At Washington in Sumter Days.—1861
I REMAINED in New York till February 26, and then proceeded also to the national capital. I was conscious of now being so thoroughly qualified as a political writer and observer that I could be perfectly sure of constant and well-paid employment, having the special advantage, too, of being well acquainted with the President and his most intimate friends and advisers. I was also convinced that Washington was the proper and most promising field for me. I conceived the plan of trying a new departure in news-reporting from Washington, viz., to gather and furnish the same political and other news by mail and telegraph to a number of papers in different parts of the country, geographically so situated that they would not interfere with each other by the simultaneous publication of the same matter. I telegraphed a proposal to that effect from New York to the Cincinnati Commercial and the Chicago Tribune, both of which promptly accepted it. The New York Tribune and Times, having already special correspondents in Washington, would not accept it; but the elder Bennett and Frederic Hudson of the Herald offered to engage me as a telegraphic correspondent, and, as they conceded my condition that I should be free to speak through the Herald as a sympathizer with the Republican party, I came to an understanding with them. My enterprise was to be a sort of supplement to the Associated Press, whose then Washington correspondent was very inefficient, but was kept in his place on account of his long services. It was, indeed, the beginning in this country of the news syndicates or agencies of which scores now exist in Washington and New York. I think I am fairly entitled to be considered the pioneer in this business, though the present generation of journalists is not aware of the fact.
I made my advent accordingly in Washington in high spirits. The Herald was to pay me twenty-five dollars a week, the Commercial and Tribune each fifteen dollars, thus bringing my weekly earnings up to fifty-five dollars, or not far from three thousand a year really a large income for those days, when even Cabinet officers had only six thousand dollars. I hired a finely furnished suite of rooms for only twelve dollars a month, and engaged board at Willard's, the leading hotel, for thirty dollars a month — prices that will seem almost incredibly low when compared with those of the present day. Altogether, I felt quite rich and very independent. What with Congress in session, the hordes of place-seekers from every part of the Union, and the many public men from the North and South who visited the capital from purely patriotic motives in those critical days, Washington presented a very animated appearance. It had then about sixty thousand inhabitants, a number which the transient sojourners swelled by ten thousand. Leaving out the public buildings, the place seemed like a large village, with its preponderance of plain, low brick or wooden structures, wide, mostly unpaved streets, small shops, general lack of Business activity, and a distinctly Southern air of indolence and sloth. Of its numerous hotels, some were very spacious, but all were poorly kept. It could not boast a single decent restaurant, but had no end of bar-rooms. There were neither omnibuses nor street-cars, and the shabby public carriages with their ragged black drivers were simply disgusting.
Still, unattractive as Washington was in all these respects, it was the most important place in the Union, and daily growing in importance; to it the eyes of the whole civilized world turned in curious and anxious expectation. Political life centred at the Capitol and at the three principal hotels, Willard's, Brown's, and the National, and especially Willard's, where the President had taken quarters till he moved into the White House. Among Republicans as well as all classes of their opponents, the entire uncertainty of the outlook caused a feeling of vague apprehension. On the one hand, all attempts in Congress to heal the running secession sore in the Federal body through the Crittenden compromise and the measures proposed by Senators Seward, Anthony, and Powell, and Representatives Vallandigham, Clingman, and Corwin, had failed. The so-called Peace Congress had likewise just miscarried. On the other hand, the seven rebellious States showed the boldest defiance, and were striving with the utmost determination to solidify the structure of the Southern Confederacy they had erected during the winter, and to widen and strengthen it by dragging the Border States after them. There was great division of opinion as to the wisest course to be pursued by the incoming Administration, even among its own supporters. Such leading Republicans as Horace Greeley and Thurlow Weed came out openly in favor of peaceful separation rather than the use of force by the Federal Government against the rebels. Other leaders were willing to go to great lengths in conciliating the South through Federal and State legislation concerning the “peculiar institution.” The bulk of the Republican party and the majority of its Representatives in Congress were ready and anxious, however, for the utmost use of Federal power for the reduction of the Southern insurrection and the maintenance of the Union; but not a few of their principal guides, including Seward, still thought that the secession fever would run for a time, but gradually lose force and die out under proper treatment by Mr. Lincoln. The latter himself still held this belief. The prospect of the preservation of peace seemed to grow steadily less, yet only the outright secessionists were inclined to contemplate the spectre of a sanguinary struggle with complacency. The doubtfulness of the situation was increased by the open sympathy and readiness to concede all that would be necessary to placate the South shown by the Democrats of the North. Numerous mass meetings, of which those in Philadelphia under the direction of Mayor Henry, and in Albany under that of Governor Seymour, were the most notable, had been held in the Northern States to protest against “coercion,” denounce the “Black Republicans,” and demand recognition of the “just claims of our Southern brethren.” I for one was fully convinced that a most bloody civil war was inevitable, unless the new Government abdicated its powers as far as the rebellious States were concerned; and I freely expressed that conviction in my correspondence.
