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 Scotthimself one of those 1812 veteranshad 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 officeJoseph 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 new nation, often without any evident sense of impropriety.8 The establishment of a skeleton army by a new government augured no particular ill, for every nation must provide for its own defense: peaceful resolution still seemed possible, especially since the new Confederate Congress authorized the president to appoint a peace commission as soon as he took office.9 Some Northerners who harbored abundant devotion to their government, and to the nation it represented for them, viewed the voluntary departure of the seceded states with unmitigated relief. One thoughtful and sophisticated New Yorker felt satisfied to bid the Gulf states and rabid South Carolina goodbyeif only Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri would remain (although he seemed not to care either way about Arkansas). Some even wished that those sisters in slavery would follow the Deep South out of the Union. An Ohio attorney who would one day occupy the White House saw no threat in the abrupt division: he stood ready to let the whole South go, assuming that a smaller nation without slavery might be preferable to an “unfortunate union of thirty-three States” that permitted it. A young veteran of the free-state fight in Kansas told the folks back home in Pennsylvania that he greeted the secession of slaveholding states with “much pleasure.”10 While the formal organization of a Confederate government and army posed no imminent danger to Washington, it excited the advocates of secession in Virginia and Maryland, for the new government at Montgomery might act as a magnet toward other states whose citizens wished to see slavery specifically protected. That attraction pulled strongest on the states that shared a border with the new nation, but even in Virginia, where Union sentiment still throve, most citizens’ allegiance would have faltered or fallen at the first sign of hostile intentions toward the Confederacy. If that opposition translated into overt rebellion, fewer than a thousand soldiers and Marines could hardly have defended so large and open a city as Washington. General Scott planned to protect the Capitol and the president’s mansion, along with the most defensible department office buildings around the White House. In case of alarm he assigned one company (under one of those future Confederate brigadiers) to garrison the Treasury Department building as a final retreat where he, the president, and every soldier left standing would barricade themselves and hold out as long as they could.11 Charles Pomeroy Stone served as one of Scott’s chief collaborators in the defense of the capital. Stone had wanted to be a soldier all his life: growing up in western Massachusetts, he was told that his grandfather had stood with the militia at Lexington Green and Bunker Hill, and he was only six months past his fifteenth birthday when he first applied to West Point. Numerous testimonials to his scholarship and irreproachable conduct failed to win the appointment that time, but a different secretary of war granted his wish the next year.12 Stone graduated seventh in the class of 1845, alongside more than a dozen future generals. His intellect and energy inspired confidence from the beginning. After teaching geography, history, and ethics for a term at the academy, he had served Scott as an ordnance officer on the campaign to Mexico City, coming out of that war with two brevet promotions for his conduct at Molino del Rey and Chapultepec, and he had remained in the army for nearly another decade. For two years he had toured Europe and the Levant, observing an assortment of armies. He had spent several years as chief of ordnance on the West Coast, but his career track promised so limited a future that in 1856 he had resigned to go into banking. After less than a year he accepted a survey contract with the Mexican government, mapping the topography and exploring the resources of Sonora and Baja California. By 1860 he had completed that contract and had brought his wife and daughter to Washington. They lodged with Mrs. Stone’s father, Captain Robert Clary, a well-heeled army quartermaster, while Stone prepared his Mexican observations for publication.13 On the last day of that year, shortly after the changing of the guard at the War Department, Stone paid a social call on General Scott, evidently with the ulterior aim of reminding the old general that he was available for service.14 Scott’s esteem for Stone manifested itself in a commission as colonel and an assignment as inspector general for militia in the District of Columbia, in which capacity Stone immediately began assessing the loyalty of the various uniformed companies in Georgetown and Washington.15 Stone’s surveillance only heightened Scott’s concern for the safety of the capital when he found that at least a quarter of the militia seemed sympathetic to the Confederate cause. High on his list of suspicious organizations stood the better part of the National Rifles, a well-armed company under a Baltimore native named Frank Schaeffer. Schaeffer had served as an infantry captain and ordnance officer in the Mexican War before migrating to California, where he finagled an appointment as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Artillery.16 He had never reported for duty, though; his regiment had carried him on the rolls as absent without leave for months before he bothered to resign. Later