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.