Truly, the last man to be envied, under the circumstances, was Abraham Lincoln. The formal calls he received and had to return, the consultations with friends, the finishing touches to his inaugural message (which he had written and set up in type before leaving Springfield, but which received much tinkering before its delivery, at the suggestion of Orville H. Browning, Seward, and others), occupied his time from morning till late at night; and the settlement of the appointments to the principal offices left him, to be sure, little time for thought of the future. The pressure of the place-hunters was tremendous. As the necessary decision of their fate drew nearer, their eagerness to gain access to the chief dispenser of patronage became intensified. The situation is graphically described by Nicolay and Hay in their Life of Lincoln.
I saw Mr. Lincoln twice for a few minutes before the inauguration, when, in response to an expression of sympathy with his tribulations, he groaned out: “Yes, it was bad enough in Springfield, but it was child's play compared with this tussle here. I hardly have a chance to eat or sleep. I am fair game for everybody of that hungry lot.” His wife again added not least to his worries. She meddled not only with the distribution of minor offices, but even with the assignment of places in the Cabinet. Moreover, she allowed herself to be approached and continuously surrounded by a common set of men and women, who, through her susceptibility to even the most barefaced flattery, easily gained a controlling influence over her. Among the persons who thus won access to her graces was the so-called “Chevalier” Wikoff, whose name figured as much as any other in the press in those days, who made pretension to the rôle of a sort of cosmopolitan knight-errant, and had the entrée of society, but was, in fact, only a salaried social spy or informer of the New York Herald. Wikoff was of middle age, an accomplished man of the world, a fine linguist, with graceful presence, elegant manners, and a conscious, condescending way — altogether, just such a man as would be looked upon as a superior being by a woman accustomed only to Western society. Wikoff showed the utmost assurance in his appeals to the vanity of the mistress of the White House. I myself heard him compliment her upon her looks and dress in so fulsome a way that she ought to have blushed and banished the impertinent fellow from her presence. She accepted Wikoff as a majordomo in general and in special, as a guide in matters of social etiquette, domestic arrangements, and personal requirements, including her toilette, and as always welcome company for visitors in her salon and on her drives.
Great efforts were made to render the inauguration an imposing occasion. The city itself indicated, by the scantiness of festive array, that the mass of the inhabitants were hostile to the new rule. But many thousands, including militia and political organizations, had come from the North and helped to give imposing proportions to the traditional procession from the White House to the farther end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The morning was cloudy and raw; nevertheless, at least thirty thousand people listened to the reading of the message from the historical corner of the Capitol. Probably two-thirds of the immense audience caught every word of the clear utterance of the new President, Not the faintest disturbance occurred then or at any time during the day. On the contrary, the chief figure of the occasion was lustily cheered. For some reason or other, offensive demonstrations and even violence to the President had been apprehended, and the small regular force held in readiness for the repression of such attempts. Old General Scott, who rarely left his quarters, owing to his infirmities, made a special effort and was on duty near the Capitol, receiving frequent reports from the army officers in charge of the detachments of regulars distributed over the city; but not the remotest sign of mischief appeared. In the evening, the customary big inauguration ball came off, and, as usual, it was a very crowded, much mixed and, upon the whole, very ordinary affair, though the newspapers the next morning praised it as the most brilliant festivity that had ever taken place in the national capital.
The inaugural message, which its author and those at whose instance it was changed from its original form had expected to act upon the political situation like oil upon a troubled sea, was received with nothing like enthusiasm even by the Republicans, and fell flat as far as the Northern Democrats and Border States were concerned, while the rebellious States spurned it with derisive contempt. This unsatisfactory effect was not surprising. The message was, to characterize it briefly, a heterogeneous compound of assertion, on the one hand, of the duty of the new Federal executive under his oath to obey the Constitution and enforce the laws and preserve the Union; and, on the other, of intimations and assurances that he would avoid action that might lead to a conflict, and that he favored such constitutional amendments as might pacify the South. It deservedly met, therefore, the same fate as the other attempts at conciliation in and out of Congress already referred to. Instead of finding himself relieved, as he had hoped to be, from the necessity of making good his pledges to do his duty against the rebellious States, the President was directly compelled to face that dreaded contingency.
