Thursday, May 9, 1861
General Robert E. Lee had received Colonel Thomas Jackson’s request for more arms and troops for Harpers Ferry. Jackson’s plan to keep the town under Virginia’s control, included securing the heights above the town. These heights were on Maryland’s soil.
Lee promised to send the arms immediately. The Maryland heights, however, were another story. Lee considered it “advisable not to intrude upon the soil of Maryland unless compelled by the necessities of war.” Keeping Virginia’s soldiers strictly on Virginia’s soil might compel the aid of Maryland’s citizens more readily than if they were on Maryland’s soil.1
Jackson, however, already felt compelled by war. After reading the letter, he wired Lee and explained that “if this place is attacked, we may expect the enemy to make free use of rifled cannon.” If he didn’t occupy the Maryland heights, the Federal troops would secure them and be able to fire down into the town.
With “2,200 Federal soldiers at the Relay House, others beyond Baltimore [Philadelphia] and about 4,000 near Chambersburg, Pa.,” Jackson, on his own accord, had “occupied the Maryland heights with the Kentuckians and one company of infantry from Augusta County, making about 500 in all.”2
The Kentucky militia, armed with only pistols and bowie knives, was acting in a semi-official status, being neither under the direct control of Virginia or the Confederate States. This is probably why Jackson placed them on the Maryland side (though this doesn’t account for the company from Augusta County).3
Entirely Unservicable Muskets
Reports were flooding into Washington of “entirely unserviceable” muskets that had been given to the new recruits. Five separate commanders had reported that their issued arms were “totally unfit for service.” On the 6th of May, General Robert Patterson, commander of the Department of Pennsylvania Volunteers, collected the complaints which ranged from broken springs in the cocking mechanism to “broken locks or holes through the barrels.” One company in the First Pennsylvania Infantry required over half of their muskets to be repaired. The Second Pennsylvania had 246 defective rifles.
Patterson had written that he advised “against moving this force till better equipped for the field,” while General Cadwalader, commander of the First Division of Pennsylvania Volunteers, added that “a discharge of [the weapons] would do more harm to those who attempted to fire them than they could do to an enemy in their front.”
On this date, General Patterson received his reply from the Colonel of Ordinance James Ripley, whose department was responsible for the arms. Ripley was offended and countered that “under the present excitement and pressure, the very best is done.” He denied the charges of faulty weapons as “cruel and unjust.”
“This department, and every officer in it,” said Ripley in closing, “is just as anxious to supply the best arms to all the troops as they are to get them, but it is simply impossible to do so now.”
While some of the arms were clearly defective, others were not. The General Patterson ordered that the troops with assignments to places like Forts Mifflin and Delaware be reassigned the working rifles from the regiments that were still training in Pennsylvania.
While some troops had faulty rifles, others had no uniforms, no knapsacks or cartridge boxes. What’s more is that nobody could figure out a way to remedy this. Too many troops were called up too fast.4
Sherman Visits the St. Louis Arsenal
A day after he wrote Washington hoping to secure a commission in the United States Army, William Tecumseh Sherman visited the Unionist troops at the arsenal near his home in St. Louis. He had taken a position as the president of the St. Louis Railroad, a streetcar company. On this date, accompanied by some of his children, he rode one of the streetcars to the arsenal and was given a tour of the facilities.
There, he saw four “Home Guard” regiments drawn up into lines. They were being issued ammunition. Also on the scene was Captain Nathaniel Lyon, acting more like a General than a mere Captain. He was “running about with his hair in the wind, his pockets full of papers, wild and irregular, but I knew him to be a man of vehement purpose and of determined action. I saw of course that it meant business, but whether for defense or offense I did not know.”5
Plans for the events of the next day were already set into motion.
Though General George B. McClellan had still not received the order that he was the commander of the Department of the Ohio, his command was just enlarged. On May 3, the Department encompassed Indiana and Illinois. Knowing the value of the land between the Ohio River and Harpers Ferry, Washington saw fit to give McClellan command of not only Indiana and Illinois, but much of western Virginia, the Maryland panhandle and southwestern Pennsylvania.6
- Stonewall Jackson; The Man The Soldier The Legend by James I. Robertson, Jr., MacMillan, 1997. Lee’s letter resides in the Library of Virginia and is quoted in this book. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p823-824. [↩]
- Stonewall Jackson; The Man The Soldier The Legend by James I. Robertson. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p621-622, 626, 631-632. [↩]
- Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Volume 1 by William Tecumseh Sherman, D. Appleton and Company, 1875. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p633. [↩]