October 18, 2013

Owing to the tangled sequence of congressional maneuvers, backroom bargaining and presidential fiat that placed the federal city on the banks of the lower Potomac River, Washington became, in the years 1861-65, the most peculiar war capital in the history of war capitals. Sitting only 100 miles from the Confederate seat of power in Richmond, Washington had spent 70 years in a state of arrested childhood and numbered only 75,000 residents, one-12th the size of New York City and far short of what its builders had intended. Possessed of one paved street in 1861 — Pennsylvania Avenue — and bisected by an unsightly and fetid canal that traveled the route of today’s Constitution Avenue, the half-baked capital was routinely mocked by domestic and foreign visitors alike.

By 1865 and the end of the Civil War, however, the world had begun to see Washington in a new light. The danger posed by advancing Southern armies, the need to use the city as a staging ground for massive Northern military efforts and, not least, Abraham Lincoln’s astonishing growth in stature and gravitas between his first inauguration in March 1861 and his assassination in April 1865 — all combined to snap Americans to civic attention. The capital, seemingly so often on the brink of occupation or destruction during the war, became a place worth defending, an idea worth cultivating and a story worth telling.

A cottage industry in novels and nonfiction set in Civil War Washington came to life immediately after Appomattox and reached its apotheosis in 1941, at the start of yet another war, with the publication of Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Reveille in Washington,” a masterpiece of narrative history. Leech’s book is one of those tomes — like Robert A. Caro’s “The Power Broker” and David McCullough’s “The Great Bridge” — that stands in the way of every subsequent writer on the topic.

That is hardly to say, though, that the subject has been exhausted. In the seven decades since Leech’s book appeared, many new sources have surfaced, and new historical approaches have emerged. Now, amid the current deluge of Civil War stories and new appraisals of Abraham Lincoln, Kenneth J. Winkle of the University of Nebraska has produced his own standout contribution to the capital’s history, “Lincoln’s Citadel.” Winkle’s book is not an update of Leech’s (for that, see Ernest Furgurson’s admirable “Freedom Rising”); rather, it is what might be called a biographical history of place, tying together several disparate elements — Lincoln’s life story, the complex evolution of abolitionism, and the changing physical, social and political fabric of the city itself — into an exemplary, illuminating whole.

A prize-winning Lincoln biographer (“The Young Eagle”), Winkle is also a scholar of quantitative history — call it a “big data” approach to the past — who clearly delights in raw numbers and their telling effect. “Lincoln’s Citadel” is a treasure trove of empirical specificity. In one representative passage, Winkle presents an exhaustive enumeration of the district’s equine population during the early years of the war:


‘Lincoln's Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, DC’ by Kenneth J. Winkle (W. W. Norton )

“By October 1861, the mammoth Government Stock Depot corralled 10,642 horses and 2,718 mules, with 1,200 wagons and 133 ambulances on hand. Washington’s forage master put up 150 tons of hay and 8,000 bushels of oats each week.”

And so on. Certainly, this is not Margaret Leech. But rather than numbing the senses, the cumulative effect is to make us feel more keenly, by sheer accumulation of information — in combination with an easy, inviting prose style — the fine-grained texture of the city’s warehouses, jails, stables, hospitals, bakeries, back alleys and embalming shops, just to name a few of the elements placed under Winkle’s microscope.

This panoramic specificity is the book’s unique feature. It is not, however, the best feature. That honor, to my mind, goes to the first section, in which Winkle takes us into the parlors of Mrs. Spriggs’s, a three-story Georgian boardinghouse originally built by George Washington across from the Capitol. Here, in 1848, is where Lincoln and his family found rooms during his single term as a U.S. representative; and here, almost certainly unknown to Lincoln before his arrival, was the epicenter of Congress’s anti-slavery caucus, led by fellow boarder Joshua Giddings, who dubbed the residence the “Abolition House” and regularly used Mrs. Spriggs’s dining room as an informal meeting and debate hall for like-minded Northern legislators.

This connection of place and politics is interesting enough, but the fact that Mrs. Spriggs’s acted in at least three instances as a waystation on the emerging Underground Railroad is, for me, at least, a revelation. Winkle also zeroes in on other, far less hopeful aspects of the city’s pre-war, slave-owning identity: the Yellow House, where slaves were sold to owners in Louisiana and Mississippi; the Blue Jug, the county jail that was so often filled with free African Americans arrested on trumped-up charges that it became a de facto slave pen; and the Black Code, which placed strict limits on the hours that African Americans, slave or free, could assemble or even walk about freely.

Thirteen years later Lincoln returned to Washington as president, where the seeds planted during his first visit — watered by his experience in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the nomination battle of 1860 and the agonizing progress of the Civil War — finally grew into the Emancipation Proclamation. Winkle’s Washington, so painstakingly detailed, is the site of this transformation, a city whose halting steps toward racial equality occurred alongside Lincoln’s and, by extension, the nation’s. This is the book’s most important service: It shows how Lincoln and the city he came to love moved together toward freedom, a history here firmly grounded in all its towering tragedy and glory.

Scott W. Berg is the author of “38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End” and “Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.” He teaches nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University.

LINCOLN’S CITADEL

The Civil War in Washington, D.C.

By Kenneth J. Winkle

Norton. 486 pp. $29.95