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How Washington Got its Police Force

By Ron Soodalter
9/4/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

They called it “the great skedaddle.”

Union troops who had taken to the field brimming with confidence staggered back to the nation’s capital in shocked defeat after the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Walt Whitman described the soldiers “with this coating of sweat and rain…returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck. Occasionally, a rare regiment, in perfect order…but these are the exceptions.”

In a clash fought just 25 miles from the nation’s capital, the 35,000-man force of inexperienced 90-day enlistees led by inexperienced Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell had fled the field, leaving some 2,700 Federal troops dead, wounded or missing.

“An officer galloped wildly into the column crying the enemy is upon us, and off they started like a flock of sheep every man for himself and the devil take the hindermost,” one Rhode Island volunteer recalled. The Wisconsin Daily Patriot of July 22 reported that “The road from Bull’s Run was strewn with knapsacks and arms, our troops deliberately throwing away their guns and appurtenances to facilitate their travel.” Observed a writer from the New York Tribune, “All sense of manhood seemed to be forgotten….Even the sentiment of shame had gone….Every impediment to flight was cast aside. Rifles, bayonets, pistols, haversacks, cartridge-boxes, canteens, blankets, belts, and overcoats lined the road.”

At first, Washington welcomed and succored the thousands of stunned, defeated soldiers. The hospitals soon filled to overflowing, and President Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay wrote that “History owes a page of honorable mention to the Federal capital…on this occasion. The rich and poor, the high and low of her loyal people…opened their doors and dealt out food and refreshments to the footsore, haggard, and half-starved men…so unexpectedly reduced to tramps and fugitives.”

Within just three days, the mood had changed. Already bristling with military personnel, government employees, contractors, opportunists, lowlifes, Southern sympathizers and spies, Washington was now overrun with drunken, half-crazed Union soldiers running amok in the streets. “Yesterday afternoon, John M. Gregg, a member of the New York Fourteenth regiment, was committed to jail to answer the charge of killing…a member of one of the New Jersey regiments,” the National Republican, a Washington paper, reported. “[A] Quarrel sprung up between the accused and the deceased, who was in company of some of his regiment, and…the accused was pursued by the others, when he drew a knife and stabbed the deceased.”

The following day another article reported problems with soldiers, some of whom had already served their 90-day enlistments, removing them from the reach of military discipline. “Officer McHenry, and others, yesterday afternoon dispersed a crowd of young men, (some of whom, we are sorry to say, have just served out their term of enlistment in the District Volunteers) who stationed themselves before the door of a bakery, and prevented persons from either entering or leaving the place.”

William Howard Russell, Washington correspondent for the London Times, wrote that “The Secretary of War knows not what to do, Mister Lincoln is equally helpless. There is no provost guard, no patrol, no authority visible in the streets.”

Before the war, the capital had no round-the-clock police force, and what had emerged piecemeal over the years was now clearly insufficient. When Congress founded the District of Columbia in a swampy no-man’s land in 1790, Maryland and Virginia provided two small contingents of constables to patrol it. Following the incorporation of Washington in 1802, provision was made for up to four constables to enforce local laws in the town, which contained only a few thousand residents. It would be 40 more years until a day-and-night police force was established. By the start of the Civil War, the police force of Washington—teeming with 75,000-plus inhabitants— was woefully outdated, grossly understaffed and completely incapable of addressing the lack of order.

The mayhem threatened more than just the city’s residents. Two entire volunteer regiments were in open rebellion, and everyone—North and South—wondered why the Confederate Army didn’t simply march into Washington and end the hostilities once and for all. Rebel spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, observing the chaos in Washington’s streets, wrote Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, begging, “Come on! Why do you not come?” It was only because of the Rebels’ nearly equal state of disorganization, and their lack of supplies, that they failed to follow up the victory at Bull Run.

Recognition of the capital’s vulnerability would lead to the establishment of the first federal law enforcement agency.

