Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Unmarked Site of the July 2, 1881 Assassination of President Garfield

Today, the National Gallery of Art’s West Building stretches along the north side of the National Mall  from Fourth to Seventh streets at Constitution Avenue, NW.  From 1872 to 1907, the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station stood on the site at 6th and Constitution Avenue, then called B Street.  Few are aware of  the assassination of a U.S. President that occurred there on the morning of July 2, 1881. 

Washington's Victorian Gothic inspired B&P Railroad Station, the site of the assassination of President Garfield, adorned with black mourning crepe following Garfield's death.  The B&P served as the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad's connection to the national capital.  (Library of Congress)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day 1912: G.A.R., Taft & evergreens

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day,  began to be observed in the North soon after the Civil War's end.  100 years ago on May 30, 1912 Union Army veterans, along with much younger Spanish American veterans, gathered in Washington and elsewhere throughout the country to honor their fallen brethren.    In Washington, members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) and other veteran organizations organized ceremonies at the graves of fallen soldiers and decorated the graves of nearly 50,000 Union soldiers and sailors buried in the area.  Dwindling G.A.R. membership forced the organization in 1912 for the first time ever to solicit external donations to defray the costs of decorating every grave.

Washington's 1912 observations of Memorial Day-- some still referred to it as Decoration Day-- began with a morning parade  downtown led by G.A.R. veterans followed by the United Spanish War Veterans.  At Arlington Cemetery, President Taft addressed the veterans and other distinguished guests at the Arlington Cemetery amphitheater.  Senator Clapp of Minnesota had relayed a constituent's suggestion to President Taft that all Americans "the national colors, or a sprig of evergeeen," on Memorial Day.  Per the "orders of the day," Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was also read as part of the Arlington ceremony.

Services were also held at the various other cemeteries throughout Washington where Union veterans were buried.  At Harmony Cemetery, African American veterans of the G.A.R's Frederick Douglas Post decorated the graves of fallen comrades.  (The Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood metro station is now located on the cemetery's former site)

Other  veterans took a special B&O railroad excursion from Union Station to participate in Decoration Day ceremonies at Gettysburg featuring former President Theodore Roosevelt. (Roosevelt was seeking to return to the White House in the upcoming elections).
In Alexandria, one of the first southern towns occupied by Union forces during the war,  ceremonies were held in honor of the 3,560 Federal soldiers buried in the Alexandria National Cemetery.  The Post's Alexandria correspondent noted that the  holiday for Union soldiers was more widely observed by local businesses in town than in past years.   A week earlier, the Robert E. Lee Camp of Confederate veterans had observed Confederate Memorial Day in Alexandria.

Elsewhere in Washington, Congressman A.W. Rucker of Colorado hosted a dinner for 10 fellow members of Congress and one Supreme Court justice who had served the Confederacy  in their youth.  The Washington Post noted that, "this function will, in all probability, be the last gathering of Confederate soldiers in the official life of the National Capital ... As the years pass, the numerical strength of the Confederate veterans in Congress and on the Supreme Court bench is cut down by death until now only thirteen survive."  The dinner was fixed for the "national Union Memorial Day," in tribute to the Union veterans whom these southern Congressmen had fought on battle fields half a century earlier. 

Overlooking the great racial injustices that still prevailed in the country 50 years after the war, white veterans of both sides emphasized reconciliation.  A May 30, 1912 Washington Post article noted that "Memorial day, in the year 1912, will be more in the nature of a reunion, with the hands of the Confederate gray, closed on the hands of the Yankee blue across the firing line in a union indivisible."

Of course, even in 1912 Memorial Day was viewed by many as more of a recreational occasion.  Ads in local papers enticed folks to spend the day at local resorts such as Glen Echo Park, Colonial Beach, and Luna Park.  Memorial Day found the hapless Washington Nationals on the road playing a doubleheader at Boston's new ballpark.

Monday, May 21, 2012

150th Anniversary of the Army Medical Museum

150 years ago today, Brigadier General William A. Hammond, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, ordered the establishment of the Army Medical Museum in Washington.  Arguably the military's first medical medical "center of excellence," General Hammond envisioned that the new collection would help to advance military medicine.  In his May 21, 1862 circular, Hammond directed army medical officers to:

 "collect, and to forward to the office of the surgeon general, all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable; together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed, and such other matters as may prove of interest in the study of military medicine or surgery."

Brigadier General William A. Hammond, Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, was responsible for the establishment of the Army Medical Museum in May 1862. (Library of Congress)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Passover 1862: Exodus & Emancipation in Washington

 In April 1862, Washington's small wartime Jewish community observed Passover, the annual commemoration of the Israelites' liberation from Egyptian bondage.  The eight-day festival began with the first night's seder on April 14th in which Jews continued the age-old tradition of recalling the story of Exodus.  However, this Passover 1862 was different from all other Passovers in that a contemporary version of the story of Exodus was unfolding in Washington.  

