With the Confederate Army firing on Fort Sumter, the Civil War has begun—and an invasion of Washington, DC, from Secessionist Virginia seems imminent. As the population evacuates, the President is in desperate need of men to defend the capital.
Lincoln’s trusted aide, Adam Speed Quinn, and Quinn’s old friend from the Bloody Kansas conflict, Senator Jim Lane, hastily assemble a motley crew of just over a hundred men and garrison them in the East Room at the White House. Dubbed the Frontier Guard, these rough-and-tumble patriots steel themselves for the inevitable attack.
But even as dawn breaks with no Rebel strike, a single act of violence intrudes within the White House. One of the Frontier Guard lies dead in the oval library, throat slit ear to ear. There is a murderer among them.
Lincoln promptly assigns Quinn to deal with the matter, who is in turn aided by journalist Sophie Gates and Dr. George Hilton. And to Quinn’s chagrin, the Southern belle Constance Lemagne insists on being involved in the investigation as well. But when Dr. Hilton examines the body, he makes a startling discovery that overturns all Quinn’s assumptions about the murder. With his president at grave risk from without and within, Quinn must act quickly to catch the White House killer . . .
About the Author
Barry Press, an active professional actor, director, and teacher for over thirty-five years, has performed Off-Broadway and at numerous regional theaters. The winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award, Barry has been an active voice talent for books in a variety of genres.
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"At 5 o'clock in the afternoon ... the telegraphic wire brought the long looked-for intelligence that WAR HAS BEGUN, and that the forces of the Confederated Traitors have struck the first blow ... Many had hoped the contest might yet be avoided. Others thought the Federal Government would back down rather than shed blood; and others were certain that a Divine Providence would interfere to prevent so fratricidal a strife. ... The feeling of rejoicing was everywhere to be met: that Major Anderson had not lowered his flag, and that President Lincoln had determined to sustain, even at so fearful a cost, the honor of the country." — New York Times, April 13, 1861, reporting on the firing upon Fort Sumter
April 14, 1861Washington, D.C.
The capital was hardly more than a bedraggled swamp lined with muddy, unpaved roads and studded with a few stately buildings: the Capitol (appearing half-dressed with its unfinished dome), the President's House, the Treasury, and the Smithsonian Institution. Despite all the grand plans of its American forefathers from less than a century before, Washington City remained the ugly, simple stepsister of Philadelphia, New York City, New Orleans, and Charleston.
Today, a mild Sunday in mid-April, the unpaved streets were thronged with people crowded around bulletin boards. Some were clustered in the drinking rooms of the largest hotels, worrying, arguing, or celebrating — depending on the side with which each sympathized — for word had come via telegraph late yesterday and news was still trickling in: The war had begun.
Adam Speed Quinn, a new and reluctant resident of the small, muddy capital, had no need to stop and read the notices on the boards, to try and buy one of the few unsold newspapers, or to crowd around the bar counter at Willard's to get updates on the news. He'd just come from the Executive Mansion and the private office of Mr. Lincoln himself. Because of this, Adam, at least, knew what was just beginning to dawn on the people of Washington: their city would soon be invaded by the Confederate army.
"Mr. Quinn!" Birch, the elderly Negro doorman at the Willard Hotel, greeted him as he stepped aside for Adam to pass through to the lobby. His rheumy eyes were watery but sharp, and he stood erect in his uniform and spotless white gloves. "You done seen the president, sir? Is he well?"
"I've just come from his side. I reckon he's the least rattled of anyone in the city right now. Which ain't sayin' much." Adam gave Birch a grim smile as the man touched his hat in greeting, then went on into the lobby.
Though the roar of conversation and debate spilled from down the red-carpeted hall where the bar and men's restaurant were located, the fancy, chandeliered lobby was nearly empty. Its lone occupant was a tall, lanky man of forty-seven with weather-beaten, sun-brown skin. He was dressed in a manner similar to Adam in black trousers and a homespun, double-breasted cotton shirt with a creased leather vest over it. He held a wide-brimmed black hat in one hand, and from the looks of his messy dark hair, it appeared that he had just recently removed it.