It came in the shape of the question of holding or giving up Fort Sumter. That last of the Federal strongholds in Charleston harbor not in possession of the rebels had been left — unreënforced and unreprovisioned, after a weak effort to succor the garrison by the Star of the West expedition — as the most embarrassing legacy of the Buchanan to the new Administration. On the very morning after his inauguration, the President found on his desk at the White House a communication from the War Department, accompanied by official reports, according to which Fort Sumter could hold out, even if not attacked, only a few weeks longer, and Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay was also in great danger, unless strengthened by men and supplies. From that hour the fate of the two forts formed his most serious anxiety. He called on General Scott and other officers of the army and navy for information and advice. He caused special messengers to be sent to Major Anderson, in command of Fort Sumter, in order to obtain his own judgment as to his ability to hold out. He submitted the subject for consideration to his Cabinet. The Commanding General of the army, forgetting that he was called on only for his military judgment, advised the abandonment of both forts on political grounds. At the first consultation with the Cabinet on March 15, the majority of the members, in written opinions, advised the evacuation of Sumter and the defence of Pickens. At the next one, a fortnight later, a majority favored the holding of both. The President, after weeks of hesitation and uncertainty, had reached the same conclusion, and would have acted on it even without the concurrence of the Cabinet. Orders to fit out relief expeditions were at once given to the War and Navy Departments.
In the meantime, the press and the public in the North, not having a knowledge of these occurrences, were under the impression that the Government was afraid of decisive steps and was simply drifting with the current of events. Beyond the refusal to receive the Commissioners of the Confederacy who came to Washington a week before the inauguration to negotiate for recognition, hardly any action of the Administration bearing upon the Rebellion was “visible.” This naturally produced great irritation and discouragement in patriotic hearts, and Washington was full of indignant Northern men, in and out of Congress, giving vent to their wrath at the supposed blindness, incompetency, or cowardice, whichever it might be, of Lincoln and his Cabinet. It was believed, and openly said, that Seward's infatuated belief in the possibility of a peaceful solution and his fear of coercion had prevailed with the President. The Administration, according to appearances, seemed to be absorbed solely in the distribution of the “spoils,” in the shape of Federal offices, among the victors. Much demoralization resulted from this among loyal men. Their discouragement was heightened, moreover, by the continuous desertions of army and navy officers, from the highest to the lowest ranks, to the rebel side, by the numerous resignations from Government offices of Southerners or sympathizers with the South, and by the ostentatious daily departures of Southern men of national reputation, members of the Senate and House and others, to join the Montgomery Legislature and Government. In addition to all this, the obvious general lethargy in the loyal States, the widening divisions among Republicans over the Southern question, and the growing clamor of the Northern Democrats for peace on any terms, seemed from day to day to render it more probable that the Rebellion would be successful, and that, even if the Government should decide upon efforts to put it down, it would not have the support of the majority of the Northern people.
In an instant, as it were, all this was changed. Southern folly and frenzy freed President Lincoln from all embarrassment. The expedition for the relief of Sumter, decided upon by him in compliance with his promise in the inaugural message, that “the power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government,” gave birth to the storm by which the political atmosphere was cleared at once of all haze, and the true course for the ship of state shown to its helmsman. Ordered on March 29, the expedition was intended to sail on April 6, but was delayed through various obstacles, and failed of its object in consequence. But its very failure worked like another act of Providence for the right cause. For, as its departure was the signal for the rebel attack on Sumter, its miscarriage caused the fort's surrender. But it was the very striking down of the United States flag by rebel guns that led to the bursting of the patriotic hurricane that swept away all dissensions, all partisan enmities, all fear, all apathy, and united the whole North in the determination to preserve the Union at any cost of blood and treasure. It has been claimed that Lincoln deliberately planned the whole move in sure expectation of its marvellous effect, but this may well be doubted.
