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)