Adam knew better. Jim Lane never combed his wild mop of hair, and shaved only when he had to — that is, he claimed, when the stubble became too itchy. Thus, Lane always looked as if he'd just come in from one of the wild winds that stormed across the Kansas prairie. That appearance contributed to his reputation of being a brilliant war general who was more than slightly mad.
"Senator," Adam said as they embraced, clapping each other on the back vigorously. "Glad to see you made it in one piece. And congratulations. If I'd still been in KT for the election, you'd have had my vote."
"Thank you — and what's this senator nonsense?" Lane said. Though at six foot four he towered over most men, he was just above eye-level with the younger Adam. "You leave Kansas Territory to travel with the president, and you get all formal and citified?" Adam grinned. "I reckon if you take a better look, you'll see I ain't been citified yet." He gestured to his scuffed, worn boots and the loose, knee-length frontier coat he'd not given up since coming to the capital.
Lane laughed. "You, me, and Abe Lincoln — we're proof you can't take the frontier out of the man once he's been there, I reckon." Then he sobered. "Does he have any good idea what we're all up against?"
The moment of easy humor passed and Adam shook his head. "Hell, no one here does, Jim. No one who wasn't in Kansas knows how bloodthirsty and violent the proslavers are. The people here — no matter what side — are saying this'll be over by end of the summer, tops." Adam gave a bitter laugh. "You and I know better'n that."
"I'll do whatever he needs," Lane said simply. "You tell him that."
Lane and the president had become friends during Lincoln's speaking tour in Kansas only eighteen months ago, in December 1859. At that time, Adam was barely recovered from the injury that took his arm, but he'd been with the future president while he traveled through Kansas and had introduced the two men.
"That's why I'm here — besides that I needed to shake my new senator's hand." Adam's quick smile faded. "I heard most of your speech last night — out there on the Avenue. The crowd was too thick for me to get to you."
"They had me standing on a rickety dry-goods box out there on the street, and one of those bastards got close enough — tried to set me on fire." He flapped the back of his battered coat at Adam, displaying a coin-sized burn mark near the hem. "Damned near fell on my arse because the crate tipped on the cobblestones."
"Damn." But Adam wasn't surprised. The pro-slavers he'd encountered in Kansas were vicious and didn't hold back from any sort of violence. "Better cobblestones and a rickety crate than standing in that swamp out past the President's House, or in mud up to your ankles."
"Thank God for small favors. Although I reckon I didn't expect to see a pair of pigs walking along the street in the middle of the capital city."
"That happens," Adam said with a quirk of his lips. "They like to wallow behind City Hall in the square there." When Lane looked at him as if he wasn't certain whether to believe him, he added, "God's truth. Sometimes there are even chickens gathered on the National Mall, there."
"Well I'll be damned," Lane muttered. "Lawrence is still more civilized than Washington. I thought that might have changed since I was here last."
"Anyway, I reckon your reputation preceded you here to the capital. All of those Southern rebels know who you are. And they're telling tales." Adam had been at the outskirts of the crowd who'd gathered around Lane last night on the street shortly after word had come of the fall of Fort Sumter.
The new Kansas senator was nearly as well-known nationally as the new president — and was equally feared and hated by the pro-slavers. He was legendary for being a little mad and very bold when it came to battle. Adam had seen his friend acting with both strategic, calculated moments as well as in a sort of feral, berserker sort of mood — both of which had sealed his reputation.
However he'd come away victorious, Lane was a national figure. He'd been called the General Washington of Kansas because of the way he'd successfully led a small number of frontier freedom fighters in months of battle against a large crew of Southern soldiers, as well as much of the federal government — both of which wanted to make Kansas a slave state. The Free Staters had finally won at the ballot box in 1859, but only after much death and bloodshed.