On July 24, 1861, a frustrated and angry Ward Hill Lamon, U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, wrote a scathing letter to President Lincoln. The letter—recently discovered in the manuscript collections of the National Archives—pulls no punches in laying out the situation for the president and delivering what amounts to an ultimatum:

To The President of the United States
Dear Sir:
Owing to the disorganized condition of the troops in this City, Washington has, ever since the battle at Bull’s Run on Sunday last, been momentarily in danger of disturbances of the peace and quiet: There have already been several riots since then, several men severely wounded—This evening two men were shot by drunken soldiers on the street—and one of them very dangerously, if not mortally wounded. In their present disorganized state, they are having a demoralizing effect upon the people and the citizens are in great terror of them—I would suggest respectfully, that the Military take immediate steps to remedy this evil—or I, as Marshal of the District of Columbia will be compelled to preserve the peace of the City—I have in my Official Capacity already spoken to [Commander of the Department of Washington] Genl [Joseph K.] Mansfield on the subject—
I am with great respect—
Your obt Servt,
Ward H. Lamon
U.S. Marshal

Perhaps no other man could have addressed Lincoln so directly, or so brusquely, as Ward Hill Lamon. He was, according to various scholars, Lincoln’s closest personal friend. Lincoln and the Virginia-born “Hill,” as his friends called him, had been fast friends for 13 years, beginning when both served on the 8th Circuit Court of Illinois. They became law partners in 1852, and five years later, Lamon named his second daughter Kate Lincoln. Lamon assisted Lincoln in his unsuccessful 1858 run for the Senate as well as his bid for the presidency two years later, and when Lincoln moved to Washington, Lamon followed, assuming the role of Lincoln’s unofficial bodyguard. As the president-elect was boarding the train for Washington, Illinois legislator Jesse Dubois reportedly took Lamon aside and advised, “[W]e entrust the sacred life of Mr. Lincoln to your keeping. If you don’t protect, never return to Illinois, for we will murder you on sight.”

A natural fighter and a huge man—he stood within an inch or two of the president’s 6-foot-4 height, and weighed well in excess of 200 pounds—Lamon did not need the admonishment; he was obsessed with Lincoln’s safety, and reportedly armed himself at all times with two pistols, two Bowie knives, a blackjack and a set of brass knuckles. In acknowledgment of his former partner’s friendship and devotion, Lincoln appointed Lamon to the post of U.S. marshal of the District of Columbia.

Lamon was not without sympathy for the defeated soldiers. Describing the Union Army after the battle as “greatly demoralized,” he later wrote, “They went into the fight being impressed with the justice of their cause and believing implicitly in the old adage ‘twice armed is he who hath his quarrel just,’ soon realized that faith and justice unassisted by the use of deadly weapons amount to but little in a fight, and that eternal vigilance, courage, determination and keeping the powder dry were necessary for conquest.” Sympathy aside, as marshal for the District of Columbia, he could not—and would not—tolerate anarchy.

Lamon’s letter made an impact on the president. The following day, he sent the marshal’s letter to an undisclosed recipient, having written on the back,

I am told by others, as well as Col. Lamon, that there is reality in the matter mentioned within.
A. Lincoln

Two days after Lamon sent the missive to the president, Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa introduced a bill proposing “to create a Metropolitan Police District of the District of Columbia, and to establish a police therefor[e].”

“This is a bill of very great importance to the people of the District,” urged Grimes, “and to the country at large at the present time. It is considered by the committee that it is necessary that it should be passed at an early day.”

Meanwhile, the army belatedly took action. Lincoln had replaced McDowell with Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan as commander of the army, and on July 30, Colonel Andrew Porter of the 16th U.S. Infantry was appointed as temporary provost marshal. Three days later, at McClellan’s behest, Porter issued General Order No. 1:

The following regulations for the Provost Guard of this city are published for the guidance of officers commanding guards and patrols, and for the information of all concerned:

In pursuance to instructions from Major General McClellan, it is directed that all officers frequenting the streets or hotels of the city without written permits to be absent from their regiments or stations, setting forth the object of the visit, approved by their brigade commanders, shall be arrested and sent to their regiments or stations by any officer commanding a patrol who may observe them.

