Friday, May 13, 2011

The Volunteers Take Over Washnigton (Part 1)

Over the last few weeks, I have written about Virginia state forces in and around Alexandria during late April and early May 1861.  This week, I'd like to cross to the other side of the Potomac and describe some of the scenes in Washington City during the tension-filled spring of 1861.  Following the attack on Ft. Sumter, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion.  Many of the volunteers headed to the nation's capital.  However welcome a sight these defenders were, the U.S. Government was little prepared to accommodate the influx.  Many of Washington's famous government buildings soon became makeshift barracks for the new regiments.  By the end of April, some 11, 000 soldiers had descended on Washington and taken up residence across the city. 

The U.S. Capitol under construction, May 1861 (courtesy of Library of Congress)

The U.S. Capitol, whose dome was still under construction in 1861, served as temporary quarters for many raw recruits.  The 6th Massachusetts arrived in Washington not long after its violent and deadly confrontation with a mob in Baltimore on April 19.  The regiment, greeted by Lincoln upon arrival, marched through the streets and headed to the Capitol.  The 6th Massachusetts established "camp" in the Senate Chamber and the surrounding galleries and corridors.

Other regiments soon followed.  The 7th New York Militia, whose ranks were filled by members of New York City's upper crust, took over the House Chamber towards the end of April.  The regiment's colonel made himself at home in the Speaker's parlor, while staff officers occupied the committee rooms.  The Eighth Massachusetts arrived at the Capitol about the same time.  The volunteers from the Bay State settled down in the Capitol Rotunda. 

Soldiers of the 8th Massachusetts in the Rotunda, Harper's Weekly, May 25, 1861 (courtesy of

Soldiers drilled on the Capitol grounds and performed picket duty.  During down time, they wrote letters home and endured army food, although the well-bred 7th New York left Capitol Hill to dine in Washington's large hotels.  According to Margaret Leech's Reveille in Washington, "mock sessions of Congress were a favorite diversion":
The uproar started every  morning with the rattle of reveille. A self-appointed presiding officer rapped for order. The galleries shouted to the floor, and the floor bawled back.  There were pompous speeches and burlesque debates, greeted by howls of applause and hoots of derision. 
The 7th New York was gone by the start of May, but the famed 11th New York Fire Zouaves under Col. Elmer Ellsworth took the regiment's place. The firemen primarily occupied the old and new House chambers.  In a few short weeks, Ellsworth's regiment would march into Virginia, and Ellsworth would be gunned down by a secessionist innkeeper in Alexandria.  While in Washington, the Fire Zouaves gained a reputation for rough and tumble behavior.  On May 11, 1861, the New York Times commented:
Since their arrival in this city the Zouaves have been quartered in the Capitol, and scattered as they have necessarily been over different portions of the building, the opportunity for building up the discipline of the regiment has not been such as would have been offered by placing them in camp . . . .  Notwithstanding this unfavorable circumstance, the men are visibly improving in soldierly qualities, and within a very short time will be perfectly under control.

New York Fire Zouaves in the House of Representatives, Harper's Weekly, May 25, 1861 (courtesy of
The men had an opportunity to prove their mettle one early morning when they rushed from camp to put out a fire in a tailor's shop that nearly destroyed neighboring Willard's Hotel.  The Times noted:
The Messrs. WILLARD, and, indeed, all Washington, is loud in praise of the gallant fellows for their heroism and public spirit, and the fact of its exhibition will be to retrieve the character of the regiment from the disgrace cast upon by the excesses of the few rogues who have been turned out of its ranks. . . .
Not long after, the Fire Zouaves left the Capitol for a new encampment at the Insane Asylum in Washington.
Bread ovens in the basement of the Capitol, Harper's Weekly, May 25, 1861 (courtesy of
The army also transformed the basement of the Capitol into a bakery.  Around 150 bakers worked to produce loaves for the troops around Washington.  One estimate puts the output at an incredible 60,000 loaves a day.  The bread was loaded onto wagons and sent out for delivery to the various garrisons.

As the weeks passed, the regiments in the Capitol left and moved to duty elsewhere.  Surely many a solider must have found the experience of living in the Capitol a surreal experience. After all, these men had inhabited the very seat of the democracy and Union they were called to defend.

Note: This post is re-published from Wednesday, May 11, due to Blogger technical issues.  At least my whole blog didn't disappear--yet....


Walk Forrest Walk said...

Really enjoy every one of your post. I see Blogger caused you some problems. I was a nervous wreck, my Thurs. blog entry was out in cyberspace for 24 hrs. The 5 comments for that day are still lost. "Jim" from Michigan.

Ron said...

Thanks, Jim. I've been following your walking adventures as well! You certainly put most people to shame with your collective mileage.

Yes, hopefully they won't have an outage like that again!