Hatred for the man from Lawrence had followed the senator here, and last night during Lane's impromptu speech, he'd nearly been mobbed by Southern sympathizers and other pro-slavers who knew Lane from Kansas. These antagonists threatened to hang him. But Adam and a dozen or so other Loyalists put their hands on their revolvers, clicking the hammers in a sharp warning to those who wanted to start a riot. The troublemakers who were interspersed among the crowd realized suddenly they didn't know exactly who was standing next to them: ally or enemy. The cries and threats for hanging went silent.
For the moment.
"They're going to take the city, you know, Jim. The Confederates. As soon as Virginia secedes — and that's going to be any day now, I reckon. If Maryland goes too, there's no hope for Washington, caught as we are between the two states — and the city already mostly Southern. All the Rebels have to do is come across the Potomac. They're eight hundred feet away. Eight hundred feet from taking the damned city."
Lane swore under his breath. "How many Union men you got here?"
"Lincoln's calling up the city militia, but dammit, they're most of them Southerners themselves. And none of 'em are experienced in any sort of battle fighting. Half of them are older and fatter than my Aunt Gertrude. Even so, I reckon you ask if they'd actually fire on the Confederates, and that'd be like asking them to fire on a brother. Most of 'em surely are brothers — or cousins. This is a damned thing. A damned thing." Adam had kept these thoughts to himself when in the president's office, but they'd been haunting him for weeks.
The whole country knew the war was inevitable — ever since Lincoln had been elected. Once that had happened, there was no turning back.
Though the new president clearly and repeatedly stated he had no intention of freeing the slaves in the South, people in those states didn't believe him. Even more than that, they wanted assurance that the "peculiar institution" of slavery could expand west along with the nation. That, however, was where Lincoln drew the line. He would not see slavery expand into any more territories or states — on that he'd been clear.
That was how he'd been elected. And that was why he'd been getting death threats — both openly and secretly — since the votes were counted.
"There's no one here to protect the city, then."
"Not enough, anyway. Not until more troops get here from the north — which could be a week or more. He's expecting fifty thousand or more — he'll be publishing the official proclamation calling up the troops tomorrow. But who knows when they'll get here."
Lane looked grimmer than ever. "And in the mean time, those damned pro-slavers won't hesitate to shoot and kill anyone — brother or no."
Adam didn't need to verbalize his agreement. He was personally acquainted with violent pro-slavers like John Atchison and John Stringfellow. And it was Orin Bitter, his red-headed cohort Leward Hale, and their small gang who'd taken not only Adam's arm from him, but also the life of his best friend ... and more. Tom, Mary, and little Carl Stillwell.
He tamped back the rise of memory, the grief that still hadn't gone, and returned his clear-eyed gaze to Lane. Both men — and many of their friends and cohorts — had experienced deep losses on the Kansas prairie. Because of that, they knew what to expect in a battle against Southern rebels who were determined to protect their way of life. There would be no quarter given. The Secessionists would fight like savages. The rest of the country had no idea what they were about to face — but Adam and Jim Lane, and the other frontiersmen who'd fought with them, did.
"The Confederates won't wait. They'd be foolish to hesitate from attacking Washington. Everyone knows the city's not prepared and hardly protected. And when they take the city," Adam continued, speaking his worst fear aloud for the first time, "they'll go for the President's House right off."
He and Lane looked at each other. There was no need to say anything more. They'd both seen what the pro-slavers had done to the men they hated and considered their enemies. It wasn't just simple killing. There were tar-and-featherings, beatings, cuttings, hangings, and more. More often than not, those horrific actions had been unprovoked and retaliatory — not even taking place in the heat of battle.
"Then they ain't gonna take the city. And they sure as hell ain't gonna take the president or his house," Lane said flatly. "I reckon Mr. Lincoln needs a special guard, and I reckon we're the ones to do it."
"There's some good Free State Kansas fighters already here in Washington. I reckon they're ready to fight for the Union again."
