Torn Up Rails to Washington; “I Don’t Believe There Is Any North”

Wednesday, April 24, 1861

Abraham Lincoln visited with the Sixth Massachusetts, the veterans of the Baltimore Riots. Washington had been virtually cut off for days. No news about any of the hoped-for Northern militia units had reached the city. “I don’t believe there is any North,” said Lincoln to the boys of the Sixth. Of the regiments supposedly en route to Washington, he exclaimed, “the Seventh Regiment is a myth. Rhode Island is not known in our geography any longer. You are they only Northern realities.”1


Against a Square League of Plug Uglies

The boys of the Seventh New York and Eighth Massachusetts rose before the Annapolis dawn, ready to march for Washington. The Seventh detached two companies as scouts to be on the look out for secessionists. At 7:30am, both regiments began their march along the Annapolis and Elk Ridge Railroad leading northwest out of Annapolis. The story of this march was brilliantly told by Theodore Winthrop, a (thus far) failed writer and traveler who joined the Seventh New York. Even in his autobiography, General Benjamin Butler, de facto commander of the troops, instructed the reader to find Winthrop’s essay “which reads like a poem” for the full story.

Four more regiments of volunteers had landed that morning, “enough to hold Annapolis against a square league of Plug Uglies,” wrote Winthrop. Butler remained at the Naval Academy to greet those troops and those to come.

As the regiments moved along the tracks, the howitzers were positioned out in front. From behind, they heard a whistle and soon saw Charles Holmes driving the J.H. Nicholson, the former having repaired the latter to working order. The engine was flanked by men with bayonets; the militiamen fell in behind the train.

The heat of the day wore on many of the men. “Charles Homans’s private carriage was, however, ready to pick up tired men, hot men, thirsty men, men with corns, or men with blisters,” continued Winthrop. “They tumbled into the train in considerable numbers.”

The train and its men came upon a bridge that had been partially destroyed by Rebels. “The rascals could skulk about by night, tear up rails, and hide them where they might be found by a man with half an eye, or half destroy a bridge,” scolded Winthrop, “but there was no shoot in them. They have not faith enough in their cause to risk their lives for it, even behind a tree or from one of these thickets, choice spots for ambush.”

No ambush came as the work crew repaired the bridge, salvaging some timber and cutting down what they needed from the nearby forest. This work, along with the slow paced march, took most of the day: “By twilight there was a practicable bridge.”

They continued on, fixing the rails as they went. Every half mile or so, a rail or two would be missing, having been tossed to the side by Rebels. The Federal militiamen would replace them and continue on. Towards the end of their nearly sixteen mile march, they found that a rail had been snatched and sunk in a nearby pond. They replaced it with wood, which was fine for the lighter rail cars, but the J.H. Nicholson could not risk it. It could hardly matter though, the remaining two miles of track to Annapolis Junction, where the Annapolis and Elk Ridge Railroad met the B&O Railroad spur to Washington, was ripped up.

All through the night they continued by foot, stopping here and there for quick naps (often while standing). It would be morning before they reached the junction with the B&O at Annapolis Junction.2


Keeping the Rails Open and Clear

Meanwhile, in Washington, General Scott had ordered the Washington train station seized and its operations taken over by Federal troops. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had stopped regular traffic to and from Baltimore, and so the station’s yard was bare. Only a broken down locomotive and a few beat up passenger cars could be found. The only B&O employee on the scene was the station agent. Col. Charles Stone was ordered to take control of any engine that might happen upon the station. He was also to take possession of the railroad to Annapolis Junction where the Seventh New York and Eighth Massachusetts were soon to be.

Soon enough, an engine pulling two passenger cars and a baggage car pulled into the station. Three men (possibly B&O company men) got off the train, and just as the engineer was about to leave, he was flagged down by Stone who informed him that the line was seized by the United States. A larger train soon followed. It was also seized.

With more reinforcements and some quick repairs to both engines, the trains set out towards Annapolis Junction to pick up the Seventh and Eighth militia regiments. Guards were placed at each bridge to make sure the tracks remained open.

Upon arrival at the Junction, the militia coming from Annapolis were nowhere to be seen, but it was noticed that tracks leading to Annapolis were torn up. The train returned to Washington and set out again for Annapolis Junction. This back and forth kept the line open and free from Rebels.

As night fell, no New York or Massachusetts troops were found. The commandeered trains kept up a vigil, back and forth from Washington to Annapolis Junction, through the night. 3

  1. This is cited by every Lincoln biography ever. It appears to have been first written down by John Hay in In Lincoln’s White House, a diary. []
  2. “Our March to Washington” by Theodore Winthrop, 1861. []
  3. “Washington in March and April, 1861” by Charles Stone. Printed in the Magazine of American History, vol. 14, July 1885. []
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Torn Up Rails to Washington; “I Don’t Believe There Is Any North” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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