Schaeffer secured a more agreeable position as a clerk in the Interior Department, and in that capacity he had returned East.17 Schaeffer’s troubles began when he declined a promotion to major rather than take a new oath that would have pledged his fealty to the federal government. Like many Tidewater natives, Schaeffer seemed more devoted to the cause of state sovereignty than to secession, but uncompromising Unionists acknowledged little distinction between the two. Colonel Stone and Roger Weightman, the aging commander of militia in the District of Columbia, confronted Schaeffer in the library of the U.S. Patent Office on February 5, where they asked him certain questions about his loyalty. Schaeffer recalled that they wished to know whether he would take up arms against either Virginia or his native Maryland if those states seceded, and he instantly replied that he would not. As Stone and Weightman recalled it, they wanted to know whether he would defend the capital if those states should attack it, to which he responded that he would not. In any event, he indicated that he could not submit to the oath he would be required to take if the district militia were called into federal service, and on that pretext alone they felt justified in stripping him even of his captain’s commission.18 Stone apparently marked his man well, for within four months Schaeffer would abandon his federal clerkship and lead scores of Washingtonians over the river to fight for the Confederacy. In his place Stone appointed a captain of the Regular service.19 Under the moribund administration of James Buchanan, the government offered precious little resistance to secession, waiting instead for the outcome of congressional and private compromise committees and the accession of the new president, whose election had brought so much trouble. To maintain the loyalty of the remaining slave states, Buchanan wished to avoid the least hint that Washington might contest the right of any state to withdraw, but he fell short of acknowledging the secession itself. The day after Texas voted itself out of the Union, a battery of light artillery unlimbered near the Capitol and fired a salute of thirty-four guns to celebrate the admission of Kansas. A Southern-leaning man who bothered to count the number of discharges might have found something ominous in his tally, noting one round for the new state and thirty-three for the oldincluding the seven that had opted out of membership.20 Symbolic salutes meant little against the events that Buchanan dared not prevent. His policy of placating Southern Unionists cost the army a great deal: most of the manpower still lay scattered on the frontier, and Buchanan failed to concentrate those forces when he had the opportunity, leaving them vulnerable to piecemeal destruction. He also left Texas under the command of David Twiggs, a native Georgian of duplicitous intent, who surrendered all the troops and facilities there as soon as Texas forces asked for them, taking a Confederate general’s commission in return. Had Buchanan reassigned Twiggs as soon as Georgia seceded, the Texas command would have fallen to a Connecticut colonel of unquestioned loyalty. Instead, by the time Abraham Lincoln made his appearance in Washington on February 23, the perfidy of General Twiggs had neutralized one-sixth of the U.S. Army, and nearly every fort in the insurgent states had been seized.21 On his way across Indiana and Ohio Abraham Lincoln hinted that the government had the right to hold or recover such property by force, but he disavowed any desire to subdue the South and questioned the validity of the crisis, hailing the common cause of South and West. On a loop through New York and New Jersey he said little, but in Philadelphia he stopped at Independence Hall. There, on the day before he reached Washington, he let slip his belief that the Declaration of Independence promised ultimate equality for all, and although he seemed to regret the remark as “something indiscreet,” he added that “if this country can’t be saved upon that principle . . . I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender to it.”22 That very night the threat of assassination convinced Lincoln to enter the capital as surreptitiously as anyone might who stood eight inches taller than the average man of his era; he negotiated Baltimore in the wee hours to avoid a plot that Colonel Stone’s operatives thought they had detected. Mrs. Lincoln and the rest of the retinue came in on an afternoon train, and the family reunited at the rambling, six-story hotel of the Willard brothers at the corner of Fourteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
23 The indecorous midnight passage marred Lincoln’s introduction to the nation, sparking widespread speculation on his personal courage at a time when such things mattered to people. The safe conclusion of his journey merely initiated ten more anxious days for Stone and Scott, who anticipated further attempts on Lincoln’s life prior to the inauguration, perhaps as part of a general revolt. Lowering skies and howling winds buffeted the capital city on the Lincolns’ first full day in Washington, setting the tone for their entire sojourn there.24 Lincoln spent his final days before the inauguration corresponding with cabinet candidates, perambulating hallways jammed with the office seekers who had descended like locusts upon Willard’s, and circulating about the city, introducing himself to the notables who would be his associates. A so-called Peace Convention of representatives from Northern and border states met behind closed doors at