The President issued the call for 75,000 men on April 15. On the following day I received a despatch from James Gordon Bennett asking me to come at once to New York. I obeyed the summons by the night train. On reaching the Herald office, I found an invitation to accompany him in the afternoon to his residence at Washington Heights and to spend the night there. As was my host's regular custom, we drove from the office up Broadway and Fifth Avenue and through Central Park to the Heights. I had seen Bennett only twice before, and then but for a few minutes each time, and the opportunity to learn more of this notorious character was therefore not unwelcome to me. I must say that his shameful record as a journalist, and particularly the sneaking sympathy of his paper for the Rebellion, and its vile abuse of the Republicans for their antislavery sentiments, made me share the general prejudice against him to such an extent that I had been thinking for some time of severing my connection with the Herald, although the agreement that all I telegraphed should be printed without change or omission had been strictly kept. With his fine tall and slender figure, large intellectual head covered with an abundance of light curly hair, and strong regular features, his exterior would have been impressive but for his strabismus, which gave him a sinister, forbidding look. Intercourse with him, indeed, quickly revealed his hard, cold, utterly selfish nature and incapacity to appreciate high and noble aims.
His residence was a good-sized frame house in parklike grounds, with no great pretensions either outwardly or inwardly. On the drive and during the dinner, at which his one son — a fine-looking, intelligent youth of twenty — was the only other person present, he did nothing but ask questions bearing upon the characteristics and doings of President Lincoln and the circumstances of my acquaintance with him. After dinner he disclosed his true purpose in sending for me. First, he wanted me to carry a message from him to Mr. Lincoln that the Herald would hereafter be unconditionally for the radical suppression of the Rebellion by force of arms, and in the shortest possible time, and would advocate and support any “war measures” by the Government and Congress. I was, of course, very glad to hear this, and promised to repeat these assurances by word of mouth to the President. The truth was, that the Herald was obliged to make this complete change in its attitude, there having been ominous signs for some days in New York of danger of mob violence to the paper. Secondly, he wanted me to offer to Secretary Chase his son's famous sailing yacht, the Rebecca, as a gift to the Government for the revenue service, and to secure in consideration thereof for its owner the appointment of lieutenant in the same service. The last wish I thought rather amusing, but I agreed to lay it before Secretary Chase, to whom I had ready access as the representative of the Cincinnati Commercial, his strongest supporter in Ohio. My host retired early, and was ready before me in the morning for the down drive, on which I accompanied him again. Mr. Hudson — the managing editor, a fine-looking man, and one of the most courteous and obliging I ever met, with extraordinary qualifications for newspaper management — told me in the course of the day that Mr. Bennett was very much pleased with me and had increased my weekly allowance to thirty-five dollars.
I started on my return trip to Washington on the night train of the next day. The run now made in five hours then took from ten to twelve. It was most tiresome, especially at night, as it involved no less than five changes of cars, three crossings by ferryboat over the Hudson, Delaware, and Susquehanna Rivers, an hour's street-car ride through the whole length of Philadelphia, and the slow passage through Baltimore on railroad-cars pulled by horses. We reached Perryville, on the east bank of the Susquehanna, from which place passengers were transferred on a ferryboat to Havre de Grace, opposite, at 3 A.M. We got out of the train and walked to the boat. As it remained stationary, an explanation was sought from the captain, who said that he had been directed to remain where he was until further orders. One weary hour after another passed without any light as to the cause of the delay. There was not even a chance to sit down on the boat, except on the deck. At break of day I made my way to the telegraph-office at the station, but no one was there. The operator did not appear till seven o clock. He said that, during the night, despatches had passed over the line to the managers of the company in Philadelphia, announcing that bridges and trestles had been burned in the night between Havre de Grace and Baltimore, and that accordingly the movement of all trains between those two points had been ordered stopped. The operator did not know who had done the burning, but it was clear to me at once that the rebel sympathizers in Maryland were the perpetrators, in order to stop the transportation of troops from the North to the capital. This had commenced the very day before on a large scale with the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, which the great War Governor, John A. Andrew, had started from Boston, one thousand strong, within twenty-four hours after the President's call, and with an equal number of Pennsylvania volunteers. My surmise turned out correct, but I was far from suspecting the bloody events of the memorable nineteenth of April in Baltimore.
