Those who have only seen the Washington of to-day can have but little idea of what it was anterior to the war. Now the most beautiful of American cities, with its superbly paved and shaded avenues, its beautiful parks and squares made brilliant with flowers and historic by monuments to departed heroes, it was then a waste in which were a few fine buildings, from one to another of whose portals those who had business and those who had curiosity straggled along over uneven sidewalks and cobblestone roads, disputing the way with cows and pigs, and overwhelmed with dust or bespattered with mud. Laid out by an eminent French engineer, who had the genius to perceive what the capital of a great nation should be, it had remained a city of magnificent distances and great expectations. Nevertheless, it was the nation's capital; and so, in a war that was to absorb the attention of the civilized world, its possession was of vital importance.
In the course of European wars submission has usually followed the capture of a nation's capital; the people, unable to defend their seat of government against the assaults of an enemy, have ordinarily felt compelled to accede to the demands of the foreign foe. In civil wars the possession of the capital is of still greater significance. Some government must, in the conflict of authority, be recognized as the legitimate one; and foreign powers naturally conclude that those possessed of the symbols of authority, holding the custody of the national archives, records, and seat of government, have not only the better title, but display a greater strength and more likelihood of eventually being able to restore order by enforcing respect for and obedience to their commands.
At the outset of the war the major portion of the European powers were hostile to us; and particularly was this the case with the nations with whom our relations were most intimate and who were capable of inflicting upon us the most harm. England and France waited only for a suitable excuse for recognizing the Southern Confederacy; they delayed only for some occasion that would enable them to justify the breaking of the blockade, as a thing done in the interests of peace and commerce.
The capture of Washington would have been such and occasion, and would have been speedily followed by such armed intervention as would have given to the South the supplies she so sorely needed.
It was, therefore, throughout the war, of the most vital importance that Washington should not fall into the hands of the enemy. Great battles might be fought and lost,--they often are in wars, without materially affecting the final result; campaigns might be indecisive, retrograde movements made; but the capital must not fall. We were fighting for national existence,--to hold as one with us a portion of the people that had determined to separate themselves; we insisted that such separation had not taken, and should not take, place; that the world in dealing with this country should recognize and treat with the only power it had ever been, and that we were yet a nation to be respected and feared as a power capable of defending itself against foreign foes without and domestic enemies within.
With the government a fugitive, and the flag of the Rebellion floating over the capital, such claim would have been an idle pretence. The foreign ministers accredited to, and resident in, Washington would not have fled at the entrance of Lee's army; they would have remained, and would have been directed to treat with the victorious Rebels.
Generals in the field might not recognize this; their movements might be conducted regardless of it; but all the while there was, and it was necessary there should be, a central authority ever mindful of it, as of paramount importance. The wisdom of every order emanating from the War Department must be judged in the light of the entire situation,--of the armies upon the Potomac, the Mississippi, and the Cumberland, and the fleets at the Bermudas, at Nassau, and Portsmouth, as well as the soldiers whom the Emperor of the French and the government of England could land upon our shores.
It was fortunate that early in the struggle the War Department came under the control of a man who thought of nothing save military success; who was indifferent to fame, present or prospective; who never thought of rewarding private friends or punishing private enemies; who was willing for his country's sake to be reviled and hated, to stand as the scapegoat for imbecility and indecision, and to have no part in the glory of success. He was harsh, inconsiderate of the rights and feelings of others, disobliging, passionate, rude, uncivil, unjust, for he had no time for that investigation from which alone justice can spring; but he was the embodiment of energy and the incarnation of patriotism. In his position, Edwin M. Stanton was as essential to our success as Lincoln and Grant were in theirs. He met and overcame the mighty hosts of stupidity, or corruption, of incapacity and irresolution. To all that malice could say of him, he replied not a word, and died as he lived, content that his only answer to all the slanders upon his name should be the one flag waving triumphant at Richmond and at Washington.
Washington as a military post has no natural strength. It is accessible to an enemy on all sides. A considerable portion of its inhabitants were in sympathy with the Rebellion, and would have welcomed with joy the advent of Rebel soldiery. The adjacent country was the home of thousands who served in the Rebel army, and whose fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and sweethearts anxiously waited for the hour when the hated blue of the Yankees should no longer afflict them with its presence. These residents, peaceful and harmless as they seemed, were really a multitude of spies through whom the condition of the capital was always known to the enemy.
How hostile to the Union was the population by which Washington was surrounded, will be seen by a mention of what occurred upon the breaking out of hostilities. Mr. Lincoln's proclamation calling for seventy-five thousand men was issued April 15. Governor Burton of Delaware deferred making any response to this call until the 26th, and then replied that the laws of Delaware did not confer upon him any authority to comply with the requisition of the President. Governor Hicks of Maryland issued a proclamation assuring the people of his desire to preserve the honor and integrity of the State and to maintain peace within her limits, and wound up his address by informing the people that the opportunity would soon be afforded them, in an election for Members of Congress, to express their devotion to the Union or their desire to see it broken up. Mayor Brown of Baltimore issued a proclamation expressing his hearty concurrence in the views of the Governor, and especially his gratification at the assurance that no troops would be sent from Maryland to the soil of any other State.
