Patterson’s Solution: April 26th, 1861

April 26, 1861, Friday.

Friday morning marked one week, to the day, since Robert Patterson assumed command of the Military Department of Washington. His watch had been an exercise in anxiety and frustration, as taxing to the spirit as it was to his sixty-nine year old body. His second week, however, started out on a brighter note. A courier at long last delivered welcome news to his Philadelphia headquarters: a line of communication with Washington was reestablished. The Seventh New York arrived there the previous day, and two more regiments were expected on this morning; five others were at various points between Annapolis and the Relay House.

The capital, was saved.

Patterson’s operation was conducted almost entirely independent of Federal control. The  momentous achievement was owed to his own efforts, and to a host of loyal men operating on their own initiative and wit, ranging from governors and militia commanders, to steamboat captains and railroad operators, assisted in no small measure by the brawn and native ingenuity of the volunteers. Washington’s input into its own rescue was, for the most part, negligible, and at times more of a hindrance than help. The daily correspondence brought by couriers from General Scott and Secretary Cameron was always a day old, sometimes two, often outdated to the circumstances at hand and usually composed from uninformed assumptions. What they had to say about matters from the capital generally had no bearing on realities north of Baltimore, their guidance amounting to little more than impractical suggestions to which he was compelled to reply. The relief operation was an undertaking of faithful constituents, the Northern populace’s antithetical response to Southern rebellion, a show of will and determination to sustain the government.

Patterson’s primary mission as commander of the Military Department of Washington was accomplished. In the days to come, a steady flow of troops would make its way to the capital via the side door route of Annapolis. He could now focus his attention on the second objective ordered by General Scott.

The last word Patterson heard from the general-in-chief regarding the subjugation of Baltimore was, he felt, far short of what the operation demanded. To march upon the nation’s third largest city with a column of 3,ooo untrained troops was, by his calculation, an invitation to bloodshed on a large scale. The best way to protect his men, property and innocent life – should any remain there – was to overwhelm the city with a force it dared not resist. Scott’s order detailed Pennsylvania volunteers to the task of reopening the route through Baltimore, but the state’s entire quota was not sufficient quell the rebellion there, and at the same time protect lines of communication in Maryland and the approaches to Harrisburg. The size of Patterson’s force would have to be dramatically and quickly increased.

One of the few advantages Patterson enjoyed during the current excitement was the unique circumstance of having a boot in two different military camps. Although now a general commissioned by the Federal government, he was still the ranking commander of Pennsylvania militia. If the president’s hands were constitutionally bound as to the number of troops he could call upon without an act of congress, his were not. The manpower he needed was at his beck and call; on Friday morning he composed two pieces of correspondence, one to General Scott informing him of the actions he was taking, the other to Governor Andrew Curtin. He would take matters into his own hands, and Baltimore on his own terms.

“Headquarters, Military Department of Washington,

Philadelphia, April 26, 1861.

“His Excellency, Andrew G. Curtin, Governor of Pennsylvania.

“Sir: I feel it my duty to express to you my clear and decided opinion that the force at the disposal of this Department should be increased without delay. I therefore have to request your Excellency to direct that twenty-five additional regiments of infantry and one regiment of cavalry be called forthwith to be mustered into the service of the United States. Officers will be detailed to inspect and muster these men into service as soon as I am informed of the points of rendezvous which may be designated by your Excellency.

“I have the honor to be your obedient servant,

Robert Patterson, Major General.”

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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.