11 Jan 2016


Lost Capitol Hill: The Washington Light Guards

tn cp stoneLast week, we looked at one of the militia companies that were formed in D.C. after the election of Abraham Lincoln made Washington’s location precarious. Today, we look at another of the companies, this one composed mainly of Navy Yard employees.

On January 9, 1861, a meeting was held at the East Washington Library Association, which had incorporated the previous year. Many of the original members of the library association were also in charge of this meeting, nonetheless, it was mainly Navy Yard employees who came together to form a militia. The main purpose of the meeting was to determine a name, Washington Guards, and to set up another meeting two days later.

On the 11th, thus, the second meeting began with them changing their names to Washington Light Guards, and electing Samuel A. H. Marks, a local wood and coal dealer, their captain. Though the fuel industry hardly seems likely to prepare someone for leading a company, it should be noted that Marks’s father was a clerk in the quartermaster corps who had previously been a sergeant in the Marines, and thus military experience was not entirely absent from the family. Next, a Samuel T. Ellis was elected first lieutenant; the positions of 2nd and 3rd Lieutenants were left unfilled. The only other important piece of of business, according to the following day’s Evening Star, was that “a simple uniform be gotten up by the committee on uniform by the next meeting night.”

The Daily National Republican reported shortly after the next meeting that not only had 16 men been elected to various positions within the company, but that a uniform had been adopted. It was “of gray cloth frock coat, with red trimmings; pants of the same material; gray chasseur hat, also trimmed with red.”

Thereafter, the unit met at their armory, which was at the “old Maryland hotel” at the corner of 8th and L Street SE, just outside the Navy Yard gate. Like Company C of the Union Regiment, the Guards took part in Lincoln’s inauguration. Later that month, at a concert at the Navy Yard Odd Fellows’ Hall, the unit was presented with colors that had been made for them “by the ladies,” as the Star reported the following day. The colors consisted of a “blue field [with] thirty-four stars, and on the other an American eagle, holding in his beak a scroll, on which is the name of the corps, “Washington Light Guard;” while the thirteen stars for the original States are around the head of the eagle.”

Detail of picture showing Lincoln inaugural parade with soldiers at the front (LOC)

Detail of picture showing Lincoln inaugural parade with soldiers at the front (LOC)

The following month –shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter– there was another meeting, during which the company decided to join the army as a man. On April 17th, thus, they were, “inspected and sworn into service,” becoming Company B of the 4th Battalion of the D.C. Militia. Their duties were not heavy, though they did proceed as far as Georgetown at one point: The Home Guard had been sent to do duty at the Chain Bridge, requiring others to take over the work Home Guard had had as Military Policemen in Georgetown. The Light Guards took over this job for a few days before the Home Guard could return. However a few days later, on July 17, they were mustered out as a unit. The reason given was that many of the men were in the ordnance department of the Navy Yard, and were thus doing more important work at their day jobs.

The Washington Light Guard continued to march and shoot target practice throughout the war, and even after the Civil War continued as a unit, coming out during the inauguration of James Garfield in 1881. In charge of them was Donald McCathran, who had been in the running against Marks in 1861, but had graciously dropped out to allow his rival to be Captain.

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