Willard’s through most of February, and a Missouri delegate who encountered Lincoln there lamented his ascendance: Lincoln impressed him as “a man of no intelligence, no enlargement of views, as ridiculously vain and fantastic as a country boy with his first red morocco hat.” That critic spoke from deep hostility to Lincoln’s party, but such impressions troubled loyal Republicans as well. Many found the lanky westerner naive, and supposed that he would be ruled by one of his more commanding cabinet officers. Some expected the executive power to be exercised by Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase, whom Lincoln wanted to head the Treasury Department, but the real odds went to Senator William Henry Seward, whom Lincoln had chosen for his secretary of state. One fellow senator considered Seward “a coward & a sneak,” but Seward viewed himself as the leader of the Republican Party and felt that he had deserved the presidential nomination far more than Lincoln had.25 Slave-state Democrats who served in the Senate with Seward openly shared his image of himself as the power behind the throne, ultimately to the detriment of Lincoln’s relationship with that faction.26 Working independently of the executive succession, the Peace Convention forwarded a feeble attempt at reconciliation. From their secret conclave at Willard’s the delegates proposed a constitutional amendment specifically prohibiting congressional interference with slavery inside the existing states, and they assumed that they had disposed of the thorniest problemslavery in the territoriessimply by resurrecting the old Missouri Compromise boundary between slave and free territory.27 The resolutions resembled the elements of the doomed compromise that Kentucky senator John J. Crittenden had proposed the previous winter, which ultimately failed precisely because it ignored the widespread hostility to the territorial expansion of slavery. The convention proposal nonetheless inspired momentary hope on both sides. Reports that the House of Representatives had accepted the resolutions brought some strained rejoicing, including a hundred-gun salute, but the initial euphoria had not abated before most people sensed the futility of such belated measures. The resolutions died in the Senate by a margin of four to one on the eve of the new president’s inauguration.28 Foreboding over plots of assassination and revolt deepened as inauguration day drew near. At last, on Monday morning, March 4, Benjamin Brown French appeared at City Hall in the role of parade marshal for the inauguration ceremony. French was one of those perennial Washington political appointees, and the role of chief marshallike most of the positions he had held in government employcarried less authority or responsibility than the title implied. It would be military men who choreographed the day’s events. The participants in the procession and the order of their march had been decided the day before, in General Scott’s office. Regular infantry would precede the presidential carriage and double files of District of Columbia volunteers would flank it, freshly mounted and equipped as cavalry, while more district militia followed on foot. Colonel Stone would ride alongside the carriage, among his mounted volunteers, while a detachment of the 1st U.S. Cavalry cleared the way and guarded each intersection.29 Stone trusted the loyalty of few men in these times, expecting trouble from any quarter, and not without cause. Each shift in the political winds scattered men’s sympathies, and today’s ally might be tomorrow’s enemy. The little cavalry detachment, for instance, responded that morning to the orders of a second lieutenant of good pedigreeLunsford Lomax, the son and grandson of career army officers, who would end a long family tradition of military service four years hence as a major general in the Confederate army.30 A dripping rain threatened the festivities early in the morning, but it gave way to clear skies and cool air. The column left City Hall shortly after eleven o’clock and lined up along Pennsylvania Avenue with the leading elements abreast of Willard’s Hotel. The committee of arrangement and assorted assistant marshals fussed with the alignment while everyone waited for President Buchanan, whose last cabinet meeting ran late because his secretary of war, Mr. Holt, had received unsettling news from Fort Sumter. Inside the hotel, Lincoln spent his last hour as a private citizen in the company of his old friend from the Illinois legislature, Edward Dickinson Baker. Lincoln had known this English immigrant for nearly a quarter of a century, and had grown so fond of him in their youth that he had named a son after him. Baker had moved to the West Coast nearly a decade before, but now he was in Washington as one of Oregon’s U.S. senators, and Lincoln relied on him as a barometer of political sentiment in the Pacific states. When Buchanan called at the hotel room that noon, the white-haired Baker joined them in the barouche waiting at the door, along with a Unionist Democrat from Maryland. The carriage pulled into line, a band began blaring, and the leading horses lurched toward the Capitol, dragging the rest of the parade after them.31 Over the east steps of the Capitol hovered a temporary platform guarded by more of Stone’s district volunteers, and marksmen occupied most of the windows in the building. Between there and First Street milled an immense throng, waiting to hear what the new leader would have to say in the way of firmness or conciliation on secession. They numbered so many thousand that few of them