Saturday, April 20, 1861
Robert E. Lee was revered by General Winfield Scott as “the best soldier I ever saw in the field.” Trusting Scott’s judgment, Lincoln (through Postmaster General Montgomery Blair) offered him command of the Union army. This offer, however, happened the day after Virginia seceded. Though Lee looked “upon secession as anarchy” and would be willing to sacrifice all the slaves in the South to save the Union, he couldn’t draw his sword “upon Virginia, my native state.”
It was two day later, on this date, from his home in Arlington, across the Potomac from the capital, that Lee officially resigned his post in the United States Army. He had spent 36 years with that army.1
In a letter to his sister, composed after he tendered his resignation, he explained further: “Now we are in a state of war which will yield nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state.”2
Seizing the Telegraph Office
Across the river, the Washington telegraph office was seized the previous night by order of the Government. All through the dark morning hours, through daybreak to noon, not a single telegram was sent or received. The operators, held almost as prisoners in the next room, could hear the messages coming over the line. Many were from Southern cities, from Richmond, wondering why no response came from Washington.
Finally, at noon, the War Department officially took over the telegraph office. No message would come or go without their approval. In response to the calls from the Southern telegraph offices, the operators were ordered to tap out “It’s none of your business.”3
Burning Your Own Bridges
As Baltimore still reeled from the riots of the day before, and as they sent unanswered messages pleading for Washington to divert troops around the city, reports arrived of more troops coming south. Not wanting a repeat of yesterday’s bloody riot, the Mayor and the police decided that the bridges north of town must be burned.
The police, along with a company of Maryland militia set out early in the morning to burn the two bridges. They set fire to the bridge over the Gunpowder River and made their way farther north to the Bush River. However, when they got to the bridge, they found it already in flames. Several men from the city had already taken it upon themselves to burn it.4
Getting to Washington Somehow or Another
There were two regiments of Massachusetts militia remaining in Philadelphia. Word of the riots and now of the bridges had gotten back to them, so a different plan had to be made. Telegrams were sent to Washington for advice, but the wires were cut and nothing was able to get through.
The Seventh Massachusetts decided to rent a steamship and ferry the men via the Atlantic Ocean, around the Delmarva Peninsula to Annapolis. There, if the Potomac River wasn’t blocked by Rebels, they could steam to Washington. The Eighth Massachusetts, under the command of General Benjamin Butler (who was actually in command of all first-wave Massachusetts regiments), decided upon a different path. They would take a train to Perryville, Maryland, along the Susquehanna River, and then a ferry down the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis.5
In an attempt to save the US Navy’s prized 20 gun warship, the USS Merrimack, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles sent the USS Pawnee, along with as many soldiers as they could round up, to the Gosport Navy Yard near Norfolk, Virginia, where the Merrimack and many other Naval vessels in various states of readiness were harbored.
The Pawnee steamed into Fortress Monroe (also near Norfolk) well after dark and picked up a regiment of Massachusetts volunteers that arrived shortly before the ship. They made their way through Hampton Roads to the Navy Yard.
They were too late. Commodore McCaulay, in command of the Gosport Yard, had ordered the ships to be sunk in the fear that thousands of rebels were about to seize the Yard. Seeing the damage irreversible, the troops on the Pawnee joined in McCaulay’s men in the destruction. Barracks, stores and other buildings were packed with explosives, as were ships that could possibly be salvaged. The Yard housed a large number of brand new naval cannons. The Federal troops attempted to destroy them by spiking the guns. It was, however, only a temporary destruction and easy to fix.
The USS Cumberland was the only sea-worthy ship that was able to be saved. The Merrimack, along with other ships, were sacrificed. The Pawnee took the Cumberland in tow and pulled her out of the harbor. It was after 4am when a signal rocket was sent up notifying that the explosives should be triggered. The Gosport Navy Yard was destroyed and abandoned.
All made it back to Fortress Monroe as the sun rose over the Atlantic.6
- Team of Rivals by Dorris Kearns Goodwin. [↩]
- Letter from Lee to Anne Marshall, April 20, 1861. [↩]
- The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, Volume 1 by William Rattle Plum. [↩]
- Baltimore and the Nineteenth of April 1861 by George William Brown. [↩]
- Dissonance by David Detzer. [↩]
- Cobbled together from Cry Havoc! by Nelson Lankford as well as The Diary of Gideon Welles. [↩]