Beat Your Ploughshares into Swords!

Sunday, April 21, 1861

The rumor that Federal militia troops would again march through Baltimore, was once more the talk of the town. 3,400 Federal militiamen had just arrived in Cockeysville (17 miles north of Baltimore) via rail from Philadelphia. They were given ammunition and were now waiting for a couple of Regular US Army regiments to accompany them through the city.1

Almost immediately, as church bells rang out the news, 4,000 men from every class joined the Baltimore militia. Before dismissing his congregation, a Universalist minister urged his flock to “beat your ploughshares into swords!” The city’s new militiamen received their “swords” (most out-dated surplus muskets) to defend their city against the invaders. They were led by General George Steuart, a West Point graduate and Marylander.2


In Washington, Lincoln requested a meeting with Maryland’s Governor and Baltimore’s Mayor. Due to the unsteady condition of the telegraph lines, only the Mayor got the message and made it to the White House. Lincoln understood their plight and agreed not to send troops through, but rather around Baltimore. The Mayor was happy that it was now somebody else’s problem.

Before he could leave Washington, the Mayor received word of the happenings in Baltimore. He flew back to the President and told him the news. Lincoln had no idea that the troops were that close and assured the mayor that they would be withdrawn. An order was issued for the men to move by rail back to Harrisburg and then to Philadelphia. They would have to make their way to Washington via steamer, just as General Butler had embarked the day before.3


Back in Baltimore, unable to officially arm the newly-sprung militia, bands of looters took to the streets. They sacked and pillaged any store that might hold a weapon. Still unable to find satisfaction, many wielded pitchforks, pikes and knives.

North of the city, the Federal militia in Cockeysville were awaiting orders to move out when an order, supposedly from the President, commanded that the troops withdraw back into Pennsylvania. This order wasn’t believed to be authentic (though it was) and so the troops bedded down for the night.4

Lincoln’s order also made it into Baltimore, which subdued the masses into more moderate actions. The police cut all telegraph lines to the north and took over the lines heading south. More bridges were burned.


Washington DC was now effectively cut off. The secessionists in Baltimore severed ties to the east. No rails (and thus no telegraph lines) ran north directly to Harrisburg. To the south was the South, and much to the west of Baltimore was also now the South.

The B&O Railroad in Harpers Ferry was controlled by Rebels. In 1861, Washington DC wasn’t on the mainline, but on a spur to the south of the mainline. Since the Virginia militia controlled the Harpers Ferry end, and the Maryland militia controlled the Baltimore end, arms could be shipped via rail north of the North’s capital.


The state of Missouri was required by Lincoln to furnish four regiments of militiamen. Governor Claiborne Jackson would not supply even one man to carry on this “unholy crusade,” but another man, Nathanial Lyon, would make sure Lincoln’s call (and much, much more) was met. Lyon was a captain in the US Army. He served in the Seminole and Mexican Wars and then in Kansas. In February, he was called to protect the St. Louis Arsenal from Rebel hands.

Frank Blair Jr., brother of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, took it upon himself to raise 1,000 men. Using his political influence, he had suspected-secessionist General William Harney removed as Commander of the Department of the West.

Lyon was then ordered to fulfill Lincoln’s call for four regiments and was given the title of mustering officer for militia troops in Missouri.5


The cadets of the Virginia Military Institute were ordered to Richmond by the Governor. Multitudes of aspiring militiamen had gathered in Virginia’s capital and these young cadets were to train them. After church services, they were gathered on the parade grounds and marched down the Valley (that is, north) nearly 40 miles to Staunton. From there, they traveled by rail to Richmond. They were led by the highest ranking officer at VMI, Col. Thomas Jonathan Jackson.

As he marched north out of town, across the Maury River, he could little guess that this would be the last time he would step foot in Lexington.6

  1. Official Records, Series I, Volume 51 (part 1), p347-348. []
  2. Cry Havoc! Nelson Lankford. []
  3. Baltimore and the Nineteenth of April 1861 by George William Brown. []
  4. Official Records, Series I, Volume 51 (part 1), p347-348. []
  5. Organization and Status of Missouri Troops, p13-15 with help from Wilson’s Creek by William Garrett Piston & Richard W. Hatcher III, University of North Carolina Press, 2000. []
  6. Dissonance by David Detzer, along with Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War, Volume 1 by George Francis Robert Henderson, Longmans, Green and co., 1898. []
Creative Commons License
Beat Your Ploughshares into Swords! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by