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"The Riot at the Theater"

by Shaun Reeser

Source: Washington Statesman April 19, 1862, page 2, columns 2-3

Subject: The events during and after the theater riot are described

Synopsis: The editors describe the events of both the riot on April 10 and the exchange of letters with commentary from April 13. Lt. Col. Lee seems to blame the townspeople for all of the events and almost dismisses the negligent conduct of the soldiers. Mayor Whitman offers clear, concise, and biting replies. The matter remained unsettled with this issue of the newspaper.

Text:

The Riot at the Theater

We publish to-day [sic] an interesting correspondence between Mayor Whitman and Lt. Col. Lee, growing out of the recent unfortunate affray at the theater, and the conduct of some of the soldiery since that event. Every peaceable citizen hoped and expected that the disgraceful proceedings of that evening would close the drama; and it is to be deeply regretted that they did not, inasmuch as subsequent transactions have exhibited a most deplorable disregard of law and order, if not a fixed and settled enmity between residents of the city and the soldiers quartered at the garrison.

On the part of the citizens who were engaged in the affray, notwithstanding the fact that officers of the law had been suffered to be stricken down and their authority contemned and boldly set at defiance, we are satisfied they cherished no disposition to aggravate the difficulty either by word or deed. Remaining within the limits of the city, they have peaceably and quietly pursued their accustomed business. Not so with the soldiers. Cherishing unjustifiably an excited and hostile dispositions, they imitated the unwarrantable conduct of their fellows on the night in question, by parading our streets with an armed force, thus exhibiting a total and wanton disregard for the law and civil authorities. The mildest terms that can be applied to this procedure must characterize it as a high-handed outrage upon the rights of the people of this city, and a gross insult to the dignity and authority of their laws. It is true, the soldiery represented themselves, through their officers, as having the authority of Col. Lee, and by virtue of his authority demanded the yielding up of a private citizen. This, it will be seen, is denied by the Colonel; and though circumstances and report, both by citizens and soldiers, may contradict him, we have not right in this matter to question his veracity. It is true that the men came here fully armed and equipped, prepared for any emergency that their presence or conduct might have provoked, and these arms must have been issued to them by somebody. More than one of the soldiers have stated that they were issued by the Quartermaster’s sergeant, and have stated at the same time that they supposed their belligerent visit to our town was entirely in regular form and order. Still they may have been laboring under a wrong impression, it having been made to appear to many of them that this was the case by the more designing ones among them, in order to get them enlisted in the crusade. Taking it for granted, then, that the men conceived and executed this high-handed infraction of our rights, what a magnificent specimen of command the admission exhibits, and how “ample” the “power” of the commanding officer to punish the offenders! Under these circumstances, it becomes us to inquire what security we may have in the future against a like lawless and unprovoked invasion.

There is one clause in the letter of Col. Lee to the Mayor which deserves special attention, inasmuch as the allegations therein contained are entirely false, and calculated to produce a wrong impression upon the public mind. It is the one which pronounces the accidental killing of a soldier at the theater a “wanton and most likely premeditated murder” of one of the most peaceable solders in his command; and this flimsy pretense is offered in palliation of the subsequent lawless conduct of his soldiers. All who were present on the evening of the affray know that this is an entire misrepresentation of its character; and that the idea of a premeditated murder [emphasis in original] resulting from the occasion in question – beginning and ending in a moment – is too simple and ridiculous to deserve comment, much less to be believed. The simple truth is that on the might in question one of the soldiers became a source of annoyance to the audience, and defied the officer’s authority upon being told to cease his disturbance. The office attempted to remove him from the house, which was violently resisted by several of the soldiers; whereupon he called for assistance. After this a general fight ensued, in which both soldiers and citizens participated. It was one of those unfortunate occurrences which sometimes arise upon the spur of the moment, and one which certainly cannot be healed by aggravation from either side. We do not believe that a single citizen engaged in the affray who was not called upon by an officer. We infer that the object of the solders was to prevent the ejectment [sic] of their comrade, and the eagerness manifested on their part showed a determination to this end. On the part of the citizens, we cannot but suppose that they acted in good faith in their efforts to suppress the riot and aid the officers in the discharge of their duty.

The Colonel talks flippantly about a certain “notorious criminal,” and professes great surprise that “the citizens of this city did not take interest enough in the matter to have him arrested.” Why pitch upon this particular man and attempt to arrest him without due process of complaint nor form the law? If he should be arrested by mob law, why not all the others who participated, soldiers and citizens? They certainly were not less to blame. Again, we assume that the officers on that occasion were acting within the legitimate province of their duty in quelling the rot and restoring order. If so, citizens who participated to secure the same end, having been called by the officers, were just as much warranted in their action. Who then, had the officers a right to arrest on the spot, without the process of complaint and issuance of papers? Most conclusively those who resisted their authority. Under our laws there are proper forms of investigation. We have a grand jury, and besides, every man has a right to enter a complaint against an offender and have him brought to justice. The offices are supposed to proceed according to law, and we are not aware of any papers having as yet been placed in their hands for the arrest of anybody concerned in the affair.

Transcribed by Shaun Reeser