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  • Writer's pictureRichard Condon

Allegheny Arsenal's Christmas Debacle of 1860

As the citizens of Pittsburgh awoke on a cold Christmas morning in 1860, they found themselves in the midst of a foreshadowing of events to come. With South Carolina's recent exit from the Union, and boiling tension between north and south, anti-secessionist sentiments began to materialize in western Pennsylvania. The December 25 issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette began as follows:

"This is the blessed Christmas Day - the day ushered in with songs of 'peace on earth, good will among men.' Yet today, all our talk is about war. It would be idle to cry 'Peace! Peace!' when there is no peace. But we may still spend the Christmas in memory of the peace it ushered in, and enjoy peace among ourselves if we may not with the traitors who are periling the peace of the Union..."

Much of what would follow detailed the state of affairs unfolding at the Allegheny Arsenal in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood. By December 24, orders had been received by John Symington, Major of Ordinance at Allegheny Arsenal, to load 124 heavy guns onto the Allegheny River, and ship them to southern forts. These weapons were to be received by Lt. Frederick Prime at Galveston, Texas, and Lt. William H. Stevens at Ship Island, Mississippi - one which would go on to serve as Chief Engineer to Ulysses S. Grant, while the latter would serve as Chief Engineer in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. It would turn out, however, that the aforementioned Gulf Coast forts were not even near completion at the time.

Immediate upheaval was reflected by the Gazette in a shared postscript, "Let the people assemble today, or to morrow, and utter their emphatic 'No!' to the order of the Secretary of War."

Frederick E. Prime in the pre-war years

William H. Stevens (LOC)

These orders, No. 666 and 667, were part of a directive concocted by Secretary of War John B. Floyd to move weapons and ordnance from northern arsenals and armories southward. Floyd, a native Virginian, had served as Governor of his home state prior to his role under the administration of James Buchanan. With this public knowledge available to the people of Pittsburgh, paired with the heated political climate of the time, many were unsurprisingly opposed to the removal of weaponry and ordnance from the United States Arsenal in Lawrenceville. As war clouds loomed over the nation, the last thing people of the "Iron City" wanted to see was their own weapons potentially used against them. William Maynadier, serving as Captain of Ordnance in Washington, issued Floyd's orders accordingly, regardless of any misgivings.

Secretary of War John B. Floyd (LOC)

Captain of Ordnance William Maynadier (LOC)

In Ulysses S. Grant's post-war memoirs, he made note of the situation that had unfolded in December 1860: "Floyd, the Secretary of War, scattered the army so that much of it could be captured when hostilities should commence, and distributed the cannon and small arms from Northern arsenals throughout the South so as to be on hand when treason wanted them."

Pittsburgh Daily Post - December 25, 1860

After receiving his orders, Major Symington meant to comply by loading the guns onto a contracted ship, the Silver Wave. The only thing standing in the way of his order's success was the sense of northern patriotism and suspicion shared by the residents of Pittsburgh. Between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a non-violent, yet heated gathering prevented the heavy guns from reaching their destination successfully. It was ultimately decided on Christmas Day that a city wide meeting was in order, to determine the fate of the Arsenal's guns. This meeting, held at the office of Mayor George Wilson, was one of several to follow. Those involved assembled a committee charged with producing a telegraph to the President, asking him to countermand the order given by Secretary of War Floyd. Following their assembly, a request was sent to Washington:

"An order issued by the War Department to transfer the effective munitions of war from the Arsenal in this city to Southern military posts, has created great excitement in the public mind. We would advise that the order be immediately countermanded. We speak at the instance of the people, and if not done, can not answer for the consequences."

While a number of small arm muskets did make the journey south from Allegheny Arsenal, the telegraph, and sentiments of the Pittsburgh committee, held merit. The guns that were intended to be shipped in late December 1860 did not make it to their secondary destination. Major Symington, believing everything was business as usual, wired a reply to the War Department regarding the shipment of arms.

Major John Symington (LOC)

On December 29, John B. Floyd resigned his position as Secretary of War, and would join the Confederate army in May 1861. Those who worked closely with Floyd during the "excitement" of December 1860, including William Maynadier, would be put under a microscope by Federal loyalists the following year, testing their undying allegiance to the Union cause.

Just four months before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Thomas Williams, Chairman of the assembled committee, shared the words of a newly formed resolution from the steps of the Allegheny Courthouse. In an almost prophetic manner, Williams uttered, "notwithstanding the notorious fact that our rulers are disarming the friends and arming the enemies of the Union, we feel that its friends are strong enough even without other arms than their own to sustain the Constitution and the Laws and to follow and retake the guns thus ordered to be removed in case they shall be traitorously employed against them"

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