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Chapter 8: Washington.

In celebrating the attack and the fall of Sumter at Montgomery by a congratulatory speech and an official salute, the rebel Secretary of War ventured to predict that the Confederate flag would float over the capitol at Washington before the first of May. Whether this was to be accomplished by plot, by open military campaign, or through mere insurrectionary reversion, he did not explain. The idea, however, by long nursing and repeating, had become one of the fixed hopes of the rebellion. When the news of the Baltimore riot reached the South, the fulfilment of the prophecy was believed to be at hand. The revolt, which for a few days continually grew until it spread over all Maryland, served to deepen the universal impression. The Baltimore conspirators themselves were animated to fresh daring by their flattering local prospects. They sent at once to Richmond for a supply of arms. Governor Letcher responded with alacrity to their request. Senator Mason hastened to Baltimore to give them encouragement and advice. Two thousand muskets were forwarded with all possible despatch for their use. Twenty heavy guns were also ordered to be sent them a few days later, though it does not appear that the order could be fully executed. Meanwhile the Virginia rebels had possessed themselves of [92] Harper's Ferry and established a camp there, and from this vantage-ground they arranged a system of confidential communication with Baltimore. Nor was Richmond alone hopeful. Even Montgomery became inspired by the apparently favorable opportunity. Jefferson Davis telegraphed (April 22d) to Governor Letcher: “Sustain Baltimore, if practicable. We reinforce you,” and ordered thirteen regiments to be concentrated in the “foreign country” of Virginia; and with all the confidence of a positive secret understanding, the rebel Secretary of War issued his requisitions upon the non-seceded Border Slave States to furnish a portion of this force.

In the North the bloody act of Baltimore raised the already seething war excitement to a pitch bordering on frenzy, and the public expressions of indignant wrath were in many instances disfigured by intemperate clamor for sweeping and indiscriminate vengeance upon that city. These ebullitions of hot blood were, however, everywhere wisely turned into increased ardor and effort to forward speedy relief and ample reinforcement to the Federal capital. The monster meeting of New York was held on the following day, at which a Union Defence Committee was formed from the foremost citizens of the great metropolis; and by this committee, money, ships, supplies, and marching regiments were provided and prepared to meet the threatening requirements of the hour.

Troops were, however, already on the way. Brigadier-General Butler, with the Eighth Massachusetts Regiment, reached Philadelphia on the afternoon of the riot. The famous Seventh Regiment of New York, under Colonel Lefferts, also arrived there on the following morning. Here the railroad officials gave the two commanders certain information of the burning of the railroad bridges and the impossibility [93] of reaching Washington, or even Baltimore, by the ordinary route, advising them, as an alternative, to proceed by water to Annapolis, and thence march overland to

Routes of approach to Washington.

the capital. Acting as yet under separate State authority, and unable to agree, the two regiments proceeded there by different routes, one descending and the other ascending Chesapeake Bay, Butler arriving in Annapolis harbor before [94] daylight, on Sunday morning, April 21st, and Lefferts join ing him there next morning, Monday, April 22d.

On communicating with the shore, they were met by a protest from Governor Hicks, warning them not to land With all his stubborn and ingrained loyalty, the Governor was of a timid and somewhat vacillating nature, and for the moment the clamor of the Baltimore mob overawed his cooler judgment. In this conflict between lawful duty and popular pressure, he, too, caught at the flimsy plea of “State” supremacy, and, in addition to presuming to forbid the national flag on Maryland soil, wrote a letter to the President, asking that the troops be ordered elsewhere, and suggesting that Lord Lyons, the British Minister, be requested to mediate between the Government and the rebels, a proposal which was at once answered by a dignified rebuke from Mr. Seward.

The administration at Washington had not been unmindful of the dangerous condition of Maryland; but great reliance was placed upon the discretion and loyalty of Governor Hicks to avert danger. He had held several personal consultations with the President and Secretary of War; had agreed to hold his people in check, and furnish four Maryland regiments of picked Union men under the call; and to make his compliance easier, the authorities consented that these should not be ordered South, but kept on service in their own State, or in the District of Columbia. The Governor was frank enough to acknowledge his failure to keep his engagement. “We were arranging and organizing forces,” he wrote, “to protect the city and preserve order, but want of organization, of arms, prevented success. They had arms, they had the principal part of the organized military forces with them; and for us to have made the effort under the circumstances, would have had the effect to aid the disorderly [95] element. They took possession of the armories, have the arms and ammunition, and I therefore think it prudent to decline (for the present) responding affirmatively to the requisition made by President Lincoln for four regiments of infantry.”

