In the nation's capital, the Fourth of July, 1861, began with a parade. As bands played, 20,000 militiamen strode proudly down Pennsylvania Avenue. Any thoughts that this was just another festive Independence Day in Washington, D.C. quickly vanished, however, when onlookers observed the vast number of military troops cramped in the city and heard reports that enemy forces stood only a day's march away.
At noon, enduring the city's noise, dust, stench, and oppressive heat, members of Congress convened an emergency "extraordinary" session. Following the April bombardment of Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln declared a state of insurrection, called for 75,000 volunteers, and summoned Congress back into session, deliberately choosing this July date, so rich in national patriotism.
Forty-four senators took their places in the Senate Chamber on July 4th. The crack of the presiding officer's gavel abruptly ended a dozen conversations as members turned their attention to the Senate Chaplain. Observing that "new disasters have befallen us and darkness broods in the land," the Reverend Byron Sunderland reassured his senatorial congregation that this Independence Day was "a day tenfold more precious by reason of our present troubles."
As Vice President Hannibal Hamlin called members to order, he looked across a chamber that contained nearly twenty ominously vacant desks—one for each of the recently departed senators representing states that had joined the Confederacy. Perhaps he noticed the desk of former Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, its mahogany finish newly scarred by the sharp bayonet of a passing Massachusetts soldier. Due to the departure of southern senators, nearly all Democrats, the Republican Party, for the first time in its brief history, now controlled the Senate by a margin of more than three-to-one.
This emergency session of the 37th Congress lasted only five weeks. Even under the threat of encircling enemy forces and the sting of an unexpected military defeat at Bull Run, Congress managed to enact a host of major public laws, making this one of the most productive and dramatic legislative sessions in all of American history.