Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Nathan Marzoli
Washington was in trouble in the spring of 1861. Secessionist fever had broken into conflict with the attack on Fort Sumter, prompting President Lincoln to issue a call three days later for 75,000 volunteers to help put down the rebellion. Lincoln needed some of these citizen soldiers in the nation’s capital as soon as possible; the city was surrounded by secessionist-leaning Virginia and Maryland, leaving it vulnerable to an attack. Any northern regiments traveling to Washington on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad first had to pass through the city of Baltimore itself, however – a city that was a hotbed of secession. The stage was set for a potential disaster.
On April 19, 1861, the 6th Massachusetts Regiment clashed with several thousand furious citizens of that city as they tried to make their way from President Street to Camden Station. As the crowd hurled bricks, stones, and dishes at the Yankees, the nervous soldiers opened fire and literally had to fight their way through the streets. The war’s first bloodshed resulted in four soldiers and at least nine civilians killed.
Soon after the riot, Mayor George W. Brown sent a delegation of three prominent citizens to Washington to persuade Lincoln to discontinue marching troops through his city. The President reluctantly agreed to divert troops around the city, rather than through it, quipping that he hoped Brown and Governor Thomas Hicks would “consider this practical and proper.” But the problem was not so easily solved. The White House soon received news that Brown and Hicks had sanctioned the destruction of the critical rail bridges to the north and west of Baltimore, effectively cutting Washington off from the north. Union volunteers now had to find a different way into the capital.
Colonel Benjamin F. Butler, at the time effectively marooned in Pennsylvania with his 8th Massachusetts Regiment, was the first man to take action. He commandeered a ferry on the Susquehanna River and floated his men down the Chesapeake to Annapolis. Meanwhile, Colonel Marshall Lefferts, commanding the 7th Regiment New York Militia Infantry, chartered a vessel in Philadelphia and sailed his men south around Norfolk. Rumors of Confederate batteries on the Potomac below Washington deterred Lefferts from moving directly up that river to the capital; he instead continued up the Bay to join Butler at Annapolis. Unfortunately, there was still no easy way to Washington. The rail line to Annapolis Junction, where it connected to a segment of the B & O still under Union control, had been sabotaged by local secessionists. If Butler and his men could find a way to repair and guard the twenty-some miles of track to the Junction, however, they could hop on the undamaged section of the B & O rail line from there to Washington, therefore opening a viable path to the capital.
The soldiers first had to find a working locomotive. Early on the morning of April 23, Butler took Lt. Col. Edward Hinks and two companies of the 8th Massachusetts to seize the Annapolis railroad depot. When the keeper of the grounds refused to supply a key, Butler ordered the doors to be forced. Inside, according to Butler, they found “a small, rusty, dismantled locomotive,” – named “J.H. Nicholson” – that had been sabotaged. A private in Company E, Charles Homans, stepped forward and offered his services, telling Butler “that engine was made in our shop; I guess I can fit her up and run her.” Before the end of the day, the Massachusetts men had refit the rickety locomotive and repaired about three miles of the feeder line heading to Annapolis Junction.
The 7th New York took the lead in scouting and repairing the rail line toward Annapolis Junction the following day. Two companies were to serve as the advance guard using the repaired locomotive; they departed Annapolis at 4 AM, to be followed by the rest of the regiment several hours later. It was a “novel column in the Seventh’s experience,” wrote the journalist William Swinton. At the front of the train were two open platform cars. A howitzer, loaded with canister, was mounted on the first car, while the second carried extra ammunition accompanied by six riflemen. Next came the “wheezy locomotive,” followed by two passenger cars carrying most of the two companies. A mile out from Annapolis, the makeshift armored train came upon two picket companies of the 8th Massachusetts; the 150-some men joined the advance guard of the 7th New York, who gladly shared their rations with the famished guards.
Soon they found the track was so badly torn up that the train could not advance any further. The locomotive uncoupled and went back to Annapolis to get the rest of the 7th New York, so the men tied ropes around the two platform cars and dragged them along by hand as each stretch of line was repaired. The going was tough. “We trudged forward under a fearfully hot sun,” a then-Private Robert Gould Shaw wrote to his mother, “with muskets loaded and cartridge-boxes full, ready for a brush at any moment.” They deployed scouts and skirmishers into the woods and fields on either side of the railroad, confident that an attack would come from a large body of cavalry.
