Make Yourself That Rallying Point

On New Year’s Day, President James Buchanan gave Charles P. Stone a colonel’s commission in the U.S. Army and made him the new inspector general for the District of Columbia. Since Stone’s primary task was to keep Washington safe from secessionists, he became “the first man mustered into the service for the defense of the Capital.”

Stone reported to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, that he was at a disadvantage because the Unionists “have no rallying point.” Scott replied, “Make yourself that rallying point!” Stone quickly set about organizing volunteer militia companies from “well-known and esteemed gentlemen of the District.” He also had the power to form a secret military force to infiltrate suspected secessionists in the capital.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, the Military Departments of California and Oregon were combined into the new Department of the Pacific. This would consist of the Washington Territory (now the states of Washington and Idaho), Oregon, California, and part of the New Mexico Territory (now Arizona). Headquarters were to be at Los Angeles, with Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston commanding. Orders would change when the War Department learned that Johnston chose to go to the South.

Near mid-month, the Washington National Intelligencer published a controversial letter that Scott had secretly written to President Buchanan the past October. These were Scott’s “Views suggested by the imminent danger of a disruption of the Union by the secession of one or more of the Southern States.” Like most people, Scott believed that Abraham Lincoln would win the presidential election, and like most people, he also believed that a Lincoln victory would cause mass unrest that might lead to secession. On one hand, Scott conceded the right of secession to “save time,” but on the other, he asserted that any state exercising its right to secede should be “instantly balanced by the correlative right” of the Federal government to regain any of its property within said state.

Scott argued that since there would be no way to restore the Union once broken “except by the laceration and despotism of the sword,” the nation should be divided into four separate countries with borders drawn according to “natural boundaries and commercial affinities.” But before it came to this, Scott proposed strengthening all Federal forts and garrisons on the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts. This would prevent the “danger of an early act of rashness preliminary to secession… all these works should be immediately so garrisoned as to make any attempt to take any one of them, by surprise or coup de main, ridiculous.”

This letter had been widely circulated throughout the South because Scott had sent a copy to John B. Floyd, who was Buchanan’s secretary of war at the time before declaring his support for the South. Buchanan did not respond to this letter at the time because he feared that it “was sufficient to set the South on fire… Never was a prediction better calculated to produce its own fulfillment.” But southerners had no reason to worry; Scott’s idea of bolstering the forts was virtually impossible to carry out because of the severe manpower shortage in the U.S. Army. Meanwhile, northerners noted that Scott was a native Virginian and cast a suspicious eye on him for conceding the right of secession.

As for the Navy, rumors that secessionists might seize the Brooklyn Navy Yard prompted the mobilization of the New York militia. The militia’s 5th Brigade was stationed at the armory while harbor police guarded the navy yard. The 74-gun U.S.S. North Carolina was also brought in for protection along with 100 U.S. Marines. No attempts were made to seize the yard. The rumors that spread fear in New York did the same in the capital, as 40 Marines were detached to garrison Fort Washington on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. A few weeks later, Naval Commander John A.B. Dahlgren ordered the removal of cannon and ammunition from the Washington Navy Yard in case of attack.

The sloop-of-war U.S.S. Brooklyn arrived at Fort Monroe on the Virginia coast in mid-month, having returned from the ill-fated Star of the West mission to Charleston Harbor. According to the Richmond Dispatch, “None of the guns on the Brooklyn were loaded, or even unlashed for the purpose, nor was the slightest preparation for action made on board during the whole cruise.”

The Brooklyn left Fort Monroe 10 days later, destination unknown. Former President John Tyler, a Virginian who was in Washington to organize the national peace conference, heard that the ship was heading for a southern port. Acting an unofficial emissary between North and South, Tyler wrote Buchanan: “May I be permitted to hope that it is based on an unfounded report. If not, will you do me the favor to inform me on what day the Brooklyn sailed, and whether she has recruits for any Southern fort, and if so, which?”

Buchanan answered: “The orders were given to the Brooklyn, I believe, on Monday or Tuesday last–certainly before your arrival in this city. She goes on an errand of mercy and relief. If she had not been sent, it would have been an abandonment of our highest duty. Her movements are in no way connected with South Carolina.” In actuality, the Brooklyn was on her way to aid the Federal garrison at Fort Pickens in Florida’s Pensacola Harbor.

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Bibliography

  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McGinty, Brian (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
  • Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Stern, Philip Van Doren, Secret Missions of the Civil War. New York: Wings Books, a division of Random House, 1959 (1990 edition, from “Washington on the Eve of the War” by Charles P. Stone, from Century Magazine, Jul 1883.

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