Patterson’s Problems: April 19th-21st, 1861

April 21, 1861 – Sunday.
Military Department of Washington –

The matter of reinforcing Washington became infinitely more complicated on the afternoon of April 19.

After a day long delay, Militia General William F. Small started forward from Philadelphia in the evening hours of the 18th, leading a contingent of roughly one thousand, unarmed Pennsylvanians. They boarded a train in convoy with the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, whom they hoped to employ as an escort through Baltimore. Unlike the Pennsylvanians, the Bay State regiment had no unarmed men in their ranks, the muskets they bore were in working order and they had ample ammunition. After hearing of the previous day’s fracas they carried their weapons into the city loaded, and were fully prepared to use them.   The plan of action called for the regiments to steal a march through the city during the early morning hours of the 19th. Nothing, went according to plan. The train did not reach Baltimore until noon.

Major General Robert Patterson

Baltimore secessionists, their vengeance whetted by the narrow escape of the Pennsylvania battalion the day before, returned to the streets better prepared and more determined to stop the passage of northern volunteers through their city. But the men they confronted on this day were equally determined and much better prepared for what lay ahead. The inevitable explosion between troops and mob occurred when the column reached Pratt Street; when it was over four of the Massachusetts men were dead and thirty-one wounded – seventeen of whom were borne from the cars at Washington on stretchers. They left in their wake twelve dead rioters, scores of injured and a city in anarchy.

Small’s “brigade” never made it out of the station. They were set upon with great fury, suffering one death and several wounded before it was able to make good its escape, and return to Philadelphia.

As troublesome as this development was, it had at least been anticipated by General Scott. Cut off from the loyal states, he at once set in motion a plan for the capital’s relief. The city’s defense would now be charged to an officer north of Baltimore, where the movements of arriving troops could be orchestrated and who would be in position to gather sorely needed military supplies. To affect this arrangement the Military Department of Washington, consisting of the District of Columbia and Maryland, was expanded to include Delaware and Pennsylvania. The dire duty of sustaining the federal government would be placed in the hands of an old and trusted friend, Robert Patterson, Major General of Pennsylvania Militia. Even as the newborn department was erupting into chaos on Friday afternoon, General Order No. 3 reached Patterson at Philadelphia, informing him it was now his to command.

At age sixty-nine Robert Patterson was at that moment the oldest commissioned general north or south, and who possessed a military career that spanned parts of six decades. In the War of 1812 he served as an officer of the line, and in 1847 was appointed Major General of Volunteers in the war against Mexico, participating in the siege against Vera Cruz. He was no stranger to armed rebellion or civil uprisings. Born in County Tyrone, Ireland, his family fled to Pennsylvania in 1798 following his father’s participation in the failed Irish rebellion; in 1844 he was one of two iron-fisted militia commanders responsible for quelling Philadelphia’s deadly riots between Know Nothings and Irish Catholics. In Winfield Scott’s eyes, Patterson’s experience and success in the latter episode made him the ideal man to deal with the emergency at Baltimore.

Views of the old Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. From Philadelphia in the Civil War 1861-1865 by Frank Taylor.

In successive dispatches, General Scott outlined the plan of action he wanted Patterson to pursue. Pennsylvania’s entire quota of volunteers would now be expended to secure Washington’s vital lines of communication, providing a protected corridor through which troops from the other loyal states would pass. “The major-general will, as fast as they can be mustered into service, post the volunteers of Pennsylvania all along the road from Wilmington, Del., to Washington City, in sufficient numbers and in such proximity as may give a reasonable protection to the lines of parallel wires, to the road, its rails, bridges, cars, and stations.” This part of the order would hold open a route for troops arriving from northeastern states. For those coming from the northwest Patterson was to post troops in such a manner as “to secure line of communications from Pennsylvania line to Baltimore, along the route from Harrisburg to Baltimore.” By following this itinerary, the pipeline of troops would soon be flowing again after only a brief interruption. While feeding troops to Washington with the left hand, Patterson was to amass troops with the right in sufficient enough numbers to make Baltimore feel Scott’s wrath.

The dispatch sparked Patterson’s anxiety for the capital’s safety. As commander of Pennsylvania militia he was painfully aware of the impoverished condition of the state’s military preparedness, but even he seemed surprised to discover the depths to which it had sunk. It was his unhappy obligation to inform the general-in-chief as to the state of affairs in his department. It was not good. “I have orders to march and am intensely anxious to be with and support you, but a very large proportion of my men are without muskets, all are without ammunition, service clothing, greatcoats, blankets, haversacks, canteens, &c., and it is impossible to get them…” Patterson had not a scrap of materiel with which to protect lines of communication, let alone threaten Baltimore.

All was not lost, however. A few miles up the Delaware River from Philadelphia was the old line Frankford Arsenal, where Patterson believed there was an “abundance of everything” he required. But the militia commander was not authorized to make requisitions from the arsenal, and thus far pleas to Secretary of War Cameron went unanswered. “I implore you to go to the Secretary and have an order sent for a full supply. If you cannot get for ten thousand, get for five thousand men.” Patterson was a man accustomed to taking swift and decisive action, and had no patience for the slow and ponderous bureaucrats of civilian government.

