June–July 1861 The Civil War

Our March to Washington

A dispatch from a Union soldier who was later killed in action
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Filled with members of the New York elite, the Seventh New York Regiment, shown here while encamped in Washington, D.C., was often called the “silk-stocking regiment.” (Library of Congress)


Following his graduation from Yale in 1848, Theodore Winthrop rambled widely in Europe and the United States, churning out travel pieces, novels, and poetry. But aside from a handful of magazine pieces, he managed to get none of his work published. When President Lincoln issued a call for military volunteers in April 1861, Winthrop immediately joined up with New York’s Seventh Regiment (popularly known as the “silk-stocking regiment” for its preponderance of aristocratic college men), and on April 19, he set off with his comrades for Washington.

En route, he kept a lively record of their journey. His account ran as a dispatch in the June Atlantic, and he agreed to send more dispatches from the war front. In his second installment, he described his company’s boisterous days quartered in the nation’s as-yet-unfinished Capitol building.

He began a third dispatch, but it was never to be finished. On June 10, Winthrop was shot in the chest at the Battle of Big Bethel, the war’s first land battle. Instead of running his finished dispatch in the next issue, the magazine printed the incomplete report—along with his obituary.

—Sage Stossel

We said goodbye to Broadway, moved down Cortlandt Street under a bower of flags, and at half-past six shoved off in the ferry-boat.

Everybody has heard how Jersey City turned out and filled up the Railroad Station, like an opera-house, to give God-speed to us as a representative body … The State of New Jersey, along the railroad line, stood through the evening and the night to shout their quota of good wishes. At every station the Jerseymen were there, uproarious as Jerseymen, to shake our hands and wish us a happy despatch. I think I did not see a rod of ground without its man, from dusk till dawn, from the Hudson to the Delaware.

Upon the train we made a jolly night of it. All knew that the more a man sings, the better he is likely to fight. So we sang more than we slept, and, in fact, that has been our history ever since …

Has anybody seen Annapolis? It is a picturesque old place, sleepy enough, and astonished to find itself wide-awaked by a war and obliged to take responsibility and share for good and ill in the movement of its time. The buildings of the Naval Academy stand parallel with the river Severn, with a green plateau toward the water and a lovely green lawn toward the town. All the scene was fresh and fair with April, and I fancied … that I discerned the sweet fragrance of apple-blossoms coming with the spring-time airs …

At dusk we were marched up to the Academy and quartered about in the buildings,—some in the fort, some in the recitation-halls. We lay down on our blankets and knapsacks …

REVEILLE. As nobody pronounces this word à la française, as everybody calls it “Revelee,” why not drop it, as an affectation, and translate it the “Stir your Stumps,” the “Peel your Eyes,” the “Tumble Up,” or literally the “Wake”?

Our snorers had kept up this call so lustily since midnight, that, when the drums sounded it, we were all ready …

Before the main body of the regiment marches, we learn that the “Baltic” and other transports came in last night with troops from New York and New England, enough to hold Annapolis against a square league of Plug Uglies. We do not go on without having our rear protected and our communications open. It is strange to be compelled to think of these things in peaceful America …

At half-past seven we take up our line of march, pass out of the charming grounds of the Academy, and move through the quiet, rusty, picturesque old town …

The main body of the regiment, under Major Shaler, a tall, soldierly fellow, with a moustache of the fighting-color, tramped on their own pins to the watering-place, eight miles or so from Annapolis. There troops and train came to a halt, with the news that a bridge over a country road was broken a mile farther on.

It had been distinctly insisted upon, in the usual Southern style, that we were not to be allowed to pass through Maryland, and that we were to be “welcomed to hospitable graves.” The broken bridge was a capital spot for a skirmish. Why not look for it here?

We looked; but got nothing … They have not faith enough in their cause to risk their lives for it, even behind a tree or from one of these thickets, choice spots for ambush.

So we had no battle there, but a battle of the elements. The volcanic heat of the morning was followed by a furious storm of wind and a smart shower. The regiment wrapped themselves in their blankets and took their wetting with more or less satisfaction. They were receiving samples of all the different little miseries of a campaign …

And so begins our night-march …

It was full-moonlight and the night inexpressibly sweet and serene. The air was cool and vivified by the gust and shower of the afternoon. Fresh spring was in every breath. Our fellows had not forgotten that this morning they were hot and disgusted. Every one hugged his rifle as if it were the arm of the Girl of his Heart, and stepped out gaily for the promenade …

Our line extended a half-mile along the track. It was beautiful to stand on the bank above a cutting and watch the files strike from the shadow of a wood into a broad flame of moonlight, every rifle sparkling up alert as it came forward. A beautiful sight to see the barrels writing themselves upon the dimness, each a silver flash …

At last we issued from the damp woods, two miles below the railroad junction …

We still had no certain information. Until we actually saw the train awaiting us, and the Washington companies, who had come down to escort us, drawn up, we did not know whether our Uncle Sam was still a resident of the capital.

We packed into the train, and rolled away to Washington …

We marched up to the White House, showed ourselves to the President, made our bow to him as our host, and then marched up to the Capitol, our grand lodgings.

There we are now, quartered in the Representatives Chamber.

And I must hastily end this first sketch of the Great Defence. May it continue to be as firm and faithful as it is this day!

I have scribbled my story with a thousand men stirring about me. If any of my sentences miss their aim, accuse my comrades and the bewilderment of this martial crowd. For here are four or five thousand others on the same business as ourselves, and drums are beating, guns are clanking, companies are tramping all the while …

They gave us the Representatives Chamber for quarters …

Some of our companies were marched up-stairs into the galleries. The sofas were to be their beds …

Most of us were bestowed in the amphitheatre. Each desk received its man. He was to scribble on it by day, and sleep under it by night. When the desks were all taken, the companies overflowed into the corners and into the lobbies. The staff took committee-rooms. The Colonel reigned in the Speaker’s parlor …

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