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 of the time—slaveholders from future Confederate states had served as presidents. After the Civil War a century passed before another president, Lyndon Johnson, was elected from a former Confederate state. Before 1861 twenty-four of the thirty-six presidents pro tem of the Senate and twenty-three of the speakers of the House had represented Southern states. For half a century after the Civil War none of the presidents pro tem and only one of the speakers came from the South. Before the war twenty of the thirty-five Supreme Court justices were from slave states, but for a half-century after the war only five of the twenty-six new justices were appointed from the South.
The “freedom rising” of Furgur-son’s title reflects these revolutionary changes. It also expresses the symbolism of sculptor Thomas Crawford’s female statue of Freedom, nineteen feet tall and holding a sword in one hand and an olive branch in the other, designed to crown the new dome of the Capitol. Crawford initially wanted to place a liberty cap on the head of his statue. But in 1856 that intention ran afoul of objections from Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. As Davis pointed out, ever since Roman times the liberty cap had been “the badge of the freed slave”—an inappropriate symbol for a republic of white men who had never been slaves and many of whom, like Davis himself, owned large numbers of black slaves. Davis got his way—and Freedom got instead a helmet topped by an eagle’s head crested with Indian feathers, which the architect of the Capitol dome called “the buzzard.”
That architect, Thomas Walter, is a minor hero for Furgurson. From 1851 to 1859 Walter designed and supervised the construction of the new House and Senate chambers on either wing of the Capitol; in 1855 he began work on the dome. An architectural innovation, supported by a technologically advanced iron frame, the dome remained unfinished when the war began. Labor shortages and delays in congressional appropriations to complete the new chambers as well as the dome plagued Walter. But just as President Lincoln overcame military incompetence and political obstacles in his single-minded determination to win the war, so Walter persisted against the odds to complete what he had come to consider the crowning achievement of his life.
The unfinished Capitol became the symbol of an incomplete nation. In 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation and of critical Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, the statue of Freedom was hoisted by a giant crane into place atop the dome’s iron girders. “Her ladyship looks placid and beautiful,” wrote Walters, “much better than I expected.” Other commentators could not restrain their purple prose. An army officer
looked out of my window upon the magnificent structure [and] saw the workmen tear away the slim scaffolding that enshrouded the image in a gossamer web and [let] the beautiful statue of Freedom soar free and unfettered to the gaze of the admiring and enthusiastic multitude below…. It was a most beautiful sight to behold and is an emblem that I trust no recreant hand may ere defile or traitor heart overthrow.
Work went forward during the remainder of the war to complete all the stonework and painting of the dome. By the time Union armies marched down Pennsylvania Avenue 150,000 strong in victory parades on May 23 and 24, 1865, both the nation and its Capitol were complete and whole. “Soaring beyond the unending lines of blue,” writes Furgurson, “gleaming in the clear distance, Thomas Walter’s dome atop the Capitol stood as it still stands, forever upholding the promise of Freedom.”
Furgurson’s story is not one wholly of triumph and beauty, however. Washington had been built on a swamp, and with the exception of a few notable public buildings it retained many characteristics of a swamp in 1861. Most streets were unpaved and frequently shin-deep in dust or mud—usually the latter. Open drainage canals carried putrid offal to the river within sight and smell of the White House. Pigs rooted for garbage in the alleys. Army cattle were penned in the grounds of the Washington Monument, which had stood only one third complete for years. Unsightly groups of shacks and backyard privies clustered along many of the streets. The water supply was suspect; in the winter of 1861–1862 General-in-Chief George B. McClellan as well as the Lincolns’ two sons fell ill with typhoid fever. McClellan and ten-year-old Tad Lincoln recovered; twelve-year-old Willie Lincoln died on February 20, sending his mother into a tailspin of depression from which she had barely recovered when her husband was assassinated three years later.
The population of Washington doubled during the war as the huge expansion of the military and civil bureaucracy necessary to run the war created an acute housing crisis that multiplied the jerry-built residential districts. The influx of soldiers also brought with it an unsavory task force of prostitutes, gamblers, and liquor vendors from near and far. Estimates of the number of prostitutes in the fall of 1862 ran as high as 15,000; the police counted nearly 4,000, claiming that since the war began “New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and some of the western cities dumped this aggregation of unclean birds on the community.” They worked in such establishments as the Haystack, the Blue Goose, Fort Sumter, the Cottage by the Sea, and Madame Russell’s Bake Oven. The greatest concentration of bawdy houses was located in the area now known as the Federal Triangle. It was then known as “Hooker’s Division” after General Joseph Hooker, who in 1861 herded the women into this district so he could better control the soldiers in his brigade that was then stationed in the city. (It was merely a coincidence that prostitutes were called hookers, a term that antedated the general.)
