The Situation Around Washington; Shots at Aquia; Support for Contraband

Wednesday, May 29, 1861

As the situation stood in Virginia on this date, Union troops were invading from the west, the east and the north. The inroads (with the exception of the west) were slight, but alarm was raised.

Across the Potomac from Washington, newly-appointed commander of the United States Department of Northeastern Virginia, Brigadier-General Irving McDowell, reported the bad behavior of Union troops he now lead.

A battalion of Georgetown Volunteers, stationed near the Chain Bridge, were said to be “acting harshly to inhabitants on this side [the Virginia side of the Potomac].” They were calling the residents, “secessionists,” and using that as an excuse to threaten them.

Also, Col. Daniel Butterfield reported “several cases of trespass, depredations, and attempts at burglary” by Union troops in Alexandria.

Aside from that, McDowell complained that no defensive works had been throw up around Alexandria. The men gave the excuses as a “want of tools” and “lack of transportation” as the reasons for the delay.1

The largest Rebel force near Alexandria (and thus nearest to Washington) was at Manassas Junction. Confederate General Robert E. Lee was there inspecting the troops and land. He reported that there were 6,000 Confederate soldiers, but that 10,000 would be desired.2

Lee was also concerned with defense and ordered cavalry and infantry to Fairfax Court House, 14 miles northeast of Manassas and about the same distance west from Alexandria).3

__________________

Union Ships Attack a Virginia Battery

While McDowell and Lee were situating their troops along the Potomac near Washington, two US Naval steamers exchanged shots with a Rebel battery on the Virginia shore, 40 miles down the river.

Near Aquia Creek (which is, itself, near Stafford, VA), the USS Thomas Freeborn and USS Anacostia attacked the Rebel position near sunset. The Rebel battery, under the command of Col. Daniel Ruggles, returned fire. This exchange was mostly a light affair. One Rebel soldier received a wound on his hand from a shell fragment, but only around twelve shots were fired from the battery.

In fear of a possible assault, a Confederate Tennessee regiment was called up, but the two boats slipped away by 9pm, before the Confederate reinforcements arrived.

Though the steamers had gone, there was much apprehension that a large landing would soon be forced.4

__________________

Union Infantry to Advance into Maryland from Pennsylvania

It had been three weeks since Major-General Robert Patterson, commander of the Department of Pennsylvania, reported that many of the muskets made for his volunteers were of inferior quality. Since then, the problem was ironed out and the troops were drilling with the new rifles.

Several days ago, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott issued orders for Patterson to prepare his troops to march upon Hagerstown, Frederick and Cumberland, Maryland so as to threaten the Rebels at Harpers Ferry. Patterson, who was headquartered in Philadelphia, planned to leave for Chambersburg in a few days to oversee the operation himself.

In an order to General William High Keim, commander of the Union forces in Chambersburg, he gave word that “as soon as the force is prepared,” a movement by road and rail would be made to establish a camp at Hagerstown. The objective was Harpers Ferry, but no move was to be made until Patterson arrived.5

__________________

Fairly Racist Support for the Whole Contraband Idea

Union General Benjamin Butler had been taking escaped slaves into his lines and declaring them “contraband of war.” The Confederates were using these slaves to build batteries and since they were seen as property, Butler felt he was legally correct in confiscating them like any other property.

This view was not at all shared by the Confederates. Butler turned to Washington for help and on this day received a reply from Postmaster General Montgomery Blair.

While Butler may have seen his actions as a sort of abolition, Blair was certainly not anti-slavery. Nevertheless, he agreed with the actions, declaring to Butler, “you were right when you declared secession niggers contraband of war.”

Blair told Butler that it would be discussed in a Cabinet meeting the next day, and that Lincoln called it “Butler’s fugitive slave law.” The President thought it important, however, and promised to give it some thought prior to the meeting.

The idea of using these escaped slaves as laborers was fine with Blair, though he suggested only taking “working men” into his lines, “leaving the Secessionists to take care of the non-working classes of these people.” He also suggested using them as spies “because they are accustomed to travel in the night time, and can go where no one not accustomed to the sly tricks they practice from infancy to old age could penetrate.”6



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p653. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p891. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p892, 894. []
  4. Official Records of the Navy, Series 1, Vol. 4, p496. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p658-659. []
  6. Letter from Montgomery Blair to Butler, May 29, 1861, as printed in Private and official correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Volume 1 []
Creative Commons License
The Situation Around Washington; Shots at Aquia; Support for Contraband by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International