Here was a predicament for me. On the one hand, the very interruption of communication with Washington made it the more desirable and necessary for me to be there, in order to supply news through extraordinary channels if the ordinary ones failed. On the other, there was the embarrassing question how to get through, the broken railroad being the only line of land communication between the North and the capital. The first thing I did was to beg for a breakfast at one of the few houses in the hamlet of Perryville — there being no hotel — and I got one of bacon, “hoe-cakes,” and indescribable coffee. Next, having seen some small boats tied up at the bank, I went in search of their owners. I found one of them who agreed to row me to Havre de Grace for a dollar, and he landed me there in an hour. This place was a village of a few hundred inhabitants, who were gathered in knots on the streets, discussing the stoppage of trains. They confirmed the burning of the superstructures, and not a few showed their rebellious disposition by expressing themselves as rather glad of it. I set about finding some sort of a vehicle to convey me to Baltimore, about thirty-eight miles distant. There was no livery-stable and but few private owners of carriages, all of whom were afraid to undertake the job, not knowing what had actually happened. After wasting a couple of hours with them, I determined to start on foot just as I was — my valise being checked to Washington — and take my chances of finding means of transportation on the way. After walking some six miles, about noon I reached the home of an apparently well-to-do planter on the roadside. My request for a meal was readily acceded to. The planter proved to be a strong anti-secessionist, though a slaveholder. To my great relief, he consented, in response to my offer to pay twenty-five dollars for the accommodation, to send me in a buggy with one of his slaves as a driver to Baltimore. Although I had heard stories at Havre de Grace and all along the road that the country was “swarming with rebel cavalry,” we met no armed men, nor any sort of adventure, and arrived at our destination a little before dark. In driving through the city, I saw no sign of disturbance; the street life seemed to be going on as usual. I went to the Eutaw House, the proprietor of which I had known as a New York hotel-keeper. First of all, I gleaned from the morning and evening newspapers the details of the fearful occurrences the day before during the passage of the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania troops. They also contained the alarming announcement that railroad communication with both the North and the South was entirely interrupted. This left the problem how to get to the capital only half solved for me, but I was too tired to consider at once the other half of the solution, and so, after supper, I sought my bed without delay.
I rose early to consult the landlord as to the best means of reaching Washington, which I was resolved to do at all hazards and at the earliest possible moment. As the speedy reopening of the railroad seemed very doubtful, he recommended the hiring of a carriage, and sent for the keeper of the livery-stable attached to the hotel, who declined, however, absolutely to furnish me a conveyance at any price. Other stablemen were sent for, but with the same result. Finally, it occurred to me to try to secure a saddle-horse, and in this I was successful. But I had to put up a hundred dollars with the hotel-keeper as security for the return of the animal, and to pay five dollars a day and all expenses till returned. I was mounted by nine o'clock, and rode leisurely like a pleasure-rider to the suburbs, where I took by-roads instead of the main highway to the Relay House, the junction of the main and Washington lines of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, nine miles from the city. Here rider and horse had a repast, and then started on the long ride of over thirty miles to Washington, where I arrived at seven o clock without having met any one but harmless country folk en route. After putting up the horse and getting a bath and change of clothes, I went to Willard's for supper. I was surprised to find the halls and public sitting-rooms almost empty, and still more so when the office clerk, in answer to my question, “What's the news?” said, “Well, as you have been away, it will be news to you that we are going to shut up this hotel to morrow, and this meal will be the last you can be served with here.” And so it was. The great caravansary was to be closed for an indefinite time.
An extraordinary change had, indeed, taken place at the capital since my departure. What with the proclamation of the President, which was really a declaration of the existence of civil war, with the prospect of Washington becoming the main objective-point of hostilities, with the riot in Baltimore, and the consequent stoppage of all railroad, mail, and telegraph service with the North, a veritable panic had ensued. Between the fifteenth and the nineteenth, the floating population, to the extent of tens of thousands, had dispersed to the North and South, and they were still leaving, notwithstanding the railroad blockade, by every sort of conveyance. Instead of the nearly one thousand guests that were stowed away at Willard's at the inauguration, not two score remained, and that was the reason for closing it. The other hotels were also empty. Walking on Pennsylvania Avenue in the morning, I could almost count the people in sight on my fingers. A great many private houses and a number of stores were also shut up. The whole city had a deserted look.
This exodus had a redeeming feature, as it consisted largely of secessionists, whose departure was, under the circumstances, a direct relief to the Government. But there was otherwise cause for the gravest alarm, which, in my visits to the White House, to the departments and public offices, I found shared by all loyalists, from the President and Cabinet officers down. The telegraph did not work, the mails did not arrive or depart. From the night of the twentieth on, there was practically no intercourse in any form between the national capital and any part of the country, and the Government remained without any intelligence from any quarter for several days. It knew only in a general way that the destruction of the railroad between Perryville and Washington had led to the adoption of the plan to transport the troops from the North by water to the capital. Literally, it was as though the government of a great nation had been suddenly removed to an island in mid-ocean in a state of entire isolation, and with all the inconveniences, uncertainties, and risks incidental thereto. This extraordinary situation naturally made me and all patriotic minds most anxious.
