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.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

An Unfinished Nation, an Unfinished Monument (or Beef, It's What's for dinner)

Any discussion of key landmarks in Washington, DC can not fail to mention the Washington Monument, that  iconic memorial, which today towers over all structures within DC's boundaries. Perhaps a fitting symbol of the unfinished nature of the Union in 1861, the Washington Monument-- dedicated to the Father of the Country and the Capital's namesake--sat incomplete throughout the war.

The Washington Monument's cornerstone was set in 1848.  However,  lackluster fundraising, internal squabbles (including "Know Nothing" involvement) and the withdraw of Congressional funding led to a halt in construction in 1856.  The author Mark Twain would later sarcastically observe that "the Monument is to be finished, some day, and at that time our Washington will have risen still higher in the nation's veneration, and will be known as the Great-Great-Grandfather of his Country."

The failure to complete the Monument before the outbreak of the war was not indicative of any lack of enthusiasm, both North and South, regarding George Washington some sixty years after his death.  Americans, both North and South, continued to venerate Washington and both sides claimed his legacy for their own cause.  Southerners viewed their struggle as a Second American Revolution and naturally invoked that great Virginian, and a slaveholder, to justify their cause.  In 1861, one Georgian even proposed that the new Confederacy be named the Republic of Washington.  Although this motion was not adopted, the official Great Seal of the Confederacy depicted a mounted figure of General Washington.

Lincoln was not about to cede Washington's legacy to the South.  In his 1860 Cooper Union speech, Lincoln rejected southern agitators' attempts to appropriate Washington's legacy for their own sectional agenda:  "Could Washington himself, speak, would he cast the blame of that sectionalism upon us, who sustain his policy, or upon you who repudiate it?" Upon his departure from Springfield in February 1861, President-Elect Lincoln observed the grave work ahead, upon which the very Union that Washington had helped to forge depended :  'I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.'

Although the incomplete monument only reached one-third of its eventual height, at approximately 150 feet, it still towered over other Washington structures.  (Today there is still a discernible difference in the shading of the marble, showing where construction  had been halted before the war)   However, the unfinished monument did not impress Mark Twain, who quipped that it looked like a "hollow, over-sized chimney."

As tens of thousands of soldiers descended on Washington in answer to the President's call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, space was needed to train, feed and shelter them.  The monument's grounds were used for drilling and also hosted large cattle herds.  As a result of these herds and a slaughterhouse established by the army, the area was sometimes called Beef Depot and the Washington National Cattle Yard.

One can only imagine the wonderful odors that must have emanated from the Monument's grounds during the war.  In 1862, Frank Leslie's Illustrated News painted a dismal picture of a Washington Monument “surrounded by offal rotting two or three feet deep.”

As the country reunited, public interest in completing the Monument grew.  On the nation's centennial in 1876, Congress appropriated funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to complete the project.  The monument opened to the public in 1888.

The use of the Monument grounds would set a precedent for later military use of the Mall during wartime exigencies. During the Second World War, the Federal Government erected "temporary" office buildings in the vicinity of the Washington Monument grounds to serve the growing wartime government workforce.

Cattle can be seen grazing on the Washington Monument grounds just west of 14th Street in this 1865 photograph lookin gin the direction of the White House and Treasury.
Harpers Weekly illustration showing an artillery unit drilling on the Washington Monument grounds.
A wartime illustration in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicts the use of the grounds of the unfinished Washington Monument as a cattle depot. The poet Walt Whitman recalled once seeing nearly 10,000 cattle on the grounds.
Officers of the U.S. Treasury Battalion; uncompleted Washington Monument in left background, Circa April 1865 (Courtesy Library of Congress)


Welcome to my blog regarding Washington, DC sites associated with the Civil War.  As a native of the Washington suburbs, I have been fascinated since childhood with the role that Washington played as the political and military "Seat of War" for the United States from 1861-1865.  As a child, my parents took me  to Fort Stevens, site of one of the 68 forts and batteries defending Washington during the war.   These visits to this park, which was just down the street from my mother's childhood home, began my interest in this topic.  This blog will focus on those sites in Washington and its close-in suburbs (i.e. locations within the Beltway) that have connections to the Civil War and help tell the story of the role our community played in ensuring that "... government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."  I plan on highlighting historical photos, archival materials, modern day photos, and maps to help flesh out this story.  This work in progress has been spurred on by the recent bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, the start of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, and my wife's desire that I harangue anyone but her, with my observations about Civil War life within the Beltway.

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
when a young Whig congressman from Springfield, IL roamed its halls.  (Courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress)

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)