A Boys' Company of the Forties

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, October 7, 1911 [pt. 2, p. 12]

The ante-bellum days, when the country was at peace, the military spirit was dormant in the rising generation of Washington, though on the eve of the Fourth of July and the anniversary of national events the boys made some military display. When, however, there was talk of war, during its progress and after its close, the martial spirit was shown in the parades of the boy companies. Military heroes were not unknown to the boys of that day, and the names of Col. Charles May of the dragoons, Maj. Sam Walker of the Texas Rangers, Maj. Ringgold of flying artillery and of other officers residing in this section had no small influence in enthusing the boys. During the Mexican war, following the acceptance of the terms of annexation by Texas, on the Fourth of July, 1845, and while Gen. Taylor was marching to the Rio Grande, there was a revival of interest in military matters on the part of the ciders as well as the boys. Four companies were raised in the District for the Mexican war, to say nothing of the many persons who volunteered under Maj. Walker.

At that time, 1846, Capitol Hill was sparsely settled, especially on the north and east, and corn, rye, etc., were raised within a few squares of the Capitol grounds. Nevertheless, there were enough boys between the ages of fifteen and eighteen then imbued with military spirit who showed their patriotism by forming an artillery company. These boys, nearly forty in number, met in a house at the southeast corner of 4th and East Capitol streets, in 1846, and organized a company, which had a life of four years. Snowden W. Robinson was chosen captain, and John MacNamee and Bushrod Robinson, lieutenants. Charles MacNamee, then a clerk at the court house, was instrumental in building up this company of which his brothers, John and Stephen, were members. John Bryan was the orderly sergeant, and Richard H. Lee and Stephen MacNamee the gunners. There were three of the Benner boys, Alfred, Walter and Henry; the Smallwood brothers, George and James; the Hall twin brothers, A.G. and G.A., who were so near alike that sometimes one was marked with chalk to distinguish him from the other; the Linton brothers, Lucien and John; James Coleman, W.A. Hicks, Noble Bassett, John Claphan, George A. Sage, James Martin and others.

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Originally known as the Capitol Hill Artillery, the company changed its name when the news from Mexico was received announcing the victories of Gen. Zachary Taylor, and henceforth his sobriquet became their name, the "Rough and Ready" Artillery, and exceedingly appropriate it was to the zealous boys. They established an armory in a stable in the square between East Capitol and A streets north and 1st and 2d streets east, using it also as a clubroom. The uniform adopted was of blue satinette, which at first was trimmed with yellow, for in their zeal they had forgotten that red was the artillery color, while the yellow belonged to the cavalry arm. Red was later substituted. Bell buttons on the breast and down the trousers leg and jaunty caps, white belts, from which depended small swords loaned them by Col. Henderson of the Marine Corps, completed their dress. Many of the uniforms were homemade, while others were made by tailors, and it is related that the boys secured the wherewithal by various means, one of them cutting a field of oats on the site of Grant row on East Capitol street to get the money. Headed by boy drummers and fifers from the marine barracks, in their red jackets, and drawing two small cannon, they attracted as much attention on parade as older organizations. The firing of the guns for saluting purposes always took the crowd and their proficiency was increased by practice. Their services were often sought and seldom refused when a salute was required, and military processions at that period were not complete unless the Rough and Ready boys were in line. And indeed they received every encouragement from the public. On one occasion the committee arranging a procession, as an inducement for their appearance, procured new carriages for their guns. And it may be said they had a never-failing friend in the general public.

Seldom was there a procession in which they did not appear. They were wont to run ahead of processions, drawing the guns with ropes and firing at the street corners, notifying the public of the approach of the procession. As they became accustomed to the use of the guns, often in their anxiety that they should make louder report, a lump of sod was rammed down on the cartridge and the muzzle pointed to the ground in order to make the piece kick up in the air. But during the company's existence only one accident happened and that was not chargeable to handling the gun. There were seven pounds of loose powder at their armory north of the Library, and a spark blew into it and caused an explosion in which R.H. Lee and George Sage and a colored man were burned about the face.

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On the laying of the corner stone of the Washington Monument July 4, 1848, they were near the head of the line directly behind the Eagle Artillery of Baltimore, under Capt. George P. Kane, which fired the national salute there. The Rough and Ready Boys were somewhat disappointed in not firing the main salute, but, believing that they should honor the occasion, fired one on their own hook. They also participated in the inauguration of "Old Rough and Ready," Gen. Taylor, and attracted as much attention in that picturesque procession as any organization in the line. On one Fourth of July their annual picnic was held at Mulligan's Hill, directly opposite the present Mount Olivet cemetery, and it proved to be a very interesting occasion. When the time was not spent in firing their guns, drilling and feasting, they wandered over that section and found imbedded in the earth an old cannon and a number of metal buttons, believed to have been left there during the British invasion of the capital in August 1814.

As the boys reached their majority they dropped out and found their way into the older military companies and not a few became active members of the Columbia Fire Company, in whose engine house the guns were kept for several years. During the civil war Rough and Ready boys could be found on each side.

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After sixty years but few remain of this company. Capt. S.W. Robinson, one of four brothers, three of whom are dead, has resided in Washington nearly all of his life, and is still living in his eighty-fourth year, at 1107 17th street. From 1852 he was connected with the office of superintendent of the Capitol, from which he went into the service and was captain of a company he raised for the second District regiment, till ill-health forced him to resign. After spending fourteen years in the brick-making business he returned to service at the Capitol, where he has been continuously employed for nearly forty years. His brother Bushrod, now dead, is well remembered as having been in the clothing business here for a number of years. The Hall brothers, long in the gas office and with the District government, are yet living in the eightieth year of their age; A.G. being a farmer at Doylestown, Pa., and D.A. living at 1216 16th street. They are both enjoying fine health. James Coleman was for many years orderly sergeant of the Light Infantry, and later captain in the Second District Regiment, and after an officer of the jail. Richard H. Lee is now residing on the River road near Twining City, and notwithstanding his age, seventy-nine years, is as enthusiastic a sportsman as he was when, residing on Pennsylvania avenue near the Wallach School building, he helped his father farm much of the vacant land in that section of the city. James Smallwood died a few years since at the age of eighty in Baltimore, where he had been a clerk in the gas office for years. George Sage became a well known printer and served several years in the Washington Light Infantry.