Confederates on the Move in Western Virginia and Missouri!

Friday, August 16, 1861

General John Floyd, commanding the Confederate Army of the Kanawha, grew weary of waiting for General Wise to get his act together. For the past several days, he had pushed, prodded and ordered Wise to march his Legion of troops to join his west of Lewisburg, western Virginia. A blizzard of excuses and complaining letters to General Lee followed. Lee, as always, urged co-operation.

Just as Floyd was reaching his limit, Wise began to move west. Floyd himself had started west and covered twenty or so miles, winding up forty miles from Lewisburg on the road towards Summersville and Carnifex Ferry. Wise was about twenty miles behind him with two of his regiments. A third was still at White Sulphur Springs.

Upon retreating out of the Kanawha Valley, Wise had stationed his cavalry west of Lewisburg. They were now much closer to Floyd than to Wise. A few days previous, Wise had issued orders to his Legion that any commands coming from General Floyd for Wise’s men had to first come through Wise before being obeyed. This was a silly technicality that, because of the proximity of Wise’s cavalry, was rendered impractical, if not impossible.

On this date, Floyd wrote to Wise, calling him out and requesting him to revoke the order. Not trusting that Wise would do it, Floyd revoked it himself when he ordered Wise’s cavalry to ride with him [Floyd]. To make matters clear, Floyd ended the order: “Any orders whatever in any way conflicting with this I hereby revoke.”1

It was unlikely that Floyd thought that matter resolved, so went over the head of General Lee and wrote to President Jefferson Davis. Floyd told the President that Wise’s “unwillingness to co-operate… is so great that it amounts practically almost to open opposition.”2

On the Union side of things, General McClellan in Washington ordered General Rosecrans, commanding all of the Union troops in western Virginia, to hold Gauley Bridge, taken by General Cox when Wise retreated out of the Kanawha Valley. He also urged Rosecrans to concentrate on holding the positions he already held, adding that he should not expect reinforcements as they were needed for the Army of the Potomac.

Rosecrans would fortify Cheat Mountain, opposite General Lee’s troops, and would go on the defensive around the Gauley River.3


Orders to Occupy Island No. 10; Grant Advances

Confederate General Leonidas Polk, commanding troops between the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers, realized that to secure the Mississippi, he would need to hold Island No. 10, a small, but strategic island near the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, across from New Madrid, Missouri.

Polk wished to hold New Madrid and establish earthworks on the island and on the Tennessee side of the river. Three batteries could also be built to stop any and all unwanted river traffic.4

General Pillow had nearly 12,000 Rebel soldiers in and around New Madrid, so it made the most sense for him to take it. A brigade was ordered by Polk to do so.5

At Ironton, the thousand or so Rebels forty miles south of Union General Ulysses S. Grant were still a threat. Wishing to contain them, he decided to advance two regiments towards them. From his headquarters, he ordered his men south towards Marble Creek, figuring that Confederate General Hardee had an advanced picket far north of the main body at Greenville.

To Grant’s left was a nearly independent band of Rebel cavalry, suspected to be 1,200 – 1,500 strong at Fredericktown. He expected a raid shortly and had dispatched a regiment to the town, twenty miles away.6

That band was part of General Jeff Thompson’s Missouri State Guards. Though his main body was at Sikestown, he had sent marauders not only to Fredericktown, but to Benton, Charleston and Jackson. Along the way, they destroyed railroad bridges and generally caused an uproar. So much chaos was created that even Grant thought they numbered over 7,000.

Thompson’s main goal was to take Bird Point, thought abandoned by Union troops. A few days ago, he suspected that he would be attacked by them, but the previous night, they had been moved farther north, perhaps to Cape Girardeau.7

As for General Pillow at New Madrid, he had received the order to occupy Island No. 10, but in light of the Union forces moving north up the river, he no longer saw the point of it and suspended the order. His own plan taking center stage, Pillow wrote to Polk telling him that instead of taking the island, Polk should send him reinforcements so that he could unite with Hardee at Greenville and then attack St. Louis. Pillow took a curt tone with his commanding officer, scolding him, “for Gods sake dont hold me back or cripple me for a want which will wait on you until the work of emancipating Missouri is completed.”8

Polk, like Lee in Western Virginia, was fast realizing that commanding independent Generals was an increasingly difficult task.


