

It was at the head of this regiment that Colonel Ellsworth entered Alexandria at daylight of May 24th. The rebels received notice of his coming, and most of them retired with sufficient promptness to escape capture. Having seen the town securely occupied and pickets posted to prevent surprise, Colonel Ellsworth remembered the rebel flag which had been for weeks flaunting an insulting defiance to the national capital. It was hoisted over the Marshall House, the principal hotel of Alexandria, and the Colonel was seized with the whim to take it down with his own hands — a foolish fancy, perhaps, when considered in cool judgment, but one very natural to the heated enthusiasm of those early days of burning patriotic ardor. “Whose flag is that flying over this house?” demanded he, as he entered and ascended the stairs. “I don't know,” was the only response he could obtain; but the demon of a hellish purpose lurked under the answer. He mounted to the roof with one or two companions, cut the halyards, and started down with the treasonable emblem on his arm. The stairs were narrow and windingthey could descend only in single file — a soldier preceded and followed him. As he reached the third step above the landing on the second floor, a side door flew open, and the owner of the house, a man named Jackson, who had been lurking there in concealment like a tiger for his prey, sprang out, and levelling a double-barrelled shotgun, discharged it full in the Colonel's breast — the fatal charge driving almost into his very heart a gold presentation badge inscribed “Non [114] nobis sed pro patria.” Ellsworth fell forward in death without even a groan; but the murder did not go unavenged, for in that same instant his assassin also expired by the double effect of a musket-charge and a bayonet-thrust from Ellsworth's foremost companion.

If there remained a possibility of a sensational climax of deeper import than Sumter and Baltimore, it was furnished by this hideous tragedy at Alexandria. The North had supposed that the first exhausted the cold-blooded recklessness of conspiracy. The second manifested the sudden fury of sectional excitement. But this last opened an unlooked-for depth of individual hatred, into which the political animosities of years between the North and South had finally ripened after four months of uninterrupted manipulation by the conspiracy. Under this unwelcome revelation there was no longer room to doubt the existence of widely pervading elements of an enduring civil war. Ellsworth was buried with imposing honors, from the famous East Room of the Executive Mansion, the President, Cabinet, and high officers of Government attending as mourners; and as the telegraph filled the newspapers with details of the sad event, every household in the North felt as if the dark shadow of a funeral had lowered over its own hearthstone.

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