April 25, 1861, Thursday.
Military Department of Washington –
Ten full days after calling for 75,000 volunteers, Abraham Lincoln grew despondent over the future of his presidency. To date, the Pennsylvania battalion and the Sixth Massachusetts’ represented the only accession of troops at the nation’s capital. Since their arrival nearly a week earlier, not a single man had come forward. Before the telegraph lines fell silent on Sunday, it was reported the Eighth Massachusetts’ and the Seventh New York were at Annapolis, and other regiments had departed New York City via the ocean route. Reinforcements were daily expected, yet, as the wait stretched into a second week the president began to entertain grave doubts. “Why don’t they come! Why don’t they come!” he pondered aloud, scanning the empty Potomac River for signs of the flotilla. During a visit to the Sixth Massachusetts’ on Wednesday he was the portrait of despair. “I don’t believe there is any North,” he told the volunteers. “The Seventh Regiment is a myth. Rhode Island is not in our geography any longer. You are the only Northern realities.”
The progress of troops forwarded from Philadelphia by General Patterson was slowed to a crawl by a myriad of problems. On Saturday, Patterson sent the Massachusetts and New York regiments by rail to Havre de Grace on the upper Chesapeake, where they were to hire steamboats to carry them on to Annapolis. Arriving at the port town, however, they found only one vessel on hand that was employable as a troop transport. The Eighth Massachusetts’ boarded the steamer; the Seventh New York would await its return, unless another means became available. The New Englander’s progress was further slowed upon reaching Annapolis, detained there for the better part of two days as their commander, militia general Benjamin Butler, wrangled with Governor Hicks for permission to land his troops at the state capital. The two leaders exchanged numerous correspondence; when the punctilios were at last resolved, and a toehold gained on Maryland’s “sacred soil”, Hicks discovered the general was not a man to mince words with. Butler, made more irascible than usual by the two-day confinement aboard ship, would tolerate no more impediments to his mission in the name of diplomatic decorum. The embattled governor was no match in their test of wills and wits – he already rued the day the bombastic Yankee came ashore.
While Butler jousted with Hicks in a contest of quill pens, his regiment restored the recently destroyed rail line between Annapolis and the Relay House, southwest of Baltimore. The New Englanders were assisted by a corps of railroad men who were rushed to the scene, as well as numerous mechanics, laborers and sailors, and were soon joined by the Seventh New York. The New Yorkers were a kid-glove parade unit, many of whom were progeny of Manhattan’s upper stratum of socialites – the sight of fortune’s sons laboring side by side with commoners, sleeves rolled up, hands begrimed, would have turned many a head at Gramercy Park. Through the night of the 24th, the brigade toiled and trudged, a spearhead for the column of volunteers amassing behind them.
It was about noon on Thursday when the sound of a train whistle at the heart of Washington touched off a spontaneous celebration. The Pennsylvania Battalion and the Sixth Massachusetts’ poured out from their Capitol Building citadel, dashing the two blocks up New Jersey Avenue to the depot. Their whoops and cheers drew Washington’s remaining citizens out from their nooks; within minutes a jubilant throng gathered to provide a hero’s welcome for the Seventh New York.
The regiment was somewhat worse for wear. Their dress uniforms of tailored gray cloth and white clay piping were soiled and soot-stained, and their faces glowed red from prolonged exposure to southern sunlight; but the men were a sight to behold as they precision-marched up Pennsylvania Avenue in immaculately dressed ranks. The Seventh’s band blared with gusto as the regiment filed straight onto the White House grounds and to its very doors before doubling back, turning sharp and crisp on the approving nod of their beaming commander-in-chief. Their march back down the avenue to the Capitol Building was halted midway at Willard’s Hotel. The regiment broke ranks to bathe blistered feet and parched skin in the centerpiece fountain of the grand marble driveway – and to meticulously scrub Maryland’s sacred soil from their uniforms.
On the following morning the Eighth Massachusetts’ and First Rhode Island arrived, bringing with them railroad executives and telegraph technicians to restore communications. Amongst their number was a young telegraph operator named Andrew Carnegie. Possessing a gift for all things mechanical, the Scottish immigrant was pressed into service to pilot an engine refurbished by the Bay State men at Annapolis. The trip was made slow by Carnegie’s frequent stops to repair downed telegraph wires along the way. At the last such stop, he was lashed across the face by a coiled wire as it was freed from a downed pole. When he brought the train to a halt at the Washington depot, Carnegie was still bleeding profusely from the wound. Those that greeted the train were relieved to hear, at least, that the injury had not been sustained at the hands of Maryland secessionists.
In the immediate days to follow came three more regiments from New York, another from Massachusetts and the Fifth Pennsylvania. Washington could at last begin to breathe easier – there was, it seemed, a North after all.
The late Justin Sanders (1957-2016) hailed from Astoria, New York. Long time Civil War enthusiast whose focus has been sighted in on the History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps.