When Spencer F. Baird left Washington, DC, to visit his childhood home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, during the summer of 1862, he left his DC home in the care of Solomon G. Brown. Brown was the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution and a trusted and respected aid to Baird, who was then an Assistant Secretary and would later become the second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Looking after Baird's DC residence was no small task, as the Civil War had brought battles and bloodshed to Washington's doorstep. So Brown took special measures to ensure that the Bairds' valuables would be safe if the Confederate Army invaded the city.
On September 4, 1862, General Robert E. Lee was leading the Confederate Army north to Maryland and had reached Leesburg, Virginia, just forty miles northwest of Washington. That day, Brown wrote to Baird that "our city is again thought to be in great danger." The capital city was buzzing with rumors that the rebels intended to attack DC and many feared that the southern army would ransack the goods and homes of those who remained loyal to the Union. As such, Brown asked Baird whether "it would not be well to have your Silver got Ready for Sending on to you at Carlisles [sic] [Pennsylvania]." (As an aside, for all of you fans of the book and film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, no, Lincoln was not confiscating the silver goods to fight vampire soldiers, Brown just wanted to keep the valuables safe from looting!)
Two days later, Brown had the silver goods boxed up and ready to send. But by that time, the Confederate Army had reached Maryland, and had almost cut DC off from the northern Union states. Brown feared that any trains from Washington might be stopped and seized as they crossed through Maryland, so he decided that Baird's valuables would be safer hidden in the city: "I have set about selecting a good place for it and should I find it necessary to hide it I will inform you where it is."
The Confederates did not make it to DC in 1862, and it is not known what Solomon Brown did with the silver that year. But nearly two years later, the southern army came the closest to attacking Washington that they would be during the war. On July 11, 1864, the Confederate troops marched on DC from Maryland and attacked the Union stronghold Fort Stevens in Northwest Washington. The Union troops held off the rebel army, who retreated on July 13, leaving the city shaken but unharmed. Afterwards, Brown informed Baird where he had stashed the silver goods: "I had prepared aplace in center of the cole [sic] celler under South tower [of the Smithsonian Institution Building] under stone floor for the deposition of a box of valuables committed to my care should any thing suddenly turn up to prevent them being shipped to a place of safty. outside of town. This you will remember should anything turn up - but at present they remain where you last saw them[.]"
Today the many museum buildings of the Smithsonian Institution hold a countless number of highly valuable objects. Fortunately these objects are kept safe with alarms, guards and a variety of other security measures, so they can be kept on display instead of interred underground. But 150 years ago Solomon Brown used the Smithsonian Institution Building to keep Bairds valuables safely out of sight.
See a photograph and letter of Solomon Brown’s in person at Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battle Front, an exhibit now open in Schermer Hall in the Smithsonian Institution Building.
- Solomon G. Brown: First African American Employee at the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Solomon G. Brown, Renaissance Man, by Courtney Esposito, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Solomon G. Brown Education Resources, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- The Civil War at 150, Smithsonian Magazine.
- Record Unit 7002 - Spencer Fullerton Baird Papers, 1833-1889, Smithsonian Institution Archives.