Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in Georgetown, 1861

150 years ago, Christmas was observed by soldiers encamped around Washington, including those in Georgetown. (See All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac for a good overview of how Christmas was observed throughout the military camps)  Somewhere between 7,000 to 15,000 Union soldiers-- including those in hospitals-- would be quartered in Georgetown, a town whose residents' loyalty to the Union was suspect.  For many soldiers, this would be their first Christmas away from home and for some it would be their last.

The Washington Evening Star reported that the holiday was "very generally and very properly observed" in Georgetown.  The Baltimore Sun noted that the retail stores on both sides of the Potomac were doing brisk business and that despite the war, "it seems all are bent on the full enjoyment of the holiday season, and there is every indication of a merry Christmas among our citizens and in the camps of the soldiers."  The day opened with celebratory gunfire and firecrackers, according to Washington diarist Horatio Nelson Taft.  To preserve the public peace, saloons in Washington were closed all evening.

In Union camps and hospitals near Georgetown, soldiers decorated their quarters with evergreens and held religious services.  The Catholic Church's Christmas services were well attended.  Soldiers were relieved from the monotony of drill on this day and feasted on turkeys, chickens and other meats.  Many were able to open packages delivered from home.

Less fortunate that Christmas Day were the workmen employed on converting the Aqueduct Bridge, which connected Georgetown to the Virginia shore, into a military roadway.  They were yielded to "military necessity" by working on the holiday to lay the bridge's flooring.


A 1861 view of Georgetown taken from the Virginia side of the Potomac..  The Aqueduct Bridge, located just north of today's Key Bridge, was being retrofitted with a plank roadway in December 1861 to facilitate military traffic.  Georgetown University is in the background up on the hill.  The Union soldiers in the foreground are posing on Mason's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). (Library of Congress)


Sources
The Baltimore Sun
Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, December 24, 1861 (online at Library of Congress)
Washington Evening Star, December 26, 1861.
 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

First White House Levee of the 1861-62 Winter Social Season

On December 17, 1861, the Lincolns hosted their first public reception at the Executive Mansion of the 1861-62 winter social season.  While thousands of soldiers were encamped in and around Washington, the harsh realities and carnage of the war had not fully set in.  Major battles in the coming year at places such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg would change all that.  But, that lay in the future. For now, Washingtonians could enjoy the holidays and a respite from the war.

An illustration of a White Reception during the winter 61-62 social season that appeared in Harper's Weekly on January 26, 1862. (Son of the South)

Monday, December 12, 2011

The 13 December 1861 Execution of Pvt. William Henry Johnson at Fairfax Seminary

On December 13, 1861, the first execution of a deserter in the Army of the Potomac was carried out in a field just outside Alexandria near the Fairfax Seminary, now known as the Virginia Theological Seminary.  The drumhead court-martial and execution of Private William H. Johnson, of the First New York Cavalry ("Lincoln Cavalry"), received widespread press coverage and served as a stern warning to the potential, though relatively rare, fate that awaited deserters.


The Execution of the Deserter William Johnson in General Franklin's Division Army of the Potomac, as depicted in Harper's Weekly (New York Public Library)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Irish Brigade Goes into Winter Quarters at Camp California outside Alexandria

December 1861 found the New York 69th Infantry, the original component of the famed Irish Brigade, settling into winter quarters at Camp California just outside Alexandria and along the Little River Turnpike.  The 69th had  previously been encamped at Camp Corcoran on Meridian Hill in Washington.  But, at the start of the month it was ordered to this area of rolling farmland and hilltops overlooking the Little River Turnpike several miles west of Alexandria.  The area is now urbanized and there is no vestiges of the encampment.  However, historical records  help illuminate what camp life was like for the 10,00 men of Sumner's Division, including the Irish Brigade's 69th New York, who spent the winter of 1861-62 there.



Drawing, from a wartime photograph, of the 57th Ne York on Dress Parade at Camp California that appears in the 57th's regimental history published in 1895.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The 2nd Session of the 37th Congress Convenes

150 years ago today, the second session of the 37th Congress convened at noon as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.  Ordinarily, this would have been the first session of the new Congress, but a special session had been held from July 4, 1861-August to fund the raising of a 400,000 man army at President Lincoln's request.   Although no Supercommittee awaited the returning congressmen, legislators certainly had plenty to deal with on that first Monday in December 1861.  A lot had happened since they last met at the Capitol on August 6th.  Unfortunately, recent military activity did not augur well for the Union cause and Congress reacted by creating a 19th century joint supercommittee, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War to "inquire into the causes of the disasters."

A 1861 sketch of the U.S. Capitol (US Senate Art Collection)


"Death of Col. Baker" (LOC)

 While General McClellan was rebuilding the Army of the Potomac, many Republican legislators already had doubts about his loyalty and willingness to fight.  Just a month and a half earlier, a small Union force had been routed 30 miles up the Potomac at Ball's Bluff near Leesburg.  Union losses in this debacle included Colonel Edward D. Baker, a sitting Republican Senator from Oregon and close friend of the President.  A congressional committee, the Joint Committee of the Conduct of the War, would later target Democratic leaning military generals in the search for a scapegoat for this and other military setbacks.

In a diary entry, Patent Office clerk Horatio Nelson Taft noted that with Congress back in session, Pennsylvania Avenue was "thronged from morning till late at night," and that all of the hotels were crowded with visitors.  In Taft's opinion, the Congressional session promised to be "the most important perhaps that has been convened for half a Century at least."  The Washington National Republican confidently predicted that "the session of Congress which commences today, will be the most memorable which has yet occurred in this country under either the Articles of Confederation, or the present Constitution ... not excepting even the session when the Declaration of Independence was agreed upon."

Predictions of  the importance of this Congressional session proved prescient.  Congress  got down to business after taking care of some administrative matters.  On the first day of the session, Senator Lyman Trumbull, a Republican from Illinois and chairman of the Judiciary committee, introduced a new confiscation bill, which would authorize the seizure of all rebel property, regardless of whether it was used directly to support the Confederate war effort or not.   The  measure was intended to facilitate the emancipation of the slaves in rebelling states.  In the House of Representatives, Congressman Eliot of Massachusetts offered a resolution that declared that the President has the right to "emancipate all persons held as slaves in any military district in a state of insurrection against the National Government. 