On the evening of the 18th a great mass-meeting was held in Baltimore, at which it was declared that, no matter how many troops were sent to Washington, they would find themselves surrounded by such an army from Virginia and Maryland that escape would be impossible, and that when the seventy-five thousand men intended for the invasion of the South should have polluted the soil with their touch, the South would exterminate and sweep them from the earth. On the 19th, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania soldiers, passing through Baltimore, were attacked by a mob, and the Pennsylvanians turned back. The same day the telegraph wires connecting Baltimore with the free States were cut, and the railroad bridges to the northward and westward burned.
A week followed, in which the profaning tread of soldiers of the Union in the streets of Baltimore was not permitted; and it was not until the 25th that Northern soldiers, in a roundabout way, so as to avoid the rebellious city of Baltimore, were again permitted to reach Washington. Nor was it until May 13, twenty-four days after the assault upon the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania volunteers, that the uniform of Federal soldiers was again seen in the commercial capital of Maryland.
On the 21st of April, General Butler, despite the dismantled railroads, succeeded in entering Annapolis, where he was met by the Governor, with a protest against his landing there or at any place in Maryland, a special objection to his entering Annapolis being that the Legislature had been called to meet there the next week.
General Butler, whose power of saying one thing and meaning another was equaled only by the strabismus which enabled him to look the Governor straight in the eye while apparently gazing at the toes of his boots, made reply that if he could find transportation to Washington, he would vacate the capital prior to the session of the Legislature, and not be under the painful necessity of incommoding the city while the Legislature should be in session.
The failure of the administration to send a sufficient force and a capable officer to protect the Norfolk Navy Yard had resulted in its falling, on the 23d, into Rebel hands. General Butler, in the vicinity of Fortress Monroe, with ten thousand men, was confronted by General Magruder with about an equal force. The invasion of the South had begun. General Butler's force was an army of invasion; and the troops operating under McClellan and Rosecrans in Western Virginia were clearly invaders, who had entered the domain of the Confederacy with the intent of suppressing rebellion and restoring the national authority.
The character given these invaders by the Southern leaders is shown by the following extract from a proclamation issued June 5:--
To the People of the Counties of Loudoun, Fairfax, and Prince William:--
A reckless and unprincipled tyrant has invaded your soil. Abraham Lincoln, regardless of all moral, legal, and constitutional restraints, has thrown his abolition hosts among you, who are murdering and imprisoning your citizens, confiscating and destroying your property, and committing other acts of violence and outrage too shocking and revolting to humanity to be enumerated.
All rules of civilized warfare are abandoned, and they proclaim by their acts, if not on their banners, that their war-cry is "Beauty and Booty." All that is dear to man,--your honor and that of your wives and daughters,--your fortunes and your lives, are involved in this momentous contest...
G. T. Beauregard,
Three days prior to this, General McDowell, commanding the Union forces, had issued a general order directing statements to be made by officers of all land occupied, crops taken or damaged, buildings occupied, trees cut down, and fencing destroyed, with an estimate of the value thereof, and the names of the owners, in order that compensation might be made to them.
In response to the call of the President, Congress had convened on the 4th of July. While all that was said by its numbers may not have been wise, the willingness displayed to do all that was possible to insure success, and the eagerness to learn what the needs of a great army were, and what its equipment and organization should be, were most manifest.
The principal Rebel army had been placed within a day's march of Washington; the capital was threatened by its presence; and if the national authority was to be maintained at all, it seemed as if foes actually menacing the seat of government should be dispersed. The army at Washington, under McDowell, was superior to that under Beauregard at Manassas; while that under Patterson, in the vicinity of Harper's Ferry, had nearly double the effective force of the confronting Rebel body under Johnston.
There was danger that in case of an advance from Washington, Beauregard might be reinforced by the troops under Johnston. McDowell felt confident of being able to beat the army of Beauregard, but not the united armies of Beauregard and Johnston. He was, however, assured by General Scott that Patterson would hold Johnston in check; and so, in obedience to a strong popular demand, and with the assurance that Johnston would have Patterson upon his heels, on the 16th of July the army moved out of the intrenchments and began the advance that was to end at Bull Run.
From the beginning of the movement the excitement in Washington was intense. Of its population not one in a thousand had ever seen a great army in motion or heard the sound of battle; there was a curiosity and an eagerness to witness what was to take place, that painfully showed how little the horde of civilians so anxious to get to the front knew about the real nature of a battle.