From what I saw myself and learned from others, I was oppressed by the thought that the Government was in a most perilous plight, that this must be known to the rebel authorities through the many willing and eager informants who left Washington daily for the South, and that, with the audacity they had so far shown, they would without fail take advantage of this, their great opportunity, and gain possession of the capital by a coup de main. The circumstances were so favorable to an attempt of this kind that I felt sure it would be made, and was prepared to hear at any moment of the appearance of a rebel force in the streets.
I did not understand then, nor could I ever understand, why the rebel hands were not stretched out to seize so easy a prey — a seizure that might have resulted in the immediate triumph of the insurrection. For, notwithstanding the hundreds of resignations from the army, navy, and civil service of the Government and the large migration to the South, Washington was still full of traitors among the residents and remaining officers and officials, who would eagerly have aided an effort to capture the capital for the Confederacy. There were not over two thousand armed and uniformed men available for defence, one-half being a motley of small commands of regulars from different regiments and arms, and the other consisting of the raw recruits of the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment. Efforts were making to organize the loyal residents and Government employees as a volunteer corps, but, although nearly two thousand such volunteers had been enrolled, not much reliance could be placed on them. Moreover, in the highest places, treason had broken out, from which the Government was to be protected. Adjutant-General Cooper of the army, Colonel Robert E. Lee, the principal aide and most trusted adviser of General Scott, and Commodore Buchanan, commandant of the navy-yard, had resigned and joined the enemy. These and many other desertions were rapidly demoralizing and paralyzing the several branches of the public service. The President relied on General Scott as the mainstay of the Government, and yet the fact could not be disguised that the Commander-in-chief was too decrepit in body and mind to be equal to the dire emergency. As the official record shows, he rather added to than allayed the fears of the President and his Cabinet by giving credence to the exaggerated and even fictitious and absurd reports of the gathering of rebel forces in the vicinity of Washington. There were but few officers left that could be trusted, and they were of inferior rank, and none of them had ever commanded more than a full company. I clearly perceived the growing helplessness and fright of the Government, and was haunted by the apprehension that the appearance of a thousand determined rebels would seal the fate of Washington without even a serious struggle.
The city bore the marks of a state of siege. Detachments of regulars guarded all the public buildings. Patrols were seen in the streets. All the approaches to the city were guarded. The White House was under the special protection of the “Clay” and “Frontier” Guards, two bodies of select volunteers formed by Cassius M. Clay, the well-known Kentucky Unionist, and by General James H. Lane, later United States Senator from Kansas, who had achieved considerable notoriety as a determined fighter during the border troubles in that Territory. They literally camped for several days on the lower floor of the Executive Mansion. The Potomac was also patrolled by small armed boats. All stores of provisions and forage were seized by the War Department, and other defensive preparations made as diligently as possible. Material was got ready for barricading the Treasury and Interior Departments on short notice, as their massive character and isolated position rendered a strong defence practicable.
Nothing proved more conclusively the want of capacity of the military authorities than their failure for days to get any accurate information as to the movement of troops from the North for the relief of the capital. When it is considered that it is but forty miles from Washington to Annapolis, which had been selected as the landing-place for the relief forces, and where several regiments had actually disembarked on the 22d and 23d, and that, moreover, the railroad from Washington to Annapolis Junction, forming twenty of the forty miles, had not been disturbed and trains were moving over it, it will seem amazing that no news of the nearness of help was obtained by the Government. All General Scott did was to send out single mounted scouts along the railroad, who regularly brought back nothing but untrustworthy rumors. A company of regular cavalry, under an enterprising officer with absolute orders to secure positive intelligence, would have accomplished the desired object. As it was, our darkness was not broken by a ray of light till the 25th, and, in the meantime, the impatience, gloom, and depression were hourly increasing. No one felt it more than the President. I saw him repeatedly, and he fairly groaned at the inexplicable delay in the advent of help from the loyal States. I heard him say, too, when he reviewed the men of the Sixth Massachusetts, the very words that Nicolay and Hay quote: “I begin to believe there is no North. The Seventh New York Regiment is a myth. The Rhode Island troops [reported to be on the way up the Potomac] are another. You are the only real thing.” But the “myth” proved to be a reality, after all, on Thursday, the 25th. By a very hard march of twenty-four hours from Annapolis, the Seventh New York and Eighth Massachusetts managed to reach Annapolis Junction on the morning of that day. A train was waiting, and in the course of a few hours the whole of the Seventh Regiment reached its destination. I cannot express the revival of hope and confidence, the exultation, that I felt and that filled all loyal hearts as that crack body of New York Volunteers, nearly a thousand strong, marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, preceded by a magnificent band. After being reviewed by the President and Cabinet, it took possession of Willard's Hotel and occupied it till it moved into camp. The Seventh was immediately followed by the Eighth Massachusetts and by two Rhode Island regiments, accompanied by the youthful Governor Sprague. After that, further reënforcements continued to arrive daily from different loyal States, and, within a month, more than the full call of 75,000 men had reached the capital. But it took until the middle of May to restore railroad communication with the North completely.