"Then let's rally up those frontiersmen to that big white house." Lane extended his weathered hand.
"I already told Mr. Lincoln you'd say that." Adam shook his friend's hand firmly, feeling as if he finally had a true ally in town. "He's hesitant about garrisoning soldiers at the 'people's house' — doesn't want to upset the public — but I'll talk him into it."
"I don't see how the president has any choice."
"I don't reckon he does."
Thursday, April 18
It wasn't until four days later, when word came that the Confederates had attacked the Union armory at Harper's Ferry less than seventy miles away, that the president was convinced to let Jim Lane bring his frontier fighters to the Executive Mansion. Although the outnumbered Union troops had done their best to keep the federal arsenal and weaponry from the hands of the Rebels by setting fire to the Harper's Ferry armory, that small town was now in the hands of the Confederates — and far too close to Washington for comfort.
Nearly five hundred troops from Pennsylvania had arrived in the capital on the seven o'clock train, and they'd be stationed at the Capitol and Treasury Building. The colonel from Kentucky, Cassius Clay, had gathered a small group of a hundred or so staunch Union men, and they were garrisoned at the Willard Hotel.
Colonel Stone assigned Clay's men to patrol the streets, but Lane and Adam — along with Major David Hunter — had convinced the president he needed more security in the presidential residence. They all feared the Confederates would not hesitate to storm the Executive Mansion and kidnap or assassinate the president.
"It's a damned thing," Lincoln said as he, Hunter, and Adam greeted Lane at the main entrance to the house. "Having soldiers garrisoned inside the White House." The president squinted a little and seemed particularly grave as he looked out over the motley troop of sixty soldiers assembled on the Ellipse — the oval-shaped drive on the north side of the mansion. The men had just marched loudly and conspicuously along Pennsylvania Avenue from Willard's. Their shadows fell in long swaths behind them, for the sun was low to the horizon.
"Half the city's evacuated itself. The streets have been clogged with people taking all their belongings and getting out of town," said Adam, wondering about young Brian Mulcahey and his family.
The Mulcaheys were poor Irish immigrants who lived in the mean, primitive alleys in the First Ward, just north of Lafayette Square and the President's House. Would they have left too? Did they have any means or money to travel? Adam reckoned he could make the time to check on them tomorrow.
"We all know the Rebels are coming. Word is, they might be coming even tonight. But they won't take your house, Mr. President. Not while we're here," Lane said in an uncharacteristically formal manner.
"From your mouth to Heaven's ear," replied Lincoln.
The president stood in the grand foyer, just past the wizened Irishman Edward McManus — the doorman who'd worked for seven presidents — and greeted each of the frontier fighters as they came in.
Lincoln's hand was just as callused and weathered as those he shook from the men determined to guard him, and though at six-foot-four, he loomed taller than all but Jim Lane, he was as informal and relaxed as they were in dress, manner, and words. To a man, each one greeted him with a steady gaze and a firm shake, expressing his honor at being called to this duty.
"I'll sleep outside your bedroom door," Lane said to the president when all his men had trooped through. He adjusted the rifle he held over a shoulder and pulled back his coat to reveal the revolver tucked in a holster.
"I'll stay in the East Room with the rest of the men," Major Hunter said, and Adam, who considered himself an unofficial member of the Frontier Guard, as Lane had dubbed the men, agreed he would do the same.
"No uniforms," Lane replied when Secretary of War Cameron broached the subject of clothing and weapons for the Kansans. "If they're in uniform, it's too easy for the enemy to count the exact number. Let the men stay in their own clothing so no one knows just how many we have. That's going to be important — we've got to give off that there's more of us than there are. As for rifles and bayonets, we'll take as many as you can give us." While the Frontier Guard was armed with rifles, bayonets, and ammunition, Adam took Lane to the second floor so he could get the lay of the land there.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder in the Oval Library"
Copyright © 2018 C.M. Gleason.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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