One hundred and fifty years ago, as the country marched toward Civil War, Washington was a very different city. The dome of the Capitol remained unfinished. The Washington Monument was barely 150 feet high — less than a third of its finished height — and its grounds were filled with grazing sheep and cattle. The Mall had no other memorials and only one museum; a railroad station was where the National Gallery of Art now stands; and open canals known for their unsanitary conditions led to the Potomac.
To honor the 150th anniversary of the conflict, we went looking for traces of the Civil War beyond the usual landmarks. (Sorry, Ford’s Theatre and the White House.) Many buildings that would have been familiar to residents in the 1860s are long gone, but a few others are hidden in plain sight. A well-known Chinatown restaurant is where the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was plotted, and dozens of Union soldiers who died defending the city are buried in a sleepy spot along Georgia Avenue NW.
Let’s take a tour of Washington’s Civil War remnants.
Piney Branch Road and Quackenbos Street NW. 202-895-6000.
Throughout the Civil War, Washington was separated from enemy territory by the width of the Potomac River. Yet only once did the Confederate army enter the city limits — July 11, 1864, when it was repelled at the two-day Battle of Fort Stevens.
Fort Stevens was part of Washington’s primary defenses, a network of 68 earthen forts with cannon batteries and rifle pits. Today, they mostly live on in name — Fort Reno, Fort Totten, Fort Dupont. But in 1864, they were all that stood between Gen. Jubal Early’s 15,000 rebel soldiers and the Union government.
In 1861, Fort Stevens was surrounded by orchards, cornfields and farmhouses, guarding the important Seventh Street Road (now Georgia Avenue). It’s hard to imagine today, with only some of the tall dirt walls and a powder magazine remaining, but this fort took up most of the block, boasted 20 cannons and had log barracks built for hundreds of men.
By July 1864, most Union soldiers were needed for Ulysses S. Grant’s assault on Richmond. Washington’s forts were manned by inexperienced volunteers and convalescent soldiers. When Grant heard that Early was approaching, he rushed veteran troops from Virginia. Thanks to the reinforcements, the two days of fighting at Fort Stevens never went much past skirmishing among soldiers outside the fort’s walls; there was never a direct assault on Fort Stevens.
As at Bull Run, civilians came out to watch the fighting. Among them was President Lincoln, who insisted on watching the proceedings from a parapet inside the fort. He became a target for Confederate sharpshooters; a surgeon standing near the president was hit. Eventually, he was ordered down; today, a stone monument next to a cannon immortalizes the incident.
6625 Georgia Ave. NW (between Van Buren and Whittier streets).
202-895-6000. www.nps.gov/cwdw. Free
More than 900 were killed or wounded on both sides in the battle of Fort Stevens. After the Confederates retreated July 12, Union troops set to work burying 40 of their comrades in a peach orchard owned by farmer James Malloy, whose land had been part of the battlefield.
That night, Lincoln dedicated the one-acre cemetery, one of the smallest national cemeteries in the country. The 41st burial took place in March 1936, when Maj. Edward R. Campbell, the last Union survivor of the battle and the only one who chose to be interred there, was laid to rest.
The cemetery and accompanying lodge have been undergoing restoration work, which National Park Service program manager Alexa Viets says is “99 percent there.” Visitors can see 41 graves, memorials to the volunteer units involved in the battle and a marble rostrum added in 1921.
Rock Creek Church Road and Upshur Street NW. 202-829-0436. www.lincoln
cottage.org. $12, $5 ages 6 to 12.
If you live downtown today, you probably wouldn’t consider escaping the summer heat by heading to Petworth. But that was the norm in the 19th century, when several presidents used a house on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home — built for retired and disabled members of the Army — as their summer home.
The Lincoln family first spent time there in 1862, shortly after the death of son Willie. “We are truly delighted with this retreat, the drives & walks around here are delightful,” Mary Todd Lincoln wrote to a friend during that first summer. On average, the Lincolns stayed at the Soldiers’ Home from June to November each year.
Of course, it wasn’t a vacation. Lincoln worked there on the Emancipation Proclamation, and every day he rode the three miles to and from the White House in a carriage. He also took time to visit wounded soldiers.
The Soldiers’ Home reopened to the public in 2008, and guided tours feature docents talking about the Lincolns’ time there. You must take the tour to enter the house, and reservations are recommended.
The next time you’re wandering through what is now the National Portrait Gallery or American Art Museum, imagine temporary bunks for soldiers, or makeshift beds for the wounded, crammed between the exhibits.
That’s almost how it looked in the spring of 1861, when Ambrose Burnside’s 1st Rhode Island Regiment established temporary barracks in the Patent Office, setting up bunks between the displays of patent models and pieces of the government’s art collection. Other regiments followed. By 1863, those same rooms were used as an Army hospital, where volunteer nurse Walt Whitman helped care for “sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers.” (Apparently the scenes didn’t sour Whitman on the Patent Office itself, which he referred to as “that noblest of Washington buildings.”)
The atmosphere in the building was more joyous in March 1865, when Lincoln danced at his second inaugural ball. He would be dead less than six weeks later.
604 H St. NW.
Doubts may linger about Mary Surratt’s guilt in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, but it is a fact that John Wilkes Booth and his circle — including Surratt’s son John Surratt Jr. — met at her H Street boarding house. Here they plotted to kidnap the president, then decided to murder him instead.