In his opening prayers, the Chaplain of the House "prayed specially and distinctly for 'the slave', which sounded rather strangely in such a place, and in a slaveholding community," according to the Washington National Republican.In the House, 114 members were present for the opening session on December 2nd and four newly elected members were sworn in.  However, the House referred the issue of whether or not to seat two newly elected Representatives from Virginia and one from North Carolina to the Committee on Elections.  House members also voted to expel a Missouri congressman who was serving in the Confederate army. 

Two days into the new session, the Senate formally expelled John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky who had already left Washington to serve in the Confederate army despite the fact that Kentucky remained in the Union. On December 10th, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio chaired the first session of the new Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which would meet 272 times over the next four years.'

Critical issues that would be addressed during this regular session of the 37th Congress would include the legal tender bill (greenbacks), the internal revenue bill (nation's first income tax), the confiscation bill, the admission of West Virginia as a state, and various loans and other financial issues.

Senate seating diagram, as printed in the Congressional Directory, for the third session of the 37th Congress.  The empty seats represent those vacated by southerners.  During the war, it was not uncommon for congressional deliberations to be interrupted by the presiding officer reading a dispatch from the War Department announcing the result of a recent battle.  Unfortunately, there were few decisive victories to applaud during the 2nd session of the 37th Congress.


Sources

The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, December 6, 1861 (available online from Library of Congress)
Washington National Republican, December 2 and December 3, 1861

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving in Washington, 1861

While Thanksgiving was not yet universally observed throughout the country, it was widely observed in many Northern states on November 28, 1861.  As Union soldiers in camps along both sides of the Potomac enjoyed Thanksgiving feasts in camp, Washingtonians, including the First Family, marked the holiday at home with family and friends.  (For a great description of Thanksgiving in several Washington area army camps in 1861, please see this posting on All Quiet Along the Potomac.)


Although Thanksgiving was not a Federal holiday, President Lincoln issued a proclamation on November 27, 1861 giving federal workers the next day off to participate in Washington and Georgetown's observance of Thanksgiving:  "The Municipal authorities of Washington and Georgetown in this District, have appointed tomorrow, the 28th, instant, as a day of thanksgiving, the several Departments will on that occasion be closed, in order that officers of the government may partake in the Ceremonies."

The weather on Thanksgiving was unusually warm, though rainy. Most Washington businesses, including the Centre Market, shut down for the Thanksgiving observance.   The Centre Market did stay open late the previous evening for last minute shoppers procuring items to place on their dinner table.  Horatio Nelson Taft, a Patent Office examiner, noted in his diary that turkeys were very scarce and "we shall have rather slim Thanksgiving without one."  The going price for turkeys was 14 cents per pound in Washington markets.
 
The Washington National Republican did note that while most businessmen and "churchgoing people" of Washington suspended commercial activity, "we could not fail in noticing the fact that all the restaurants were in full blast, dealing out their poisonous drugs to soldiers and citizens... as large numbers of them were seen drunk on the public streets."  Ironically enough, The Washington National Republican published an edition on Thanksgiving day while the Washington Evening Star chose not to publish a paper that day in observance of Thanksgiving.

At the Executive Mansion, the Lincolns hosted a Thanksgiving meal with several guests, including the President's longtime friend Joshua Speed and his wife who were visiting from Kentucky.  Other dinner guests at the White House included General Sumner, General Banks, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward, and Colonel Ramsney, the Commandant of the Washington Arsenal (now Ft. McNair).  A guest described champagne being served with the meal, but noted that Lincoln, as was customary for him, did not partake in the champagne.



Thanksgiving Proclamation Issued by the Mayor of Washington and published in The Washington National Republican. (Library of congress)

This photograph of Lincoln was taken sometime between March and June 1861.  Lincoln signed the photograph for Fanny Speed, the wife of his close friend Joshua Speed, and presented it her on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1861 when the Speeds dined with the Lincolns.



Sources:
Clinton, Catherine.  Mrs. Lincoln:  A Life. Harper Collins:  2003.
Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861, 1865, (available online from Library of Congress)
The New York Herald, November 29, 1861
Washington National Republican, November 25, 1861.
Washington National Republican, November 29, 1861.




Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Company K, 23rd New York Infantry Procures Thanksgiving Dinner

Late November 1861 found Company K of the 23rd New York Infantry encamped on Upton's Hill near Seven Corners. The 23rd was organized in Elmira, New York in May 1861 and was nicknamed the "Southern Tier Rifles," due to the part of  New York state from which it hailed.  The regiment arrived in Washington on July 7th and initially camped at Meridian Hill.  In August, the 23rd was assigned picket and reconnaissance duties in the areas of Falls Church and Ball's Cross Roads (Ballston).  Company K soon saw its first action during a skirmishes at Ball's Cross Roads  and on Munson's Hill in late August.  Although the Confederates pulled back in force to Centreville at the end of September, small skirmishes still were regularly occurring in the area

Just before Thanksgiving, Company K was sent on a reconnoitering expedition.  The men of Company K "skirred the country round" for miles in search of rebels to capture, but did not find any. Although their primary quarry remained elusive, these New Yorkers were "determined that their steel should taste blood."  To that end, they carried out "a number of brilliant and successful, though bloody charges, upon the farm yards and hen roosts" before returning to camp.  As a result of this engagement, "a large number of feathered rebels were captured."

Needless to say, Company K had all the fowls, including turkeys, that they needed on Thanksgiving Day.

Members of the 23rd New York Infantry pose in camp. (Library of Congress)

Company K would serve in the Defenses of Washington, D.C. until March 1862 when it took to the field.  The 123rd was mustered out of service on May 22, 1863 after having participated in a number of major battles including 2nd Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.





Sources
Hughes, William E.  The Civil War Papers of Lt. Colonel Newton. Colby.
Washington National Republican, November 30, 1861

Friday, November 18, 2011

Nov 20, 1861:Thousands Attend Grand Review at Baileys Crossroads

One of the most memorable events to occur in Northern Virginia during the Civil War was not a battle, but a display of military pageantry on a scale never seen before in North America. General George B. McClellan's 70,000 man Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac occurred at the then rural Baileys Crossroads 150 years ago this Sunday (November 20th).

McClellan, a superb organizer and the hope of the nation, was charged with molding a green Union army that had been routed at First Bull Run into a cohesive fighting force. As he whipped the beaten army into a respectable fighting force, McClellan held several military reviews in the fall of 1861 culminating with the famed Grand Review.