Unfortunately the disaster at Baltimore did not come single-handed. At the picturesque little town of Harper's Ferry, where the Potomac River flows through one of the gateways in the Blue Ridge, the United States had an extensive armory, containing much valuable machinery for the manufacture of rifles and muskets, originally located there because of the convenient and cheap water-power which the river affords. The town was famous as the scene of John Brown's invasion and capture. The seizure of this place with its works and its supposed strategical importance was an essential item in the conspiracy. A small company of regulars had been guarding it since January. One of General Scott's first orders was to have a volunteer regiment detached to reinforce it, a precaution which could not be taken earlier because of the want of troops. With the quick secession of Virginia, however, the proposed help came too late. Governor Letcher pushed forward his State forces to menace the place with such haste, that, on the night of April 18th, Lieutenant Jones set fire to the establishment and withdrew his sixty men through Maryland into Pennsylvania. The Rebels immediately took possession, and though the fire had done much damage, the principal part of the machinery was rescued by them and afterward sent to Richmond. As already mentioned, a rebel camp was immediately established, and its force in a few days augmented to two thousand four hundred men-doubtless with a view to join rebellious Maryland in a descent upon Washington.

Serious as was the loss of Harper's Ferry, a sacrifice of infinitely greater proportions almost immediately followed. [96] Near Norfolk, Va., was one of the principal naval stations of the Government, the Gosport Navy Yard. This, too, was one of the prizes coveted by the conspirators; its buildings, supplies, machinery, dry dock, and especially a number of valuable ships, constituted a money value amounting to many millions; and the importance of their possession and use to either the insurgents or the Government, in a rebellion, was of course immeasurable. Beyond mere occupancy by a few officers and a little handful of marines, the place was without substantial protection. The Lincoln administration had fully realized its exposure, but for want of troops could send it no early reinforcements. Such measures of precaution as were possible had long since been taken. The officers had been admonished to vigilance, and preparation made to bring away the more valuable ships. It was Gen. eral Scott's design to advance troops to its support the moment Fortress Monroe should be secure.

Under these circumstances occurred the sudden fall of Sumter, the President's proclamation, the secession of Virginia, and the immediate movement of Governor Letcher's State forces against both Harper's Ferry and Gosport. As a preliminary act, he thought to absolutely prevent the escape of the ships by obstructing Elizabeth River with small sunken vessels. The device did not completely succeed, though it greatly enhanced the danger. It is possible that all might yet have been ultimately saved, but for a contingency against which foresight was impossible. The ships were ready to move out ; the most valuable of them — the Merrimack-had steam up and was on point of sailing, when, by the treachery and false counsel of his subordinate officers, Commandant McCauley, of the navy yard, whose loyalty had hitherto not been suspected, revoked his permission to let her depart. [97]

The officers charged with the removal hurried to Washington to obtain superior orders; but their absence and the necessary delay only rendered the situation worse. When they returned with a ship-of-war and a regiment, they found that, through a repetition of treasonable advice, the ships had been scuttled and were sinking. It was decided that neither rescue nor defence was now possible; and on the night of April 20th, the officers of the relieving expedition undertook to destroy the yard, property, and all the ships, except one, in a great conflagration, to prevent their falling into rebel hands — an attempt, however, which proved only partially successful. Whether or not the actual emergency justified this enormous sacrifice, will perhaps always remain an open question among military experts. It was as necessary for the Administration to confide to the officers this discretion, as similar discretion in any military enterprise. They seem to have acted in good faith and upon their best judgment, and their action was accepted, perhaps with regret, but with full acquittal of duty conscientiously discharged.

It may well be imagined that the authorities and inhabitants of the national capital watched the development of rebellion in the neighboring States of Virginia and Maryland with the keenest anxiety. Washington, in tradition, tone, and aspiration, was essentially a Southern city. Slavery existed and the local slave-trade flourished here; in latter times the maintenance of the institution in the District of Columbia formed a distinct plank in Democratic platforms. Southern arrogance and Southern ambition had long dominated official society. All the cant and all the sneers of the haut ton of the capital were vented against mercenary Yankeedom, and the rustic and provincial West, which had won the late presidential election. The confusion and controversy of faction exhibited during the winter session of Congress [98] shook the faith of many a political veteran. The secession harangues of conspicuous fire-eaters were openly applauded from the House and Senate galleries. As the social lights faded one by one from the Congressional corridors and the promenades of Lafayette Park and Pennsylvania Avenue, the social sympathies of Washington to a large extent followed them into the eclipse of their “foreign” confederacy. These too, notwithstanding their complaints and defiance, departed with an evident reluctance and regret into a country without a capital, and whose social and official circles were yet in embryo. A few were so unguarded as to distribute confidential nods and winks that they expected soon to return; while no doubt all nursed the longing hope that at no distant day they might reclaim and reenter the city as their proper and natural heritage. It was this almost universal Southern feeling which found expression in the prediction of the rebel Secretary of War, that the rebel flag would float over the dome of the capitol before the first of May.

