Union Troops Protect Washington

The images of U. S. troops resting in the capitol remined me of another time when Union soldiers were garrisoned in government buildings in Washington. These excerpts from Teacher of Civil War Generals – Major General Charles Ferguson Smith, Soldier and West Point Commandant describe some of the events of April 1861.

By April 1861, the United States had gone from the crisis of secession to the calamity of civil war. Colonel Charles F. Smith was en route from Utah to New York City to assume the post of Superintendent of the Eastern Department of the General Services at Fort Columbus, New York. However, before he began his post in New York, he was sent to Washington to command the Department of Washington.

Colonel Smith reached the capital at eleven o’clock on April 6. Later that day, General Winfield Scott issued Special Orders No. 58 assigning Smith “to the command of all troops stationed in this city and at Fort Washington.

From his room at the Willard Hotel, Smith wrote to his wife Fanny: “My command at present consists of six companies are at Fort Washington (some 14 miles below this on the Potomac); 2 field batteries; a troop of the dragoons and 2 companies of Artillery, serving as Infantry which will soon be increased by several companies of  horse and foot.”

On April 14, Smith’s friend Major Robert Anderson surrendered the garrison at Fort Sumter. After the surrender of Fort Sumter, many Americans expected the first real battle of the war would be fought over Washington. The union capital was surrounded by the slave states of Maryland and Virginia and lacked troops and fortifications. The city was guarded by 1,500 soldiers, marines, and militia. The only aid the city might receive came from the 75,000 volunteers President Lincoln requested on April 15.

Smith’s status was clarified on April 11 in Special Orders No. 102, which stated, “The 10 companies of militia called out and mustered into service of the United States in obedience to orders from the President, dated War Department, April 9, 1861, will be placed under the command of Bvt. Colonel C. F. Smith, commanding the Department of Washington.

On April 15, Scott told President Abraham Lincoln that “Col. Smith, the commander of the Department of Washington, like myself, thinks our means of defense, with vigilance, are sufficient to hold this till reinforcements arrive.”

The military leaders focused the city’s defense on three key sites: The Capitol; the Old City Hall area, which included the White House, Patent Office, and buildings containing the War, Navy, State, and Treasury departments; and Treasury Building the places were strengthened to withstand a ten-day siege and soldiers were stationed inside the buildings at night.”

Union Troops in Washington, DC

Smith quickly put a plan of action to effect. He ordered Captain Kings Company I 1st Infantry to “take post at the Arsenal” and Brevet Major J. A. Haskins First Artillery to “proceed with his company as soon as practicable to Fort Washington.” In General Orders No. 4 on April 16, he designated “Col. Charles P. Stone, Inspector-General of the Militia of the District of Columbia” to command the “companies of volunteers from the District of Columbia now being mustard.”

On April 16, Smith wrote to Fanny, “Every disposition has been made constantly for defense.”

The government has been so tardy in its operations that we are now virtually surrounded by thousands of armed men, whilst I with a small force of volunteers (comparatively) are standing on the defensive. I hate this being cooped up. Oh! If I only had my old Utah force. But regrets are vain. I expect an attack tonight; the first occasion I have thought such a thing might occur although the military precautions I have taken many nights [and] have been of such a character to frighten timid people. I have sat in my office for the last three nights getting about two hours sleep in a chair and this with exercise of brain and body has much worried me – tho’ all say I never looked better.

By April 18th forces in Washington had increased 2 2800 two 3200 men composed of 1000 men from the army and Marines 1200 to 1500 men from the District of Columbia militia and 600 to 700 Pennsylvania volunteers “in poor order.”

To learn more about General Smith and his role in the Civil War, please see buy the book at Amazon.

About Allen Mesch

Allen is an author, educator, and historian. He has written five books: The Analyst; Teacher of Civil War Generals; Your Affectionate Father, Charles F. Smith; Charles A. Marvin - "One Year. Six Months, and Eleven Days", and Preparing for Disunion. Allen's latest book, Ebenezer Allen - Statesman, Entrepreneur, and Spy is scheduled for release in August 2020. He teaches classes on the American Civil War at Collin College. He has visited more than 130 Civil War sites and shared his over 4,000 photographs on Civil War Journeys. He wrote posts about the Civil War on the Salient Points blog.
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