McClellan observing his army's Grand Review on November 20, 1861.  "Little Mac," who certainly knew how to make an entrance, arrived to the review accompanied by  a 1,800 strong cavalry escort.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

U.S. Marine Corps Barracks

Today's 236th birthday of the  U.S. Marine Corps is an auspicious time to examine the role that the detachment at the U.S. Marine Corps Barracks in Washington played during the Civil War.  Ironically, the Marines' most famous action during the "recent unpleasantries," actually occurred two years before the war's outbreak  when Marines summoned from Washington put down John Brown's Harpers Ferry insurrection.

Harper's Weekly June 1861 engraving of "The United States Marines and Marine Barracks at Washington."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Armistice Day and Civil War Veterans

Ninety years ago, on Armistice Day, November 11, 1921,  thousands  gathered in Washington and Arlington National Cemetery for the  the funeral procession and burial of an unknown American soldier "known but to God" who had fallen in France during the Great War.  Veterans of three  wars-- the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the World War-- marched in the procession.  Gray-haired veterans of the Union and Confederate armies now marched in honor of their sons and grandsons who had fallen in the War to End All Wars..

Joseph Lonsway, a 85 year-old Civil War veteran and then oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, with General John J. Pershing at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Armistice Day 1921. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Does Mary Surratt's Ghost Haunt Fort McNair in Southwest Washington?

Robert Redford's recent movie The Conspirator brought renewed attention to the 146 year-old debate over  Mary Surratt's conviction and death sentence by a military court for her role in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy.   In the hours after President Lincoln's assassination, a tip led detectives to Surratt's Washington boardinghouse, which had been frequented by John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators.   The 42-year old widow was eventually placed under arrest and transferred-- after an initial stay at the Old Capitol Prison-- to the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary on the grounds of what is today Fort McNair.

The military trial of Surratt and the other charged conspirators began on May 9, 1865 at the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary.  The tribunal found Surratt guilty and sentenced her to death along with three of Booth's conspirators whose guilt is unquestioned.  On the sunny afternoon of July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt was hung along with three of Booth's conspirators in the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary's prison yard. Her body was then buried nearby on the prison grounds before being re interred at Washington's Mt. Olivet cemetery in 1869  .But, is that the end of Mary Surratt's story?  Does this controversial figure-- linked just or unjustly, to one of our nation's most infamous crimes-- still linger somehow on the grounds of the former Washington Arsenal Penitentiary, now part of Fort McNair, where she was imprisoned, tried, and executed.



Thursday, October 27, 2011

HOW THE ENEMY RECEIVES INFORMATION: As Reported by the Washington Naional Republican 150 Years Ago

An article 150 years ago in the Washington National Republican alerted readers to  the Confederates' use of northern newspapers as their principal intelligence source on Union military activity.  Incidentally, the Washington National Republican went out of its way to call out The New York Herald, which was closely aligned with the Democratic Party.  However, the Washington National Republican's complaint was not so much that potentially sensitive military information was being published in northern papers, but that these papers were allowed to make it through Union lines and to the rebels.  In essence, the National Republican held Union authorities responsible for the problem for failing to keep newspapers out of the enemy's hands.   The correspondent certainly would be astonished by today's instant internet publishing.

Confederate troops stationed in and near Fairfax County were able to take advantage of gaps in Union picket lines to obtain northern newspapers, which were scoured for potentially useful information. As the war went on, Union commanders would become increasingly concerned about the operational security issues posed by reporters who could now quickly report Union military movements via telegraphic dispatches.  In 1863, General Joseph Hooker reportedly required correspondents accompanying the Army of the Potomac to attache their name to their stories, apparently one of the earliest uses of a byline in American journalism, in order to provide for some accountability.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Old Naval Hospital, 921 Pennsylvania Avenue SE

As this week is the U.S. Navy's 236th birthday, it seems appropriate to highlight the recently restored Old Naval Hospital on Capital Hill, the first purpose-built navy hospital in Washington.  When the Civil War began, the U.S. Navy did not have its own hospital facility in the capital.  As a stopgap measure, the Navy borrowed space at the Government Hospital for the Insane (St. Elizabeth's) to care for stricken sailors and marines.  However, this proved inadequate and in 1864 Congress authorized the Secretary of the Navy to construct a naval hospital on square no. 948, a 3/4 acre triangular tract bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue SW, E Street SW, 9th Street SW, and 10th Street SW.  This location nine blocks east of the U.S. Capitol was chosen in part to its proximity to both the Navy Yard and the Marine Corps Barracks.
E Street side of the recently restored Old Naval Hospital.  The building's architectural style features Italianate, Greek Revival, and Second Empire elements.  Although Congress originally appropriated only $25,000 for the project, construction ended up costing $115,000.  (Photo by author)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

B&O Railroad Station, New Jersey Avenue and C Street NW

In the spring and summer of 1861, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad Depot just north of the U.S. Capitol at the corner of New Jersey Avenue and C Street, was one of the busiest locations in Washington.  The brick, stucco, and brownstone depot, which had opened just a decade earlier,  was the disembarkation point for thousands of soldiers arriving from throughout the north.  This was the same depot that President-elect Lincoln, traveling incognito, arrived at on February 22, 1861 and from where his casket would sadly depart the capital from four years later on its journey back to Springfield.
An early illustration of the B&O Depot on New Jersey Avenue. (Washington Historical Society)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

September 1861 Observance of the Jewish New Year in Washington

When the Civil War began, the Jewish population of Washington numbered only about 200 to 300 individuals.  However, their numbers increased as soldiers and civilians flocked to the wartime capital.  On the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (September 5, 1861), they observed Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  Union Army chaplain Michael M. Allen probably best captured their hopes for a better year (5622) when he wrote in his dairy, "... hoping and trusting in the One above that the coming year may be one of health and prosperity not only to my dear family, but of peace to us all and also to our distracted country."

