Elbridge Copp of the 3rd New Hampshire Infantry Describes the Scene in Washington DC in 1861

From the earliest days of the Civil War, Washington DC was a busy hub of military activity in addition to being the home of the Federal government. With the Confederacy and a hostile army literally right across the Potomac River, the city was filled with Union troops camped throughout the city and surrounding areas–sometimes even in government buildings, especially early in the war–as they fortified the city’s defenses, went through training and drills, and waited for deployment to where the fighting was.

Private Elbridge J. Copp, 3rd NH Infantry in 1861

One regiment that passed through Washington in 1861 was the 3rd New Hampshire Infantry. The 3rd would see action for the next four years along the coasts of North and South Carolina as well as in Virginia. The regiment arrived by train at the Baltimore and Ohio railroad depot in Washington on September 16th.

The city was an exciting place, but not always in a good way. “We were not favorably impressed with the capital of our country” wrote the 3rd’s regimental historian, adding “geese and pigs roamed at will, at least in our vicinity”.

One of the soldiers in the 3rd New Hampshire was 17 year old Private Elbridge J. Copp of Nashua. Copp, who would later become regimental adjutant, described his impression of Washington DC in a memoir written 50 years later:

Near the depot was the “Soldiers Rest” so called, where the troops arriving from the North were fed, and early in the morning we marched into the building for breakfast. Unlike the Philadelphia “Cooper Shop Restaurant” the food was poor; three long tables running the length of the building were piled up with half cooked boiled pork, with bristles left on, for the convenience of handling, the boys thought, with large quantities of stale bread and muddy coffee, and the “retreat” by the boys from the building commenced soon after we entered, and the most of us got our breakfast from the eating houses near by…

Everything was new and strange to most of the New Hampshire boys, many of whom had never been outside the limits of the state; I had never been in Washington and was very anxious to see the city, and was fortunate in getting a pass with permission to be absent for several hours…The Capitol building was grand and beautiful beyond anything we had ever conceived of, although then in an unfinished condition, the derrick at the top of the unfinished dome…

U.S. Capitol Dome Under Construction 1861

We found our way through the building without difficulty, although congress was not then in session there was enough to be seen, everything was so new and grand to us. Finding our way to the south of the building, from the balustrade we had a fine view of the city and country around, reaching across the Potomac into Virginia. In our immediate front was Pennsylvania avenue, stretching across the city to the treasury building. Nothing like the Pennsylvania avenue of today, unpaved and muddy, crowded with teams of all kinds, army wagons loaded with supplies for the army were working their way through. The buildings upon one side of the avenue, some of them of brick and stone, but more of a wooden structure and very few of large dimension. On the other side of the street the land was low and swampy and the buildings were few, for a long distance were negro shanties, through the city pigs and geese were running, the sewerage running upon the surface, in short the whole city was unkempt and unattractive except for the public buildings. The Washington monument could be seen in the distance but had only reached a height of 100 feet or less. Further to the left and beyond we could see the famous long bridge over which so many hundred thousands troops passed into Virginia, and so many thousands never to return…In the basement of the Capitol had been established an extensive bakery where bread was being baked for the soldiers in and around Washington. Army wagons were constantly coming and going being loaded with the bread piled on like cord wood…

Long Bridge, Washington DC

Taking a walk through Pennsylvania avenue, down upon one side and up on the other gave us an opportunity of seeing much that was interesting. The street was crowded with people, negroes and soldiers predominating…I was very glad of an opportunity of seeing Washington as it was in 1861; no one today would recognize the Washington of that time as the same magnificent city of today that has become the Mecca for all Americans…

Troops from every Northern state were arriving daily and going into camp…It was understood that the whole army was soon to move against the enemy, and everything was full of interest and excitement. The enemy across the Potomac was near enough for the guns to be heard daily, which naturally increased the intensity of the excitement.

As the troops arrived in the city, it was the practice of President Lincoln and General McClellan to visit the camps, and usually without notice. Not many days after we had been established in camp, when our regiment was on dress parade, President Lincoln and General McClellan, riding in an open barouche , or hack, were seen approaching our camp. ..On this occasion I was standing in the rear of the regimental color line at some distance when then President and General McClellan made their appearance. As they approached, the colonel gave the command to the regiment to “present arms,” and the band at the right of the regiment commenced “Hail to the Chief.” The distinguished party, the President and the general, first drove along the line in front and around left to the rear where I was practically alone. As they approached, I took off my cap, and they both very gracefully returned the salute, the first and last time that I ever saw President Lincoln.

 

The 3rd New Hampshire wasn’t in Washington for very long, departing on October 3rd to take part in the Union expedition against Port Royal, South Carolina.

Sources:

Reminiscences of the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 by Elbridge Copp

The Third New Hampshire and All About It by Daniel Eldredge

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