Civil War Washington, Truly Captured

By Jonathan Yardley
Wednesday, August 13, 2003; 5:43 PM

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

The best "Washington novel" isn't a novel at all. Published six decades ago, Margaret Leech's "Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865" is what academic historians condescendingly call "popular history," written with the novelist's eye for character and telling detail as well as the novelist's command of narrative. The story of the District of Columbia during the Civil War, "Reveille in Washington" is still authoritative as history and is something of a masterpiece of storytelling.

What matters most for this discussion is that "Reveille in Washington" portrays this city more vividly, accurately and thoroughly than any other book. Period. Its portrait of Washington transcends time. We no longer dump our sewage into the swamp that is now the Mall and we don't ride a horse-drawn streetcar from the Capitol to the White House, but the essential character of the city has not changed from that day to this. Leech got it exactly right.

The competition, to be sure, isn't much. The number of words that have been written about this city is surely beyond human calculation, but the number of good ones is small. In his preface to the 1991 paperback edition of "Reveille in Washington," James M. McPherson takes note of David Brinkley's "Washington Goes to War," a look at the capital during World War II that is engaging reading but surprisingly narrow in scope. If asked to recommend a good book about the city I always cite the Federal Writers' Project's "Washington, D.C.: A Guide to the Nation's Capital," even though it has been little revised since its original publication in 1942 and is, in any event, lamentably out of print.

Fiction? The most famous "Washington novels" -- Henry Adams's "Democracy" and the historical novels by Gore Vidal -- are, in my opinion, hugely overrated and unreadable. Charles McCarry has written exceptionally intelligent spy thrillers set in and about Washington, George Pelecanos's crime novels knowingly depict the city's underside, and Edward P. Jones's short stories about the black middle class are exemplary. But their scope is rather narrow. The "Washington novels" that find their way to the bestseller lists -- books by the likes of David Baldacci and the late Allen Drury -- are little more than power-politics soap operas, written in execrable prose.

The prose in "Reveille in Washington," by contrast, positively sings. It is a trifle old-fashioned, but it has immediacy and passion. Here, for example, Leech describes the city as Union casualties poured in after a terrible defeat in May 1863:

"[T]he wounded cumbered the Washington wharves, but few sightseers gathered to see the transports arriving, day after day, with the men from Chancellorsville. Now, each of those prostrate young bodies seemed the very figure of the Union itself, and people turned away from the heartsickening, habitual scene. The compact caravans of the ambulances had become a monotonous part of the pageant of the streets. The procession of the maimed, with their empty sleeves and trouser legs, no longer attracted attention. Even death had grown commonplace. . . . There was a section of the city where the rat-tat of the coffin makers' hammers sounded all day, and the stacks of long, upended boxes rose and fell outside their doors, like a fever chart of the battles. The capital had had a surfeit of misery; and, if the horror of blood beat like a wound in the back of every mind, the faces on the streets were smiling."

The woman who wrote those powerful words was born in Newburgh, on the Hudson River in New York, in 1893, less than three decades after the Civil War's end. By the time Margaret Leech set to work on "Reveille in Washington" in the mid-1930s, she had published three novels; a play, "Divided by Three," appeared briefly on Broadway in 1934. She was married to Ralph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World and son of Joseph Pulitzer. She traveled in fashionable literary and journalistic circles. One prominent friend was Cass Canfield of Harper's, who suggested she write about Washington during the Civil War. Obviously she sensed a good story, for she seems to have gotten to work almost immediately.

In 1942 Leech was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history for "Reveille in Washington" and 18 years later she won a second, for "In the Days of McKinley." She was the first woman to win the history prize, and is the only woman to win it twice. Since the Pulitzers were established by her father-in-law, the skeptical may look at this with doubting eyes, but no one who has read "Reveille in Washington" can believe that the prize was won on anything except merit.

It is a measure of her achievement that McPherson, the preeminent historian of the Civil War period, is unstinting in his praise of "Reveille in Washington." "In only one important respect," he writes, "has subsequent scholarship modified the findings of this book. Historians no longer portray the radical Republicans in so hostile a light as they did during the 1940s, nor do they find such a large gulf between the radicals and Lincoln on issues connected with the South and slavery." Otherwise, McPherson writes, this book is "a classic in the rich field of Civil War stories," one that "can be read and appreciated at several levels," from the grand story of the war to Washington's "physical awakening from an unkempt country town to a modern city."

As McPherson says, Leech's "main protagonist is Washington itself. . . . The book not only recounts the Civil War as it was shaped in Washington and seen from Washington, but it also breathes life into the city and makes it an animate, sentient being, not merely a place." The opening chapter, a tour de force, confirms that judgment. Washington in 1860 was "an idea set in a wilderness," "pretentious and unfulfilled" in its execution of L'Enfant's design. "The vaunted buildings of Washington were the Capitol, the General Post-Office, the Patent Office, the Treasury, the Executive Mansion and the Smithsonian Institution; and, despite the distances, the tour could be made in a forenoon."

Change a few words and it could be Washington 2003: Pennsylvania Avenue "hummed with hacks, with the elaborate carriages of the legations and the blooded horses of the Southerners. Shops furbished their windows. Hotels and boardinghouses filled up, and so did the E Street Infirmary, the poorhouse and the county jail. Practical motives dictated the presence of all the winter sojourners. There were no parties of idle, amusement-seeking tourists. The townsfolk entertained their friends and relatives, and every winter a bevy of pretty girls came for the festivities of the social season; but, apart from these negligible few, Americans did not visit Washington for pleasure. Although it had many churches, an active Young Men's Christian Association and a dignified official society, the city bore an unwholesome name among the pious folk of the nation. It was darkly imagined as a sink of iniquity, where weak-minded bachelors were exposed to the temptations of saloons, gambling hells and light women; and the prevalence of hotel life was instanced as a proof of the city's immorality."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company