Stuck in Washington
<This is the first of two parts – back to back – about the experiences of Abner Doubleday 150 years ago this month of May. This material is from research I have done for an eventual book on the life and Civil War experiences of Doubleday>
The first movements for the Peninsula Campaign had began in the middle of March, and McClellan himself departed Washington on April 1st. An administration examination of the numbers of troops left behind for the protection of Washington revealed an apparent lack of attention to this detail in McClellan’s planning. Seeing a mere 20,000 or less truly available for this duty, Lincoln ordered McDowell’s First Corps (including Doubleday’s command) of about 30,000 to remain behind. McClellan would protest that such orders depleted his force and ability to secure victory in the face of his imagined larger enemy. The rancor between McClellan and Washington would only increase in volume and intensity throughout the campaign months of the spring and summer.
The feeling of the Northern population and the army at this time was again very positive that the War would soon be over. A May 12th letter of Colonel Walter Phelps (of the 22nd New York – who would serve eventually under Doubleday) illustrates this positive mood. “I am expecting every moment to hear that Richmond is taken. There is so much good news now-a-days, that I am prepared to hear anything good. . . . I imagine that this rebellion is almost disposed of. With McClellan pushing them to the wall in Virginia and Halleck capable of taking care of the west, I am convinced that a few more months must see the end of the difficulty.” <1>
Doubleday was ordered on May 18th to join McDowell’s forces in Fredericksburg, along with the two regiments in his command: the 76th and 102nd New York. The 102nd was delayed in departure and soon detached from Doubleday’s command. The movement commenced on the 22nd. While passing through the streets of Washington, an interesting event occurred related to the issue of two fugitive slaves from Maryland who had found refuge within the company of the 76th New York Regiment. When the unit moved, these former slaves went along to carry baggage or perform whatever duty assigned to them. While marching through the streets of Washington, they were spotted by their former owner, who enlisted the help of a police officer in seeking to apprehend his property. The policeman was knocked unconscious by the blow from the butt of a soldier’s gun.
The scene was recounted by the historian of the 76th NY: A strenuous effort was made on the part of the semi-secession officers of Washington, to arrest those who took part in this defense; but to the credit of the officers of the Seventy-sixth, and of their gallant, true-hearted commander, General Abner Doubleday, be it said, no arrests were made, and the would-be slave-catching officers of Washington returned to their duties with a clearer appreciation of Northern character than when they first met the Seventy-sixth. This daring act of heroism went the round of the papers, and found its way into the London press. <2>
<Check back tomorrow for a part B discussion of some of Doubleday’s adventures while stuck in Fredericksburg>
- The History of the Seventy-Sixth Regiment New York Volunteers: What It Endured and Accomplished, A.P. Smith, pp. 58-59.
- The Walter Phelps Jr. Papers, 1861-1877. US Army Military Heritage Institute in Carlisle, PA.