could expect to hear the actual words, and for all the hope they expressed to each other they showed little enthusiasm for the new president. The more observant of the spectators lining Pennsylvania Avenue might have offered some speculation on the thrust of Lincoln’s address, though, for in the presidential parade rolled a float conspicuously labeled “Constitution,” bearing one young lady for each of the thirty-four stars in the national flag.32 Lincoln, Buchanan, and Baker dismounted at the north entrance and entered the Senate chamber to watch Hannibal Hamlin take the oath of office as vice president. Then they emerged on the front steps, mounted the platform, and Lincoln turned to his audience. Over the heads of the multitude, on the far side of First Street, loomed the gloomy brick building known as the Old Capitol, where Congress had convened in 1814 after the British burned Washington. To the right of that, as Lincoln scanned the horizon, stood the three-story row house where he and his wife had boarded during his term in the House of Representatives. Barely thirteen years before, in the building right behind him, Lincoln had argued the legitimacy of the Mexican and Texas revolutions, contending that “any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form one that suits them better.”33 Now had come a new emergencyand, perhaps, a new perspective on popular revolt. In his remarks Lincoln resumed the soothing homilies of his February pilgrimage, assuring the protection of slavery where it existed and implying that he would not use military force to bring the errant states back into the Union. Reading from the Republican Party platform, Lincoln reminded his listeners that “we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter under what pretext,” and he offered support for constitutional amendments like that proposed by the Peace Convention. He warned, though, that he lacked any power to negotiate a separation of the Union, and claimed that no state had a right to secede without the consent of the others. Summarizing the entire dispute as a disagreement over the extension of slavery into the territories that could be resolved peacefully, he asserted that he considered the various secession ordinances legally void and the Union unbroken, insisting that “we cannot separate.”34 With that Lincoln took the oath of office from Roger B. Taney, the octogenarian slaveowner who served as chief justice. Afterward Lincoln and Buchanan returned to their carriage and drove back to the White House amid their heterogeneous escort of troops, who saluted both of them as they entered the executive mansion. Then the soldiers, including Colonel Stone, turned home for some well-deserved rest while the cavalcade of girls climbed down from their festooned float and filed into the White House to meet President Lincoln. The gangly westerner asked to kiss each of the thirty-four, irrespective of the states they represented, and they all consented.35 No violence had marred the day, and in their nervous relief many Washingtonians drew more encouragement from the inaugural address than it ought to have warranted, flavoring their conflicting interpretations with partisan hope. That day’s issue of the Washington Evening Star printed the entire speech, and residents scanned it by gaslight. Parade marshal French, a New Hampshire native and a convert to the Republican Party, judged it exactly what Union men wantedconciliatory and peaceable “but firm in its tone.” Lieutenant Lomax’s mother and several of her Virginia friends concurred on the moderation of Lincoln’s rhetoric, albeit for different reasons. Halfway across the continent, in her hovel upon the Kansas prairie, a hopeful woman writing a letter at the hour of the inauguration thought she could sense the relief, for a driving snowstorm suddenly abated and the sky began to clear. As the snow started melting on the ground she predicted that “mad rebellion and blustering secession will subside and melt away under the more genial influence of Republican rule.” A Missouri newspaper with a more Southern perspective remarked with grim sarcasm that the address Lincoln read was “not the one that Seward wrote.”36 New Yorkers who actually read the new president’s inaugural speech greeted it, as well as the safe installation of Buchanan’s successor, with the same enthusiasm as the residents of Washington. A Wall Street lawyer named George Templeton Strong recorded majority approval among his associates, though he noted that the stock market fell with the news. For his part, Strong complained only of Lincoln’s acknowledgment of Northern moralizing on the matter of slavery, which could only hurt Southern Unionists as they tried to dissuade their neighbors from secession. “We Northerners object to slavery on grounds of political economy,” wrote Strong, “not of ethics.”37 Lincoln’s address drew more ominous reaction across the South. Moderate newspaper editors strained for hopeful interpretations, but the Richmond Dispatch read it as a declaration of war because of the implied threat of coercion. South Carolinians reading galley proofs of the speech on bulletin boards outside the Charleston Mercury office translated Lincoln’s denial of the right of secession and his refusal to yield federal facilities as a solemn promise to subjugate the Confederacy. With the guns of Fort Sumter glistening over the entrance to their harbor, those Southerners seemed to express relief at the prospect of an armed contest, or even to welcome it.38 Copyright © 2006 by William Marvel. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.