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Chapter 14

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Annapolis: Its Colonial and Naval Story

Walter B. Norris

published by
Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 16
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p263  Chapter XV

The Civil War and "Ben" Butler Reach Annapolis

Even before the departure of the Constitution with 151 midshipmen on board — the story of her departure has been only partially related — the critical situation of affairs at Annapolis had been in the mind of the superintendent. The town was thoroughly Southern in its sympathies, for Admiral Mahan says that he knew only one leading family that was really for the Union cause. Although Maryland had not seceded, there was considerable probability of her doing so, and in the event of hostilities breaking out it would be good policy for the Southern sympathizers to seize the Naval Academy with its guns and the frigate Constitution and thus close one approach to Washington to troops from the North.

Besides this, not all the officers at the Academy could be relied upon, and one in fact did resign  p264 as soon as Virginia seceded and there organized the Confederate Naval Academy. Accordingly we find Captain Blake writing to the Navy Department on the 15th of April in part as follows:

"The Department is probably aware that this point is not defensible against a superior force, and that the only force at my command consists of the students of the Academy, many of whom are little boys, and some of whom are citizens of the seceded States.

"If an attack should be threatened, with an exhibition of force stronger than we are able to repel, I propose to embark the officers and students in the school-ship Constitution, having first rendered useless the guns and ammunition which we may be compelled to leave on shore, and either defend her in this harbor, or if it be deemed more just, put to sea and proceed to New York or Philadelphia."

Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, replied approving the idea but warning against any premature movement that would precipitate matters. On the 20th, however, he telegraphed to Blake a message which in its indecisiveness deserves to become historic. It read:

 p265  "Defend the Constitution at all hazards. If this cannot be done, destroy her."

The days were anxious ones for the aged superintendent, especially when he learned of the attack on the 6th Massachusetts as it passed through Baltimore on the 19th of April and heard the rumors that a crowd of Southern sympathizers were planning to take boat from there and seize the Naval Academy. But then came from an unexpected source assistance that removed all anxiety and placed the town in the firm possession of the Union forces.

This was no less than the arrival of the 8th Massachusetts under the command of Benjamin F. Butler and the 7th New York under its colonel. Probably there was not so much danger as Captain Blake feared but in Butler's colorful story of the affair, "Ben Butler's Book," as he called it, nothing that allowed a dramatic touch was omitted.

On account of the resistance to the passage of troops through Baltimore, Gen. Butler, who was at Philadelphia on the 19th, decided that some other route must be used to reach Washington. With characteristic independence, for he could  p266 not get in touch with the Massachusetts authorities or with the War Department, Butler decided to travel by railroad to Perryville on the northern bank of the Susquehanna, then take the steam ferryboat which had been used in transferring passengers across the river, and in it proceed to Annapolis, where he would be in railroad communication with the capital without touching Baltimore.

On the 20th he left Philadelphia and did not arrive off the harbor of Annapolis till nearly midnight. Much to his surprise, for he had not been able to send any word of his coming, he found the Naval Academy all lighted up and apparently expecting him.

Both parties, Butler and Blake, accordingly feared an attack, Blake that the steamer was from Baltimore with Southern partisans, and Butler that the place had already been captured for the South. According to "Fighting Bob" Evans, a midshipman at the time, general quarters was at once sounded on the Constitution, and the four 32‑pounders which she had on board run out at her stern so as to command the approaching vessel. All the gun crews were  p267 at their stations when Rodgers on the Constitution hailed with:

"Ship ahoy! What ship is that?"

The reply was even more hostile,

"Ship ahoy! Keep off, or I will sink you."

"For God's sake, don't fire; we are friends." It was the chaplain, who had been on leave and was returning with Butler.

When Captain Blake came on board Butler's vessel the next morning and was assured that rescue had arrived, he burst into tears, as Butler relates, and exclaimed:

"Thank God! thank God! Won't you save the Constitution?"

Butler, who knew more about politics than about the Navy, thought he referred to the Constitution as a document and replied,

"Yes, that is just what I am here for," but soon learned that he referred to the vessel, which was aground at its moorings and had too small a crew to make sail and get it out of the harbor. At once he again came to the rescue, with characteristic ardor, and said,

 p268  "Oh, well, I have plenty of sailor men from the town of Marblehead, where their fathers built the Constitution."

The fact that the ship had been built in Boston seems to have been passed over in the assurance of safety he gave.

Governor Hicks of Maryland vigorously protested against Butler's plan to land troops and proceed through the town to take train to Washington. He alleged that the excitement in the city was intense and the passage of troops sure to cause trouble. But Butler replied that he was without supplies for the journey to the capital by water and at once put his troops ashore. To protect the disembarkation and to prevent any possible assault on the Academy the midshipmen were landed under arms from the Constitution and remained all day deployed near the gate of the Academy. Admiral Evans gives his recollections thus:

"We stood in this position till the last soldier was ashore and the regiment had formed in line in rear of the midshipmen's quarters and stacked arms, when sentries from one battalion were posted and the rest of us returned to our quarters.  p269 Not a shot had been fired by either side, though the excitement was intense, and there was a readiness on both sides to fight. Both parties hesitated to fire the first shot, and the Confederates contented themselves with pitching stones over the wall, which we caught and tossed back. The newspapers gave graphic accounts of how Butler and his men had recaptured the Naval Academy! They never fired a shot nor saw a rebel to shoot at. The magazines of the Constitution were mined and she and her crew would have been blown to atoms before surrendering, if the rebels had attacked her."​1

When Butler found that some of the railroad outside the town had had the rails torn up and thus rendered impassable, he sent out a force to seize the road and guard it during reconstruction. He tells the story that when his men broke into a locked building and found there a small rusty locomotive, partly dismantled, he turned to the soldiers who accompanied him and asked,

"Do any of you know anything about such a machine as this?"

 p270  One of them, Charles Homans, immediately stepped forward, took a good look at the engine, and replied,

"That engine was made in our shop; I guess I can fit her up and run her."

