Cozy Bunks in the Patent Office, 1861

(Harpers Weekly, July 21, 1861)
(LOC Image: LC-USZ62-59276)

At the start of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 troops in the defense of the United States for 90 days – a time frame the Government felt would be enough to suppress the Rebellion. Rhode Island, a state whose staunch allegiance to the United States dates back before the American Revolution, was the first to answer the call and organize.

Packed tightly aboard transport ships, Rhode Island Militia Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside led a large contingent of troops to Washington, D.C. to ready for war.

Washington, D.C. was still a young city in 1861. The space required for soldiers was simply not there. Many units like the First Rhode Island Regiment were forced to find alternative quarters. The image above is a sketch from the June 1, 1861 edition of Harper’s Weekly. The image portrays the men of the First Rhode Island Regiment sleeping three to a bunk inside the U.S. Patent Office in NW DC. The short article accompanying the image detailed the Regiment’s short stay in the unorthodox barracks:

“Never since American inventive genius was first aroused did the Patent Office contain such remarkable models of American manufacture as those which now sleep three deep in ‘bunks’ spread along the edge of the cabinets; and to those students of mechanism who have been wont to restore to the Patent Office to work out unfinished problems and botch great inventions, the presence of the sturdy Rhode Islanders, and the stacks of eloquent muskets present a novel and a starling scene.”

The 90-day volunteers fought in the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. It would be their only combat experience. The Regiment left the DC area for home on July 25, 1861 and mustered out in early August. During the time in service, the First Rhode Island Regiment lost twenty-five men to combat and disease.

Source Information:

“Our Army at Washington.” Harpers Weekly, July 1, 1861.