A Nation Unprepared for Civil War
In the week that followed the country's surprise when Fort Sumter was fired upon, a mad scramble developed within Washington City to ensure its safety from the southern sympathies of Maryland and recent decision on Virginia's part to join her sister states of the South in relieving themselves of their constitutional commitments to the central government.
Headquarters of the Army in Washington, issued General Orders No. 3 four days after President Lincoln's call for seventy five thousand volunteers to stave off what he had called a rebellion. Telegraphed to Philadelphia, the order placed Major General Robert Patterson in command of the Military Department of Washington which extended beyond the state of Maryland and included both Pennsylvania and Delaware. It became his assignment to funnel all volunteer troops of Pennsylvania, mustered into service, all along the road from Wilmington, Delaware to the capitol with the understanding that the road, its rails, bridges, cars, stations and lines of parallel wires remain under their protection.
Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Hancock had rushed off Major Fitz John Porter, the assistant adjutant general, Department of Pennsylvania to Harrisburg shortly after the order was sent, to see to the issue of five thousand arms to troops then mustered there. The anxiety of awaiting an answer to the order being received and understood was pressed upon and Washington demanded they get a reply, likewise by telegraph. Patterson responded to the general in chief of that fact; but unless the army failed to properly equip the force they had asked for, the defense of the route proposed was a wish and a prayer.
The task at hand seemed an almost impossible one to the aging major general. The condition of his men was deplorable. The rebels had collected themselves arms and accoutrements from seized government property to carry on a defense; however those left to defend what was left had no ammunition for their muskets, lacked serviceable clothing, greatcoats, blankets, knapsacks, haversacks and canteens; and seemed impossible to get them.
It was Mr. William Lewis Dayton, the newly appointed Minister to France who interceded politically on behalf of the troops and had telegraphed Secretary of War, Simon Cameron to supply those items at once. The state agreed to pay for the clothing at cost, if the government required it, the stockpile in Pennsylvania could be replenished at a later time.
Brevet Major General George Cadwalader conferred with his superior and agreed that marching these men out under such conditions would be as good as having committed them to the hospitals before they could do any service to the government. From Philadelphia on May 4, 1861 he stated that the arms provided came under invoice to the Department of Pennsylvania as of the third week in April and were unfit to provision the men with.
The reports came in to First Division headquarters from Colonels William D. Lewis, Jr. and Peter Lyle. The muskets had broken locks or holes in the barrels, and the bayonets issued only fit earlier style weaponry. In First Infantry's companies alone, fifty four muskets had to be repaired and done at their colonel's personal expense.
Colonel Peter Lyle; commanded the Second Regiment of Infantry and reported the rifles issued to his men had the nipples incorrectly inserted and the iron forged around them easily split. A great number of the locks were insecurely fastened and the holes in the barrels measured to be about one sixteenth of an inch deep. In his regiment alone, he counted two hundred and forty six defective muskets. The remainder, he said were; "reported to be only in tolerable condition, and if taken apart and critically examined, would no doubt be found to be unsafe and useless."
Forwarding his comments on the condition of his troops; to the Assistant Adjutant General, Lieutenant Colonel Edward D. Townsend, Major General Patterson would not meet the demand called on if the government found itself incapable to motivate the Quartermaster's and Ordnance Departments and hasten the requisitions to properly provision them. The very best he was able to do was to move but a portion of his command that would be as close as possible to being provisioned and send them forward along with an advancing column from York, Pennsylvania.
After the riots in downtown Baltimore in mid April, it may have been the intent of the Marylanders not to cause any further resistance toward the federal troops; however, if that be the case, it was ill advised to move them without proper means to defend themselves through that hostile country. Only three out of sixteen regiments present were supplied with cooking utensils, and only one with tents to quarter themselves. The rations available could only be cooked in their present locations, and the communities of Maryland could not be relied upon based on their past performance towards those mobilized to put down the secessionist movement.
The armed force hoped for at the first stage of conflict ran headlong into the inadequacies of being capable to defend much of anything. All of Washington had been frantic with covering itself from the unbelievable issue of Civil War. The heated discussions of withdrawing from the Union throughout the election year of 1860 had been treated by the Buchanan Administration as a nightmare that would go away only if one were to close their eyes and pretend it did not exist. The incoming administration believed in the end that cooler heads would prevail and secession would amount to nothing more than hot words. April of 1861 proved to both that while the nation sat for months on the brink of Civil War, when it came; no one seemed prepared or up to the task of meeting the challenge. Buying time was all the nation had to build its war machine, while stepping blindly into what would be the darkest years of American History.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at firstname.lastname@example.org