There was, therefore, great doubt about the disposition and loyalty of the resident population; and the startling succession of disasters to the Union cause created a profound impression. Virginia's secession on the 17th; Harper's Ferry lost on the 18th; Baltimore in arms, and the North effectually cut off on the 19th; the Gosport Navy Yard sacrificed on the 20th--where would the tide of misfortune stop? Wavering Unionists found no great difficulty in forecasting the final success of rebellion; sanguine secessionists already in their visions saw the stars and stripes banished to the north of Mason and Dixon's line.

Whatever the doubt, there was no other present resource but to rely largely upon the good faith and order of Washington City. The whole matter had been under the almost [99] constant investigation of General Scott and his subordinates since January; and officers of earnestness and good judgment assured him that the local militia would stand by the Government and the flag. In that assurance fifteen companies of volunteers had, since the 9th of April, been enlisted, equipped, and armed for the defence of the city. A few individuals out of these companies refused, at the last moment, to take the oath of enlistment, and were publicly disgraced; but the remainder went into the service cheerfully, and, so far as is known, served their term loyally and honorably.

Chiefly, however, General Scott relied on some six companies of troops from the regular army, which he had concentrated from various parts of the country in scattering driblets, among them being two light batteries of exceptionally good discipline and drill. These, together with a small force of marines to guard the marine barracks, were stationed at the critical points in the city; secret instructions were issued to designated officers to hurry, in case of alarm, to the charge and command of various public buildings specially prepared to resist sudden ingress or capture, and stored with ammunition and provisions against temporary siege; and pickets and patrols were sent out to watch all the leading roads and bridges.

To aid these, there had arrived in the city two detachments of volunteers from other States; the first, some three or four hundred Pennsylvanians, on the evening of April 18th, who were armed and equipped after their arrival; the second, the compact and courageous Massachusetts Sixth Regiment, on the evening of April 19th, after having, as already de tailed, fought its way through Baltimore. This regiment was at once quartered in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol, which, with its extemporized barricades, began to take on the frowning aspect of a fort. [100]

From the officers and men of this regiment the President and other authorities learned verbally the dangerous character and proportions of the Baltimore riot. This occurred on Friday. Saturday brought him not only many letters and telegrams setting forth the details and increasing signs of disaffection, but a committee from the Baltimore authorities, to verbally represent the unrestrained turbulence of the city, and to urge that further bloodshed be avoided by stopping the transit of troops. General Scott, to whom the request was at once referred, desiring the speedy presence of volunteers to defend Washington rather than to fight a battle in Baltimore, suggested that they might be marched around, instead of being brought through, that city. To this suggestion President Lincoln readily agreed, and the committee assented to the arrangement. On the following day, Sunday, however, local riot had risen to general insurrection in Maryland, and the authorities of Baltimore, called to Washington by the President, now put forth the request that no more troops be brought through Maryland. This demand the President and Cabinet summarily rejected. It was agreed, however, that, if no resistance were offered to their march, either around Baltimore or by way of Annapolis, they would not be forced through the city, and with that assurance the committee departed.

Pending this discussion rumors came that a portion of the Pennsylvania forces were advancing on Baltimore by way of the route from Harrisburg, and the committee soon returned, reporting a fresh turmoil in Baltimore, and an arming en masse to resist their passage. The movement was unknown to the President; and to disabuse the Baltimoreans of any possible imputation of bad faith, Lincoln ordered that the detachment complained of should return to Harrisburg, and come round by way of Annapolis; also, however, giving the [101] committee formal notice that he would not thereafter again interfere to change mere military details. This order was, at the time, the occasion of much outcry against the President from excited critics who totally misapprehended its scope and spirit. It simply changed a dangerous, perhaps impossible march, to one practicable and comparatively secure; it did not surrender a general right, but only yielded a non-essential point to gain a real military advantage for Washington.

