The Smithsonian
The Renwick Gallery The Old Patent Office Building Mary Henry's Diary Joseph Henry The Castle
he secession crises of 1861 and the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12–13 had practical implications for Joseph Henry and the Smithsonian, as it did for all of Washington. On April 15, President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring that an insurrection had commenced. He called on the states to send 75,000 volunteer militia to the unprotected capital. Two days later in Alexandria a secession flag was hoisted atop the Marshall House hotel in celebration of the Virginia state convention in Richmond, which had just voted a referendum for secession. This inauspicious flag was visible from the Castle towers and the White House. On April 19, Southern firebrands in Baltimore rioted when the 6th Massachusetts Volunteers, in answer to Lincoln's call, passed through the city. Rebels cut telegraph lines, isolating Washington from the North. For several anxious days, residents and city authorities alike feared that the capital would be attacked, “if not by the Southern Confederacy,” wrote Joseph Henry, “by reckless filibusters, who, taking advantage of a state of war, will endeavor to surprise the city.” His opinion was reinforced by Secretary of War Simon Cameron in a memo of April 20, informing Henry that the colonel of ordnance would be issuing the Smithsonian 12 muskets and 240 rounds of ammunition “for the protection of the Institute against lawless attacks.”

From the beginning, Joseph Henry was confronted with the exigencies of war. As a scientist, he had emphasized the need for the institution to be apolitical and autonomous of government interference. To demonstrate the institution's neutrality, Henry did not fly the American flag over the Castle during the conflict. He was criticized for this, and his patriotism was questioned by some, but never by President Lincoln or his administration. Henry believed that in the event of a hostile attack, the institution might fare better if it flew no colors at all, especially during that precarious spring of 1861. Ironically, Henry’s immediate concern was not fending off attacking Southerners, but coping with the influx of Yankees seeking quarters in such public buildings as the Capitol and the Patent Office. When authorities suggested the Smithsonian as a temporary barracks, Henry argued instead that its use as an infirmary would be “more in accordance with the spirit of the Institution.” The War Department respected his wishes and did not impose upon the institution. Still, Henry proved to be a valuable asset to the administration. He and President Lincoln personally liked and admired the talents of the other, although their political philosophies differed significantly about the wisdom of resorting to arms. Henry believed that war was a mistake and that it would not necessarily lead to a reconciliation between North and South. Nevertheless, he placed himself and the institution at the service of federal authorities whenever science could lend a hand to the war effort.

In June 1861, aeronaut Thaddeus S. C. Lowe brought his balloon to the Smithsonian for Henry's inspection and to make an ascent to test the use of telegraphing from the air to the ground. Henry supported Lowe's efforts to provide the Union army with aerial reconnaissance. Likewise, he cooperated with Albert J. Myer, the army's first chief of the signal corps, in testing a system of lantern signals at night from the Castle’s highest tower. In February 1862, Henry was named to a three-member navy advisory commission to assist the government in assessing such new scientific innovations as the design of ironclad ships and new weapons. The board’s formal evaluations on hundreds of proposals, many of them impractical, saved the government from spending money on bad inventions.

Throughout the conflict, the Smithsonian would experience what Henry called “interruptions” of its own programs. One of Henry's first scientific endeavors as secretary was to establish a national network of volunteer weather observers, who would send monthly reports to the Smithsonian by mail or telegraph. The war largely interfered with these means of communication, especially hindering news from the South and West. There would be other interruptions for sure, but no event was as devastating as the Castle fire on January 24, 1865. An improperly installed stovepipe caused the fire, which did extensive damage to the building and collections. Worse still, most of the Smithsonian’s early records were reduced to ashes. The building would be restored, and within days the military had constructed a temporary roof. Yet the bulk of Henry’s letters, some 85,000 pages, would be mostly irretrievable. “In the space of an hour was thus destroyed the labor of years,” wrote Mary Henry in her diary of her father’s loss. Mary went on to record how the letters had been “written with great care & were in answer to questions upon almost every subject. . . . It is next to losing Father to have them go.”

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