From that time on, Washington assumed a most animated aspect. Including the regulars and the three months' men, fully eighty thousand soldiers were added to its population. To the north and east an almost unbroken girdle of military camps extended around the city. The pomp and circumstance of actual war were constantly visible in the public thoroughfares in marching columns of infantry, troops of cavalry, and batteries of artillery. Thousands of visitors to the troops arrived daily from the North and crowded the streets, where swarmed soldiers of every arm and every sort of uniform. In the first stage of the Rebellion, the Government allowed entire liberty as to uniforms to those commissioned to raise regiments. This privilege was freely availed of by a number of organizations in New York City drawn from foreign-born elements. I was surprised one day to see infantry dressed in the genuine Bavarian uniform. There were Prussian uniforms, too; the “Garibaldi Guards,” in the legendary red blouses and bersaglieri hats; “Zouaves” and “Turcoes,” clothed as in the French army, with some fanciful American features grafted upon them.
Congress not being in session, my principal duties consisted in gathering news through daily visits to the White House and the different departments. I had no difficulty in soon getting on very good terms with all the heads of departments and their chief subordinates. At certain times of the day, mostly immediately after office hours, I could always be sure of gaining admission to the secretaries, if I desired to see them. I found Secretaries Seward, Chase, and Cameron the most accessible and communicative. A brief experience taught me that even the first two, although their great national reputation was so solidly founded, were anything but impervious to newspaper flattery, and very sensitive under journalistic criticism. Seward was afflicted with an outright weakness in that respect. The Herald made a regular practice of bestowing on him extravagant eulogies bordering sometimes on ridiculous exaggeration, in order to smooth the way to his confidence for its correspondents, and the recipient did not always succeed in concealing from them his grateful appreciation. Chase was far less affable than Seward, and kept men at a distance by his stately and occasionally pompous ways; but it did not require much penetration to perceive that he had the very highest opinion of himself and was prone to criticise others rather indiscreetly. Still, I greatly admired his natural ability and solid acquirements, and especially his high and pure political aims. My acquaintance with him gradually assumed a confidential character, so that he expressed himself very freely regarding public men and matters.
Cameron was the typical American politician, with a well-defined purpose in all he said and did. He also held himself a little too freely at the disposal of newspaper men, to whom he was by far the most cordial and talkative of all the secretaries. He made them feel at once as though they had met an old acquaintance and friend. He was certainly the cleverest political manager in the Cabinet, and, though unquestionably as ambitious as any member of it, he never was guilty of the indiscretions which the political records of Seward and Chase reveal. He had a very shrewd way of tempting journalists by implications and insinuations into publishing things about others that he wished to have said without becoming responsible for them.
The Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, was speedily discovered to be a rather difficult subject for newspaper enterprise, and the representatives of the press confined their attention to his assistant secretary, Captain G. V. Fox, formerly a naval officer. Fox had suddenly acquired a well-deserved national reputation for patriotic bravery by the offer of his services in connection with an expedition of a “sink or swim” character for the relief of Fort Sumter, planned by himself and authorized by President Lincoln and actually attempted, but resulting in failure from a succession of untoward accidents. He was a very strong man, endowed with remarkable ingenuity, courage, and energy, but full of personal prejudices that made him hardly a safe conductor of public affairs. He was an unsparing critic, regardless of the rules of discipline, policy, and comity, and astonishingly free in his talk to our fraternity.