In New York, a Grand Jury headed by Charles Gould was convened to determine what could legally be done about newspapers that spoke out against the war and against the Lincoln administration. Papers like the New York Daily News, the Freeman’s Journal and the weekly Eagle were “encouraging the rebels now in arms against the Federal Government by expressing sympathy and agreement with them, the duty of acceding to their demands, and dissatisfaction with the employment of force to overcome them.”

While they conceded that “free governments allow liberty of speech and of the press to their utmost limit,” they were mostly looking for that limit. The papers, they believed, were publishing encouragement to the Rebels and telling them that they were right. “If the utterance of such language in the streets or through the press is not a crime,” resolved the Grand Jury, “then there is a great defect in our laws, or they were not made for such an emergency.”

In closing, the Grand Jury noted that “the conduct of these disloyal presses is, of course, condemned and abhorred by all loyal men,” but what they most wanted was “to learn from the Court that it is also subject to indictment and condign punishment.”9

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p792-793. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 2, p236-237. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p563-564. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p651-652. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p657. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p444-445. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p655-656. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p654-655. []
  9. Appletons ̕annual Cyclopædia and Register of Important Events, Volume 1, 1867. []

Escaped Slaves are Not Free; Gathering Rebels in Missouri

August 8, 1861

Nearly in a panic over how to handle the slaves escaping into his lines near Fortress Monroe, on the Virginia Peninsula, General Benjamin Butler wrote to the United States Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, for guidance. Since that time, the legislature had passed the Confiscation Act, which was vague and didn’t quite give the former slaves their freedom. On this date, Secretary Cameron replied to Butler.

Cameron had consulted the President on the matter. Lincoln held that the Fugitive Slave Laws, requiring slaves to be returned to their masters, were null and void in states that were taking up arms against the Federal Government. The reason, thought Lincoln, was that the Fugitive Slave Laws required the cooperation of Federal and State authorities. The States in insurrection were clearly not cooperating and so it was impossible to enforce the statutes.

The quandary of the former slaves’ freedom was nearly answered. When the question of escaped slaves of masters loyal to the Union was addressed, Lincoln, through Cameron, concluded that it was “quite clear that the substantial rights of loyal masters will be best protected by receiving such fugitives, as well as fugitives from disloyal masters, into the service of the United States, and employing them under such organizations and in such occupations as circumstances may suggest or require.”

Basically, if loyal masters were truly loyal to the Union, they wouldn’t mind if Lincoln borrowed their slaves for a bit.

The escaped slaves were not, then, free, but were forced to be under the employ of the United States government. After the war, wrote Cameron, “Congress will, doubtless, properly provide for all the persons thus received into the service of the Union, and for just compensation to loyal masters.”

Butler was also instructed not to interfere with the slaves of peaceful masters. Nor was he allowed to encourage slaves to leave their owners.1

The questions involving the legality of escaped slaves were more or less resolved. The logistics concerning where to put them all, however, were another matter.


The Rebels Learn of their Advantage in Missouri

In Missouri, Confederate forces under General Ben McCulloch pursued the Union troops under General Nathaniel Lyon, as they pulled back to the safety of Springfield. Lyon and his men had confronted the Rebels in a running skirmish but, upon realizing they might just be out-gunned, returned to their camps. The Confederates, however, had massed at Wilson’s Creek, ten miles southwest of the city.

Missouri General Sterling Price wished to attack immediately. McCulloch, however, wanted first to gain more information. Lyon had locked down Springfield, allowing none of its citizenry to leave its limits. He wanted no word of his smaller numbers to be leaked to the larger Confederate force. General Price, in command of the Missouri State Guards, which made up about half of the 12,000 Rebels, had sent out scouts and spies to discern the Union strength, objective and position.