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Government Travel Voucher, 1860s Style

Federal government employees in Washington are quite familiar with the various travel vouchers that they have to fill out in order to receive reimbursement for official travel.  150 years ago, federal officers also had to complete  standardized travel vouchers and reimbursement calculations.  I ran across such a voucher, a U.S. Government form No. 16, while researching the records of the Army of the Potomac's Bureau of Military Information (BMI) at the National Archives. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Establishment of the Washington Metropolitan Police Force 150 Years Ago

On September 11, 1861 a new law enforcement agency, the Washington Metropolitan police, began patrolling the gritty streets of the capital.  In the years immediately before the Civil War, Washington had a dual police force, essentially a daytime patrol police force and a nighttime auxiliary watch force. Such an inadequate guard force, even supplemented by the Army's provost marshal, would not do for a burgeoning wartime capital besieged by southern sympathizers, drunken soldiers, and common criminals. Additionally, the newly empowered Republicans had little use for the old police force, which had frequently aided the Democratic party in local elections.  A reliable and loyal police department was needed.

The inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and apparent corruption led Congress to finally act on the matter in August 6, 1861 by creating a centralized Metropolitan Police District.  Congress authorized the President to appoint five police commissioners; three from Washington, one from Georgetown and one from the part of the District of Columbia lying outside the city.  The newly constituted Board of Police which also included the mayors of Washington and Georgetown, were directed to divide D.C. into ten precincts, establish police stations, and assign sergeants and patrolmen.  The force's primary responsibilities were to render military assistance to the civil authorities, to quell riots, suppress insurrection, protect property, preserve the public tranquility, prevent crime and arrest offenders. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A College Divided: University of MD (Maryland Agricultural College) During the Civil War

150 years  before the Terrapins were sporting  the Maryland state flag on their helmets, their campus predecessors were choosing whether to don gray or blue uniforms in a fratricidal conflict tearing apart their state and nation.  This weekend, I visited a new exhibit at the University of Maryland's Hornbake Library, "A College Divided: Maryland Agricultural College and the Civil War," which explores the impact that the Civil War had on the then fledgling institution.  Through a series of posters, the exhibit highlights significant roles, both for the Union and Confederate causes, played by students, faculty and alumni.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Baseball in Washington During the Civil War

Depressed about the current state of professional baseball in our nation's capital, I decided to devote this posting to the topic of baseball in Washington during the 60's, the 1860s that is.  In the decade before the Civil War, the evolving sport of "base ball"-- then generally spelled as two words and derived from cricket and townball-- began to gain a following as at least 50 amateur clubs sprouted up, mostly in the North.  The New York City area was the vanguard of the sport's evolution under rules devised by Alexander Cartwright and the New York Knickerbocker Club.

By 1859, Washington, D.C. had at least two baseball clubs: the Washington Potomacs and the Washington Nationals.  The original nucleus of both teams was a group of government clerks. (One of the Nationals' founders, Arthur Gorman, was a Senate staffer and later a U.S. Senator from Maryland.)   The Nationals generally played on ground near the Capitol while the Potomacs frequented he public grounds just south of the White House known as the White Lot, today's Ellipse.  The first match between the Nationals and the Potomacs was played on the White Lot on May 5, 1860 and resulted in a Nationals' victory of 35-15.  The Washington Star wrote approvingly that "it is good to see health-promoting exercises taking the place of insipid enervating amusements."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Giesboro Point Cavalry Depot, Parking for 30,000 Horses

The area once known as Giesboro Point is now occupied by the Department of Defense's Joint Base Bolling-Anacostia.  The installation's major tenant organization, the Defense Intelligence Agency, is observing its 50th anniversary this year.  However, nearly 150 years ago, this parcel of land was not a military intelligence headquarters, but the logistics hub of the Union Army's cavalry in the Eastern Theater.  By providing a ready supply of mounts to the Army of the Potomac, Giesboro Cavalry Depot made an important contribution as the army slugged it out in Virginia.  Over 200,000 horses were received, issued, died or sold at Giesboro during the war.

Wartime photo of stables at the Giesboro Cavalry Depot.  (Library of Congress)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Alexandria Confederate Veteran Invented Modern Railroad Coupler

Eli Hamilton Janney, the inventor of the modern railroad coupler, was born in Loudoun County, Virginia on November 12, 1831.  He was descended from a prominent Quaker family that had moved to Virginia from Bucks County Pennsylvania, however he was not a practicing Quaker.  Prior to the Civil War, Janney was a small-time farmer, ran a small shop in Loudoun County and also served as the local postmaster.  When war broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate Army.  He rose to the rank of major and served as an Issuing Quartermaster on General Robert E. Lee's staff.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Day After Bull Run: A Dewey Defeats Truman Moment for Washington Newspapers

150 years ago today, Washingtonians woke up to a dismal scene of a battered Union army straggling back into town after suffering a rout near Manassas Junction the previous day.  A rule of thumb when it comes to reporting during wartime is that first reports are generally flawed.  This certainly was the case with morning coverage in Washington newspapers.  Undoubtedly, when the type had been set for the July 22, 1861 edition of Washington's The National Republican newspaper, first reports (and the actual tactical situation on the battlefield) from Bull Run had in fact been promising.  A 5:20 PM telegraphic dispatch from the 21rst was amongst the latest reports included in the paper:  "Another dispatch says the Federals have won the day.  The loss on both sides is heavy.  But the rout of the rebels is complete."   It was noted that from Georgetown, artillery fire from the battlefield, some 30 miles away, could be heard.

Headlines from the July 22, 1861 edition of The Washington National Republican, a day after the Union Army had suffered a rout at Manassas.(Library of Congress)
 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Did a Southern Spy on 16th Street Win Bull Run for the Confederates?

My wife and I spent Saturday morning hiking around Manassas National Battlefield and had lunch in Old Towne Manassas.  In downtown Manassas, I noted that a Civil War Trails sign credits Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard's July 21, 1861 victory in the Civil War's first major land engagement to Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow of Washington for providing him information  concerning an imminent Union attack.  While there are numerous stories of daring southern belles providing intelligence to grateful Confederate generals, many of these stories seem to be just that, stories that cannot be supported by historical facts.  Can we separate fact from fiction with the story of Rose Greenhow and did the fledgling Confederacy really owe its first victory to this widower in her late 40s?

A social gadfly, Greenhow was a pillar of antebellum Washington befriending both northern and southern movers and shakers including Senator John C. Calhoun, President Buchanan, and even William Seward.   Despite her strong Southern sympathies, she continued to entertain Union officers and Republican politicians at her small home  on the west side of 16th Street across from St. John's Church in an effort to discern any information that she could provide the South  (The approximate site of her home, just across Lafayette Square from the White House, is now occupied by the Hay-Adams Hotel.  Ironically the hotel is partially named after Lincoln's private secretary John Hay who lived on the premises when he later served as Secretary of State.)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ft. Whipple/Ft. Myers

Last Sunday night, my sister, my wife, and I watched Washington's 4th of July fireworks from a hill on Ft. Myers that affords a sweeping view of the city.   This commanding view of Washington and  its Potomac River approaches did not escape the attention of U.S. military engineers as they designed the Virginia side of the Defenses of Washington. Ft. Whipple would be a key component of the Arlington Line.

