General Lee Takes Over; A Railroad Twist of Fate

Tuesday, April 23, 1861

Abraham Lincoln was nervous. He had a right to be. The capital of the United States may well be surrounded by Rebels. There was no real way to tell. Communication with the rest of the North was sporadic at best. Except for the Sixth Massachusetts, bloodied in the streets of Baltimore, the hoped-for troops had not yet arrived.

Lincoln paced the floor and looked longingly out the window of the White House repeating, almost pleading, “Why don’t they come? Why don’t they come?”1

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Richmond Greets the VMI Cadets

In Richmond, the public was treated to a review by the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute. Governor Letcher himself was in attendance as they marched in formation on Capitol Square. The cadets “came prepared for war, are fully armed and equipped.”

Their commander, Thomas Jackson, was an artillery instructor at VMI, which may explain why they brought along a “battery of nine field-pieces — one of the pieces, a rifled cannon, is said to be the best piece of ordnance in the State.”

The cadets, sent to Richmond to train the raw recruits, “do not flinch from any duty, and herein they set a noble example–one worthy of all emulation.”2

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Lee Accepts Command

Elsewhere in Richmond, Major General Robert E. Lee stood before the Virginia Convention. He had accepted command of all military forces in Virginia. Before him, the President of the Convention charged that Virginia shall be defended, so that “no spot of her soil shall be polluted by the foot of an invader.” Virginia had “placed her sword in your hand upon the implied condition that we know you will keep to the letter and in spirit, that you will draw it only in her defence, and that you will fall with it in your hand rather than the object for which it was placed there, shall fail.”

Lee responded with an oath “to the defense and service of my native State, in whose behalf alone would I have ever drawn my sword.”3

The possible attack upon Washington DC, feared by General Scott and President Lincoln, was now in the hands of General Lee.

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Richmond’s New Laws

Even though the VMI cadets were there to keep order amongst the fresh troops, the influx of men from all points in the state ready to blow off some steam prompted the city counsel and the mayor to force an early closing hour to the saloons, hotels and liquor stores. If their doors weren’t closed by 10pm, they would be fined $25 by the mayor. Of course, if they stayed open after 10pm, they would probably make much more than that.

Though the spirit of brotherhood flowed as heartily as the spirits of liquor, the mayor also warned that the public must keep an eye upon “suspicious persons.” If a citizen suspected any one of “entertaining, or having expressed, sentiments that render such person suspicious or unsafe to remain in the city, it shall be his duty to inform the Mayor of it.”

If this suspicious person was arrested he (or she) “shall be dealt with as a vagrant, or person of evil fame.”4

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Two Old Friends Reunited

In Annapolis, Maryland, General Butler, in command of the two regiments of Federal militia camping at the Naval Academy en route to Washington, had received an order from General Scott to immediately come to the capital by rail.

The Annapolis and Elk Ridge Railroad was a rickety spur line off of the spur line between Baltimore and Washington. The locals had torn up some of the tracks, but Butler was determined to use the rails rather than march the 32 miles to the capital (also, Butler’s steamship was run aground).

It was determined to commandeer the railroad regardless of how badly torn up it was. Butler and his men strode up to the depot to find an engine and cars. However, no engine could be seen. The station agent showed Butler around all the depot buildings but one. When Butler asked him what was in the building, the agent said “nothing.”

Butler then asked for the key. Unfortunately, the agent didn’t have it and didn’t know where it was. This was all too fishy for Butler. He ordered that the doors be broken down. Inside they found an old broken down engine that had recently been partially dismantled to make her unusable.

“Do any of you men know anything about such a machine as this?” asked Butler.

In a strange twist of fate, Private Charles Homans of Company E looked closely at the locomotive, “a frowsy machine at the best,” named J.H. Nicholson. “That engine was made in our shop, said Private Homans, “I guess I can fit her up and run her.” It was even suggested that Charles Homans himself had scratched his name upon the boiler when he first built it back in Massachusetts. In a very short amount of time, the Private fixed up the old J.H. Nicholson.

While Homans was fixing Nicholson, Butler sent word around for men to repair and lay track. Twenty or so had done it before and were put to use doing it again. The tracks were repaired enough to give the J.H. Nicholson room to stretch her legs.

Butler and his men would begin to answer Lincoln’s “why don’t they come?” at dawn.5



  1. Abraham Lincoln: A History Vol. 4 by John Hay and John Nicolay. []
  2. The Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 24, 1861. []
  3. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 30, Virginia Historical Society, 1922. []
  4. The Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 24, 1861. []
  5. This was compiled from The Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler as well as the essay “Our March to Washington” by Theodore Winthrop. The essay is hilariously written and should be read. It can be found here. []
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2 thoughts on “General Lee Takes Over; A Railroad Twist of Fate

  1. What a remarkable story. Can you imagine this today? Meaning no disrespect to my brothers in arms, but I doubt many in the United States military could be called upon today to lay rail and refit a train engine overnight…

    1. In the Civil War, soldiers laying rail became pretty commonplace. It was to the point that it’s nearly mentioned as an aside. Back then, of course, laying rail was a pretty common job that folks were, at least, familiar with.

      It’s a much more complex thing now, with special machines and a different kind of rail. There are no more John Henry types, sadly.

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