Book Review: Twelve Days: How the Union Nearly Lost Washington in the First Days of the Civil War

Twelve Days: How the Union Nearly Lost Washington in the First Days of the Civil War.  By Tony Silber, University of Nebraska Press (Potomac Books), 2023. Hardcover, 292 pp. $36.95.

Reviewed by Doug Crenshaw

With Twelve Days: How the Union Nearly Lost Washington in the First Days of the Civil War, author Tony Silber offers readers a thorough examination of the first days of the war, when things were far from certain and much hung in the balance. At the time, the United States Army was small compared to what it would soon become and spread thin across the nation. Many forts and posts were located at great distances west of the Mississippi River in the territories. The North was clearly unprepared for war, and therefore vulnerable.

The Lincoln administration feared that the infant southern Confederacy would organize troops quicker than a necessary force of U. S. Regulars could arrive in Washington for the capital city’s defense. Eastern Maryland, and Baltimore in particular, was a hotbed of secession. President Lincoln was extremely concerned that Maryland might decide to leave the Union, leaving the seat of government surrounded and susceptible to attack from that state and or Virginia. In addition, many people at that time, as well as Silber in this study, described Washington as having a southern character. What effect would that have in the days to follow? Could Washington survive as the nation’s capital? What would happen if the seat of government was lost?

Silber’s writing style is engaging, and even though the reader knows the eventual outcome, his narrative creates a sense of tension that makes one feel as if they are there and gives a true sense of what the residents must have experienced at that time. The storyline compels readers to keep turning the pages to find out what happens. For example, when Lincoln exclaims, “why don’t they come?” it makes the urgency of the situation real and felt. Questions swirled and rumors spread like wildfire: Would Maryland secede? Could the northern states raise troops quickly enough to counter threats? Which states would respond? How soon before they arrived? Would the war be over before it really even got started? Aged Gen. Winfield Scott’s level of concern showed when he stated, “They are closing their coils around us.”

There is marked apprehension in Silber’s discussion of the Baltimore riots. The tense situation there created serious concerns about how feasible it was to get Federal troops to Washington if they had to pass through that city. Could there be another route? If enough of Maryland’s citizens proved secessionist, how might additional bloody confrontations with Union troops be avoided?

The story of the fall of the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk on April 20, 1861, is also a fascinating part of the story, as is the inability to remove or destroy the USS Merrimac. That failure eventually manifested itself in the troublesome ironclad CSS Virginia. In addition, the inability to destroy all of the arms manufacturing equipment at Harper’s Ferry also haunted the Union in months to come. Added to all of this was the resignation of military officers and federal employees. Would the government even be able to function? Dramatic stuff … and at the time, of course, no one knew the answers.

Twelve Days is well organized. Silber’s solid research and engaging prose includes numerous first-hand accounts that support his thesis. During the first days of the war the United States was probably in its greatest peril. Could the capital be saved? As the author asks, in a free government, did a minority have the ability to break up the government? Was a nation of free people capable of rising to the occasion to save their nation? Silber answers those questions skillfully. His work is a valuable addition to an often neglected part of the Civil War story.

5 Responses to Book Review: Twelve Days: How the Union Nearly Lost Washington in the First Days of the Civil War

  1. The premise of the book is fatally flawed. The US Government was never in peril from the Confederacy; the maneuvers around DC in the early days of the War were a tentative, and ultimately relinquished, exploration of intimidating the Union into backing down from pursuing the War. The Confederacy’s entire goal, from Day One, was to secede and no longer be affiliated with the remainder of the Union. Taking over and replacing the Union government with their own was never a Confederate goal. This has been well-documented and is well-known. It is not a “little known” part of the War, for anyone who is remotely familiar with this history. Another attempt to cast unfounded shade on the Confederacy.

    1. If only Doug Crenshaw knew as much about Civil War history as you. LOL!! Obviously, had MD seceded and left DC surrounded by Confederate states the benevolent CSA government would have let the federal capital remain within its borders. It’s not like the CSA states seized federal installations throughout the seceding states or anything. And the Confederates who wanted to move on DC after First Manassas just wanted to visit the pleasure houses, after all. 🙂 I’m just busting your chops a bit here but your comment was so rude and dismissive that it required that.

  2. Excellent review of a provocative work, covering an under-appreciated period in U.S. History: those twelve days of doubt experienced in Washington D.C. after the initiation of War at Fort Sumter. We can look back from 2023 and convince ourselves, “There was no real threat.” And yet, inconvenient facts persist in revealing themselves: the pressure exerted on Maryland to “follow Virginia’s lead” and take back her territory occupied by the U.S. National Capital; the meeting of Governor Hicks of Maryland with Southern commissioner A.R. Wright in February 1861; the possible assassination attempt awaiting President-elect Lincoln IF he had passed through Baltimore on schedule; the actual eruption of violence in Baltimore two months later in effort to prevent U.S. reinforcements from reaching Washington D.C. (and subsequent destruction of railroad lines to insure no further troops from the North could make use of that method of transport); the attempt by Governor Hicks to prevent General Benjamin Butler from landing troops at the State Capital of Annapolis. Then there was the nefarious work of Rose Greenhow and Thomas Jordan, operating from inside the National Capital on behalf of the South, as well as all the “about to resign” Members of Congress and Government functionaries availing themselves of the opportunity to gather information and… But that is likely covered in Tony Silber’s book.
    Thanks to Doug Crenshaw for bringing this important resource to our attention.

  3. Secession and Southern sympathy are often conflated. This is especially true in the case of Maryland. Extensive evidence from primary sources makes clear that Maryland was not a candidate to secede. Many of the state’s slaveowners believed their livelihoods depended on remaining in the Union, and were thus Unionist, if reluctantly. The Baltimore business community overwhelmingly opposed secession. Gov. Hicks was himself a slave-owning Unionist who refused to call a legislative special session where secession might have been debated–when he finally relented and called it, in late April 1861, the Maryland legislators stood down on any secession ordnance. Marylanders worried about defending the long border with Unionist Pennsylvania and feared Union blockades of the port of Baltimore and both the B&O Railroad and the C&O Canal, the commercial arteries between the east coast and the Ohio Valley. Unionists won local, municipal and state elections throughout the war; Unionist Augustus Bradford was elected in 1862. More information: “Maryland Voices of the Civil War” by this author (Johns Hopkins University Press), who looks forward to reading Mr. Silber’s new book.

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