Sunday, May 5, 1861
Federal troops by the thousands were gathering in Washington. More and more were arriving every day. Across the Potomac River from the capital sat Alexandria, Virginia, held by 650 or so Virginia militiamen (including two Irish companies) in various states of accoutrement and weaponry. Some of their rifles dated back to 1818 and more than a few cavalrymen had no horses. These men were raw recruits and most hailed from Alexandria and the surrounding communities. Their commander, also from Alexandria, was Algernon S. Taylor, nephew of former President Zachary Taylor.1
A reporter from Richmond had visited Alexandria around this time and described that he had not seen “more than half a dozen soldiers in all, and no fortifications and no batteries” were to be found in or around the town, which was “like a deserted village.”2
Robert E. Lee’s childhood friend, George Mason, a lawyer from just south of Alexandria, wrote to the General to inform him of the conditions in the city. Alexandria was on the main road from Washington to Richmond. “We are directly in the track of invasion,” warned Mason, “should it be attempted.” To the south of town, the land had been settled by Yankee sympathizers and many of their boys had run off to join Lincoln’s camp. Mason complained that only “half a dozen men” made up the militia [he was probably writing about the lack of troops north of town] and there were no men at all to “stop our slaves should they abscond.”
“Though there have been stationed at Alexandria for weeks past some hundreds of troops,” he complained, “their guards have never been extended in this direction beyond the limits of the town.” Mason had worked himself into an understandable panic “with the Kansas ruffians and murderers brought to Washington and the hordes of Northern outcasts constituting the armed assemblage there and in its vicinity, the whole navigation of the river and its tributaries under their control, we must naturally look for incursions and depredations on this defenseless region.” He was convinced that “the violence, outrage, and murder perpetrated lately in Washington under the very eyes of the Government on men even suspected of Southern sentiments is a warning of what we may constantly anticipate here.”3
Aside from worries of slaves absconding and wholesale Yankee murder raining down from the North, it was feared that, due to their proximity to Washington, Alexandria, as well as Norfolk and Harpers Ferry, would be taken by Federal troops prior to Virginia’s vote on secession.4 Alexandria seemed as if it might easily be the first to fall. Richmond received a telegram from a scout, reporting that Federal troops would advance upon Alexandria via the Long Bridge from Washington.5
Col. Taylor’s superior, Brigadier-General Philip St. George Cocke, had also heard these rumors and feared the worst: a knee-jerk retreat from Alexandria undertaken before a single Federal foot stepped off Long Bridge onto Virginia’s sacred soil. That morning, he wrote to Taylor forbidding the abandoning of Alexandria unless “pressed by overwhelming and irresistible numbers.” If retreat was indeed the only option, Taylor and his men must “retire to Manassas Junction,” tearing up the rails along the way and “harassing the enemy should he attempt to use the road.”
Cocke closed with a rallying cry, urging Taylor to keep up his “communications with the various parts in your rear, so as to call every resource to your aid and support in making a gallant and fighting retreat, should you be forced to it, and can stand at all without danger of uselessly sacrificing your command.”6
The dispatch reached Col. Taylor that afternoon. He and his subordinates discussed its purport and, by the account of one who took part in this discussion, it was understood. Col. Taylor then ordered his men to abandon Alexandria and proceed to Springfield, ten miles to the west, on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. By 10pm, the city across from the capital was without a single Virginia militiaman. This was accomplished without any communication to Taylor’s superiors.7
Butler is Ready to Strike!
Union General Benjamin Butler, commander of the Department of Annapolis (which included Baltimore), met with General Winfield Scott two days prior. Then, they decided that Relay House, a railroad junction south of Baltimore connecting the Baltimore – Harpers Ferry mainline to the Washington spur of the B&O Railroad, must be in Federal control. Scott noted that if Rebels at Harpers Ferry launched an attack upon Washington, it would come by rail via the junction at Relay House.
Butler could hold the junction with only one regiment of infantry and one battery of artillery, mounted on a bluff that overlooked the viaduct crossing Patapsco River.
By this date their camp was fully situated. Two guns watched over the bridge as the rest of the men worked on fortifications. It was an impressive position that thoroughly commanded the ground. Any Rebel troops arriving by train to attack Washington would be met with perilous results.8
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p26. [↩]
- The Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 6, 1861. [↩]
- Letter to General Robert E. Lee from George Mason, Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 2), p65-66. [↩]
- Virginia’s secession convention had already voted them out of the Union, but it was to be put to a public vote on May 23. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 2), p65-66. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p24. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p24. [↩]
- Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler by Benjamin Franklin Butler, A. M. Thayer, 1892. [↩]