Sunday afternoons with “The Porte”, Part VII

Posted on October 10, 2010 by


What?! Did you think the entire month was going to be dedicated to ghosts, witches, and the generally eerie?

On and off since May, I’ve been transcribing David Hunter Strother‘s “Personal Recollections of the Civil War. By a Virginian” as originally published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, beginning in June 1866. Though I don’t transcribe his narrative as regularly as I’d prefer, I have found that sitting down with “the Porte” on the occasional Sunday afternoon makes for an entertaining and pleasant thirty minutes or so. With that in mind, I’m changing from the rather stiff ongoing title of “Personal Recollections of the Civil War. By a Virginian. [Installment…]” to “Sunday afternoons with ‘The Porte‘, Part…” I also have larger plans for these transcriptions when complete. I’ll let provide more details as that time grows closer.

So, picking-up from where we last left off… on to “part VII” of “Sunday afternoons with ‘The Porte'”…

April 20, Charlestown. – To-day we received confirmation of the passage of the ordinance of Secession by the Virginia Convention. This was followed by news of the riots of the 19th in Baltimore, and the destruction of the Navy-yard at Norfolk.

Under these accumulating proofs of the inability or unwillingness of the general Government to defend itself the arrogant confidence of the Secessionists continued to increase, while the Unionists exhibited a corresponding depression. Every hour brought accessions to the forces at Harper’s Ferry. The volunteer companies from the adjoining counties were gathered in without the slightest regard to the political views of officers or men. The Border Guard of Martinsburg, a fine company, whose captain and seven-eighths of whose members were decided Union partisans, at first made some difficulty about obeying the Governor’s order; but at length, mystified by subtle counsels, they agreed to march to Harper’s Ferry with the United States flag flying. As may be supposed the flag was soon furled after their arrival; by the opinions it typified rankled for some time after and bore troublesome fruits.

On Sunday, April 21, in pursuance of important private business, I went from Charlestown to Harper’s Ferry, and thence by the train to Baltimore. As Maryland was at that time supposed to be one of the elect, and Baltimore, by the acts of the 19th, had earned the right to be regarded as a true Southern city, the railroad communication was uninterrupted.

At the stations near the city we heard the wildest rumors of fights going on and battles impending. The conductor told me that a large body of Pennsylvania volunteers were advancing on the town by way of Cockeysville, and that the Baltimoreans, six thousand strong, had marched out to meet them.

At the Camden Street depot I met Captain K___ of the United States navy, with whom I exchanged salutations. He seemed in a good deal of perplexity, and, after some hesitation, told me he was about going to Washington, and asked if he could trust me with a message.

I replied with warmth that he might rely upon me, even if the message involved a question of life or death.

He frankly apologized for the implied doubt, but said that every thing was in such confusion that he did not know who to trust. He went on to state that the city was in the hands of a revolutionary mob, and he wished to send a message to the officers in charge of the Naval Depot to display the United States flag as usual on the next morning. There was no force to protect it, and, if displayed, it might bring the officer into trouble and would be torn down by the rabble.

The captain’s eye flashed and his lip quivered as he spoke: “If I had any means of defending it it should wave in the face of the whole city; but as we are helpless I do not wish the flag exposed to insult.” We clasped hands, and I promised the message should be duly delivered. As I walked up street carrying my traveling sack I was accosted by men and women who, perceiving I was a stranger, beset me with questions and repeated the most startling rumors. Harper’s Ferry was occupied by fifteen thousand Virginians, with thirty pieces of artillery. Lee was on Arlington heights preparing to bombard Washington; while Jeff Davis, at the head of fifty thousand men, was marching on that doomed city – these were the jubilant gobemouches; others in mortal terror followed me to learn when the Virginia army was coming to relive Baltimore, now threatened by a hundred thousand Abolitionists, determined to sack and burn it in revenge for the affair of the 19th. I said what I could to hasten the hopes and soothe the fears of these good people, and kept on my way.

Throughout the town every thing evidenced alarm and excitement. Men and boys were running wildly about armed with swords, horse-pistols, fowling-pieces, bowie-knives, and every imaginable weapon of offense. At first I saw them singly or in small parties, anon they marched by in organized companies and even battalions. On Baltimore Street crowds were collected in front of hardware stores and shops, where fire-arms are sold, crushing in the doors and helping themselves to every thing that would answer for a weapon. Axes, scythes, hatchets, sword-canes, pitchforks, were distributed to the eager and half-frantic mobs. In addition to the weapons and utensils thus violently obtained there was a reasonable amount of promiscuous stealing of matters pertaining to the commissary rather than the ordnance department. Tobacco, whisky, jewelry, and, an article which in all civilized countries is recognized as the main-spring of war, money.

To these proceedings the city police appeared to make but a demonstrative resistance, occasionally firing a volley from their revolvers in the air, which only served to increase the turbulence of the mob, and evidenced that these guardians of law and order were either too timid to act, or were themselves in sympathy with the rioters.

In following up Captain K___’s directions for the purpose of delivering the message with which I was intrusted, I at length found myself at the head-quarters of the volunteer medical staff., hastily improvised to succor those who were expected to fall in the great battle that was to be fought. There were two or three wash-tubs full of lint, a barrel or two of rolled bandages, splints, tourniquets, and cases of baleful knives, hooks, and probes lying open and all ready for use. The cruel and cold-blooded aspect of these apartments was softened by the presence of tables covered with sandwiches, cold fowls, sliced tongue, and pickles flanked by decanters of whisky and baskets of Champagne.

Ignoring the patent lint and scientific cutlery I took a young surgeon’s advice, gratuitously proffered, and helped myself to Champagne and sandwiches. I here learned that all communication with the North had been cut off by the burning of the railroad bridges, and that the city had risen in arms to drive back the Pennsylvanians “en route via Cockeysville” for Baltimore and the Federal Capital. No collision had yet been reported, but the surgeons waited in momentary expectation of a call for their service.

After some further search I at length found an opportunity to deliver the message with which I had been intrusted, and this ended the adventures of the day.

Owing to the condition of the city, and the stoppage of communication with the North, I found it impossible to conclude my business as speedily as I had hoped. I therefore took quarters at the house of a friend, determined to bide my time, and meanwhile to amuse myself observing the march of events.

More follows in Part VIII

[Text transcribed from scans of original document made available through Cornell University Library’s Making of America Digital Collection.]