On The Eve Of War By Carleton Jones


October 27, 1991

December 1860. It was a fateful month for Marylanders and al U.S. citizens as South Carolina seceded from the Union and other Southern states soon joined it. In a few short months, Confederate troops would begin shelling federal property, specifically Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.

How ready were the federal troops -- in Maryland and elsewher-- for the start of the Civil War? And who were some of the high-ranking military men with Maryland connections?

The only immediate force that the government had at its command to stem the tide of war was its regular Army -- a scattered force of 16,000 men. They were expected to provide security in a country of more than 30 million people on 4 million square miles of land.

Since its flashy achievements in the war with Mexico (1846-'48)the U.S. Army had been allowed to ripen in place. The average age of its generals, including the magnificent Winfield Scott, was over 70. The Army's youngest field command- er, William S. Harney, was in his 60s. Robert E. Lee, who would soon defect to the Confederates, was a 53-year-old colonel in the federal Army at the time. Many of the other colonels were nearly as old as the generals, and they were far more numerous.

As for the national government's military installations in thistate, Fort McHenry was considered the strongest defensive point. At the same time, it was thought to be obsolete and a ripe plum for any smart assault. But the old star fort was soon to be reinforced. Federal units from far-off posts like Leavenworth and Riley in Kansas would hurry there in midwinter.

Pikesville Armory was under federal control but was said to have inconsiderable armament. In command was Maj. Benjamin Huger, a South Carolinian who had served well under Winfield Scott in the Mexican War but who would soon defect to the South.

Federal officers with Maryland connections at the beginning of the conflict included Col. Bill Whistler, the son of a soldier and himself a soldier since 1801. Whistler's brother was a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad official and his nephew, James McNeill Whistler, would become the most famous American painter and wit of his day.

Col. William H. French, a Baltimorean, was at Fort Duncan, in Texas, but he would come east by ship with his forces. Col. Robert Whitely, a Marylander in command of the federal arsenal at San Antonio, Texas, was likewise loyal to his government. About two-thirds of such Maryland regular Army officers remained with the Union, researchers say.

Maj. John F. Lee, of the politically powerful and aristocratic Montgomery-Prince George's Lees, was a federal ordnance officer. He was stuck in the office of U.S. Army judge advocate general but, having no great liking for civil conflict, quit in 1862 and went into farming.

Southern Marylander William Chapman, a talented frontier captain, would run afoul of Lincoln's dictatorial war chief, Edwin Stanton, and, despite brilliant field performance, would never rise higher than lieutenant colonel.

One federal officer, Lt. Walter Jenifer, would walk straight into the first bloodshed of the Civil War before taking leave for the South. He would write his resignation from the federal Army in Baltimore. April 19, 1861, was the date he signed it, the same date that riotous Southern sympathizers and Massachusetts volunteers exchanged lethal gunfire along Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore.

For more details on the federal Army on the brink of its greatest test, see "The Regular Army on the Eve of the Civil War," by George T. Ness Jr. (Toomey Press, 1990; $39.95). The publisher can be contacted at 37 Glendale Ave., Ferndale, Md. 21061.

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