For the past two days, no word was received and McCulloch grew impatient. On this date, however, two ladies, secretly loyal to the Confederate cause, obtained Lyon’s permission to leave the city. They immediately found their way to Price’s headquarters and spilled all they knew.

General Lyon, said the ladies, was perplexed. He was expecting an attack at any moment and kept his weary men under arms at all times. He was even contemplating abandoning Springfield, they added.

Price was elated. This new information, he felt, made it certain that McCulloch would attack. He bolted to the Confederate commander’s headquarters, excitedly told him the news and held his breath for what he was sure would be the order to prepare for battle. Instead, McCulloch just sat there blankly and said nothing.

Frustrated, Price pressed him for a reply. McCulloch was still not convinced an attack was worth it. He would have to think on it a bit, he told Price, vaguely assuring him that he’d get an answer later in the evening.

McCullogh seemed to not fully trust the report of the two Springfield ladies. He wanted to see matters for himself. With an armed escort, he rode north towards the Union lines. That evening, through another cavalry detachment, McCulloch learned that Lyon’s forces were much smaller than he imagined. In fact, the Confederates outnumbered the Union troops nearly two to one.

Rather than report this to Price, as he said he would, McCulloch turned in for the night. Price’s frustration turned to anger, but there was little he could do.2


Certain Trouble in Almost Heaven

Over the past two days, General Robert E. Lee had received messages from General Henry Wise, commanding his “legion” of Confederates in western Virginia. Wise had evacuated the Kanawha Valley and was now encamped at White Sulphur Springs. His rival, Confederate General Floyd, had brought up his own command and wanted to retake the ground given up by Wise. The two Confederate Generals despised each other and Wise had petitioned Lee to allow the commands to remain separate.

General Floyd technically outranked Wise, being commissioned a Brigadier-General a few days before him. If the forces were made into one army, Floyd knew Wise would be its commander. On this date, Lee replied to Wise.

Feeling that it would “destroy the prospect of the success of the campaign in the Kanawha District,” Lee “hoped” that Wise would join Floyd once his men were again able. General Lee had no actual command over either of the Generals or their troops in western Virginia, and so could only hope that his desires would be taken as orders.

General Floyd also wrote to Wise, telling him that he wished to move into the Kanawha Valley and asked him how many troops he would be able to bring with him, assuming Wise would follow.

Wise replied with a long, rambling letter filled with strange excuses, not even giving Floyd a vague idea of the number of troops he had available. Somewhere in the mass of too-long sentences, Wise promised to furnish exact numbers of infantry and artillery “very soon,” and figures for the cavalry, “somewhat later.”3

In reality, Wise had about 2,500 men, though he admitted more recruits were coming into his fold every day. Floyd had about 3,000.

It appeared that Lee would have to work a minor miracle to get the forces in western Virginia to simply cooperate with each other, let alone defeat the Yankees that were growing in number every day.


New Hampshire Newspaper Destroyed by Union Troops

The First New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry had been with General Patterson’s Army of the Shenandoah prior to Bull Run. They were a three-month regiment that saw no fighting. Rumors that they had been mutinous surfaced in a hometown newspaper, the Democratic Standard of Concord, New Hampshire.

Six of the soldiers, having returned home, attacked the Standard’s office. Still in their uniforms, they ransacked the building and took the presses, the type, paper to the street and burned them. Meanwhile, the proprietors fought, possibly with guns, to keep the soldiers at bay.

Unable to assail the office, the soldiers hurled bricks and stones at the windows. More soldiers from the regiment were joining them and the proprietors made a stealthy escape out the back.4

  1. Letter from Secretary of War Simon Cameron to General Benjamin Butler, August 8, 1861. []
  2. Blood Hill by Brooksher. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p774-776. []
  4. Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1861 as printed in Lincoln’s Wrath by Jeffrey Manber and Neil Dahlstrom, 2005. This is an interesting, though probably sensational, book. The sources are good, but some of it should be taken with a grain of salt. []

Kanawha Valley Cleared of Rebels!; Greely’s Words to Lincoln

Monday, July 29. 1861

Gauley Bridge, in western Virginia, was a small town, consisting of two or three houses, a general store, a tavern and a church. The bridge, from which the town took its name, was an 1850 wooden covered bridge along the James River and Kanawha Turnpike. The town sat at the confluence of the New and Gauley Rivers, which joined to form the Kanawha River. This bridge effectively marked the terminus of the Kanawha Valley.