A burned bridge over a small stream forced a halt on the progress by mid-day. As the men began rebuilding the bridge using the surviving timbers and newly-felled trees, the main body of the 7th, marching on foot down the rail line, caught up to them. The locomotive, pulling the men who had fallen out from exhaustion on the march, soon chugged up behind; after unloading these men, Colonel Lefferts ordered it back to Annapolis to bring up the rest of the 8th Massachusetts. Despite a delay caused by a drenching afternoon thunderstorm, they completed work on the bridge by twilight. The weather cleared and the New Yorkers and Massachusetts men continued on into the night, “[trudging] along under a clear sky and splendid moon.”
The work continued to be exhausting throughout the night. The men, sunburned and blistered from the day’s heat and exertion, now shivered in their wet uniforms. “We went on and on as before,” remembered Shaw, “stopping every half-hour and starting again, pushing and pulling on our old baggage-cars, sometimes up some very steep grades…we went through all sorts of defiles, where the Marylanders might have pounced upon us with great advantage.” But exhaustion soon overwhelmed the fear of ambush by guerillas. “The men began to lie down every time we stopped…until at last every one who was not at work was catching a sort of nap by the roadside.” Some men even fell asleep standing up, dropping their rifles and only just catching themselves before they toppled over. Thankfully, even with “good evidence of their being about,” no secessionists attacked the tired and cold soldiers during the night. By about 4 AM, they finally halted and collapsed into sleep only a mile from Annapolis Junction.
Advance scouts moved the final mile up the line to the Junction while most of the men slumbered; there they learned a train was to arrive that day from Washington. At 9 AM, the engine puffed into Annapolis Junction. The train could only fit one regiment, so while the 8th Massachusetts stayed behind to guard against any potential attacks, the 7th New York boarded the train for the final leg of their tiring and stressful journey.
The ride to Washington took longer than expected because a team of telegraph men, led by 26-year old Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie, was tasked with repairing the lines along the way. But around noon, loud cheers rang out from Capitol Hill as soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts spotted the train pulling into the city. An excited crowd quickly gathered at the B & O station on New Jersey Avenue, only a block north of the Capitol, and with a final loud shriek of the whistle, the exultant New Yorkers pulled into the station. Washington had been saved.
“[W]e all turned out for a parade just as we were,” Shaw told his mother, “covered with dust, and with our blankets slung over our shoulders.” The 7th marched down Pennsylvania Avenue “straight up to the White House and through the grounds, where ‘old Abe’ and family stood at the doors and saw [them] go by.” The city erupted in jubilation. Lorenzo Thomas, the adjutant general, recalled that “In every direction you could hear, ‘The Seventh Have Come!’”
Although the 7th New York was only one of hundreds of regiments that eventually arrived in the capital – the 8th Massachusetts arrived even the following day, welcomed by cheers from the men of the 7th New York – their hard work had reconnected Washington to the rest of the North. Thanks to the railroad and a dose of Yankee ingenuity, the capital could remain a bastion of Union strength throughout the war.
Nathan Marzoli is a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., where he specializes in unit history and leads staff rides to Civil War battlefields. He has a BA and MA in History from the University of New Hampshire. His publications include “‘Their Loss Was Necessarily Severe:’ The 12th New Hampshire at Chancellorsville,” and “‘We Are Seeing Something of Real War Now:’ The 3d, 4th, and 7th New Hampshire at Morris Island, July-September 1863” (winner of the 2017 Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award). He is currently working on a study of substitutes in the Union army.
Russell Duncan, ed., Blue-Eye Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999).
Ernest B. Furgurson, Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 2004).
John and Charles Lockwood, The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days that Shook the Union (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Fitz James O’Brien, “The Seventh Regiment – How it Got from New York to Washington, letter to New York Times, April 27, 1861, in Rebellion Record, ed. Frank Moore, vol. 1 (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1861).
William Swinton, History of the Seventh Regiment, National Guard, State of New York, During the War of the Rebellion: With A Preliminary Chapter on the Origin and Early History of the Regiment, A Summary of Its History Since the War, and a Roll of Honor, Comprising Brief Sketches of the Services Rendered By Members of the Regiment in the Army and Navy of the United States (New York: Charles T. Dillingham, 1886).