Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Volunteers Take Over Washington (Part 2)

Last week -- before the great Blogger service interruption of 2011 -- I wrote about the quartering of Northern volunteers in government buildings across Washington during the spring of 1861.  Today's post looks at a few more regiments that stayed in the District at the start of the Civil War.

The Treasury, c. 1860, showing the old Riggs Hotel  to the left of the photo (courtesy of Library of Congress
The Fifth Massachusetts arrived in Washington towards the end of April and took up residence in the Treasury, which was still under construction when the war started.  The Union Army had earlier designated the building as the last bulwark against a Confederate attack on the nation's capital.  According to the plan, President Lincoln, who lived just around the corner at the White House, would seek shelter at the Treasury with his Cabinet while the Federal forces fought for the survival of the city.  Of course, this scenario never came to pass, but the fact that the high command was prepared for such contingencies demonstrates the concerns that gripped the Army brass early in the war.

Cooking and eating arrangements for Union soldiers in the courtyard of the Treasury, Harper's Weekly, May 25, 1861 (courtesy of
As Alfred S. Roe noted in his regimental history, the presence of the Fifth Massachusetts meant that the "Treasury was well guarded."  The daily routine largely "consisted in patrol and sentry duty, not very hard of itself, but liable to become irksome if too often repeated."  The Fifth drilled on the site of the National Mall, and Company F even received daily instruction on the "green back of the White House."   Like any soldiers in close quarters, the men "contracted [] coughs and colds that hung on for many a day." On April 29, Lincoln paid a visit to the regiment at the Treasury.  A few days later, the Fifth headed to Jackson Square across from the White House, where then-Major Irvin McDowell officially mustered the regiment into federal service.  President Lincoln then reviewed the newly minted Union soldiers at the White House.

On April 26, the First Rhode Island Regiment under Col. Ambrose E. Burnside arrived in Washington and set up temporary quarters in the Patent Office.  (The building today houses the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum.)  Construction on the Patent Office began in 1836 and was close to completion by the time of the Civil War.  Burnside's men placed bunks between the glass cabinets containing patent models.  According to one account, the soldiers broke around 400 panes of glass during their stay at the Patent Office, and some men even stole the models. The men of the 1st Rhode Island were also accompanied by four women -- a camp laundress, as well as three relatives.

Patent Office before the war, c. 1846 , showing F St., N.W. facade (courtesy of Library of Congress)
On May 1, the First Rhode Island played a part in a rousing display of patriotism at the Patent Office. Famous 19th century journalist and author Benjamin Perley Poore described the scene:
The Rhode Island regiment was under arms in the street facing the building, and on the roof of the portico was the Washington City Rifle Corps. At noon President Lincoln, accompanied by Secretary Seward and other members of his Cabinet, appeared on the portico, and the President hoisted the flag to the top of the staff, where the breeze at once displayed its fair proportions amid the hearty cheers of the soldiers and of the multitude. Three cheers were then given for the President, and three more for the Secretary of State, both of whom gracefully but silently acknowledged the compliments. The Rhode Island regiment then gave nine cheers for the stars and stripes, and were drilled in the manual by Colonel Burnside, displaying a steadiness and unity of movement worthy of veterans. Mr. Lincoln then advancing to the front, the regiment presented arms, a salute which he acknowledged by raising his hat. He had intended to address the regiment, but the strong wind would have prevented their hearing him, had he spoken.
The next day, the First Rhode Island was sworn into service by Major McDowell on the east side of the Capitol.  At the end of the ceremony, the band struck up The Star Spangled Banner.

Sleeping bunks of the 1st Rhode Island, Harper's Weekly, June 1, 1861 (courtesy of

Model room at the Patent Office (1861-65), site of 1st Rhode Island quarters during the war, as seen in the illustration from Harper's Weeky above (courtesy of Library of Congress)
Both the Fifth Massachusetts and the First Rhode Island did not occupy government buildings for long.  The First Rhode Island left the Patent Office after a couple of weeks and established Camp Sprague, northeast of downtown, on a farm belonging to George Keating.  The Fifth Massachusetts crossed the Potomac into Virginia and set up camp around Alexandria towards the end of May.  Both 90-day regiments would fight in the First Battle of Bull Run in July before being mustered out later in the summer.  The Union Army eventually constructed a ring of defenses and encampments around Washington, but government buildings in town were never entirely safe from military use.  The Patent Office and Capitol, for instance, were later used as a hospital for the wounded after the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862.   The war was never too far away for Washingtonians.

Photo of Camp Sprague, Col. Burnside just to the left of the tree in center (courtesy of Smithsonian Institution)

Note on Sources

The following sources were useful in compiling this two-part series:

Kenneth W. Dobyns, History of the United States Patent Office (1994).

"From the Fire Zouaves; How the Boys Put Out the Fire at Willard's," New York Times, May 11, 1861.

Steve Hawks, Civil War in the East: A Reference Guide to America's Civil War (online resource with regimental chronologies).

Richard M. Lee, Mr. Lincoln's City: An Illustrated Guide to the Civil War Sites of Washington (1981).

Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington (1941).

Mark Leepson, "Capital Defense--Washington, D.C. in the Civil War", America's Civil War, Aug. 26, 2009.

Lehrman Institute/Lincoln Institute, Mr. Lincoln's White House (on-line resource).

Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, pp. 8-9.

Benjamin Perley Poore, The Life and Public Services of Ambrose E. Burnside (1882).

Alfred S. Roe, The Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry In Its Three Tours of Duty: 1861, 1862-'63, 1864 (1911).

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