Washington in Isolation

President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers caused a frenzy in the northern states. Raising the quotas would not be a problem, but getting the new soldiers to Washington would. Lincoln had agreed not to send troops through Baltimore after a riot had broken out between Massachusetts soldiers and local secessionists there. Without use of the most direct route, the forces would have to be sent from Philadelphia down Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, and then by train from there to Washington. But this was a much more time-consuming route, and until the troops could arrive, the capital was vulnerable to attack from either Maryland or Virginia.

The day before Lincoln had issued his proclamation, the U.S. Army consisted of just over 16,000 officers and men, with most of them scattered throughout the frontier west of the Mississippi River. Only 1,500 troops were on hand to defend the capital, a much smaller force than the Confederate army commanded by Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard in South Carolina.

Residents of Washington were on the verge of hysteria, as fears spread that Beauregard’s Confederates were marching north to put the capital under siege before the northern troops could arrive. Buildings and homes were barricaded with sandbags, troops were stationed on the U.S. Capitol grounds, and the Willard Hotel—which had been overflowing during Lincoln’s inauguration in March—had fewer than 100 guests. Secessionists hurried to Virginia while Unionists hurried North. Since Washington was a southern city, a good many residents who stayed embraced the possibility of a Confederate attack.

On the night of the 19th, District of Columbia militia carried out orders to cut all telegraph lines in Washington. The only communications to and from the North were now handled by couriers traveling through hostile Maryland. There were no direct railroad links to the North from the capital, and secessionists held the Baltimore & Ohio line at Baltimore to the east and Harpers Ferry to the west. Lincoln’s personal secretary John Hay wrote on the 21st: “This morning we mounted the battlements of the Executive Mansion and the Ancient (Lincoln) took a long look down the bay (for incoming troops).”

During this time, the crack 7th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment prepared to head to Washington. Many of New York City’s elite belonged to this regiment, which was furnished with velvet campstools and food from the posh Delmonico’s Restaurant. The soldiers paraded down Broadway on the 19th and were cheered by thousands of onlookers. A private wrote: “It was worth a life, that march.”

The next day, some 50,000 people gathered in New York’s Union Square to hear a speech urging them “to rally around the star-spangled banner so long as a single stripe can be discovered, or a single star shall shimmer from the surrounding darkness.” New York, which had once been dominated by Democrats and suspected secessionists, was now wholeheartedly devoted to the Union cause. But getting the New Yorkers to Washington was still a problem.

Back in the capital, rumors spread that enemy forces were building a battery to block the Federals from getting to Washington via the Potomac River; there were also rumors that Confederates were using Harpers Ferry as a staging area to launch an attack on Washington from the north. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott wrote Lincoln on the 22nd that Confederates could start laying siege to the capital within three days; but he was optimistic nonetheless: “I feel confident that with our present forces, we can defend the Capitol, the arsenal and all the executive buildings…”

Hay wrote in his diary: “A telegram intercepted on its way to Baltimore states that our Yankees (8th Massachusetts) and New Yorkers (7th New York) have landed at Annapolis. Weary and foot-sore but very welcome, they will probably greet us to-morrow. Housekeepers here are beginning to dread famine. Flour has made a sudden spring to $18 a barrel.”

Two more days passed, and still no northern troops had reached Washington yet. At the White House, President Lincoln met with officers and soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts who had been wounded in the Baltimore riot. Lincoln expressed gratitude for their service, then voiced frustration that the capital had been cut off: “I don’t believe there is any North! The 7th Regiment (of New York) is a myth; Rhode Island is not known in our geography any longer. You are the only northern realities!”

The 7th New York and the 8th Massachusetts arrived at Annapolis, and General Scott ordered Federal forces to seize the railroad from that city to Washington to ensure safe passage for the troops. Bridges were guarded, and track torn up by secessionists was repaired. The train designated for troop transport moved continuously back and forth between the capital and Annapolis to discourage saboteurs. The New Yorkers and Massachusetts men repaired track up to Annapolis Junction, where the Baltimore & Ohio line would take them to Washington.

Near dawn on the 25th, the Massachusetts troops guarded the depot while the New Yorkers boarded the train. They reached Washington around noon and paraded up Pennsylvania Avenue with the brass band blaring and thousands of relieved onlookers cheering. The troops stopped at the White House to pay respects to President Lincoln, who gladly reciprocated. They then took up quarters in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol. The New Yorkers’ arrival meant that the line linking the capital to the North was now open, and soon thousands of troops would be pouring in to ensure the city’s safety.

The flood of troops moving through the Harrisburg-Philadelphia-Annapolis-Washington corridor prompted the War Department to create two new military departments and modify a third:

  • The Department of Annapolis consisted of the Maryland counties within 20 miles of either side of the railroad linking Annapolis to Washington. Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler was given command and assigned to protect this vital line.
  • The Department of Pennsylvania consisted of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and all of Maryland not covered by the Departments of Annapolis and Washington. Major General Robert Patterson, veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, was given command with headquarters in Philadelphia.
  • The Department of Washington, commanded by Colonel Joseph K.F. Mansfield, was expanded to include Georgetown; Alexandria, Virginia; Fort Washington; and Maryland south of Bladensburg.

By month’s end, thousands of troops had arrived in Washington from Massachusetts (the 5th, 6th and 8th), New York (the 5th and 7th), Pennsylvania (the 5th), and Rhode Island (the 1st). They were hastily boarded wherever space was available, including the chambers of the U.S. Capitol, the Patent Office, and the Treasury building. A contingent of “Frontier Guards” led by Kansas Senator-elect James H. Lane was quartered in the East Room of the White House. The Guards had been anti-slavery terrorists in the conflict over the status of Kansas statehood.

Not everyone was happy with the arrival of northern troops. Secessionist sympathizer Mrs. Phillip Phillips wrote: “You would not now know this God-forsaken city, our beautiful capital, with all its artistic wealth, desecrated, disgraced with Lincoln’s low soldiery. The respectable part view it also in the same spirit, for one of the Seventh (New York) Regiment told me that never in his life had he seen such ruin going on as is now enacted in the halls of our once honored Capitol!”

The Lincoln administration welcomed the influx of northern troops with open arms, as long as the troops were white men. Federal laws prohibited blacks from enrolling in state militias, and in Boston, free blacks gathered to protest these laws and demand their repeal. A similar meeting took place in New York City but was broken up by police who feared that it might “lead to some unpleasantness” and “exasperate the South.”

Jacob Dodson, a free black man who had participated in John C. Fremont’s famous western expeditions, petitioned Secretary of War Simon Cameron to assign “three hundred reliable colored free citizens” to the defense of Washington. But Cameron refused: “This Department has no intention at present to call into service of the Government any colored soldiers.”

As for women, they would have to find work as army nurses. Dorothea Dix, known for her crusade to reform insane asylums, volunteered to lead female nurses for the Federal army. Dix was given vague powers as “Superintendent of Female Nurses.”

The troops who were allowed to serve soon fell into a daily routine of drilling and parading, giving most Unionist residents of Washington a sense of confidence that they were no longer vulnerable to enemy attack. Soon the Federals would turn from fearing an attack to launching one of their own.


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