1 Songs for a Prelude
In culture and climate, Washington City belonged to the South, and as 1861 opened many feared that it might become part of a Southern confederacy, as well. Those who deplored the prospect ruefully observed that the government of the United States held power there only by popular assent: except for a few Marines and an ordnance company, no organized troops stood by to enforce federal authority. An armed mob could have driven congressmen and senators from their respective chambers, evicted the president from the executive mansion, and forced the United States government into exile north of the Mason-Dixon Line. That January there would have been little anyone could have done to prevent it. Most of the army manned outposts scattered along the Southern coast or across the western frontier, weeks or months away from the smoky saloons and hotel rooms where statesmen and scoundrels negotiated the nation’s future.
As the new year progressed and Abraham Lincoln prepared to assume the presidency, key officials began to worry about an armed assault against the federal presence on the Potomac. Terrified that the election of a Republican president threatened their slave-based agricultural economy with containment and extinction, political barons in the Deep South had convinced five state conventions to renounce their ties to the Union by January 19, and most of the remaining slave states had begun debating the expediency of their own withdrawal. The secession of one slave state only encouraged others to follow, for with that initial secession the South’s balance of power in the United States Senate evaporated. Appalled at the desertion of their Dixie comrades, border-state senators proposed complicated compromises and constitutional conventions with the hope of forming a still-more-perfect union, but hotter heads prevailed.1 On January 9 South Carolina volunteers had fired on the Star of the West when that unarmed vessel tried to supply the federal garrison of Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, and an infuriated North had risen in a nonpartisan outcry for blood. The commander o New York’s associated veterans of the War of 1812 even offered the services of his superannuated comrades in defense of the government, and he may have intended more than a symbolic gesture, considering that the seat of government lacked any practical protection. Striving to maintain peace in his final weeks as president, James Buchanan declined to redress the national insult. His inactivity allowed the crisis to abate, but then Southern militiamen aggravated the offense when they began seizing United States forts and arsenals in the seceded states. On January 24 hundreds of Georgia troops compelled the garrison of the Augusta Arsenal to surrender; on that same day, the commanding general of the U.S. Army made arrangements for at least token reinforcements in the federal capital.2 Winfield Scott—himself one of those 1812 veterans—had donned his first uniform before president-elect Lincoln was born. He had held the rank of general for nearly half a century, and that of commanding general for two decades, and he was the only lieutenant general the United States Congress had ever created, even by brevet. At seventy-four the towering commander had grown so stout that he could no longer mount a horse or lead troops in battle, but he was the man who had conceived and conducted the brilliant campaign against Mexico City only fourteen years before. For all the pomposity of his prose and plumery he remained a sharp strategist, and he inspired and demanded energy from subordinates even if he did not own much of it himself. Until recently he had been saddled with a secretary of war of dubious integrity: John Floyd, of Virginia, who seemed more loyal to the slave South than to his national obligations. In December, 1860, the resignation of that politico had brought a new and more decidedly loyal secretary into office— Joseph Holt, an unflinching Kentucky Unionist who ignored anonymous death threats and pushed the administration to aggressive federal policy.3 With the trustworthy Holt behind him, late in January General Scott outlined a plan to introduce more soldiers into Washington gradually, to avoid the inflammatory impression that he was amassing troops to march against the insurgent states.
A couple of batteries of artillery reached the capital by February 1, coming from as far away as West Point. By then, Texas and Louisiana had also seceded. The withdrawal of each state removed two more Southerners from the U.S. Senate, where equal numbers from slave and free states had balanced a fragile truce over the issue of slavery since 1820, and the increasing majority of freee-state senators spelled the ultimate end of slavery in whatever was left of the United States. That only heightened the anxiety of plantation aristocrats in the remaining slave states, so secession fever ran epidemic from Annapolis, Maryland, to Fort Smith, Arkansas.
In January the stars were falling from the flag so quickly that it seemed no slave state would stick to the Union, and even seasoned army officers whose states had not yet seceded, like Major George Thomas of Virginia, began casting about for alternative employment.4 Those Southern-born officers frequently found their allegiance to the Union doubted, both by devoted loyalists who feared their treachery and by authorities in their home states who coveted their services. Major Thomas applied for a post at the Virginia Military Institute; instead he received an invitation to serve as chief of ordnance for the governor of Virginia, and he declined, but others lacked his constancy. At least two artillery captains who brought their batteries to Washington would soon wear the stars of Confederate generals, and one of them briefly commanded all the troops in the city.5 The few companies that reached Washington in late January and February numbered barely four hundred men, doubtful officers and all. The presence of even that many soldiers raised questions in Congress, which sent President Buchanan a special inquiry on the subject when the capital garrison had been augmented to only 653 soldiers. Southern representatives who believed in the right of secession but had not made use of it worried that the president intended to bring the Union back together by force. For their part, Northern congressmen wanted to know if the reinforcements indicated that the administration had gotten wind of a conspiracy to seize the capital before Lincoln could be inaugurated; prominent Republicans had been warning of such a plot since the end of December. Bellicose talk among Southern-leaning militia companies in the district fueled widespread anxiety of armed revolt, and citizens took to sleeping with loaded revolvers handy.6 That anxiety thickened in February, when delegates from the seven estranged states joined together at Montgomery, Alabama, to organize as the Confederate States of America. They elected a president and, on the last day of that month, made provisions for an army.
That potential new market for arms and matériel elicited a sheaf of proposals from Northern manufacturers. A Milwaukee man offered his revolutionary breechloading cannon; a New York firm touted its military and naval telescopes; another New York company sent an agent hawking its percussion caps. Kentucky breeders who wished to supply the Confederate army with horses and mules sent their cards to Montgomery, and a Washington inventor who had produced breechloading carbines for the U.S. Army stood ready to make as many as the Confederacy might desire.7 Experienced soldiers, practicing physicians, and common citizens from all over the free states and border states offered their services to the ...