The bloody battles of 1862 brought thousands of wounded soldiers into the unprepared capital, where churches, warehouses, and even the Patent Office building were converted to makeshift hospitals in which sanitary con-ditions soon deteriorated to a dis-astrous level. The abolition of slavery in the District in April 1862 and the advance of Union armies into slave territory thrust a backwash of “contrabands”—escaped slaves—into Washington’s already overcrowded black neighborhoods. Some of them set up business in Hooker’s Division: two fifths of the prostitutes known to the police in 1862 were “colored.”
By 1863 an aroused citizenry and the military police had begun to bring some of these problems under control. A partnership between the army’s Medical Bureau and the United States Sanitary Commission built and staffed dozens of general hospitals of the new pavilion type that did a much better job of treating the wounded from the even bigger battles of 1863 and 1864. Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s black dressmaker and confidante, organized the Contraband Relief Society in 1863. In cooperation with Northern freedmen’s aid societies, Keckley’s organization supported the government’s establishment of a Freedman’s Village on the grounds of the former Custis-Lee mansion in Arlington, where Robert B. Lee had lived and which the government had confiscated. This temporary home for thousands of freed slaves, with its clean streets and schools staffed by Northern teachers, was a huge improvement over their crowded hovels in Washington.
Both the famous and the obscure in wartime Washington are portrayed in Furgurson’s absorbing narrative. It is a story with a heroic and tragic figure, Abraham Lincoln, a genuine villain, John Wilkes Booth, a would-be messiah, General McClellan, and an unassuming hero, Ulysses S. Grant, who doesn’t arrive on stage until the last (but most important) act. It includes the beguiling rebel spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow and the Secret Service chief Allan Pinkerton, who arrested and deported her to the Confederacy, as well as great figures of American history who play bit parts: Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott nursing wounded soldiers in army hospitals; the Patent Office clerk Clara Barton creating a one-woman medical corps and helping the wounded on battlefields near Washington; and Andrew Carnegie organizing the transportation and telegraph services needed in the capital.
Furgurson describes the military mobilization for the various “On to Richmond” campaigns and the panics produced in turn by Confederate threats of “on to Washington.” In doing so he introduces such engaging characters as Joseph Willard and Antonia Ford. Willard was the owner of Washington’s most famous hotel, where political and military leaders congregated and transacted almost as much business as they did at the Capitol or the War Department. Although forty-one years old, Willard felt uncomfortable as a civilian when so many others were volunteering to risk their lives for the Union. In April 1862 he enlisted, and by 1863 had risen to the rank of major on the staff of the commander of Washington’s defenses. Antonia Ford was a twenty-four-year-old beauty who lived in Fairfax, from where she relayed information about Union forces to the Confederate guerrilla leader John Singleton Mosby and cavalry commander Jeb Stuart. The Federals caught her in 1863. Her escort to the Old Capitol prison was none other than Major Joe Willard, who fell in love with the bewitching rebel spy. With his help she enjoyed a comfortable captivity and soon reciprocated his affection. On condition that he resign his commission she agreed to marry him. He did so and they wed in 1864—a harbinger, it later seemed, of the reuniting of the nation a year later.
Anyone who has wondered how Lee’s confiscated estate at Arlington became a national cemetery (as well as a freedmen’s village) will also find that story told here, along with many others that are fascinating but not well known. Furgurson’s narrative is not flawless—the song “Maryland, My Maryland” did not yet exist in February 1861; it is by no means certain that Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was constitutionally correct in denying the president’s power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus; Lincoln’s call for 300,000 more three-year volunteers in July 1862 was separate from the subsequent additional call for 300,000 nine-month militia. But these small errors are a minor distraction in a powerful book that chronicles the transformation of Washington by the crucible of war from “the dusty, muddy capital” that was a mere “meeting place for delegates from states with notions of their own sovereignty” into “the seat of a forceful central government” poised to become “a power among nations.” That is a story worth telling, and Furgurson has told it with a grace and vigor combining Southern charm and Northern efficiency.