Nor did he have much use for the Constitution. Like most military men, Patterson grappled with the reality that much of the document was devoted to placing restraints against his chosen profession. Having the sympathetic ear of an old army comrade, he vented his frustration, railing against its safeguards as an impediment to practicality. “It seems very strange that the people of the South seize the Government property to carry on rebellion, and the men of the North cannot get it to defend the flag of the Union. The law of necessity overrides all laws; we must have arms, ammunition, clothing, and equipments.” Patterson assured Scott that the only thing standing between the government and salvation was the government itself. In his first response since being placed in command of his department, the Pennsylvanian made only a thinly veiled request for a declaration of martial law within it. “Please attend to this at once, and I can have 5,ooo men in Washington in five days. General Cadwalader [the other half of the one-two punch that suppressed the Know Nothing riots] is as decided as I am that our men shall not be made inmates of hospitals for want of comfortable garments, which the government has at our doors, and which may be taken by others. Say to my good friend the Secretary I entreat him not to hesitate. The moment, the peril of the capital, and the necessities of the case fully justify him in making the order.” If the ultimate responsibility for rescuing the government from overthrow was to rest on the shoulders of General Patterson, he wanted access to every available resource with which to accomplish his mission.

At Washington, General Scott would see to Patterson’s request for making a requisition from the Frankford Arsenal. The suggestion towards placing the entire department under martial law he ignored, an idea as impractical as ill-advised. Two of the states Patterson proposed to subject to military rule were not in rebellion or experiencing civil unrest, and by his own admission he was powerless to enforce it in the one state where it was justified. The declaration would have no teeth in Maryland, serving no greater good than to excite the situation further still.

At that hour matters in Baltimore needed no further excitement; nightfall’s brisk spring air did little to cool the city’s temperament. Civil authorities huddled late into the night, acknowledging the amount of control they wielded was tenuous at best, and that prospects for the coming day were grim. Mayor George W. Brown and Governor Thomas Hicks enlisted a committee of three men to travel to Washington and deliver correspondence to the president regarding the state of emergency; the former pleading his case for no more troops to be sent through the city, the latter hoping Maryland could be bypassed altogether. It was a literal eleventh-hour bid to save Baltimore from ruin, the committee boarding a Washington bound special at 11 p.m.

It did not take the committee long to discover that theirs was a mission of vain hopes. They assured the president the rule of law was not at the moment enforceable in the city, and the safe passage of volunteers could no longer be vouched for. The president in turn insisted troops must pass through Maryland, but consented to march troops around Baltimore by the nearest convenient wagon road to Relay House station, southwest of the city. The compromise he offered the committee was desperate and humiliating, and – though he did not know it at the moment – implausible. The men knew of no such road, and feared any attempt to march around the city would only result in the expansion of hostilities to the surrounding countryside. It was the only concession they could muster from the president, but one that offered little realistic chance of a resolution for either part.

Even as the meeting was getting underway its outcome was already rendered moot. Police Marshal Kane approached the mayor and governor at the stroke of midnight bearing dispatches unfavorable to their prospects. More troops had gathered just north of Baltimore. Fearing they, too, would attempt to force a passage through their streets, a Gordian knot solution was agreed upon for stemming the crisis; the mayor ordered Kane to fire all bridges leading into the city. Under a blanket of isolation, they hoped, the fires of agitation would soon smolder out. 

By daybreak Saturday the distant smoke of Kane’s handiwork could be seen, while work gangs tore up miles of track from every approachable direction. At an early hour on Sunday morning, the manager of Washington’s telegraph office received a final dispatch from his counterpart in Baltimore: “The authorities have possession of office.” A foreboding acknowledgment soon followed: “Of course this stops all.” Baltimore was now effectively cut off from all communication from the north and so, too, was Washington – President Lincoln and the capital were left to dangle on their own hook.

Events to the immediate north set in motion an exodus of jittery citizens from the capital city. Washingtonians and civil employees alike fled by any means they could, which in many instances meant south and west into Virginia. Before the weekend was over Washington was nearly deserted, giving the appearance that even a small force of loosely organized rebels could lay claim to it. In his last telegraphic dispatch on Saturday, General Scott sought to expedite the capital’s relief by informing General Patterson that arms and equipment from the Frankford Arsenal had been requisitioned. The moment they were received Patterson was to begin his two-pronged movement to secure the water route via Annapolis, and reopen the route through Baltimore.

With this final transmission Patterson’s frustration with Washington grew to encompass General Scott, as well. The general-in-chief’s insistence on a movement against Baltimore was not feasible. He fired back a terse dispatch stating Pennsylvania’s quota was “not sufficient for the purposes indicated.” By Patterson’s tabulation, subjugating the disloyal city and protecting lines of communication in hostile territory would require investment by a force of far greater size than the six-to-eight thousand men of Scott’s calculation. With available manpower he could secure the capital by guarding the Chesapeake Bay route and Annapolis, but he could not do both – more troops needed to be called out. 

The new department commander was feeling the immense pressure of a man charged to accomplish the impossible, with one hand behind his back. Scott had sidestepped his subtle request to place the department under martial law. When the telegraph wires went dead that night he was left to his own devices to affect the capital’s relief, but without what he felt was sufficient authority. Patterson enlisted a courier to travel to the capital with correspondence outlining his plan of action. With his final words for the foreseeable future, Patterson pleaded with his old friend in Washington to help the nation’s capital save itself by unchaining him from constitutional constraints: “I have also to suggest that in my opinion it is expedient to declare . . . the entire department under my command under martial law; and if the General concurs, I ask his approval, or rather that he will give the order.”

This suggestion, too, Scott ignored. Patterson would have to make do with what he had, and quickly.

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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.