Although the Surratt Tavern in Clinton is better known — Booth stopped there to pick up guns and whiskey after the assassination, and it’s now a museum — this building is just as important a site. It is little changed from its 19th-century appearance, though it now houses the Wok & Roll restaurant. The major difference: The entrance was originally on the second floor, reached by a staircase from the street.
451 D St. NW. FREE
More than 50 years before the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated, D.C. residents erected a statue of Lincoln in front of City Hall — the first public monument to the slain president. Much has changed since 1868: The statue originally stood on a 35-foot column in the middle of D Street but was moved when the plaza was renovated in the 1880s.
The building, now the D.C. Court of Appeals, has changed, too. Built between 1820 and 1850, this fine Greek Revival building served as Washington’s city hall until 1871. It held the offices of the mayor and city council but also the city’s court, where in 1862 the government began an experiment: Slaveholders were compensated for their freed slaves, who were then emancipated and offered the choice of staying in America or resettling in Haiti or Liberia. This program was attempted nowhere else.
401 F St. NW. 202-272-2448. www.nbm.org. FREE
Technically this is a post-Civil War structure, but it’s a landmark that exists only because of the war. Built in the 1880s to house the expanded U.S. Pensions Bureau, it dispersed millions of dollars in benefits to veterans and survivors until the 1920s. Retired Union Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs was the chief architect of the massive brick structure, leading to the nickname “Meigs’ Old Red Barn.” The airy Great Hall was filled with desks for clerks but also used for formal parties and galas, as it is today. (It has been used for inaugural balls since 1885.)
An exquisite 1,200-foot terra cotta frieze honoring various units of the Army and Navy wraps the whole building, which became the National Building Museum by act of Congress in 1980.
1317 G St. NW. 202-347-2635. www.epiphanydc.org. FREE
One of the few areas of common ground for Union and Confederate leaders was the churches of Washington. Before the war, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was a member of the Episcopal congregation at the Church of the Epiphany, as were several Confederate cabinet members. (During the war, Secretary of War Edward Stanton worshiped there, along with Union service members.)
But the Church of the Epiphany — one of the few remaining pre-Civil War churches in Washington — also had ties to the common man. Between July and December 1862, the building was a temporary hospital. Boards were laid across the tops of pews to create beds for the wounded.
The interior has been modified over the years, though the exterior still resembles the old photos seen on the historic marker outside. One noticeable difference: The original 1857 church tower had four tiers, two of which were removed after being damaged in an 1897 storm.
600 17th St. NW. FREE
The five-story Winder Building towered over many of its neighbors when it opened in 1848. (The Web site of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which now occupies the building, describes the steel-beamed structure as “Washington’s first skyscraper.”)
The building, not open today to the public, was intended to house government offices, and many departments of the Army moved to the Winder Building during the Civil War. Gens. Winfield Scott and Ulysses S. Grant had offices here.
Its height came in especially handy for communications; the U.S. Army Signal Corps established a station on the roof, from which it sent flag signals to forts and troops in the field in Northern Virginia.
Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington. National Park Service infortmation:
703-289-2500. www.nps.gov/arho. Free
We often think of Washington as a Northern town, but the south was not really that far away. Right across the river from Georgetown was an 1,100-acre estate with a gorgeous mansion and fields maintained by dozens of slaves, owned by a family with strong ties to the father of our country and, eventually, the Confederacy.
Built by George Washington Parke Custis — Martha Washington’s grandson — between 1802 and 1818, the Greek-style Arlington House offered fine views of Washington. Custis’s daughter Mary married Robert E. Lee in 1831, and the couple lived at the house when Lee was not posted elsewhere.
When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Lee had to choose between taking command of the Union army and fighting against his home state or resigning his commission. Lee spent a sleepless April 19 at Arlington House before deciding to resign. (This event will be remembered with a late-night vigil April 19.)
Mary Lee left Arlington House in May 1861, and the mansion immediately became the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. In 1863, the U.S. government took possession of the land, and Arlington National Cemetery was established soon after. Next to the Lees’ flower garden, 2,111 unidentified Union and Confederate dead were buried. Later, the grounds became home to a Freedmen’s Village, where more than 1,000 former slaves lived, worked and received an education.
The mansion, which is undergoing restoration work, features exhibits about the life of Robert E. Lee and the slaves who lived and worked at Arlington House.
4301 West Braddock Rd., Alexandria. 703-746-4848. www.alexandriava.gov/historic/forward. Free
Fort Ward never faced enemy fire during the Civil War, and after hostilities ended, it was abandoned. Yet today it is the best way to get an idea of what life was like for the Union soldiers defending Washington.
Like Fort Stevens, it was primarily an earthen fort, with walls reinforced by tall wooden poles. The carefully restored Northwest Bastion, where walls manned by cannons rise to 20 feet, looks as it did in 1864, thanks to preservation in the 1960s.
An officers’ hut — filled with reproduced personal objects — allows visitors to see how the officers lived. (The word is “cushy.”) There are also Bombproofs — underground vaults that could hold a third of the garrison’s troops.
But what Fort Ward does better than any local Civil War site is interpretation, and we’re not talking about the reenactors who descend several times a year to set up camp and host rifle drills and cooking demonstrations. There’s an interesting (if small) museum that covers daily life, gruesomely fascinating Civil War medical care and a short video on the defenses of Washington.
If the weather’s nice, pack a picnic; the fort is surrounded by acres of parkland with picnic benches and room for kids to run around and play soldier.