Any soldier found absent from his company without a written permit from the commander of his brigade, and ALL soldiers found in the streets, hotels, or other places in the city after 9 o’clock P.M. shall be arrested and confined for trial and punishment. All prisoners will be taken to the central guardhouse of the city, where they will be turned over to the officer commanding the Guard at that station, who shall detain them in custody until otherwise ordered.

It shall be the constant purpose of all officers commanding guards or patrols to keep the city under vigilant observation, day and night, to the end that the public peace may not be in any way disturbed, nor the citizens molested in their persons or property by any person in the services of the United States.

Reports containing the time and places of all arrests, with the names of persons arrested, together with such other information as may be deemed important to the public service, will be made and handed in to this office at 9 o’clock A.M. daily.

A. Porter
Col. 16th Inf’y U.S.A. Provost Marshal

The order did little to immediately resolve the situation. On August 5, the National Republican ran a piece brimming with frustration, and headed, “A Nuisance”:

We are again requested by the residents…to call the attention of the Patrol Guard to the great numbers of drunken and disorderly soldiers….Instead of improving, the past seems to become worse day by day. In numerous cases, respectable females have been insulted in passing along, and various other outrages on law and order are constantly being perpetrated. Let it be stopped.

Next day, Grimes’ bill proposing the formation of a metropolitan police department was signed into law. The new department—the nation’s first federal law enforcement agency—would contain 10 precincts, each station house under a sergeant’s supervision, and up to 150 patrolmen, each of whom was responsible for providing his own uniform and weapons. The department would be governed by five presidentially appointed commissioners, comprising the Metropolitan Police Board, who in turn appointed a superintendent to head the force.

On the same day, another law was enacted aimed directly at curbing the soldiers’ drunken abuses. It prohibited the “sale of spirituous liquors and intoxicating drinks in the District of Columbia in certain cases. Be it enacted…[t]hat it shall not be lawful for any person in the District of Columbia to sell, give, or administer to any soldier or volunteer in the service of the United States, or any person wearing the uniform of such soldier or volunteer, any spirituous liquor or intoxicating drink, and every person offending against the provisions of this act shall…upon conviction thereof…be punished by a fine of twenty-five dollars or imprisonment for thirty days.”

By late August, Washington had attained a measure of peace. On arriving in the capital, one soldier noted, “I never saw such quiet in a city where military movements are carried on in such grand style. There is no life, no excitement.” As one historian described it, “The city that had been in disarray and disorder following the defeat at Bull Run now became a disciplined armed camp. Gone were the drunken soldiers roaming Pennsylvania Avenue and the demoralized officers who filled the saloons at Willard’s Hotel.”

It is tempting to conjecture that the newly found Lamon letter—and the threat implicit therein—was, at least in part, the catalyst behind McClellan’s General Order No. 1. Clearly, Lincoln credited the marshal’s claims, and it is reasonable to assume that the president encouraged his new army commander to address the issue of military discipline at once.

The bill proposing the Metropolitan Police Department, however, had been a while in the making. In fact, the National Republican had reported in detail on the 18-page bill in its July 21 issue—the same day the Rebels routed McDowell’s Union Army at Bull Run. Nonetheless, while Ward Lamon’s letter to President Lincoln describing the chaos in the capital certainly did not inspire the proposal for a Metropolitan Police Force, there can be little doubt that it played a part in ensuring the president signed it into law. The timing could not have been better.


Ron Soodalter is a columnist for America’s Civil War. The Lamon letter was discovered in the manuscript collections of the National Archives by Karen Needles, director of the Lincoln Archives Digital Project, who also provided a detailed history of the Metropolitan Police Department as well as first-hand documents.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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