Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in Georgetown, 1861

150 years ago, Christmas was observed by soldiers encamped around Washington, including those in Georgetown. (See All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac for a good overview of how Christmas was observed throughout the military camps)  Somewhere between 7,000 to 15,000 Union soldiers-- including those in hospitals-- would be quartered in Georgetown, a town whose residents' loyalty to the Union was suspect.  For many soldiers, this would be their first Christmas away from home and for some it would be their last.

The Washington Evening Star reported that the holiday was "very generally and very properly observed" in Georgetown.  The Baltimore Sun noted that the retail stores on both sides of the Potomac were doing brisk business and that despite the war, "it seems all are bent on the full enjoyment of the holiday season, and there is every indication of a merry Christmas among our citizens and in the camps of the soldiers."  The day opened with celebratory gunfire and firecrackers, according to Washington diarist Horatio Nelson Taft.  To preserve the public peace, saloons in Washington were closed all evening.

In Union camps and hospitals near Georgetown, soldiers decorated their quarters with evergreens and held religious services.  The Catholic Church's Christmas services were well attended.  Soldiers were relieved from the monotony of drill on this day and feasted on turkeys, chickens and other meats.  Many were able to open packages delivered from home.

Less fortunate that Christmas Day were the workmen employed on converting the Aqueduct Bridge, which connected Georgetown to the Virginia shore, into a military roadway.  They were yielded to "military necessity" by working on the holiday to lay the bridge's flooring.

A 1861 view of Georgetown taken from the Virginia side of the Potomac..  The Aqueduct Bridge, located just north of today's Key Bridge, was being retrofitted with a plank roadway in December 1861 to facilitate military traffic.  Georgetown University is in the background up on the hill.  The Union soldiers in the foreground are posing on Mason's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). (Library of Congress)

The Baltimore Sun
Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, December 24, 1861 (online at Library of Congress)
Washington Evening Star, December 26, 1861.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

First White House Levee of the 1861-62 Winter Social Season

On December 17, 1861, the Lincolns hosted their first public reception at the Executive Mansion of the 1861-62 winter social season.  While thousands of soldiers were encamped in and around Washington, the harsh realities and carnage of the war had not fully set in.  Major battles in the coming year at places such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg would change all that.  But, that lay in the future. For now, Washingtonians could enjoy the holidays and a respite from the war.

An illustration of a White Reception during the winter 61-62 social season that appeared in Harper's Weekly on January 26, 1862. (Son of the South)

Monday, December 12, 2011

The 13 December 1861 Execution of Pvt. William Henry Johnson at Fairfax Seminary

On December 13, 1861, the first execution of a deserter in the Army of the Potomac was carried out in a field just outside Alexandria near the Fairfax Seminary, now known as the Virginia Theological Seminary.  The drumhead court-martial and execution of Private William H. Johnson, of the First New York Cavalry ("Lincoln Cavalry"), received widespread press coverage and served as a stern warning to the potential, though relatively rare, fate that awaited deserters.

The Execution of the Deserter William Johnson in General Franklin's Division Army of the Potomac, as depicted in Harper's Weekly (New York Public Library)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Irish Brigade Goes into Winter Quarters at Camp California outside Alexandria

December 1861 found the New York 69th Infantry, the original component of the famed Irish Brigade, settling into winter quarters at Camp California just outside Alexandria and along the Little River Turnpike.  The 69th had  previously been encamped at Camp Corcoran on Meridian Hill in Washington.  But, at the start of the month it was ordered to this area of rolling farmland and hilltops overlooking the Little River Turnpike several miles west of Alexandria.  The area is now urbanized and there is no vestiges of the encampment.  However, historical records  help illuminate what camp life was like for the 10,00 men of Sumner's Division, including the Irish Brigade's 69th New York, who spent the winter of 1861-62 there.

Drawing, from a wartime photograph, of the 57th Ne York on Dress Parade at Camp California that appears in the 57th's regimental history published in 1895.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The 2nd Session of the 37th Congress Convenes

150 years ago today, the second session of the 37th Congress convened at noon as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.  Ordinarily, this would have been the first session of the new Congress, but a special session had been held from July 4, 1861-August to fund the raising of a 400,000 man army at President Lincoln's request.   Although no Supercommittee awaited the returning congressmen, legislators certainly had plenty to deal with on that first Monday in December 1861.  A lot had happened since they last met at the Capitol on August 6th.  Unfortunately, recent military activity did not augur well for the Union cause and Congress reacted by creating a 19th century joint supercommittee, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War to "inquire into the causes of the disasters."

A 1861 sketch of the U.S. Capitol (US Senate Art Collection)

"Death of Col. Baker" (LOC)

 While General McClellan was rebuilding the Army of the Potomac, many Republican legislators already had doubts about his loyalty and willingness to fight.  Just a month and a half earlier, a small Union force had been routed 30 miles up the Potomac at Ball's Bluff near Leesburg.  Union losses in this debacle included Colonel Edward D. Baker, a sitting Republican Senator from Oregon and close friend of the President.  A congressional committee, the Joint Committee of the Conduct of the War, would later target Democratic leaning military generals in the search for a scapegoat for this and other military setbacks.

In a diary entry, Patent Office clerk Horatio Nelson Taft noted that with Congress back in session, Pennsylvania Avenue was "thronged from morning till late at night," and that all of the hotels were crowded with visitors.  In Taft's opinion, the Congressional session promised to be "the most important perhaps that has been convened for half a Century at least."  The Washington National Republican confidently predicted that "the session of Congress which commences today, will be the most memorable which has yet occurred in this country under either the Articles of Confederation, or the present Constitution ... not excepting even the session when the Declaration of Independence was agreed upon."

Predictions of  the importance of this Congressional session proved prescient.  Congress  got down to business after taking care of some administrative matters.  On the first day of the session, Senator Lyman Trumbull, a Republican from Illinois and chairman of the Judiciary committee, introduced a new confiscation bill, which would authorize the seizure of all rebel property, regardless of whether it was used directly to support the Confederate war effort or not.   The  measure was intended to facilitate the emancipation of the slaves in rebelling states.  In the House of Representatives, Congressman Eliot of Massachusetts offered a resolution that declared that the President has the right to "emancipate all persons held as slaves in any military district in a state of insurrection against the National Government. 

In his opening prayers, the Chaplain of the House "prayed specially and distinctly for 'the slave', which sounded rather strangely in such a place, and in a slaveholding community," according to the Washington National Republican.In the House, 114 members were present for the opening session on December 2nd and four newly elected members were sworn in.  However, the House referred the issue of whether or not to seat two newly elected Representatives from Virginia and one from North Carolina to the Committee on Elections.  House members also voted to expel a Missouri congressman who was serving in the Confederate army. 

Two days into the new session, the Senate formally expelled John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky who had already left Washington to serve in the Confederate army despite the fact that Kentucky remained in the Union. On December 10th, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio chaired the first session of the new Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which would meet 272 times over the next four years.'

Critical issues that would be addressed during this regular session of the 37th Congress would include the legal tender bill (greenbacks), the internal revenue bill (nation's first income tax), the confiscation bill, the admission of West Virginia as a state, and various loans and other financial issues.

Senate seating diagram, as printed in the Congressional Directory, for the third session of the 37th Congress.  The empty seats represent those vacated by southerners.  During the war, it was not uncommon for congressional deliberations to be interrupted by the presiding officer reading a dispatch from the War Department announcing the result of a recent battle.  Unfortunately, there were few decisive victories to applaud during the 2nd session of the 37th Congress.


The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, December 6, 1861 (available online from Library of Congress)
Washington National Republican, December 2 and December 3, 1861