His brother-in-law, Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster-General, was a similarly positive, intolerant, and determined character. He and Fox were the best haters of the Rebellion in the Administration, and for them the Government was far from moving fast and vigorously enough in its suppression. Blair, however, was very much of a practical politician, and no one believed more strongly in the legitimacy of the distribution of offices among the ruling party. I also became acquainted with his father, Francis P. Blair, Sr., and his brother, Francis P. Blair, Jr., of St. Louis, later a Congressman and Federal general. The father and sons formed a most remarkable trio, possessing a common character. There was no more influential family in the United States at the time. They likewise were not averse to being frequently mentioned and well spoken of in the public journals.
The greatest curiosity was naturally felt throughout the North in the doings of the volunteer troops about Washington, and I was therefore instructed by my employers to make them a special feature in my daily reports. For that purpose I paid regular visits to the regimental camps on the outskirts of the city, to facilitate which I was authorized by the Herald to buy a saddle-horse. My daily rides were most enjoyable in various ways. Delightful weather was the rule throughout May and June. The several hours I spent every afternoon in the saddle afforded an agreeable and healthful exercise. Then, some of the regimental headquarters, of which I made the rounds, formed uncommon centres of attraction. Among the officers of some of the New York, New England, and Western regiments, the very flower of the youth of the land could be found. They were remarkable for intelligence, patriotism, and devotion to duty. Nor did they lack the qualities from which the lighter joys of early manhood flow. In their canvas abodes, mirth and gaiety ruled during the off-duty part of the day, and visitors were made to join in various frolics. It was also true, however, that not a few of the regiments consisted of a very low order of elements. Some of the New York and Philadelphia organizations had, indeed, been recruited from the vicious strata of population, and were officered by the worst types of local politicians. The Irish New York regiments were notorious in this respect. It was my duty to look them up also, but I performed it reluctantly and as rarely as possible.
The regiments in which the foreign elements preponderated had a particular interest for me as a European. Of these there were four exclusively German regiments, the Seventh, Eighth, Twentieth, and Twenty-ninth New York Volunteer Infantry, and the so-called “Garibaldi Guards,” made up of Italians, Frenchmen, Hungarians, Germans, and other nationalities. The Eighth was under command of Louis Blenker, who had had some military experience not only in the rising of 1849 in Rhenish Bavaria, but also in Greece as a volunteer under King Otto. The colonel of the Twentieth was Max Weber, a former army officer in Baden, and landlord of the Hotel Constanz, at which I stopped after landing in 1853. The colonel of the “Garibaldi Guards” was D'Utassy, the romantic assumed name of a Hungarian Jew with a German patronymic. He and Blenker appeared alternately in the regulation and in the fancy foreign uniforms they had adopted for their regiments. Both were fond of parading through the streets in their gorgeous array on horse back, with mounted staffs behind them. Both bore the unmistakable stamp of adventurers. Blenker, who had been a small dairy farmer, had a rather imposing bearing and accomplished manners, and blossomed out into a great swell. D'Utassy was nothing but a swaggering pretender. It seemed amazing that such men should have been entrusted with the organization of whole regiments; but, owing to the then urgent national emergency and the inexperience of the rulers in war matters, any one with a real or well-feigned military record had not much difficulty in securing recognition.
Speaking of these men, another apparition of those days rises before me. Thomas Francis Meagher, the Irish exile, well known for his political martyrdom and his great natural eloquence and literary talent, came to the capital as the captain of a Zouave company attached to the Sixty-ninth Irish New York Regiment. He had devised a most extraordinary uniform for himself, of the Zouave pattern, literally covered with gold lace. It was a sight to see him strut along Pennsylvania Avenue in it, with the airs of a conquering hero.
Among the regular visitors to the camps was Mrs. Lincoln. It would have been, of course, an entirely proper thing for her, as the wife of the Chief Magistrate of the nation, to show her sympathies for the defenders of the Union by going among them. But the truth was, that she had no liking for them at all, being really, as a native of Kentucky, at heart a secessionist. She went to the camps simply to enjoy the adulation and hospitality offered her there. None were more lavish with these than the officers of the Irish New York regiments, and these she favored especially with her calls.
One of the points of attraction was the headquarters of Governor Sprague of Rhode Island, who had recruited three regiments in his State and led them to Washington. He had very limited mental capacity, but had reached political distinction at an early age — he was then but thirty-one — through the influence of real or reputed great wealth. It was at his headquarters that he became acquainted with Kate, the beautiful and gifted daughter of Secretary Chase. The acquaintance quickly ripened into an engagement that was the social sensation of the day. She was far superior to him in every way, and married him for the enjoyment and power of his money. It turned out one of the unhappiest marriages ever known in American society, ending in moral and material wretchedness for both parties.