In 1862, Union officers charged with strengthening the Defenses of Washington recommended construction of "a work on the spur behind Forts Cass and Tilinghast ... to 'see' into the gordes of these works and give important fire upon the high ground in front of the line."  To meet this need, Fort Whipple was constructed the following year and was described as one of the finest of the 68 fortifications that comprised the Defenses of Washington.
Ft. Whipple was located on a ridge along Arlington Heights rising 290 feet above the Potomac River.  
It had a commanding of the rolling Virginia countryside to the west from which an enemy might approach Washington.  :In an era in before environmental impact studies, Union efforts to establish clear fields fire resulted in extensive deforestation along Arlington Heights.  The fort's water needs were provided by an onsite spring.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

4th of July 1861

As we get ready to celebrate our country's 235th birthday, I wanted to look back at how July 4th was observed in Washington, D.C.  150 years ago.  The Union itself was in peril. 11 States had seceded and tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides were bivouacked in camps within a day's march of each other. Despite the troubled times, The Washington National Republican observed that "the fears that the national troubles would interfere materially with the celebration of the Fourth of have all been dissipated, and the probability is that the celebration of today will surpass anything Washington has seen."

Monday, June 27, 2011

Professor Lowe Flies High in Falls Church, Virginia

Two weeks ago I wrote about Professor Thaddeus Lowe and the advent of aerial reconnaissance in the U.S.  On Saturday, the City of Falls Church sponsored a program commemorating Lowe's June 24-25, 1861 flights near Falls Church.   After his National Mall demonstration  had secured President Lincoln's support for employing balloons with the army, Lowe finally got a positive response from previously reluctant army officers. In late June 1861, he was ordered to bring his balloon across the Potomac, so that it could be used to determine Confederate force dispositions in Northern Virginia.

A sketch of Lowe's June 1861 balloon operations near Falls Church.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

150 Years of the Government Printing Office

The Washington Post had an article last week about the Government Printing Office (GPO) opening a special exhibit-- including the first printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation-- to mark GPO's 150th anniversary.   A great-uncle of mine worked at GPO for many years, but I did not realize that GPO goes back to the Civil War.

Congress created GPO in 1860 after determining that the printing of public documents was an inherently government function that could be done for less than the previous practice of contracting out the work to politically connected printers. (Sound familiar?) In a foreshadowing of 21rst Century debates over the role of government, the New York Daily Tribune questioned the wisdom of a government-run print shop, sarcastically observing: "If we are to have a National Printery, why not Paper-Mills also?  Why not Government Farms whereon to produce the food of our Army and Navy?  Of course, we must have national Powder Mills..."

Notwithstanding its detractors, GPO began operations on March 4, 1861-- the same day that the Lincoln Administration began-- with about 350 employee. From its inception, GPO has been located at the southwest corner of North Capitol and H Streets NW.  

 In March 1861, GPO occupied a four-story brick building that had been erected five years earlier for a private printing company.  The government purchased the building and all of its printing machinery from Cornelius Wendell for $135,000. Although the building has long since been replaced, GPO continues to occupy this same corner at North Capitol and H Streets NW. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mass Transit in Washington, 1862-Style

Streetcars appear to be making a comeback in Washington, D.C.with lines being planned for the H street corridor in Northeast and Anacostia.  With all the local debate about whether overhead wires should be used in the city's core, we might want to consider an alternative motive power:  horses. While many Washingtonians know that DC's once vibrant street car system last clanged its bells in 1962, few are aware of DC's first streetcar a century earlier.

New York City first used horse-drawn streetcars on rails sometime in the 1830s, but the idea was slow to take hold in Washington.  Washington residents not wishing to walk through the city's muddy roads had to rely on "omnibuses," an inconvenient, dangerous and dusty 19th century version of a microbus. This may have been fine when Pennsylvania Avenue was, as one newspaperman  put it, "more a cornfield than the great thoroughfare of and Principal Avenue of a Metropolis."  However, as a burgeoning wartime capital, improved transportation options were needed. Sound familiar?


On May 17, 1862 Congress granted a charter to the Washington & Georgetown Railroad Company to operate Washington's first horse-drawn streetcar.  Rails were laid down Pennsylvania Avenue and service  from the State Department to the Capitol commenced in July with nine streetcars.  By October 1862, the streetcar ran from M and Wisconsin in Georgetown to the Navy Yard.  The fare  was less than five cents.The route traveled along M Street in Georgetown, then east along Pennsylvania Avenue past the Capitol, and then headed south on 8th Street, SE to the Navy Yard.


A pair of streetcar tracks are clearly visible running down Pennsylvania Avenue in this photograph taken during the May 1865 Grand Army Review. (Library of Congress )


Horse-drawn streetcars visible running along Pennsylvania Avenue in this postwar photograph (ca 1880) taken from a similar Treasury Department vantage point as the previous Grand Review photograph.  Not a broken escalator in sight. (Library of Congress)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sons of Confederate Veterans Still Distorting History, Vienna, VA June 18, 2011

In this post, I originally intended to discuss Saturday's 150th anniversary of the Battle of Vienna, reputedly the first time that a railroad was used tactically in military conflict.  (For background information on the June 17, 1861 incident at Vienna, see the blog "All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac." and "Vienna Railroad Fight.")

However, a perusal of the books and fliers on display at the table of a local chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV),  raised my concern about the continuing distortion of history by those claiming to defend their "heritage."  So, while it is not generally the aim of this blog to examine the causes of the Civil War or modern-day politics, but instead to focus on  the war's impact on our nation's capital, I felt the need to indulge myself by airing my thoughts on this debate that as a nation we should have moved beyond years ago.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Robert Todd Lincoln's Georgetown Home

Robert Todd Lincoln, the Great Emancipator's eldest son and only child to survive to adulthood,  owned the stately residence at 3014 N Street NW from 1912 until his death in 1926.  Robert Lincoln was born in Springfield, Illinois in 1843.  Ensuring that his son received the proper education that he did not, Abraham Lincoln sent Robert to Phillips Exeter and then Harvard, where he graduated in 1864.  Despite his mother's objections, Robert served on General Grant's staff briefly at the end of the war and was present for Lee's surrender.

