Norwalkers Orris Ferry & A. Homer Byington Help Guard Washington

Before enough regiments of Northern troops arrived in Washington, a militia was formed to guard the capital, and two Norwalkers were a part of it.

On April 18, 1861, the report of a plot to torch Washington, DC caused alarm among loyal citizens, who formed what became known as the Cassius Clay Guard, and among them were former Congressman Orris S. Ferry and newspaper editor A. Homer Byington, both of Norwalk.

"Much anxiety has become felt for the safety of our Federal Capitol," Byington wrote in a dispatch with this date to the Norwalk Gazette, which he edited and owned. "On Thursday afternoon last the War Department was informed of a plot on the part of the resident traitors in Washington, to blow up the gas house and to fire the city that night, and in the general confusion to rush in and seize the Capitol Building, the Departments and President's House.

"Immediately all the clerks and employees of the government were armed and placed on guard," Byington continued. "At Willard's Hotel, an impromptu meeting of the guests were held, and a company of over two hundred were organized and equipped, and placed under the leadership of that brave and gallant Kentukian, CASSIUS M. CLAY.

"Among the guests at this House were Capt. J. S. Chalker of Hartford, President Chas. S. Bushnell and Honest John Woodruff of New Haven, our own Mr. Ferry, and our senior, all of whom shouldered their Sharp's rifles and patrolled the city till morning.

"The entire force thus organized numbered several hundreds, and but for this timely discovery and prompt action, the traitors would undoubtedly have made their demonstration."

Byington's article appeared in the April 23 edition of the Gazette.

Byington and Ferry had quite a bit in common, in addition to both being from Norwalk. For their time, both had rather sympathetic views toward blacks, and both were strongly opposed to slavery: Byington had editorialized for giving blacks the vote, a distinctly minority position in Connecticut, and in his one term in Congress Ferry had spoken strongly against slavery.

Both were Republicans very early in the party's history, and Byington (in a time when newspaper editors were quite public in their partisan sympathies) ran the Republican Party in Norwalk for a while, including when Ferry first ran for Congress (and lost) in 1857. Byington was quite supportive of Ferry in the pages of the Gazette. Both men were in their 30s (Ferry would turn 38 this year; Byington, 35). Both showed qualities of leadership and acted on deeply held principles.

Both men had been in the militia, when it existed in Norwalk, and presumably each knew how to handle the Connecticut-made Sharpe's rifles they were shouldering that night.

Byington was a raconteur who eventually got to know Abraham Lincoln and swapped tall tales and jokes with him. The newspaperman not only mixed journalism with politics—he also mixed it with business. During the Civil War, he worked as a lobbyist, helping Connecticut's arms manufacturers sell weapons to the federal government.

Ferry does not appear to have been a raconteur at all. According to his obituary in Connecticut Reports, a legal publication described him as having "a fine legal mind. It was not acute and subtle, but it was broad, comprehensive, logical, quick of apprehension, and rapid in its operations. He had an excellent memory, both of facts and principles.

"He was not a man of especial tact, nor of artful expedients, neither was he cool, calculating and passionless; on the contrary, he was always frank, open-hearted, ardent in temperament, and naturally so impulsive that he would often have made grievous mistakes but for the restraining power of his strong common sense and clear intellect."

In his speeches, "He never raised a laugh," and except for legal arguments before a judge, "he was earnest and impassioned in manner, enchaining attention, and often, as it were, compelling assent. When great interests were at stake he seemed wholly enwrapped in his subject, his large eyes flashing with enthusiasm, and his whole person giving emphasis to his utterances."

He was described as eloquent: "His language was well chosen, but not fastidious. There was nothing sententious, brilliant or especially original in his style of expression or mode of thought, but his words, tersely and forcibly expressing his meaning, issued forth, when in his impassioned arguments, like the rush of a torrent. He never halted or hesitated in the choise of language, nor had occasion to recall a word misused, to re-construct a tangled or obscure sentence, or to re-state a proposition to make it more clear. And in this respect his manner in private conversation was the same."

The Gazette had reported that Ferry had gone to Washington on Thursday, April 11, to attend to business related to his seat in the House of Representatives—the one he'd lost days before by a razor-thin election margin. It also reported that Ferry was not whining over his loss and intended to return to Norwalk to work again in the legal profession (he had been a successful attorney and had previously been state's attorney for Fairfield County).


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