The burning of the railroad bridges east and north of Baltimore had permanently interrupted communication before daylight, on the morning of Saturday, April 20th; on Sunday night, April 21st, the insurrectionary authorities in the same place took possession of the telegraph offices and wires, and Washington went into the condition of an isolated and blockaded city. Both from the Virginia and the Maryland side there came exaggerated rumors of gathering hostile forces, and preparations for a coup de main against the capital; and, though not actually or visibly threatened, the city was in the very nature of things forced into the privations and inconveniences of a siege. Military arrangements and military regulations became everywhere the rule. The public buildings were hedged with barricades and guarded by sentinels. The little steamers on the Potomac, and the stores of flour and grain in the Georgetown mills wore seized by the Government. Squads of cavalry dashed through the streets. Business practically ceased; the life and bustle of the city was hushed. Mere sojourners, and even many residents, took alarm, and hurried away by private conveyance. The hotels, which had a week before been thronged to overflowing, became deserted, or were haunted by only a few mute and white-faced guests, who looked like apparitions in contrast with their recent gayety. [102]

As the gloom increased there began to be talk of general military impressment for the defence of the city. This had the effect of finally exposing the loyalty or disloyalty of many Washington officers, clerks, residents, and habitues who had maintained a dubious silence. On Monday, April 22d, quite a stampede took place into Virginia and the South; some hundreds of clerks from the various departments of Government, and a considerable number of officers of the army and navy, hitherto unable to decide between their treasonable inclinations and the attractions of their salaries, finally resigned, and cast their fortunes with the Rebellion.

The routine work of the departments went on with its machine-like monotony; the cabinet members called on the President and discussed chances and rumors; General Scott conferred with his subordinates, and made daily confidential reports to Lincoln. The situation, however, revealed nothing certain or definite. From the windows of the Executive Mansion a rebel flag could be seen flying at Alexandria. One rumor asserted that a hostile detachment was being assembled near Mount Vernon; a second, that an attack on Fort Washington was imminent; a third, that an investing force was being brought down from Harper's Ferry. Per contra, there came the welcome information that there were ships and volunteers at Annapolis; but it was clouded with the rumor that their landing would be disputed and their march obstructed by Baltimore roughs and Maryland militia. A pioneer train reported the railroad safe to the Junction, but nothing could be learned of its condition beyond; while several messengers, despatched to reach Annapolis, had returned unsuccessful. What was transpiring in the outer world could only be surmised; whether danger lurked far or near was a mystery incapable of present solution. Never [103] theless, the President and Cabinet were not only calm, but hopeful, under General Scott's assurance that, with his present force, the city and all the public buildings were entirely safe against ten thousand troops not better than the District volunteers.

In point of fact, after some diplomacy with the Governor and Mayor, the Massachusetts Eighth and New York Seventh had really landed at Annapolis on Monday afternoon, April 22d; and, after still further delay in sifting threatening rumors, in a somewhat deliberate local reconnoissance, and in repairing a disabled locomotive, the two regiments started on their march toward Washington, on Wednesday, the 24th. A year or two later this would have been considered tardy movement under the requirements of urgent danger; but, considering the surprise, the anxiety, the suspicions and uncertainties, and the want of preparation amid which they acted, there is much to excuse their caution and delay. They had few rations and no transportation. Full of high, patriotic zeal, they were new to the trials and privations of an actual campaign, even of so mild a type. Once started, however, they pushed ahead with pluck and perseverance, and by daylight next morning reached Annapolis Junctiona distance of some twenty miles-without opposition, having repaired the railroad track as they advanced. At the Junction they found a railroad train in waiting, which, two hours later, landed the famous “Seventh” at the capital. Then came their hour of peaceful triumph, in which they forgot their hunger and thirst, their bridge-building in the broiling sun, and their foot-sore scouting through the tedious midnight hours. Debarking from the cars amid the welcomeshouts of an assembled throng, and forming with all the ready precision of their holiday drill, they marched with exultant music and gayly fluttering banners up Pennsylvania [104] Avenue to the Executive Mansion, to receive the President's thankful salute. With their arrival, about noon of the 25th of April, all the gloom, and doubt, and feeling of danger to the capital, vanished. In comparison with the unmurmuring endurance that trudged through the Yazoo swamps, and the unflinching courage that faced the dreadful carnage of the Wilderness, later in the war, this march of the “Seventh” was the merest regimental picnic; but it has become historic because it marked a turning-point in the national destiny, and signified the will of the people that the capital of the Union should remain where George Washington planted it.

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