Tag Archives: 6th Massachusetts

In Need of Troops, Lee Declines

April 15, 1861/2011
Volume 2, Issue 17 (27 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

In Need of 75,000 Troops

April 15, 1861. The day after Fort Sumter’s evacuation, President Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for the states to provide 75,000 volunteer militiamen. He also called a special session of Congress for July 4. The proclamation read in part,

Abraham Lincoln, May 16, 1861, Mathew Brady

Abraham Lincoln, May 16, 1861, Mathew Brady

“Whereas the laws of the United States have been for some time past and now are opposed and the execution thereof obstructed in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings or by the powers vested in the marshals by law:

Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, . . . hereby do call forth, the militia of the several States of the Union to the aggregate number of 75,000 in order to suppress said combinations and to cause the laws to be duly executed.

. . . I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate, and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government, and to redress wrongs already long enough endured.”

The next day the “governors of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas (all of which are slave states but not yet part of the Confederacy) make hostile responses to the president’s appeal for volunteers. Indeed, Governor Harris of Tennessee goes so far as to reply, ‘Tennessee will not furnish a single man for coercion, but 50,000, if necessary, for the defense of our rights, or those of our Southern brethren.'”  

SOURCE: Bishop, Chris, and Ian Drury. 1400 Days: The United States Civil War Day by Day, p. 24.

Virginia Secedes

On April 17, 1861,Virginia finally seceded. Secession had come only after two months of acrimonious debate (longer than any other state’s) and after the attack on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops on April 15.

Virginia Ordinance of Secession

Virginia Ordinance of Secession

On February 4, Virginia had elected delegates to a convention to consider secession. As in Texas and Tennessee, a popular vote was required to confirm the delegates’ decision.

The delegates had convened on February 13. “Immediate secessionists” from eastern Virginia were obstructed by unionists from the mountainous western corner of the state. On April 4, the secessionists were finally able to bring an ordinance of secession to a vote — only to be defeated 88-45!

Following President Lincoln’s request for 75,000 troops to quell the rebellion — and former governor Henry Wise‘s extralegal organization of the state militia to seize Harpers Ferry Arsenal and the federal navy yard at Norfolk — the delegates approved secession 88-55. Six weeks later, on May 23, eighty-five percent of Virginia’s voters approved the work of the convention.

SOURCE: William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010). Submitted by Dwight Pitcaithley.

The Defense of Washington

April 18, 1861. Searching for a military leader to replace the aging General Winfield Scott, Lincoln offered

Robert E. Lee, 1863

Robert E. Lee, 1863

command of the Union armies to Colonel Robert E. Lee, the highly regarded former superintendent of West Point who, two years earlier, had put down John Brown’s “insurrection” at Harper’s Ferry.

Two days later, Lee turned down Lincoln’s offer, resigned his commission in the US Army, and assumed command of Virginia’s military forces. “I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children,” he said.

April 19, 1861. The defense of Washington was certainly one of Lincoln’s greatest concerns. Troops were needed to defend it, and getting them there was no mean feat.

On April 19, Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore rioted and attacked the 6th Massachusetts Regiment as it marched through the city on its way to Washington. Four soldiers and twelve civilians were killed, and many were wounded. For a week it appeared that Washington might fall. Years later, Union General Benjamin Butler would recall a moment in those anxious April days when

 “a disabled railroad engine seemed likely to keep his Massachusetts regiments from saving Washington. Could anyone in the ranks repair it? Butler asked. An enlisted man spoke up. ‘Well, General, I rather think I can. I made that engine.'”

SOURCE: Phillip Shaw Paludan, A People’s Contest, pp. 133-34.

6th Massachusetts fighting in streets of Baltimore on march to defense of the U.S. Capitol.

6th Massachusetts fighting in streets of Baltimore on march to defense of the U.S. Capitol.

April 20, 1861. In the first months of the war, as Washington anticipated an imminent Confederate attack, the U.S. Capitol served as a temporary barracks. At one point, four thousand volunteers were billeted in and around the Capitol. “The smell is awful,” wrote one soldier. “The building is like one grand water closet. Every hold and corner is defiled. . . .

On April 20, John Hay, secretary to the President, wrote in his diary of the soldiers in the Capitol Building:

“The contrast was very painful between the grey-haired dignity that filled the Senate chamber when I saw it last, and the present throng of bright-looking Yankee boys, the most of them bearing the signs of New England rusticity in voice and manner, scattered over the desks, chairs and galleries, some loafing, many writing letters slowly and with plough-hardened hands or with rapid glancing clerkly fingers while Grow [representative from Pennsylvania, later speaker of the House] stood patient by the desk and franked for everybody. . .”

On the same day, the federal navy yards at Norfolk, Virginia were burned to prevent their falling into Confederate hands. Nevertheless, the Confederacy was able to salvage much of value, including the hull and machinery of a steam frigate, the USS Merrimac, which became the first Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia.

The next day, in western Virginia, anti-secessionists met and voted to support the Union. That highland region was very different topographically and socially from eastern part of the state, with its lush fields and slave-worked plantations; men outnumbered slaves ten to one, it was mountainous rather than flat, and the hill-farmers felt little kinship with the old Southern “aristocracy.”

SOURCE: Margaret E. Wagner, The American Civil War: 365 Days, p. “February 6.” James Ford Rhodes, History of the Civil War, 1861-65 (1917), p. 21. Bishop, Chris, and Ian Drury. pp. 24-25; 25, 31.

Listen to a podcast of Margaret Wagner and Gary Gallagher discussing The American Civil War: 365 Days.


Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1861