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Homeland Security, 1865

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 7, Number 9

The Treasury Guards was a regiment of male employees of the Department of the Treasury, formed into a militia during the Civil War, to be available to assist in the defense of Washington. The Treasury Guards, with other departmental units, were called up to protect Federal buildings in July 1864 when Confederate General Jubal Early threatened to invade Washington. Their ongoing responsibilities undoubtedly included protection of the Treasury building itself, employees, stock of currency and coin, and currency manufacturing operations from attack.

Despite their "national defense" mission, the armed Treasury Guards did not become a part of any military organization. All male Treasury employees, 18-45, except those exempted for health reasons, were required to join the Treasury Guards. Although it was a common practice for a gentleman to be allowed to pay another person to serve in his place when he was drafted into the Union Army, such exemption from service in the Treasury Guards was not provided to Treasury's male employees.

The Treasury Guards, numbering about 1,000, drilled at least two days each week for several hours after the regular business hours. The exact location of their drills does not appear to have been documented. Through rigorous drills and training, the group was brought to a high state of discipline and efficiency for service in the event of an emergency. Contrary to the views of many, there are no records that indicate that the Treasury Guards had responsibilities for delivering payroll to Union troops in the field.

The women clerks of Treasury bought a flag for the Treasury Guards. It was 6 by 6 ½ feet, on a navy blue field, with a large spread-wing American eagle in the center holding a sheaf of arrows in the right claw and an olive branch in the left. Below the eagle, "U.S. TREASURY GUARDS" was inscribed in white ribbon. This flag was loaned to Ford's Theater on Tenth Street on April 14, 1865, as part of the decoration of the President's box. It was this flag that assassin John Wilkes Booth caught the spur of his boot, as he leaped from the box onto the stage, after firing the mortal shots into President Abraham Lincoln, causing a 3 ½ inch tear in the upper right edge of the flag, and (perhaps) a fracture in Booth's leg. The original of this flag is now on exhibit in the Lincoln Museum in the lower level of Ford's Theater, and duplicates of the flag have been placed on the restored Presidential box in the main theatre area, just as it had been displayed on the day that Lincoln was shot, as well as in the Andrew Johnson suite in the Treasury Building.

On September 27, 1865, Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch requested that the Treasury Guards be disbanded. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton disbanded the unit by Special Order 548 on October 16, 1865. This was one more step in the process by which the Nation reunited its states of the North and the South to build a strong union.

Reprinted from the Treasury Historical Association Newsletter, April 2004, used with permission.