President-elect Lincoln arrived to a less-than-monumental Washington

The city that awaited Abraham Lincoln in fall 1860 was a far cry from the populous, gleaming capital it would become after -- and largely because of -- the Civil War.
By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010

On the cool autumn Tuesday that Abraham Lincoln would be elected president, the Washington Evening Star reprinted on its front page a dispatch from a British reporter covering a recent visit by the prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.

"The Prince has arrived in this strange city, whose streets of ill-built houses connect to the most noble public buildings, and where one has to admire the city as a city always in the future tense," the London Times correspondent wrote of Washington. "It will and must in history be one of the greatest capitals the world has seen, but as yet it seems to want a deal of building, alterations, and improvements, before it can be a worthy legislative center of this great empire."

If anything, the reporter was too sanguine in his description. The city that awaited Lincoln that fall remained a far cry from the populous, gleaming capital that it would become after -- and largely because of -- the Civil War. It was, as author Margaret Leech wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865," "a mere ambitious beginner, a baby among capitals."

"Built to order at the dawn of the century, it gave after sixty years the impression of having been just begun," she wrote. "Washington was merely a place for the government. It was an idea set in a wilderness."

That wilderness was a dirty and disagreeable swamp of a place, where pigs and cattle roamed freely, where alleys reeked with the stench of raw sewage, where dysentery and diarrhea inflicted their annual toll, where saloons and brothels and gambling parlors easily outnumbered restaurants and theaters. The unpaved streets stayed muddy in the winter and dusty in the summer, always marked with ruts from wagons and carriages and always littered with the manure of the horses that pulled them.

The Capitol dome was three years from completion, and herds of cattle grazed at the stump of the Washington Monument, which sat less than a third finished. The handful of grandiose structures, among them the White House, the Treasury Building and the Smithsonian Institution, sat amid vast open spaces largely unpopulated and uncultivated.

There were islands of social life, such as dinner parties in the dignified mansions of Georgetown and grand cotillions on Capitol Hill and by the Navy Yard. At Willard's Hotel at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, society women and boisterous men mingled in the smoke-filled bar, and much of the business of government took place in hushed conversations. But mostly, Washington remained a backwater. Diplomats from Europe considered it a hardship post.

"It was a Southern town, without the picturesqueness, but with the indolence, the disorder and the want of sanitation," Leech wrote. "Its lounging Negroes startled Northern visitors with the reminder that slaves were held in the capital. Hucksters abounded. Fish and oyster peddlers cried their wares and tooted their horns on the corners. Flocks of geese waddled on [Pennsylvania] Avenue, and hogs, of every size and color, roamed at large, making their muddy wallows on Capitol Hill and in Judiciary Square. People emptied slops and refuse in the gutters."

The 1860 Census counted 75,080 souls in the District of Columbia, including 61,000 in the city proper, 8,700 in the separate village of Georgetown and the remainder in the rural areas of the district, which began just north of Florida Avenue. Nearly a quarter of Washington's residents came from Virginia or Maryland, and even the city's natives often had strong ties to families from the surrounding Southern countryside. Most of the city's 12,484 immigrants came from Ireland and Great Britain, although a few had ventured from as far as Australia, Russia and Turkey. The vast majority of residents were white, though more than 3,000 slaves and more than 11,000 "free colored" people called Washington home.

"Poverty, squalor, prejudice, and violence" existed in abundance, author Constance McLaughlin Green wrote in her exhaustive history, "Washington: Village and Capital, 1800-1878." "Class distinctions were clear-cut, but a family's place in the social structure of the city rested less upon money than upon accomplishments and manners . . . Whatever the community's vices, pretentiousness was not one."

The fledgling city consisted of bakers and blacksmiths, fishermen and farmers, carpenters and government clerks. There were three veterinarians, six undertakers, 17 milkmen, 67 innkeepers, 148 doctors, 180 lawyers and 242 tailors. Smith's on Seventh Street sold the season's latest hats and caps. Charles Shafer worked in his watch shop, not far from the Washington Carriage Factory, which was on D Street between Ninth and 10th. Benter's Restaurant on C Street advertised its fish and oysters, as well as its wine, liquor and cigars. The studio in which Mathew Brady would photograph the most famous faces of the Civil War was already up and running in a building on Pennsylvania Avenue, halfway between the White House and the Capitol.

But despite the growing bustle, it remained "a pretty sleepy place," said Ernest B. Furgurson, a former Baltimore Sun correspondent and author of 2004's "Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War." "It really was not as cosmopolitan as a lot of other cities in the country. It was still very much a place under development."

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