Throughout the next months, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will be posting about the Smithsonian and the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the start of one of the most tumultuous periods in American history—the Civil War (view resources from the Smithsonian about the Civil War). The Smithsonian Castle, located in the nation’s capital, sat at the center of many of the great battles of the War and was affected in many and varied ways. Over the coming months, our series of Civil War blog posts will take you back to those days, and you will see how the War affected the Smithsonian and the people who lived and worked there. You will read their letters and diaries, and get to know the individuals who kept the Institution on a steady course during those challenging times.
In 1861, the Smithsonian consisted of a single building, the Castle, located on a vacant section of land adjoining Virginia, cut off from downtown by the Washington canal. Although the National Mall is now an international destination, at this time it was a fetid swamp. The Tidal Basin area had not yet been filled in, so the tall Castle was a target vulnerable to attack from nearby Virginia where Confederate troops were amassing. The nearby Long Bridge across the Potomac to Virginia provided them an easy route to the towering red stone building along the river. The young Institution, only fifteen years old in 1861, was just beginning to fully develop its programs, when the impending hostilities threatened to halt its progress.
150 years ago today, on April 20, 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron issued an order that “the Colonel of Ordnance will cause to be issued to Professor Henry of the Smithsonian Institute twelve muskets and 240 rounds of ammunition for the protection of the Institute against lawless attacks.” We have no evidence that the muskets and ammunition were ever used in defense of the Castle, but the order reflects the unrest unfolding in the country. The first soldiers killed in the Civil War had been attacked by a secessionist mob in Baltimore. In the nation’s capital, public buildings were barricaded and sandbagged, and volunteer militia patrolled the city. “Professor J. Henry” was Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry (1797-1878), who had spent the last fifteen years organizing the new organization and was now responsible for leading the Institution through violent and chaotic times. As volunteers flooded Washington, the Secretary of War also suggested that the Castle be used to house the new soldiers. Henry expressed his concerns, especially because of the Institution’s peaceful purpose and valuable collections, and suggested that the building serve as an infirmary instead. Other accommodations for the troops were found and the Castle survived the ordeal. Joseph Henry worried not only for the safety of the Smithsonian but for his own family, who lived in the east wing of the Castle and the cadre of young explorers who lived in its towers. From the turrets, the Henry family and staff could watch battles rage around the city, and in the months to come, you’ll read their accounts of those difficult days.