The Laird-Dunlop House, a private residence at 3014 Street, dates back to the 1790s.  At the start of the Civil War, it was the home of Judge James Dunlop, the Chief Justice of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, who President Lincoln removed from the federal bench  because of his Southern sympathies.    Robert Todd Lincoln purchased the home as his Washington residence after retiring as President of the Pullman Company in Chicago.  He split time between it and his Vermont estate, always taking his father's papers with him, until his death in 1926.  His widow, Mary Harlan Lincoln, lived in the home until she passed away in 1937. (Photo by author)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Action at Annandale, December 2, 1861

Today's posting is about a spirited 1861 skirmish in Annandale along Little River Turnpike (also known as Rt. 236) between Union and Confederate forces. 

Detachments from two New York regiments were on picket duty on the afternoon of December 2, 1861 at the intersection of the unfinished Manassas Gap railroad roadbed and the Little River Turnpike.  Later investigation suggested that some of the soldiers manning the barricade may have been drinking liquor and/or sleeping.   At approximately 1 PM, the pickets observed approximately 200 cavalrymen  approaching.  As the Southerners were wearing blue uniforms, a not uncommon occurrence in the early days of the war, the pickets mistook them  for a friendly force.  However, the galloping South Carolinians pronounced their unfriendly intentions by unleashing a volley of fire.

A sketch of the December 2, 1861 skirmish between Federal and Confederate forces at Annandale, VA was printed in The Illustrated London News.
  
However, with reinforcements, the New Yorkers repelled the attack and the Confederates retreated towards Centreville. Union cavalry pursued the southerners for several miles. A New York trooper wrote, "We were stationed in the woods, behind Annandale Church, and hearing the long roll beat, immediately formed in line outside of the woods, and opened a heavy fire on them, and charged. They retreated in all directions, we pursuing them and taking two prisoners and some horses, sabres, and revolvers. The effect of our fire was not ascertained. We had 25 men and the enemy numbered over 150."


Portion of an 1862 map prepared by Union topographical engineers.  The black arrow points to the approximate location of the start of the December 2, 1862 skirmish, the point where the unfinished railroad grade crossed Little River Turnpike.  This segment of the railroad was never finished after the war.  (Courtesy Library of Congress)


In his after-action report, Union Brigadier General Louis Blenker reported that two Confederates were captured and at least two were killed.  Only one Union soldier was reported killed in the skirmish.  Blenker noted that a local farmer was arrested on suspicion of providing the Confederates with intelligence on the Union position at Annandale and signal had allegedly been seen emanating at night from his farm house.  However,  Blenker lamented that he did not have enough evidence to hold the secessionist farmer and released him and his sons. 


In 2010, a marker was dedicated outside the George Mason Regional Library indicating the general location of the December 1861 skirmish between Union pickets and Confederate cavalry along the Little River Turnpike (Rt. 236) in Annandale, VA.  A key Northern Virginia artery since the 18th Century, Little River Turnpike was the scene of many encampments and skirmishes during the Civil War. (Photo by Author)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Battleground National Cemetery

Located at 6625 Georgia Avenue NW Washington, this one acre military cemetery, one of  the nation's smallest, is a solemn reminder of the sacrifice made by those who gave the "last full measure of devotion" in the defense of Washington. 
A commemorative statue at Battleground National Cemetery .  In 2005, the cemetery made the DC Preservation League's list of most endangered historic sites in Washington.  The National Park Service recently restored the cemetery, including the Superintendent's Lodge (designed by Montgomery Meigs) and the ceremonial rostrum, with $1.2 million in American Recovery & Reinvestment Act funds.    (Photo by author)

In July 1864, a Confederate force under General Jubal Early threatened Washington, D.C.. All available troops within Washington, including walking wounded, were brought up to the city's northern defenses.   In a relatively small battle by Civil War standards, Union forces, reinforced by units rushed by Grant from Petersburg, repelled the Confederate host.  Each side suffered several hundred casualties. 

Union forces next turned to the grim task of burying their fallen comrades.  One acre of farmland adjacent to the 7th Street Pike (now Georgia Avenue) was chosen as the final resting place for 41 Union soldiers.  President Lincoln, who had witnessed the battle, was also on hand for the cemetery's dedication.


August 1865 view of Battlefield National Cemetery (Courtesy Library of Congress)
The entrance to the Cemetery is flanked by two 6-pounder, smoothbore guns.  Over the years, veterans of the battle erected  memorial pillars in memory of some of the units that fought at Fort Stevens:   New York Volunteer Cavalry, 122nd New York Volunteer Infantry, 150th Ohio National Guard, Company K, and 98th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. 
 
Through the early 20th century, aging Civil War veterans and government dignitaries regularly gathered at the cemetery for Memorial Day events.  Speaking there in 1919 just after World War I, Vice President Thomas Marshall exclaimed "The American soldier who lies beneath the soil of France or the Philippine Islands or his own beloved country is not dead, nor will he die.  And when the  roll is called for him, let us answer for him 'Absent in the discharge of duty.'" 
 

The last internment at Battleground National Cemetery occurred in 1936 when Edward R. Campbell, who had fought at the battle of Ft. Stevens and witnessed Lincoln dedicate the cemetery, died at the age of 92. (Courtesy Natl. Archives)
 

VISITING BATTLEGROUND NATIONAL CEMETERY:  The cemetery is stop #13 on Cultural Tourism DC's Battleground to Community Brightwood Heritage Trail.  The cemetery is open from dawn to dusk.  There is parking available on Georgia Avenue.




Monday, June 13, 2011

The Treasury Department: Funding the Union Armies One Greenback at a Time

The U.S. Treasury Department has been housed in the same impressive structure just east of the White House since 1839. After several earlier Treasury buildings had burned to the ground-- one courtesy of our British cousins-- Congress approved construction of a  "fireproof building of such dimensions as may be required for the present and future accommodations" of the Treasury Department.

