When the first cannon shots of the Civil War landed on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, the Abraham Lincoln administration confronted a rebellion against the United States and an urgent security problem in the nation’s capital. Nestled between Virginia, a slave state south of the Potomac River, and Maryland, a slaveholding border state to the north with strong southern sympathies, Washington, DC, was only sparsely defended and remarkably vulnerable. When Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, only the Potomac River separated Washington from the hostile ambitions of the Confederacy. In those anxious April days the city was—in President Lincoln’s own words—“put into a condition of siege.”
The situation was so dire that Lincoln issued an emergency proclamation on April 15 that called Congress back into session on July 4. He also urged northern states to quickly send 75,000 volunteer troops to put down the rebellion and to defend the federal city. The governors of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania immediately began mobilizing their citizens.
Early on the morning of April 18, the First Pennsylvania Volunteers, a regiment of roughly 500 men, departed Harrisburg, the state capital, for the 120-mile trek to the nation’s capital. They left so hastily and provisions were so scant, that many of the volunteers still wore civilian clothes. The Harrisburg armory had no firearms to distribute; only a handful of men carried 1820s-vintage flintlock muskets. Joining them was a 40-man company—armed with rifles—from the Fourth U.S. Artillery stationed in the nearby town of Carlisle, which had been ordered to reinforce Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Regulars and volunteers filed onto two trains at 8:10 a.m., some riding in passenger coaches, others in improvised cattle cars.
No train ran direct from Harrisburg to DC, so the regiment transferred in Baltimore, then known as “Mob City” for its history of bloody riots. One of the volunteers, John W. Forney, later the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate, recalled that as the train rolled southward across the Mason–Dixon Line, few among his contingent “were willing to admit that the pro-slavery mob of the city would dare attack the soldiers on their way to the immediate scene of peril” in Washington. But secessionist agitators had whipped many Baltimore residents into a frenzy. The city was on edge as the Pennsylvania troops disembarked.
As the soldiers began their long trudge through downtown toward their connection at Camden Station, a crowd of several thousand pro-secessionists greeted them. “Rough and toughs, longshoremen, gamblers, floaters, idlers, red-hot secessionists, as well as men ordinarily sober and steady, crowded upon, pushed, and hustled the little band [of men],” recorded the regiment’s historian, “and made every effort to break the thin line.” Unarmed and under strict orders to avoid using force, the volunteers endured numerous assaults along their path, particularly after the armed regulars peeled off toward Fort McHenry. As the volunteers neared Camden Station the mob closed in, hurling bricks, rocks, and pavers, as well as dead animals, spoiled food, rotten eggs, and bottles. They shouted vile taunts and singled out 65-year-old Nicholas Biddle, a free Black man and artillery orderly, pelting him in the face with stones. Bloodied and bedraggled but intact, the First Pennsylvania Regiment clambered onto their train.
After an exhausting 11-hour journey, the regiment arrived in the District of Columbia at 7 p.m., buoyed by the sense that they’d made history as the first group of volunteers to answer Lincoln’s call to serve. They marched several blocks from the train station, up to the East Front steps of the U.S. Capitol, then in the midst of an ambitious expansion project. The Dome was only partially completed, and a massive crane—used to lift its heavy cast-iron sections into place—rose high from the stone floor of the unfinished Rotunda. Moving through the Rotunda, the regiment turned left, walked through the marbled Old Hall of the House (now National Statuary Hall), and entered the magnificent new House Chamber, then a little more than three years old. It was otherworldly for the men, most of whom had never seen anything bigger than a county courthouse. A correspondent reported the arrival of the Pennsylvanians the next morning on the front page of the New York Times, describing the scene in the Capitol as “animated and picturesque.”
Newspapers were silent on a quieter, far more momentous encounter. After a guard was set and volunteers had spread their bedrolls to rest for the night on the floor of the House Chamber, a door opened and three unexpected visitors entered. The first was the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, a former Pennsylvania Senator from Maytown, just a few miles south of Harrisburg, and a familiar figure to many of the men. Flanking Cameron was William Seward, the Secretary of State.
The third figure, one soldier later recounted, “towering over all in the room was the great central figure of the war,” President Abraham Lincoln. As word spread around the dimly-lit chamber and soldiers roused from their sleep, they gathered around Lincoln. The president seemed kindly but almost “bashful,” and he gave heartfelt thanks to the men who risked their lives to protect the seat of government.
“I did not come here to make a speech,” Lincoln told them. “The time for speech-making has gone by, and the time for action is at hand. I have come here to . . . shake every officer and soldier by the hand, providing you will give me the privilege.” The president of the United States, moving slowly and with purpose, clasped hands with each of the men. He gave particular attention to the injured including Nicholas Biddle.
In the coming days and weeks, many other northern troops arrived to stand guard over the Capitol. And, ultimately, the Union Army stationed troops there for the duration of the four-year Civil War.
Long after that conflict passed, in other times of great national crisis, soldiers returned to protect the Capitol. They secured the building amid World War I, and during World War II, the military quartered personnel in the building and on the grounds. In April 1968, during violent civil unrest after the assassination of the civil rights leader, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the National Guard stood watch over the Capitol—sleeping on its floors and in its hallways like the First Pennsylvania Volunteers a century earlier. The National Guard also provided security on the Capitol campus following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill. In the aftermath of the violent insurrection of January 6, 2021, federal troops are once again stationed in and around the Capitol.
Sources: John Lockwood and Charles Lockwood, The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days that Shook the Union (New York: Oxford, 2011); John W. Forney, Anecdotes of Famous Men, Vol 1. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1873); Abraham Lincoln: The Observations of John G. Nicolay and John Hay, ed. Michael Burlingame (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007); Chicago Tribune, 19 April 1861; New York Times, 19 April 1861; New York Times, 7 April 1968.Follow @USHouseHistory