Washington in 1860

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, April 1, 1911 [pt. 2, p. 4]

The celebration of the semi-centennial of the mustering in of the District volunteers for the protection of the capital, April 10, the anniversary of which the survivors of that body are making preparations to celebrate recalls some interesting facts during the preceding year, such were the conditions that at the call of the President on Gen. R.C. Weightman, commanding the District militia, for ten companies to protect the capital, the requisition was more than met. During ten days thirty-seven companies were accepted for three months’ service, on the muster rolls of which there were over 4,500 names.

The preceding year, 1860, was one in which such events occurred as to cause serious fears that the Union would be dismembered; and probably eve r before was so much attention paid to public affairs as was then given by the mass of the people. The political campaigns started early that year. The democratic national convention met at Charleston April 23, when the delegates from several southern states withdrew and organized an opposition convention.

Hence there were two conventions of that body and each adjourned until the June following. The regular democratic convention reassembled at Baltimore June 18, and nominated Stephen A Douglas of Illinois, and H.V Johnson of Georgia as its standard bearers, the opposition convention about the same time naming J.C. Breckinridge of Kentucky and Joseph Lane of Oregon on its ticket. A constitutional convention had met at Baltimore May 9, and placed in nomination John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts.

The republicans May 16, at Chicago, named Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. A most exciting campaign followed, each party having its associations, clubs and party emblems conspicuous. The old Jackson democratic Association mostly favored the Douglas people, while the other wing of the party formed a Breckinridge and Lane Club, later known as the National Volunteers. The republicans had a large association known as the Wide Awakes, the headquarters being at the northwest corner of Indiana avenue and 2d street, the hall being known as “Wigwam” As election day approached more intense grew the feelings for there were threats being made by both sides as to what would be the consequences of the election of Mr. Lincoln or one of the opposition It was not rare for clashes to occur in which foreigners and native-born engaged and colored persons were attacked.

Disorder Follows Election
When the result of the election was known on the night of November 6, for it was conceded that the vote of New York would settle it, the republicans went wild, cheering through the streets and crowing over the defeated parties. The Beckinridge element formed a mob, which stoned the “Wigwam” and did some damage to the printing plant of Buell & Blanchard, the publishers of the National Era and the Republic; breaking the windows and upsetting things generally There is no denying that many government employes looked for their dismissal when Mr. Lincoln came in; some to a general breakup of the Union, and a majority to the overthrow of the government by the south. A few days after the election an attempt had been made to seize the government arms at Fort Moultrie, SC, and the delegation in Congress from that state, headed by J.H. Hammond, a major general of South Carolina militia, resigned.

The legislature of Georgia a few days later appropriated $1,000,000 to arm the militia of the state. Here in the cosmopolitan population were included in the pro-slavery element some ultra-extremists, but loyalty to one’s state was placed above any other consideration, and many waited the action of their states. The prevailing sentiment, however, was that the Union must be preserved, and that Mr. Lincoln should be given a trial.

Probably the first company formed for the purpose of seating Mr. Lincoln was composed of stonecutters. At a meeting of the association immediately after the election doubts of his inauguration were expressed, when Mr. James Guild offered a resolution to form a company for that purpose. This was adopted, and a company was formed under the name of the Mechanics’ Union Rifles and Alexander Rutherford chosen captain.

The news from Memphis, Tenn., of the great accession meeting there December 1, coming just before the convening of Congress, at which Mr. Buchanan in his message denied the right of secession, and the resignation of Howell Cobb, Secretary of the Treasury, and a number of senators and southern members had a disquieting effect, which was intensified by a number of banks in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other places suspending specie payment. At a cabinet meeting the question of sending reinforcements to Fort Moultrie was discussed and rejected President Buchanan objecting thereto, and Gen. Cass, Secretary of State, because of this action, resigned from the cabinet.

Efforts at Compromise Fail
Then there were stormy times in Congress, and efforts were made by Senators J.J. Crittenden of Kentucky and Emerson Etheridge of Tennessee to bring about a compromise, but without success. South Carolina, having adopted a secession ordinance by a unanimous vote, the hopes of the most optimistic were shattered. In the meantime Fort Moultrie had been abandoned by Maj. Anderson, who moved his troops to Fort Sumter. South Carolina troops occupied Fort Moultrie and also the arsenal, and J.B. Floyd of Virginia resigned as Secretary of War because the United States troops were not withdrawn.

Notwithstanding the gloomy forebodings, there was no dearth of receptions, entertainments, dinners, etc. in fashionable life. The receptions at the White House, presided over by Mr. Buchanan’s niece, Miss Harriet Lane, and at the homes of cabinet ministers and others were brilliant entertainments. Dinners were very popular as being occasions when the leading men could be gotten together, but in some instances the guests here were as hostile as the hosts were hospitable, engaging in wars of words, if not blows, and there were rumors of impending duels.

Indeed, it is related that Gen. Scott and Senator Robert Toombs came near blows at the dinner table. The latter expressed the hope that the people of Charleston would sink any vessel carrying troops or supplies to Fort Sumter. Gen. Scott expressed surprise at such sentiments from an American citizen and Mr. Toombs repeated his remarks with some emphasis, adding that every one concerned in sending a vessel thee ought to be in her and go to the bottom with her. Both gentlemen asserted responsibility for their sentiments and departed, and it was believed that they had referred the matter to their friends. Seldom a week passed that some similar episode was not talked of in the community. An exciting debate in which Mr. Grow of Pennsylvania and Gen. Branch of North Carolina engaged led to a reference to friends.

Wearing of Emblems Popular
The wearing of state emblems, as well as the Union tri-color, was a growing custom, and these in rosette or badge were on sale in hotel stands and stores. Of the down-town hotels, the Metropolitan,, which from the days of Jesse Brown and the Indian Queen had enjoyed the bulk of southern patronage, was the resort of those friendly to that section, while the National at the 6th street corner was regarded as the gathering place of the loyal and conservative element. As the wearing of the emblems increased, so did disorder in this neighborhood, for the appearance of a rosette would often lead to a quarrel, sometimes to blows. Wide-awakes and members of republican clubs, as well as union-loving democrats, showed their colors, and among the National Volunteers and the southern gentlemen state colors were displayed.

The National Volunteers during the campaign had numbered about 300 men here, and it was said there were branches in many states. The Wide-Awakes were the most active local republican organization, and it was also said that such organizations existed in many northern cities, and the object was said to be the seating of Mr. Lincoln by force if necessary, and the prevention of such by any means by the others. It is apparent that the police then enjoyed no picnic, and though that body was composed of 100 men only, there was no serious outbreak which they could not handle. The police was then composed of the Auxiliary Guard, under the command of Capt. John H. Goddard, who, loyal to the core deemed his force to be friendly to the constituted authorities, and, with the mayor, was satisfied that they could preserve the peace excepting on extraordinary occasions, when it would be easy to enlarge it.

There were a few companies of organized militia in existence then. The general militia law of 1803 was operative, by which it was estimated that 13,000 men could be raised for a call, and the officers were in commission, Maj. Gen. Roger C. Weightman in command. But the general law was almost unknown to the public, for since the “Fanastical Parade” twenty-five years before, no attempt had been made to hold general musters. This parade was for the object of ridiculing the manner the law was enforced on the training days. The parade had the desired effect, for unless there was necessity for service, musterings ceased. The few uniformed companies disbanded and the military spirit died out apparently. In 1836, however, there was a revival of the spirit by the formation of the Washington Light Infantry, under Capt. J.H. Blake, which made its initial parade September 12 of that year, as an escort to the Maryland troops who, as guests of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, celebrate the battle of North Point by an excursion to this city.

Companies See Service
Soon after other volunteer companies were formed, such as the Columbian Artillery, Potomac Dragoons, National Blues, Mechanical Rifles, German Yeagers, Montgomery Guard, Union Guards, Walker Sharp-shooters, Continental Guard and others, as well as he junior companies; Rough and Ready Artillery, Union Light Infantry, Marion Rifles, Green Mountain Boys and others, all having a longer or shorter career. In them, however, was much of the soldier element which later saw active service; the infantry entering the service April, 1861, the Blues becoming the Grays; then the National Guard doing likewise. The Yeagers, becoming the Washington Rifles, followed suit, and the junior Marion Rifles, the prototypes of the National Rifles, taking the same course. As to individual members, most of the served in the Union army, some in the Confederate, and not a few rose to high rank, some being mustered out as generals.

Under the act of Congress of March 30, 1855 an armory had been authorize in the mall near the corner of 6th and B streets southwest for the care of the arms and accoutrements of the volunteers and militia of the district, at a cost of $38,000. It was finished in 1859, and occupied by the National Guard battalion, Lieut. Col. James A. Tait. The Infantry was in rented quarters on the south side of the avenue, a few doors west of 4-1/2 street.

There were, however, occasional musters of the uniformed companies and ceremonials in wich they participated, particularly when requested by the War Department to do escort duty, and they often, collectively or by detachment, paid the honors to deceased officers of the government and others. Besides Gen. Weightman, who ws then too old for active service, there were Maj. Gens. Peter Force and G.C. Thomas; Brig. Gens. William Hickey, Peter F. Bacon, Robert Ould and Hugh Caperton, in commission before there was a call made. Gens. Hickey and Bacon were the most active of these officers, and often commanded the troops.

The political clubs were drilling in foot movements and looking to taking part in the inauguration, but they were fast being convinced that military force would be necessary to insure the inauguration of the President, and during December the subject of turning those clubs into military companies and applying to the government for arms and accoutrements was a burning question. Later many of them dropped their club organization and became soldiers, and the National Volunteers were preparing for service in the south.

Ministers Pray for Peace Thanksgiving day was one in which while the prayers of thanksgiving were offered in the churches, the ministers and congregations mostly supplicated for such divine guidance as would lead to a peaceful solution of the differences that would cement and not dismember the Union. It may be supposed the critical condition of affairs threw somewhat of a damper over the festivities of Christmas time.

The visit of the Putnam Phalanx of Hartford, Conn., on December 20 was an occasion which had its effect on the growing Union sentiment. The headquarters was at the armory of the Washington Light Infantry, and it put up at the National Hotel and formed lasting friendships with the guests at the hotel and the military, particularly the Infantry.

The discovery of the abstraction of Indian trust funds amounting to $830,000 from the Interior Department, when it became known that those funds were in charge of clerks who came from the south, was regarded as part and parcel of a conspiracy in which John B. Floyd, Secretary of the Interior, who had just resigned; William H. Russell, Goddard Bailey and others were involved. The three named were indicted.

The year ended in a day of excitement, the two centers being the President’s house and the Capitol, the people of all classes expecting a special message from the President on the secession of South Carolina and affairs at the south. Anxious inquirers besieged the White House, and before 11 o’clock there was a jam at the Capitol, and through the crowd the rumors flew as to further resignations in the cabinet.