By April 1862, thousands of slaves, euphemistically referred to as "Contrabands,"  had already fled Virginia and Maryland for the relative safety of camps in and around Washington.  Although these contemporary refugees did not flee with matzoh or cross the Red Sea, they did hope that a contemporary "Father Abraham" or Moses-like figure would help free them.  Abolitionists had been pressing President Abraham Lincoln  to remove the stain of slavery from the nation's capital.  On April 16th-- the second day of Passover-- President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which ended slavery in Washington.  It went into effect a full eight and half months before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved African Americans in rebellious states.
A Civil War era photograph of Washington's City Hall where that former slaveowners in Washington applied to a special commission for compensation for their emancipated slaves.  Nearly $1 million in compensation was paid out by the Federal Government.  (Library of Congress).

The legislation  provided for compensation to former owners who were loyal to the Union of up to $300 for each slave.  Over the next nine months, an appointed Board of Commissioners approved 930 petitions from former owners for compensation for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves.  Several Washington Jews owned slaves in the District. 

 Dr. Charles Liebermann, a Russian-born physician living in the District had owned slaves since at least 1849.  In June 1862, Liebermann submitted a petition requesting $225 in compensation for his claim to Daniel Jones.    Dr. Liebermann included a copy of the July 1849 legal paperwork associated with his purchase of the then 13-year old Daniel Jones for $200.

Charles H. Liebermann's Petition (NARA)

 On April 17th, the Washington National Republican,  published an item on the "The Hebrew Passover," detailing how and why Jews observe Passover.  Directly below this article, the avowedly anti-slavery paper ran an editorial applauding President Lincoln's signing of the District Emancipation Bill, noting that "if freedom is a blessing, it ought to be bestowed on the greatest number possible by this bill."

100 miles to the south, the Richmond Dispatch, diligently  avoiding any references to the south's "peculiar institution,"  vividly described Passover observances in the Confederate capital:
"The celebration of the Jewish Passover which begun last week and which has been scrupulously observed by our Hebrew fellow-citizens, closes on tomorrow. As usual there are services daily in the two synagogues. It is a custom with the ancient people of God during the continuance of the Passover to eat unleavened bread, lamb, celery, and parsley, and almond mush. According to prescribed rule, each dish is typical of incidents connected with the tribulations endured by the children of Israel in their attempts to escape from the bondage in which they were held by their Egyptian persecutors."

Just as the story of Exodus is recalled during Passover, for 150 years Washington's African American community has celebrated Emancipation Day on April 16th to recall their ancestor's freedom after several hundred years in bondage.  
Harper's Weekly depiction of the large celebration of the anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia that occurred in April 1866.  Generations of Washington African-Americans would continue to celebrate Emanciaption Day, which made Washington's slaves the "first freed."  (Library of Congress)

Apelbaum, Laura Cohen and Clair Uziel, eds, Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City.   Washington, D.C.:  Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, 2009.
The Richmond Dispatch, April 21, 1862.
Washington National Republican, April 17, 1862.
Washington, D.C., Slave Owner Petitions, 1862-1863 Record for Charles H Leiberman.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Washington Canal: Cesspool in the Midst of the Nation's Capital

 In the 1860s, a cesspool of filth literally lay at the foot of Congress.  The Washington City Canal, once envisioned as a key artery linking the capital with the West via the Potomac and C&O Canal, was little more than an open sewer.  This fetid body of water, which had never lived up to its economic promise,  was both a visual blight on the city and a serious public health nuisance.  One War Department report called the canal "that pestiferous ditch of water." 

An early plan for Washington depicting the Washington City Canal that linked the Potomac River, Tiber Creek and the C&O Canal to the Eastern Branch (Anacostia River).  Part of the canal ran along what is today Constitution Avenue just north of the National Mall with branches then proceeding south of the Capitol leading into the Anacostia River.  In 1831, the City of Washington purchased the canal from its private owners.  By the start of the Civil War, the canal was offensive to the senses of both sight and smell. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Army of the Potomac Sets Off for the Peninsula, March 1862

In mid-March 1862, the Alexandria waterfront was the scene of  a whirlwind of activity.  General McClellan's beloved Army of the Potomac was embarking on transports en route to Fort Monroe, a Union toehold on the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula..  In a three week period, nearly 121,500 men, 14,500 animals, 1200 wagons and ambulances and 44 artillery batteries were dispatched to Fort Monroe.  This logistical feat-- the U.S. Army's largest ever deployment at the time-- was the opening move of the Peninsula Campaign, McClellan's ill-fated effort to strike Richmond via the lower Chesapeake.

A lithograph depicting Alexandria' busy waterfront during the Civil War. (Library of Congress)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Symbolic Import of the National Monuments in Washington

In March 1862, the Washington National Republican  espoused the virtue of the Union cause by noting that none of the significant monuments in the national capital pointed to the South.  I have previously blogged on each side's efforts to link their cause to the founders of the Republic and heroes of previous generations.  The National Republican sought to use the directions that monuments in Washington faced as a metaphor for the country's future.  Of course, in this case the National Republican's  editors conveniently failed to point out the irony that all four national heroes then memorialized in Washington had been southern slave owners.  We may not be as concerned today about directions on a compass, but what statues and monuments in today's Washington face south?
A photograph of the North Side of the White House, including the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the front lawn, taken during the Civil War.
From the Washington National Republican, March 17, 1862:
Symbolic Import of the National Monuments in Washington
As illustrated by past and passing events; and doubtless will be still further illustrated in the future.