As Confederate General Wise retreated out of the Kanawha Valley towards White Sulpher Springs, he burned the Gauley Bridge. On the morning of this date, Union troops under General Cox arrived in the town and captured Confederate munitions and 1,500 stand of rifles, which were left behind for easier travels (though it’s not clear why they weren’t burned with the bridge).

Cox’s original orders required him to go no farther into western Virginia than Gauley Bridge. That worked out fairly well since the destroyed bridge would hold him up indefinitely. Regardless, while the main body of Cox’s brigade set up camp at Gauley, a detachment was sent forward to keep pace with the Rebels.

The “Kanawha Brigade” under Cox would make its home at Gauley Bridge for nearly a month, having no action, save for skirmishing with a few bands of guerrillas. While the Kanawha Valley was largely loyal to the Union, the Gauley Valley was replete with secessionists.

The officers and soldiers in Cox’s brigade could rest well knowing that the danger they faced moving up the Kanawha River had paid off. The Kanawha was finally free of Confederates.1


Every Drop of Blood Henceforth Shed in this Quarrel will be Wantonly, Wickedly Shed

For the Union, western Virgina was really the only bright spot. The situation around Washington after the Battle of Bull Run was disgraceful. General George McClellan had examined both the forces in the capital and around Arlington. Very few were in any condition to fight. Only a small handful of forts were completed and few entrenchments were dug. If the Confederates attacked Washington, how could it be held? The army, thought McClellan, was a disorganized, undisciplined and very dreary mob.

This was hardly a state secret. The demoralization of the army after such a defeat made sense. But what could be done? McClellan’s job was to rebuild the army. Since the army was basically no more, McClellan had to start from the ground up.2

Prior to the Battle of Bull Run, most had been quick to urge the Union “On To Richmond!” At the forefront of these cries was New York Tribune editor, Horace Greeley. For nearly a month straight, the words “On To Richmond!” blazed across his paper. Now, however, little more than a week after the sad defeat, his world had changed.

On this date, Greeley gathered his thoughts, put pen to paper and wrote to President Lincoln. “This is my seventh sleepless night – yours, too, doubtless,” began the editor. “You are not considered a great man, and I am a hopelessly broken one.”

Greeley then pondered what everyone in the nation was pondering: “Can the rebels be beaten after all that has occurred, and in view of the actual state of feeling caused by our late awful disaster?” If they could not be beaten, Greeley told the President, “do not fear to sacrifice yourself to your country.” If the war was not winnable, “then every drop of blood henceforth shed in this quarrel will be wantonly, wickedly shed, and the guilt will rest heavily on the soul of every promoter of the crime.”

If the Union was truly severed, he suggested that a year-long armistice be “proposed with a view to a peaceful adjustment.”

In New York City, “the gloom … is funereal – for our dead at Bull Run were many, and they lie unburied yet. On every brow sits sullen, scorching, black despair.”

Though the letter pained Lincoln upon reading it, he did not reply. Two decades after the war, Greeley’s associates commented that the editor “had been and was still severely ill with brain fever … the entire letter revealed that he was on the verge of insanity when he wrote it.”3


Pope Takes Command of North Missouri

General John Pope had accompanied President-elect Abraham Lincoln from Springfield to Washington. After offering his services as an aide, he was made Brigadier-General of Illinois volunteer troops. On this date, he was given command of the District of North Missouri. The district was part of the Western Division under General. John C. Fremont. Though most of the action was in south Missouri, Pope had command of all troops north of St. Louis.

