John F. Kennedy famously described Washington, D.C., as a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency. Indeed, neither charm nor efficiency was in evidence during the 1850s, when representatives came armed to the floor of Congress, fistfights between Northerners and Southerners broke out in the House, and a South Carolina congressman clubbed a Massachusetts senator almost to death with a heavy cane on the floor of the Senate as the nation drifted toward civil war. The partisanship and political polarization in Washington during recent years has been child’s play compared with those events a century and a half ago.
Southern Democrats dominated their party in the 1850s, which in turn controlled the federal government. They set the tone for the proslavery administrations of Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Fed up with their efforts to expand slavery into new territories, Northern voters elected the antislavery Republican Abraham Lincoln president in 1860 without a single electoral vote from the fifteen slave states. Most of these states then seceded from a nation they could no longer control. This action set in train a series of events that culminated in the Civil War of 1861–1865, which transformed the capital as it transformed the nation.
Ernest Furgurson’s elegant account of Washington during the Civil War vividly portrays that transformation. A reporter, columnist, and Washington bureau chief of the Baltimore Sun for many years, and more recently the author of three books about the Civil War, Furgurson is uniquely qualified to write about the city he loves during an unlovely but eventually triumphant time. In 1861 Washington was a Southern city. The District of Columbia was surrounded by slave states, and bondage existed in the capital itself. Although the city’s flourishing slave market had been forced across the Potomac River to Alexandria by legislation that was part of the Compromise of 1850, the buying and selling of human beings was still going on in Washington when Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861.
That inauguration, however, was an augury of change. In this first administration of the exclusively Northern Republican Party, Yankee officeholders and aspirants for office invaded Washington. And as they entered the capital on trains from the North, Southerners left on trains headed south to join their home states in secession. Washington became a city of Northern power as grim party chieftains like Senators Benjamin Wade and Zachariah Chandler demanded total war to crush the rebels. One of the early acts of the new Republican majority was the abolition of slavery in the District. In this as in other respects, Washington became the nation in microcosm. The end of bondage in the capital was followed three years—and more than a half-million soldier deaths—later by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing it throughout the United States.
The Northern invasion and Southern exodus foreshadowed a long-term transition in control of all branches of government. In 1861 the United States had lived under the Constitution for seventy-two years. During forty-nine of those years—two thirds…
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