1.  Washington's Equestrian statue (situated in the Circle, western Pennsylvania Avenue, facing the East) indicates liberty, strength, stability and invincibility, which, under G-d, are our nation's bulwarks.

2.  Jefferson's statue (in front of the President's Mansion, facing the North, he was the framer of the Constitution), denotes that the strength and defense of the Constitution come from the North.

3.  Jackson's equestrian statue (in Lafayette square, on the North front of the White House, facing the West,) indicates that our nation's progress and expansion will be Westward, until the Pacific ocean be her boundary.

4.  Washington monument (on the Island, unfinished,) proclaims a great country, though incomplete in its strength, majesty, and grandeur; will, nevertheless, go on to perfection, and be as enduring as the granite from which the monument is constructed.

5.  It is remarkable that there is no monument pointing toward the South, as though intended to teach us that the permanent future of that region is not yet initiated, and, of course cannot be symbolized."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Washington's Brithday, February 22, 1862

This weekend, as we are bombarded by television and newspapers ads of Washington and Honest Abe touting presidential savings on cars and dishwashers, I want to reflect on how Washington's birthday was observed 150 years ago in the midst of the Civil War. As I noted in a previous post, both Northern and Southern leaders sought to link their respective causes with the legacy of George Washington.  These efforts can best be seen in the February 22, 1862 observances of Washington's birthday observances in the Union and Confederate capitals. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

The 1st US Colored Troops at Roosevelt Island

Theodore Roosevelt Island,  a small island located in the Potomac River between Rosslyn, VA and the Georgetown waterfront, is maintained by the National Park Service in honor of our nation's 26th president. However, during the Civil War, the 80 acre island, then known as Mason's Island or Analostan Island, served as a training camp for the 1st United States Colored Troops (1st USCT), an infantry regiment of African American soldiers recruited in the District of Colombia in 1863.  The island was occupied by Union troops at the outset of the war and used for various purposes.

Photograph of the 1st U.S. Colored Troops in camp circa 1863.  The regiment's white officers can be seen in the foreground.  (Library of Congress)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Methodist Church Hospital in Alexandria, VA

As the number of Union wounded and ill mounted, Alexandria's public building, churches, and even private homes were pressed into service as military hospitals.  At least twenty of Alexandria's largest buildings were transformed into hospitals during the war.  In January  1861, the U.S. Government took possession of Alexandria's Methodist Episcopal South church on Washington Street for use as a hospital. Like most other Alexandria churches, the Southern Methodist congregation was considered to be "secesh," so Union authorities had no qualms about seizing it. 
Photo of the Methodist Church on South Washington Street in Alexandria when it was being used as a U.S. Military Hospital, circa 1862.  The cornerstone was laid on September 12, 1840 and the building was completed in 1852.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Alexandria's Jail and Contrabands

Last month, Kate Masur  recounted in the New York Times Opinionator Senator Henry Wilson's December 1861 crusade against the "sordid conditions" in the Washington city jail faced by African-Americans.  In Washington, African Americans were regularly detained by the city's constables as suspected fugitives and held without charges in the city jail through 1862.  Not entirely surprisingly, this practice also occurred south of the Potomac in Union occupied Alexandria.  150 years ago this month, Senator Wilson, a Massachusetts Republican, rose on the Senate floor to read into the record a scathing critique of the situation in Alexandria's jail.

Alexandria's city jail was located at the northeast corner of Princess and St. Asaph Streets.  Built in 1827, it was designed by Charles Bullfinch.  The facility was used by the City of Alexandria into the late 1980s when it was sold to developers.  Although most of the building was demolished to make way for townhouses, one of the prison yard walls was retained and there is a small plaque.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Regiment of New York Frenchmen at Tenleytown

On January 8, 1862 President and Mrs. Lincoln attended a celebration hosted by the 55th New York Infantry at Tennalytown, D.C. to mark their receipt of a new regimental flag.  Newspaper reports from the winter of 1861-62 are full of stories about various regiments being presented with regimental flags in events attended by prominent home state politicians.  What made this particular  flag presentation unique was that the regiment was comprised heavily of French-born New Yorkers who had answered their adopted homeland's call for volunteers.  The flag presentation ceremony was scheduled for January 8th to coincide with the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans, a battle in which French Creoles had fought with Americans against the British.  This at a time when Washington was stridently trying to ensure that England and France did not intervene in the war on the Confederacy's behalf.  Besides, this regiment also knew how to dine.

Photograph of the camp of the 55th New York Infantry, near Tennallytown, D.C.  At the time, the regiment was part of General Peck's Division. Civil War era records often spell the area as "Tennallytown."   (Library of Congress)