Washington in the Civil War

By Ernest B. Furgurson. Knopf. 463 pp. $30

For over six decades, a single book has dominated the subject of Abraham Lincoln's Washington. Published in 1941, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Margaret Leech's Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865 is a classic account of life in the capital during the Civil War. It remains a formidable achievement.

Now a challenger has appeared to contest Leech's preeminence. The unavoidable question is whether Ernest B. Furgurson's Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War surpasses Leech's work, rivals it or falls short.

Blessedly, the new book complements the old. A career journalist and the author of three solid warm-up works on Civil War subjects, Furgurson maneuvers around Leech's strengths to take advantage of her (few) weaknesses. He is Grant to her Lee. Reveille in Washington is timeless; Freedom Rising is the ideal portrait of Civil War Washington for our times, an account of the political cat fights behind the dogs of war. Furgurson reported for the Baltimore Sun for more than three decades; as his newspaper's Washington bureau chief, he watched political generations pass in review along Pennsylvania Avenue. He knew the men, the women and the ghosts. That long contact with late-20th-century Washington prepared him as nothing else could to write about the city in the mid-19th century. He understands the political animal as an individual and as a species.

If you want the atmosphere of Lincoln's Washington, turn to Leech, whose 1893 birth placed her in the twilight of formal society, a world that no tarted-up charity gala can recall from the darkness. The manner and manners that separated America's social classes before the triumph of mass capitalism were second-nature to Leech. You can smell her Washington, from the layered scents of gowns worn through a season to the stench of slum lanes. She understood both the viciousness and virtues of gradations.

But if you seek political Washington -- the city of democratic fervor, necessary compromises and exemplary crassness, the inbred town of great character and gleeful character assassination -- Furgurson is your author. He is superb at rendering the terrible machinery of government at work when too many hands grasp too few levers. His Lincoln is no less admirable for being a sharp politician whose strengths included an uncanny ability to size up other men, a sure sense of the moment's possibilities -- and impossibilities -- and a stalwart will.

Furgurson's book is especially instructive at the close of a mean election season. Freedom Rising reminds us that the invective of America's political past was even more vicious than it has been in 2004.

A comprehensive work, Freedom Rising also reaches well beyond party politics. As the reader expects, Furgurson takes more note than Leech of the roles of blacks in the city and the war, from Sojourner Truth's rehearsal on a horse-drawn streetcar of the ordeal of Rosa Parks nine decades later, to regiments of U.S. Colored Troops passing in review before Lincoln. (Walt Whitman felt "it looked funny to see the President standing with his hat off to them just the same as the rest.") He also expands the cast of female characters on the capital stage, from Antonia Ford, the spunky Confederate spy who married into the Willard hotel dynasty, to Jane Grey Swisshelm, a crusader of mighty spleen and erratic judgment.

Furgurson is slyly relevant when describing the moral lapses of the journalists who infected our capital as hopelessly in 1864 as they do in 2004. It was commonplace then for reporters to supplement their incomes between congressional sessions by holding government positions -- provided by patrons who, in return, were viewed favorably by the correspondents. Openly corrupt, the system was, at least, forthright. Nor did the journals of the day make a pretense of objectivity. They were papers of party, and they gloried in the role. The journalists of Lincoln's day chose partisanship over hypocrisy. Given recent tendencies for media outlets to prefer one political party over another, while claiming impartiality, one suspects we are reviving an American tradition of favoring outright those whom we favor in secret.

Always, Freedom Rising returns to Lincoln. Reviled, taunted, insulted, he led the country through an "unwinnable" war and made it a nation. Many another figure struts past in Furgurson's pages, but not one consumes the imagination as does the Great Emancipator. Gen. George McClellan marches by, undone by his own unmanageable brilliance. Cabinet members scheme. Ulysses S. Grant fights. Secretary of State William Seward, the most underappreciated figure in U.S. political history, shares the fate of Ben Jonson, overshadowed by a colossus.

Furgurson's background attunes him to history's tendency to repeat itself not as tragedy, nor as farce, but as a series of ineradicable human patterns. Describing the crucial election of 1864, when the Democrats fielded a former military man as their "peace candidate," the author notes that the students of Columbian College (later George Washington University) "took a straw vote among themselves, and McClellan defeated Lincoln 46 to 12."

Furgurson captures the bite and bile but also the wondrous glory of the Civil War era. Freedom Rising serves as a refreshing tonic at the end of this sorry year, reminding us not only that things might be worse, but that they once were far more dangerous and troubling. Leech drew us inside Washington's past. Furgurson reveals the Washington that endures. Read them both. *

Ralph Peters is the author of 19 books, including a series of prize-winning Civil War novels written under the pen name Owen Parry.

The Capitol, Washington, 1861