The service of my Great-great grandfather, William Nisbet Olmsted, during the American Civil War was brief. Together with his comrades in the elite 7th New York militia regiment, he marched to the defense of the nation's capitol in the first month on the war, served his 30 days, and returned to his business interests in New York. Although many of the Seventh's members subsequently became officers and leaders in other regiments during the war, Pvt. William N. Olmsted was not among these but was soon off to the China trade and adventures of a different sort in Canton.
Margaret Leech wryly describes the arrival of the Seventh Regiment in the capitol in her book Reveille in Washington:
"The deliverance of Washington was effected in style. It was relieved by the Seventh New York, the kid-glove militia corps of the North. In spick-and-span gray uniforms with pipe-clayed crossbelts on their breasts, the young gentlemen had had several day's experience of the inconveniences of war - dirty, crowded ships and coarse rations, long marches and hard labor. The sandwiches, prepared for them under the supervision of Delmonico, had long ago been eaten; and they had had to leave at Annapolis a thousand velvet camp stools. All night long they had trudges the miles from Annapolis to the Junction, helping the Eighth Massachusetts to repair the track, sharing their rations with hungry, resolute sailors and mechanics. The New Yorkers had suffered their hardships without complaint - even fellows who would send back a turban de volaille aux truffes at Delmonico's, if the truffles happened to be tough. The had come to save the capital, and were proudly aware of their own pluck and perseverance. As they marched in perfect step to the White House, with flags flying and bands playing, and rifles and little brass howitzers shining in the sun, they accepted the welcome of the Washington population as their rightful due." - Leech pg. 66.
Despite their pretensions, this precious regiment of blue bloods in gray was most welcome in the scantily defended capitol during those fearful weeks in April, when Virginia was almost certain to secede and the 6th Massachusetts had just been stoned in the streets of Baltimore by a hostile populous. Washington was ill-prepared to garrison the volunteers who arrived to provide for its relief, and government buildings were pressed into service to quarter them. The Eighth Massachusetts were housed under the unfinished rotunda of the capitol building, while The 1st Rhode Island bivouacked in the US Patent Office. It was the Seventh's lot to be assigned the ornate Chamber of the House of Representatives. The soldiers thought it a great lark to hold mock sessions of Congress, complete with overblown oratory, while others slept on gallery benches or made use of the Congressmen's lavatories. They helped themselves freely to Congressional stationery, and many sent letters in official envelopes that had already been franked with 3 cents postage. My great-great Grandfather also indulged in this practice, and one of the letters he sent - with his own stamp, at least - survives in our family archives.
Olmsted's letter was written after the regiment had moved to a new camp on Meridian Hill - clearly he kept a stash of stationary for future use - and describes camp life, the locations of other regiments, and the sentiments of the volunteers whose 30 days service was drawing to a close.
"The thirty days for which the Regiment was sworn in will expire next Sunday, and I am very much afraid that we will return home, as I want to see and do some service. Some of the Officers and men want to remain but I think the majority of them are in favor of returning; they argue that they only came here to protect the Capital until the arrival of other Regiments, and that object having been accomplished, there is nothing to prevent them returning honorably. We hear that there is a strong feeling in New York against the return of the Regiment at the expiration of their time, and though I am in favor of remaining, I think that some injustice is done them, as many of the men came away without any expectation of remaining as long as they have done, and their businesses is suffering in consequence."
It was a simpler time, when a well-regulated militia and a small professional army were all that stood between the country and those who sought it harm. The idea that militia units would serve not only during a short-term crisis but for 2 or 3 years, or even the duration of the war, was unprecedented since American Independence. We should not judge too harshly these bandbox soldiers of the Seventh. Their modern day counterparts in the National Guard have seen their terms of service extended far beyond what many of them anticipated when they enlisted.
The Seventh was called out during the draft riots in New York in 1863, and passed in review during Lincoln's funeral procession through the city two years later. Lincoln himself had reviewed the regiment during its first week in Washington, when many thought the war would be over in a matter of months instead of four terrible years.