Treasury Department activities during the Civil War were as critical to the North's victory as that of the War and Navy Departments.  Without the sale of bonds and increased revenues, the Union armies in the field could not be sustained. In the early days of the war when there was genuine fear that the Confederate Army might march on Washington after the Union rout at Bull Run, U.S. Army General-in-Chief Winfield Scott designated the solid Treasury building to be the fallback position of last resort for government leadership.  The building's new south wing, like other government buildings, was soon quartering troops.


Wartime photograph of the Treasury Department Building.  Clara Barton worked as a clerk here before the war led her to devote her life to relief efforts. (Library of Congress)

Discussing the Treasury Department is fitting as some key aspects of modern US governmental financing have their roots in actions taken byLincoln, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and Congress during the Civil War.  Unprecedented military expenditures required creative bookkeeping, an expansion of the money supply and new revenue measures to include the first federal income tax. The Treasury also first issued paper currency during the war after Congress passed the Legal Tender Act in 1862.  Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase's "greenbacks" were derided by many for being backed by neither silver nor gold. The expanding duties of the Treasury Department required a large civilian workforce  to include a growing number of female clerks, nearly 500 by war's end.

Chase, whom felt that he should have been the Republic nominee in 1860 and coveted the 1864 nomination, was an uneasy member of Lincoln's "Team of Rivals."  After numerous feuds between Chase and Secretary of the Treasury William Seward, Lincoln finally called Chase's bluff and accepted his previously tendered resignation.  Lincoln later appointed Chase the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.



Although Lincoln and his Cabinet did not have to deal with hostile bloggers or cable show demagoguery, they did face  scathing political cartoons in Democratic-leaning newspapers.  This 1864 cartoon, captioned "Running the Machine," depicts "Chase's Patent Greenback Mill" being used to pump out worthless currency.  Meanwhile, Lincoln is depicted as a bumbling country fool telling crude jokes.
 So, the next time that it is 1 AM and you are fighting with the vending machine to get it to accept your wrinkled, torn $1 bill in order to satisfy your Snickers fix, remember that your tattered paper currency is one of the many legacies of the Civil War.  Otherwise you might be paying with money issued by anyone of hundreds of different state or private banks or schlepping around gold or silver coins.




Modern-day view of the U.S. Treasury Department, 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.  First occupied in 1839, it is the oldest departmental building in Washington, and the third oldest federally occupied building in Washington.  Tours are available by advanced reservation through your Congressional member's office.  The tour includes a visit to Salmon P. Chase's office, which has been restored to a 1860s period appearance. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Department of the Treasury)



Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Lincoln's Air Force" and the Advent of Aerial Reconnaissance in the US

On Saturday,  the National Air and Space Museum sponsored a sesquicentennial commemoration of "Professor" Thaddeus Lowe's balloon demonstration on the National Mall.  The festivities included a replica balloon, living historians, cameo appearances by President Lincoln and Professor Lowe, and the dedication of a new plaque:




Lincoln, the only president to receive a patent, embraced technology and Lowe, who had been rebuffed by Army brass, sought to prove the balloon's military value.  With support from the Smithsonian Institution and the President's encouragement, Lowe conducted a demonstration on June 18, 1861 on the National Mall (just in front of where the Air and Space Museum stands today) to prove that "aeronauts" in balloons could both observe the enemy and deliver timely information to military commanders.  From 500 feet above the Mall, Lowe cabled to the White House:   "This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty miles in diameter.  This city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene.  I take great pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station, and  in acknowledging my indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of this country."

A replica of Thaddeus Lowe's balloon and inflation wagons on the National Mall near the exact spot where he demonstrated its military potential on June 18, 1861 by sending an airborne telegraph message to President Lincoln at the White House. 
Lincoln was hooked and directed his still skeptical military commanders to employ Lowe and his balloons in their operations.  Lowe and his "aeronauts" used the balloons to some good effect to observe Confederate lines in Northern Virginia and during the Peninsula Campaign.  On June 2, 1862, The New York Times reported on his efforts during the Battle of Fair Oaks:

"During the whole of the battle of this morning, Prof. Lowe's balloon was overlooking the terrific scene from an altitude of about two thousand feet.  Telegraphic communication from the balloon to General McClellan, and indirect connection with the military wires, was successfully maintained ... Every movement of the enemy was obvious, and instantly reported.   This is believed to be the first time in which a balloon reconnaissance has been successfully made during a battle, and certainly the first time in which a telegraph station has been established in the air to report the movements of the enemy, and the progress of a battle. The advantage to Gen. McClellan must have been immense."


Thaddeus Lowe inflating his balloon Intrepid during the Battle of Fair Oaks. (Courtesy Natl. Air & Space Museum)

This "immense" intelligence advantage, along with greatly outnumbering the Confederates, would not prevent McClellan from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory during the ill-fated Peninsula Campaign.  As for military ballooning, the temperamental Lowe's clashes with the Army and the balloons' then-complex logistical requirements led to its demise.  It would not be until World War One that aerial reconnaissance would be regularly gathered and used by the military.  Even with today's  satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, balloons-- now called aerostats-- armed with advanced sensors remain an important, tactical surveillance tool for modern armies.


This 1856 painting of the National Mall gives us an idea of what the view (minus the absence of military encampments)would have looked like from aloft Lowe's balloon. The smokestack of the Washington Gas Light Company, which Lowe used for gas for his balloon, can be seen in the foreground. The white arrow points to the Mary Anne Hall House, which at the time, was one of the city's best known brothels.  The old Washington City Canal, which runs approximately where Constitution Avenue is today, is also visible on the right.  Note that in the mid-19th century, the banks of the Potomac came up to the Washington Monument (which the painter depicted as being completed even though construction had stopped).  The land where the Lincoln Memorial is was reclaimed later through filling (Natl. Air & Space Museum)

The Balloon Corps was recruiting on the National Mall yesterday.  I was considering joining for the $200 bounty and the chance to wear a  wool uniform in our balmy summertime weather.  (After all, fabrics that breathe are overrated. But I figured my wife would think I was just looking for any excuse to get out of mowing the lawn?  Did I mention that this weekend was really hot? (Photo by Author)
For more information on Civil War ballooning, an Air and Space Museum lecture on the topic is available on youtube.



Saturday, June 11, 2011

Fort Richardson, Army-Navy Country Club

Of the 68 fortifications and batteries that made up the Defenses of Washington during the Civil War, only a few vestiges remain throughout the urban and suburban landscape.  While some of these forts live on through the names that they gave to neighborhoods, such as the Fort Totten metro, most were soon forgotten and built over in the years after the war as Washingtonians looked to the future not to the past.  By the centennial commemoration of the Civil War, suburban development had obliterated most traces of this once powerful defensive shield.