From his headquarters in Mexico, Missouri, 110 miles northeast northwest of St. Louis, Pope issued his first General Orders, assigning commands to subordinates and stating how he would oversee his district.

Pope had three field officers under him: General Stephen A. Hurlbut in Macon City, Col. Ulysses S. Grant in Mexico and Col. Leonard Fulton Ross in Warrenton.

Further, Pope resolved that “no arrests will be made for opinions sake, unless the parties are engaged in open acts of hostility, or are stimulating others to such acts by inflammatory words or publications.” It was the mission of his command “to restore peace and safety to a region distracted with civil commotion, and to bring to punishment the infamous assassins and incendiaries who have been infesting this country.”4

  1. Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Volume 1 by Jacob Dolson Cox. []
  2. Army of the Potomac; Birth of Command by Beatie. []
  3. Horace Greeley, Founder and Editor of the New York Tribune by William Alexander Linn, D. Appleton and Company, 1903. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p415-416. []

Deadly Riots in St. Louis; Western Virginia’s Rebellion Against Rebellion

Friday, May 10, 1861

Missouri’s Camp Jackson, on the outskirts of St. Louis, hosted nearly 700 militiamen for the Southern cause. It wasn’t officially under the banner of the Confederacy, but was a bit more than sympathetic to secession. The streets of the camp bore the names of “Davis” and “Beauregard,” while Southern flags waved from the tents of the troops. It was only a temporary camp of instruction, however, its life to expire on the 11th of May.

Unionist Captain Nathaniel Lyon had raised a militia of his own, numbering around 7,000. These men held the St. Louis Arsenal which contained 10,000 muskets and many pieces of artillery.

That morning, General Daniel M. Frost, commander of the secessionist troops at Camp Jackson, wrote to Lyon. He had heard rumors that Lyon was going to attack the camp under the excuse that he feared Frost would attempt to seize the Arsenal. The idea of attacking United States troops or property had never been entertained, said Frost. In fact, he had even offered his services to the United States. Knowing that he was greatly outnumbered, Frost closed with a hope that any conflict could be avoided.

Lyon received the letter in the late morning, but refused to officially accept it. He then ordered his men to assemble. Word was put out that they were going to meet General Harney, the once-removed commander of the District, who was recently reinstated by Washington. Around two o’clock in the afternoon, these thousands of armed Unionist troops, along with 20 pieces of artillery, made their way up Market Street towards Camp Jackson.

Upon reaching the camp, they surrounded it completely, posting artillery on the heights above. The citizens of St. Louis, having given no credence to the rumor that the troops were assembling to receive General Harney, were gathering. Some men had armed themselves to rally in defense of the state militia troops at Camp Jackson.

Having surrounded the camp, Captain Lyon wrote to General Frost that the General’s troops were “for the most part, made up of secessionists who have openly avowed their hostility to the General Government, and have been plotting at the seizure of its property and the overthrow of its authority.” He accused them of being in open communication with the Confederacy as well as receiving “the material of war” from them.

In light of this, Lyon felt that it was his duty to “demand of you an immediate surrender of your command.” He gave Frost a half-hour to comply.

General Frost met with his commanders and they decided to surrender to Lyon’s superior numbers. Frost and his 700 men were to be considered prisoners of war, unless, as Lyon then informed the captives, they swore an oath to the United States. If the oath was taken, they could go free. Of the 700, only eight or so pledged that allegiance. The remaining prisoners were formed into lines, their destination being the Arsenal where they would be paroled until exchanged.

At this time, however, hordes of St. Louis citizens had gathered near the camp and the roads leading back to the city. The hills were covered with spectators.1

As the column made its way into town, a crowd of men, women and children, bordering on mob-like, was there to greet them. William Tecumseh Sherman was in the crowd with his young son, Willie, and witnessed “some hurrahing for Jeff Davis, and others encouraging the troops.” The father and son walked towards Camp Jackson. Stopping to talk with a friend, they witnessed a drunk man attempt to grab a musket from a soldier. He was pushed down, but then brandished a pistol and fired, hitting the leg of one of the soldiers.

