Friday, June 28, 1861
The evening brought a spring coolness to the Baltimore wharfs as the 1,200 ton, side-wheel steamer St. Nicholas received her passengers. She regularly made runs from Baltimore to Georgetown, Washington DC by chugging down the Chesapeake Bay, rounding Point Lookout and then paddling up the Potomac to the capital. This evening, among her passengers was a somber, respectful lady with a heavy French accent and rather masculine facial features.
This French lady inquired several times about when the boat would dock in Georgetown. She also carried on a very animated and flirtatious conversation with a Federal officer who, as luck would have it, also spoke French. Aside from that, she went as unnoticed as any other manly French lady might before retiring to a private cabin on the steamer. Other passengers boarded with her, but none of them seemed to know anyone else as they dispersed themselves throughout the ship.
The St. Nicholas made her uneventful way down the Chesapeake, stopping at her normal stops and taking on normal passengers. Nobody expected her to do anything different. Even when she stopped at Point Lookout and an elderly man boarded, immediately heading towards the ladies’ deck, nobody picked up on it. He looked at the sky, at the water and seemed to ignore the other passengers.
The whistle blew and the St. Nicholas turned towards Washington. After a mile or two, a man dressed in a Zouave uniform climbed over the railing right outside the cabin where the French lady had retired. In fact, upon a closer inspection, her manly features may have betrayed her. This French woman, minus hat, dress and petticoat was Col. Richard Thomas, the son of a Maryland State Senator, and Confederate officer. He quickly conferred with the elderly man, who turned out to be Captain George N. Hollins, former US Navy officer and soon to be the self-appointed captain of the St. Nicholas.
Twenty-five other passengers quickly became armed Confederate Zouaves as Thomas and Hollins convinced the boat’s crew that resistance would be a fairly bad idea. The actual passengers were assured that no harm would come to them and that the “ladies were in the hands of Southern gentlemen.”
This plot had been originally hatched by Lt. H.H. Lewis of the Confederate Navy. While at Aquia Creek, he noticed that the St. Nicholas delivered supplies to the USS Pawnee. He wished to capture the St. Nicolas and then the Pawnee and perhaps even more ships.
His idea was passed up the line to Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy Pope Walker. It was eventually deemed “too fraught with ruinous consequences” and Lt. Lewis’s plan was abandoned by everyone except Lt. Lewis.
A few days later, Lewis was visited by Capt. Hollis and Col. Thomas. They told him that they were coincidentally on their way to capture the St. Nicolas and that he should ready some troops. What luck!
With the passengers and former crew secured below deck, the St. Nicholas made her way to the Virginia shore to pick up a waiting Rebel Tennessee regiment. After they boarded, the Confederates made their way up the Potomac in search of the Pawnee, hoping to pull along side her as normal, delivering her to the Confederacy rather than delivering to her supplies.
As the first slivers of dawn spread over the the Potomac, they hoped the wait might not be long.1
Patterson Argues Against Attacking Johnston
The day before, Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott questioned General Patterson at Hagerstown, Maryland why he had not yet crossed the Potomac into Virginia as expected. Patterson replied that the Rebel force under General Johnston (the Army of the Shenandoah), believed to number 15,000, outnumbered his own force (just over 14,000). Johnston was also reported to have twenty-two pieces of artillery, while Patterson had only six guns and no harnesses for the horses that pulled them.
Besides, Patterson had never seen Scott’s order to cross over the Potomac on the 27th [in fact, no copy has ever surfaced]. He also requested to have Col. Ambrose Burnside’s First Rhode Island Regiment, some functioning batteries and the U.S. Regular troops returned to him.
It would also be nice, wrote Patterson, to have Col. Stone’s command near Poolesville, Maryland. He was supposed to meet up with Stone in Leesburg, but instead was requesting that Stone come to him. Patterson also reminded Scott that the bulk of his men were to be discharged from the service in about a month.
In actuality, Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah was only 10,600 strong. If he had twenty-two guns, he had only 278 artillerymen to work them (Patterson had 258 artillerymen).2