However, there are still traces, some more pronounced than others, of this wartime legacy within Washington DC, Alexandria, and Arlington and Fairfax Counties.  One such place is trace remains of Fort Richardson, which now shares its ideal strategic high ground, quite fittingly with the ninth hole green of the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Virginia.

"Playing Through?"  The Army Navy Country Club's golf course contains visible remnants of Fort Richardson's parapets and ditches.  Apparently, golfers only encounter it when an approach shot is shanked or hooked.  (Author's photo)
Fort Richardson, was constructed as a detached redoubt in September 1861 and designed to cover the left flank of the recently built Arlington defense line. The Army's Chief Engineer described it as a "small, inclosed, polygonal work."  Its location on a high crest provided it a commanding view and enabled it to rain down artillery fire on any enemy advancing via the Colombia Turnpike.  Even today, its location offers a superb view of the Potomac and downtown Washington. The fort had a perimeter of 316 yards and emplacements for 15 artillery pieces. The fort was named for General Israel B. Richardson.

General John Barnard, the Chief Engineer of the Defenses of Washington, described Fort Richardson as occupying a very commanding position:  "It is small, but well built, well armed, and amply provided with bomb-proofs and magazines.  The ravines in front will be seen by the rifle-trenches in construction.  A rifled 100-pounder is being placed in this work, which will sweep a sector from Fort Ellsworth to Fort DeKalb.


Historical marker denoting location of the remains of Fort Richardson on the property of the Army Navy Country Club's golf course in Arlington, Virginia.  Additionally, an Army Navy Country Club history notes that a convalescent hospital and isolation ward for Union Soldiers was probably located in the general area of the #12 fairway in the aftermat of the Bull Run Disaster.  (Author's photo)
Wartime photograph of the 1rst Connecticut Artillery drilling at Fort Richardson.  Not a golf bag in sight. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The heavy iron guns of Fort Richardson, including its 100-pounder, never fired a shot in anger.  Today, the only iron in use is the the nine iron and other clubs wielded by America's military men and women and retirees on well-deserved days off.

Friday, June 10, 2011

An Antebellum Crime of Passion: Murder and the Insanity Defense of Congressman Daniel Sickles


With recent headlines being dominated by the risque internet activities of certain politicians, I decided that it would be an apt time to explore the case of New York Congressman-- and future Civil War general-- Daniel E. Sickles (and no this is not going to involve some joke about sexting via telegraph).  A controversial and colorful figure, whose actions nearly led to Union disaster at the second day of Gettysburg, Sickles' tumultuous life was captured succinctly by one historian:  "From his mid-30s until his death at age 94, he [Sickles] was continually embroiled in some sort of financial, legislative, sexual or homicidal crisis." 


"HOMICIDE OF F. BARTON KEY BY HON. DANIEL E SICKLES AT WASHINGTON, Harper's Weekly.  Key was the son of Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner, and was also the nephew of US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision (Courtesy of Library of Congress)
 Sickles was born in New York City in 1819 to a well-to-do family.  As a young man, he was active in New York Democratic politics serving in the state legislature before being elected to Congress in 1856.  Sickles gained national notoriety in 1859 when he discovered that his much younger wife, Teresa Bragioli, was having an affair with Francis Barton Key, the son of the author of our National Anthem.  Enraged, Congressman Sickles confronted Key outside the Sickles' Lafayette Park residence on the afternoon of February 27, 1859.  According to eyewitnesses, Sickles shouted, "Key, you scoundrel.  You have dishonored my wife.  You must die."  Sickles then fired a revolver at Key, killing him within spitting distance of the Executive Mansion. 

Teresa Bragioli Sickles, the younger wife of Congressman Daniel Sickles and the object of Francis Barton Key's affections, Harper's Weekly (Courtesy Library of Congress)


Sickles was charged with murder and his trial captured newspaper headlines throughout the country.  The New York Times' Washington correspondent observed that "the vulgar monotony of partisan passions and political squabbles has been terribly broken in upon today by an outburst of personal revenge, which has filled the city with horror and consternation, -- I cannot unfortunately add with absolute surprise."  The press reported that Key had even maintained a residence along 15th Street in a run-down neighborhood for his liaisons with Mrs. Sickles. 

Sickles was represented by a legal "dream team" including future War Secretary Edwin Stanton.  Sickles' legal team employed the then novel defense of "temporary insanity."  The jury agreed and Sickles became the first defendant in US history to be acquitted by reason of temporary insanity. Sickles, who himself was a known womanizer, remained married to Teresa until her death in 1867 from tuberculosis. 

THE TRIAL OF THE HON. DANIEL E. SICKLES, Harper's Weekly (Courtesy Library of Congress)

A pro-Union War Democrat, Sickles volunteered his services at the outbreak of the war and became one of the most prominent, albeit also controversial, political generals of the war.  At Gettysburg, Sickles disobeyed orders and advanced his Third Corps, leaving the Union lines vulnerable.  In the resulting fight, he was injured by a cannonball and had to have his right leg amputated. Sickles had bones from the amputated leg preserved and donated them to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C.  Throughout his life, he regularly visited the museum to see his leg on the anniversary of its amputation.  (You too will be able to see his leg and other Civil War medical curiosities including the bullet that killed Lincoln at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, when it completes its relocation from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the Forest Glen Annex later this year). 

Avoiding the court-martial that he deserved for his actions at Gettysburg, Sickles returned to military duty.  After the war, he resumed his political career and served abroad as a US diplomat in Spain and later  was elected to another stint in Congress.  Through his political connections, Sickles was even able to secure himself a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1897 for his actions at Gettysburg.  In his later years, Sickles was a prominent presence at aging veterans' reunions and was responsible for overseeing New York's efforts to erect memorials to its war dead.  In this capacity, Sickles was accused of embezzling funds in the early 1900s.  Sickles lived to a ripe age and died in New York City on May 3, 1914.  He is buried  at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Major General Daniel E. Sickles signing autographs in 1913 at the fiftieth anniversary reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg.  In his later years, Sickles was estranged from his second wife and children who accused him of squandering their inheritance.  Sickles was also suspected of embezzling funds meant for monuments to New York's war dead.