On the 16th and 17th the outlying Rebel forces retired before our advance; and on the 18th a sharp skirmish occurred, in which sixty men were lost on each side. From the beginning of the movement on the 16th until a day after the battle fought on the 21st, the air was thick with rumors. Before every bar, on each street corner, in the corridors of all the hotels, at the Capital, the White House, and the War Department, was the man who had seen the place where the Rebel picket-posts had been, who had handled knapsacks they had thrown away, and knew exactly in what direction they went. The story of how our forces advanced, the points they had reached and were aiming at, the position each regiment, and indeed every man whose name was known, now occupied, was told unceasingly. Everybody was giving and receiving information, because everybody had heard much, conjectured more, and was anxious to be told everything.
As for several days the Rebel outposts fell back, the impression prevailed that the entire Rebel army had retreated; and some wag said that Beauregard had sent for a thousand barrels of tar, into which his soldiers were to be dipped so that they would stick. Now to the great mass of people the matter of the war was so serious that they were incapable of understanding a joke about anything connected with it; and so this story soon became merely that the Rebel general had ordered a thousand barrels of tar, and the question was, "What is his going to do with it?" Indeed, the seriousness of everybody, especially the civilians--and there were very few soldiers to be seen--was noticeable. Even with crowds that were drinking, there was an absence of all bluster, of brag, and of hilarity; and yet there seemed to be universal confidence of success.
The cannonade in the skirmish of the 18th was plainly heard, and all day long on the 21st an undemonstrative throng stood in front of what is now the Treasury building, then just begun, listening to the distant guns that told of the progress of a great battle. About eight o'clock persons who had seen something of the engagement began to come in. The accounts they gave indicated a substantial success of our arms. How little they had seen and really knew of the result, and how impossible it was for them to know what had transpired miles beyond the reach of their vision, we did not know, and we accepted the reports they made as absolute verity.
About eleven o'clock the Honorable Henry Wilson, then United States Senator from Massachusetts, came into Willard's. He had seen something of the battle, and all was going well when he left the field; but he could not tell as to the result, and only spoke hopefully. About this time the confident feeling that we had gained a victory gave way to a state of intense anxiety. The absence of any report from the War Department, whither hundreds went to learn what was known there, and the increasing number of Congressmen, correspondents, and civilians of all kinds, who had seen something, and had that to tell, but knew nothing more, served to make every one uncertain what to think, and almost wild to know the real truth.
Passing to and fro through the great throng were a few persons evidently in sympathy with the Rebels. They listened to what was said, made no comments save to each other, and would not have attracted the attention of any one not watching the crowd as well as waiting to hear from the battle.
About midnight a regiment marched across Pennsylvania Avenue, going in the direction of the front. We gave it hearty cheers, for we thought, "Well, if there's anything wrong, reinforcements are going forward, and all will be right." In about half an hour the regiment came marching back, and we were dumfounded. What did it all mean? Had we won or lost a battle? Did they know anything at the War Department? If so, why did they not tell?
Morning came, and with it, in the rain just beginning to fall, came numbers of jaded, weary, footsore, and lately badly frightened soldiers, full of tales of how their regiments had been cut to pieces and they alone had survived. For days the number of these increased; they wandered about the streets; they begged from door to door; they added to the general confusion and alarm; and thus disorganized, without orders, officers, or abiding-place, the military authorities permitted them to remain, until the foreign ministers had to call for guards to protect their residences from intrusion.
Some of the early fugitives halted not at Washington, but took the first train for the North. One of them, being met in New York, was asked how he happened to be there. "Why," he replied, "our Colonel told us to fall back, and I have never had any order to stop, so I have got back to New York."
That Beauregard, after the battle of Bull Run, could have taken the capital by direct assault, is not probable; but that he might have crossed the Potomac, either above or below Washington, and by an invasion of Maryland have threatened both Baltimore and Washington, and perhaps captured both, was possible.
It is now known that the battle of Bull Run came near being a Union victory; that it was one of the best-planned conflicts of the Rebellion, and was to the great portion of the Union soldiers a nowise discreditable affair. But for many months the country believed that our entire army had fled in most disgraceful rout. No Northern man could bear to hear Bull Run spoken of; it was our sore spot, and to mention it was to touch us on the raw. A year afterward, Artemus Ward, the great humorist, declared that as an American citizen he should always be proud of the masterly advance our troops made on Washington from Bull Run; the people laughed, and Bull Run came to be a subject that could be calmly considered and judge.
Bull Run we now know was not in its ultimate results a calamity. We now realize that success at the beginning of the war would have left slavery substantially undisturbed, if not more strongly intrenched; and by the uprising that followed that battle, we know that a great and free people cannot be stampeded our dismayed by the panic or the folly of a few, or by the misfortune or mistake of all.
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Illinois Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Waterman, A.N. 1894. WASHINGTON AT THE TIME OF THE FIRST BULL RULL, Military Essays and Recollections: Papers read before the Commandery of the State of Illinois, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. A.C. McClurg and Company, Chicago, Illinois, Volume 2, pp.21-31.
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