May 1861 was an exciting time to be alive, and the Washington area was an exciting — and sometimes scary — place to live. The Civil War’s first major battle was still two months away, but a lot was going on. Let’s look back 150 years for a kid’s-eye view of what was happening.
If you lived in the District of Columbia, you would see Union soldiers everywhere. You would hear their bands playing and see their flickering campfires at night. You would listen eagerly as grown-ups talked about soldiers staying in the Capitol and even in the White House. You would learn that bread for the troops was baked in ovens in the basement of the Capitol and that soldiers bathed in the C&O Canal.
Despite all those soldiers, fear of a Confederate invasion would grip Washington in late July — making the city the world’s best defended capital.
If you lived in what today are the Maryland suburbs, you might feel confused. People thought Maryland would probably stay in the Union even though many farmers in the eastern part of the state owned slaves. But why were some of your slave-holding neighbors Unionists while some who had no slaves sided with the Confederacy? Some neighbors might have joined the Union army while others crossed into Virginia to fight for the South. Your father might be in one army and your brother in the other! But you wouldn’t have seen any sign of armies or fighting — yet.
If you lived in what today we call Northern Virginia, you might see Confederate camps in fields and pastures. You might see groups of horsemen — the Confederate cavalry scouting unfamiliar territory to learn the lay of the land. Cavalrymen might stop to chat because you reminded them of children back home, and you would admire their horses and those curved swords they called sabers.
Then, before May ended, thousands of Union soldiers would march into Virginia to take over Alexandria and what is now Arlington County. Family farms would be turned into forts, and homes would become officers’ headquarters. But if you lived in other Virginia counties, you still wouldn’t have seen a Union soldier. In late July, this would change. You might see thousands of soldiers — or at least see the clouds of dust stirred up as they marched to meet the Confederate army defending the railroads leading to Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley.
The war changed peoples’ lives — no matter how old they were or where they lived — and the changes began before soldiers met on the battlefield.
— Carolyn Reeder
Reeder is writing a series of stories for KidsPost giving readers a kid’s-eye view of the Civil War. She is the author of “Shades of Gray” and “Captain Kate.”