Washington Cut Off and Surrounded by Rebels?

Monday, April 22, 1861

General Winfield Scott thought it was probable that Washington DC was about to be under siege by Rebels. There wasn’t much to go on but rumors; however, of these rumors, he found three plausible.

The first was that 1,500 to 2,000 Rebel troops were constructing a battery four miles south of Mt. Vernon (fifteen miles from Washington). Those guns would put a halt to reinforcements coming up the Potomac by ship, just as Baltimore put a halt to them coming by rail. Second, an equal force was preparing to attack Fort Washington, a small stone fort on the Maryland side of the Potomac, six miles south of the capital. Lastly, it was rumored that extra rail cars were brought to Harpers Ferry to bring 2,000 Rebel troops to attack the capital (from the north).

With the Rebels in Baltimore and the “plausible” rumors of thousands to the south, west and north, Washington could very well be completely surrounded.

Still, Scott managed to find some hope: “I feel confident that with our present forces, we can defend the Capitol, the arsenal and all the executive buildings – seven against ten thousand troops, not better than our District Volunteers.”1


Foiling the Plot to Steal the USS Constitution

Annapolis, Maryland, home of the United States Naval Academy, was the meeting place for the Federal militiamen coming to Washington from the North. It was also the home of “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution, a three-mast, fifty-two-gun frigate named by George Washington himself. Rumors spread through town that the secessionists planned to commandeer her.

The Naval Academy’s superintendent, Captain George Smith Blake, didn’t have the loyal manpower to stop them from capturing the ship. It was looking as if the USS Constitution would be lost.

General Benjamin Butler and the Eighth Massachusetts arrived from Philadelphia on the Maryland well before dawn and, luckily, before the Rebels had a chance to capture the Constitution. When they first dropped anchor, they were greeted with a message from Governor Hicks wishing for them to not come ashore for fear of a repeat of the Baltimore riot on the streets of Annapolis.

While the Northern troops were an unpleasant sight to the governor, to the Naval captain, they were the answer to his prayers. Captain Smith was taken aboard the Maryland and, with tears in his eyes, told General Butler of the Rebel plot. Immediately Butler dispatched a company of men familiar with shipping. They boarded the Constitution, transfered her guns onto the Maryland (no easy task), pulled up the anchors and towed the old warship out of harm’s way.

On the return trip, the Maryland, overburdened with the extra guns, ran aground. Luckily (and embarrassingly), the Seventh New York aboard the Boston, also sailing from Philadelphia via another route, arrived off of Annapolis. The Boston and her crew tried to help, but had to leave the Maryland stuck in the mud.

The Boston docked at the Academy and the Seventh New York, with what could only be seen as “calling dibs,” claimed the Academy buildings as their own for the night.

With the Maryland stuck, the Boston had to pick up the Eighth Massachusetts and bring them to land. The buildings were full, so they slept on the grounds. They had not been issued tents.2


More Troops Through Baltimore?

Also that morning, the Pennsylvania troops camped out in Cockeysville, Maryland, seventeen miles north of Baltimore, were awaiting orders. It was true that Lincoln had wired them to return to Pennsylvania out of fear that Baltimore would again erupt in bloodshed, but it wasn’t certain that those orders were authentic.

Regardless, the railroad refused to co-operate until they knew that the tracks were in working order. Fortunately, Pennsylvania outfitted the militiamen with all the supplies needed to rebuild tracks and bridges.

While the original order was for all the troops to fall back to Harrisburg and then continue to Washington via the Chesapeake Bayand Annapolis, that morning they received a counter-order from Secretary of War Simon Cameron for some of the troops to be kept in Maryland to ensure that the railroad to be kept open for the future shipment of troops and ammunition.

The troops fell back to York as the Rebels in Baltimore burned the bridges behind them.3


Arkansas Finally Responds

It’s unlikely that anyone was still holding their breath as to how Arkansas would respond to Lincoln’s April 15 call for 75,000 troops. Nevertheless, Governor Henry Massie Rector spelled out his views a week after Lincoln’s request for the state to provide exactly one regiment of troops.

In answer to your requisition for troops from Arkansas to subjugate the Southern States, I have to say that none will be furnished. The demand is only adding insult to injury. The people of this Commonwealth are freemen, not slaves, and will defend to the last extremity their honor, lives, and property against Northern mendacity and usurpation.

The statement that the “people of this Commonwealth are freemen, not slaves,” wasn’t exactly right. Nearly one-quarter of Arkansas’s population were slaves.4


Joseph Johnston Resigns

In Washington, Brigadier General Joseph Johnston, a Virginian, met with War Secretary Simon Cameron to tender his resignation. “I must go with the South,” said Johnston, visibly shaken by his own decision. Though it seemed “ungrateful,” he had to go with his state. “I owe all that I am to the government of the United States,” he continued. “It has educated me, clothed me in honor. To leave the service is a hard necessity, but I must go.”

He requested the immediate written acknowledgement of his resignation and then returned home to leave for Richmond the next day.5



Three men separately arrived in Richmond on this date. The first was the Confederate Vice-President, Alexander Stephens. His mission was to coax Virginia into the Confederacy. There was a fear that the border states might secede and form their own nation.

The second to arrive was Robert E. Lee, recently resigned from the United States Army. He had been offered command of all military and naval forces in Virginia.

Lastly, Col. Thomas Jackson and his cadets from the Virginia Military Institute arrived to take over the training of militiamen gathering in Richmond.6

With Johnston to arrive the next day, Virginia was forging for herself an army.

  1. General Scott’s morning report to Lincoln, April 22, 1861. []
  2. Dissonance by David Detzer. []
  3. Official Records, Series I, Volume 51 (part 1), p348-349. []
  4. Source: 1860 census. Total population of: 435,450. Slave population: 111,115. Free persons of color: 144. []
  5. Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography by Craig L. Symonds, W. W. Norton & Company, 1994. []
  6. Dissonance by David Detzer. []
Creative Commons License
Washington Cut Off and Surrounded by Rebels? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by