With that, the regiment fired a volley into the air. “I heard the balls cutting the leaves above our heads,” Sherman later wrote, “and saw several men and women running in all directions, some of whom were wounded.” Sherman’s friend threw Willie to the ground and covered him with his body. Sherman hit the ground as well, but when he saw the troops reloading their muskets, he “jerked Willie up, ran back with him into a gulley which covered us, lay there until I saw that the fire had ceased.”

Escaping the tumult, they started for home, along the way seeing that “woman and child were killed outright; two or three men were also killed, and several others were wounded.”

Sherman noted that “the great mass of the people on that occasion were simply curious spectators, though men were sprinkled through the crowd calling out, ‘Hurrah for Jeff Davis!'”2

The firing was intense and deadly. Twenty-eight civilians were killed and another seventy-five wounded. Women and children were among them. Lyon’s men suffered only two deaths, while three of Frost’s men were killed.

The prisoners and guards finally made it to the Arsenal, but the city erupted in chaos. Any citizens who had been on the fence were now for the South. Many armed themselves and more took the streets with banners. Gun stores were sacked and their spoils distributed until the mob was quelled by the police.

Lyon’s show of force and authority had backfired as word quickly spread of the “Camp Jackson Massacre.” In the coming days, as word spread farther, the state legislature would take action.3


Western Virginia’s Actual Rebellion

Rebel Major Boykin had spent four days in Grafton, western Virginia attempting to raise troops against the Union. The day after he arrived, he wrote to General Lee, who was just promoted to Confederate commander of all Virginia troops “to prevent confusion,” and informed him that things weren’t as favorable as he had hoped. On this day, he wrote again, expounding on that idea.

Finding no secessionist sympathies in Grafton, Boykin visited the surrounded counties, reporting that “the feeling in nearly all of our counties is very bitter and nothing is left undone by the adherents of the old Union.” With rumors of Union troops coming from Pennsylvania and Ohio to hold the rail line, he deemed it necessary to hold Grafton, though conceded that he would need troops from the east to help.

In closing, Boykin warned, “this section is verging on a state of actual rebellion.”4

Farther to the west, in Wheeling, a day of fasting and prayer was being observed. Nine out of the twelve churches were holding patriotic (meaning pro-Union) services. An eloquent sermon asking any secessionists in the congregation to leave, was given at the Methodist church by Rev. Smith from a pulpit decked out in stars and stripes. Other ministers prayed that the rebels might be subdued, and wiped from the face of the earth.5


In Harpers Ferry, Col. Thomas Jackson received a reply from General Lee concerning his (Jackson’s) refusal to withdraw troops from the Maryland heights above the town. “I fear you have been premature in occupying the heights of Maryland with so strong a force near you. The true policy is to act on the defensive, and not to invite an attack.” Fearing such an attack, Lee warned that if it was not too late, Jackson “might withdraw until the proper time.”

Jackson’s troops would not be moved.6

  1. St. Louis Republican , May 11, 1861 as quoted (in its entirety) in The Rebellion Record edited by Frank Moore, 1861. []
  2. Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Volume 1 by William Tecumseh Sherman, D. Appleton and Company, 1875. []
  3. Much of this report is taken from the St. Louis Republican , May 11, 1861 as quoted (in its entirety) in The Rebellion Record edited by Frank Moore, 1861. Other bits are from Wilson’s Creek by Piston & Hatcher. []
  4. Rebels at the Gate by W. Hunter Lesser. []
  5. The New York Herald, as quoted in History of the flag of the United States of America by George Henry Preble, 1880. []
  6. Stonewall Jackson by James Robertson. []

Alexandria Abandoned By Rebels! Union Guns Near Baltimore!

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

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p26. []
  2. The Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 6, 1861. []
  3. Letter to General Robert E. Lee from George Mason, Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 2), p65-66. []
  4. 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. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 2), p65-66. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p24. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p24. []
  8. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler by Benjamin Franklin Butler, A. M. Thayer, 1892. []