As soon as the road was open, Butler sent on the 7th New York and the 8th Massachusetts but remained behind in command of other troops which had arrived. On the 23d Butler and Hicks exchanged the following rather spicy correspondence:

"State of Maryland, Executive Chamber,

Annapolis, Maryland,

April 23, 1861.

To Brigadier General B. F. Butler:

Sir: Having, in pursuance of the power invested in me by the constitution of Maryland, summoned the Legislature of the State to assemble on Friday, the 26th instant, and Annapolis being the place in which, according to law, it must assemble; and having been credibly informed that you have taken military possession of the Annapolis and Elk‑Ridge Railroad, I deem it my duty to protest against this step — because without at present assigning any other  p271 reason, I am informed that such occupation of said road will prevent the members of the Legislature from reaching this city.

Very Respectfully Yours,

Thomas H. Hicks."

"Headquarters, Third Brigade, U. States Militia,

Annapolis, Maryland,

April 23d, 1861.

To His Excellency Thomas H. Hicks, Governor of Maryland.

Sir: You were credibly informed that I have taken possession of the Annapolis and Elk‑Ridge Railroad. It might have escaped your notice, but at the official meeting which was had between Your Excellency and the Mayor of Annapolis and the Committee of the Government and myself, as to my landing of troops, it was expressly stated as the reason why I should not land that my troops could not pass the Railroad because the Company had taken up the rails, and they were private property. It is difficult to see how it could be that if my troops could not pass over the Railroad one way the  p272 members of the Legislature could pass the other way. I have taken possession for the purpose of preventing the carrying out of the threats of the mob as officially represented to me by the Master of Transportation of the Railroad of this city, 'that if my troops passed over the Railroad the Railroad should be destroyed.'

. . . . . . . . . .

"I am endeavoring to save and not to destroy, to obtain means of transportation so I can vacate the capital prior to the sitting of the Legislature, and not to be under the painful necessity of encumbering your beautiful city while the Legislature is in session. I have the honor to be,

Your Obdt. Servt.,

Benj. F. Butler,

Brig. Genl. Comdg."

As a result of this dispute the Governor changed the meeting place to Frederick. But Butler asserts in his account that he waited the Governor that he would tolerate no discussion of secession, and the Governor reassured him on that point and even entrusted the Great Seal of the State to his keeping so that there would  p273 be no chance of its being affixed to an ordinance of secession.

One service must be credited to the fiery Yankee, though his shrewdness showed itself in the offer. According to Butler, Hicks was very much afraid of an uprising of the slaves, especially if the troops started to march through the State. Butler at once seized the opportunity to emphasize his position on the slavery question. He assured the Governor in a letter that he was not there to incite insurrection and would gladly co‑operate in suppressing any such uprising. His forces, he stated, were at the Governor's disposal to act immediately for the preservation of the good order of the community.

The offer, however, got him into hot water with the Massachusetts authorities, to whom he was still subject. But to a reprimand from Governor Andrew, Butler replied with his accustomed energy:

"I had promised to put down a white mob and to preserve and enforce the laws against that. Ought I to allow a black one any preference in the breach of the laws? . . . The question seemed to me to be neither military nor political,  p274 and was not to be so treated. It was simply a question of good fortune and honesty of purpose. The benign effect of my course was instantly seen. The good but timid people of Annapolis, who had fled from their houses at our approach, immediately returned; business resumed its accustomed channels; quiet and order prevailed in the city; confidence took the place of distrust, friendship of enmity, brotherly kindness of sectional hate, and I believe to‑day there is no city in the Union more loyal than the city of Annapolis."

Butler remained in command at Annapolis till about the middle of May, during which time he sent a party to Frederick and arrested Ross Winans, Baltimore's richest citizen, and brought him to Annapolis, and also executed a dramatic "capture" of Federal Hill, Baltimore, during a terrific thunder storm, but he was soon transferred to Fortress Monroe, where he again attracted public notice by his decision that slaves were "contraband of war." Annapolis was used as the point of mobilization for the expeditions against Port Royal and Roanoke Island as far as troops were concerned, but otherwise it was  p275 chiefly a place for wounded men, who occupied the grounds and buildings at the Naval Academy and St. John's College, and as a reception point for prisoners. At first the grounds behind St. John's were used but later they were removed to what has since then been known as Camp Parole, three miles west of the town. At one time early in 1862 the authorities feared an attack from the Confederate ironclad battery, Merrimac, and made plans to board her with a large force of men and capture her by sheer weight of numbers. But she, of course, never arrived.

The Author's Note:

1 R. D. Evans, "A Sailor's Log," p41.

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Page updated: 7 May 13