When Abraham Lincoln stealthily arrived in Washington, DC on February 23, 1861, this southern town probably did not look that different from when he had left it twelve years earlier at the conclusion of his sole term in the US House of Representatives. However, one striking difference to the President-Elect certainly would have been the US Capitol Building. In the 1850s, new wings were added to house new chambers for the House and Senate. In 1855, construction began on an iron dome to grace the center of the Capitol Building. However, construction still had not been completed on this dome at the time of Lincoln's inauguration.
On the eve of the Civil War, the nation's capital was just over sixty years old and its oldest residents still would have remembered its burning by the British some fifty years earlier. The capital had approximately 75,000 residents, according to the 1860 Census. This paled in comparison to the nation's leading cities: New York (800,000), Philadelphia (500,000). Washington's population in 1860 was nearly double that of Richmond, which had 38,000 inhabitants.
African-Americans, most of whom were free, made up nearly twenty percent of Washington's population on the eve of the war. Although slave trading in Washington, DC itself had been abolished as part of the Compromise of 1850, "the peculiar institution" itself remained legal in the District. (In 1849, Congressman Lincoln unsuccessfully attempted to pass legislation to gradually phase out slavery in the District.).
As for military defenses, there were almost none to speak of as Lincoln prepared for his inauguration. By war's end, Washington would be the most fortified city in the world with miles of entrenchments ringing the city's then rural outskirts. Some of these entrenchments remain. Some locations even are used today for defense related government installations. Others were destroyed and built over years ago. This blog will explore the vestiges of these and other Civil War related facilities.
As we will see, our nation and our nation's capital was forever transformed-- both physically and ideologically-- by the events of 1861-1865. Propelled by wartime growth, the District's population would balloon to over 130,000 by the end of the decade.
1846 daguerreotype of east side of the US Capitol. This is how the building would have looked
The US Capitol, with its new dome under construction, as it appeared at the time of President Lincoln's first inauguration on March 4, 1861 (Courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress)