The country will soon celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and no city is better prepared to commemorate that seminal moment in our nation’s history than Washington D.C.
We’ve all been there: You want to reenact the Civil War, but the dry cleaner ruined your uniform. We asked Tonya Daft, of the West Virginia Reenactors Association, how to enjoy the wartime experience from the sidelines.
In 1861, picnic-happy Washingtonians flocked to see the first battle of Manassas. On July 21, pack a lunch and watch reenactors portray the conflict on its 150th anniversary — just make sure you don’t get caught in the Union retreat. Daft suggests packing finger food such as tomato or cucumber sandwiches on homemade bread, sugar cookies, and lemonade or sassafras tea.
A party to make care packages for troops is a feel-good way to bring period flavor to a girls’ night in. When Civil War women hung out, they did it for a cause. “You never went anywhere without your thimble,” Daft says. “They’d get together and make shirts and blankets for the soldiers.” Visit Anysoldier.com to find the gear our modern-day soldiers want and how you can get them the goods.
Desirable Dry Goods
For a silhouette that says “c’mere, soldier,” you need the overbust online corset, right, which nips in the waist and lifts up the ladies. ($280, Absolutecorsets.com)
A silk-screened Abraham Lincoln-print tie blends wisdom and whimsy, and will strike fear into the hearts of your Dixieland enemies. ($28, Etsy.com/shop/scatterbrainties)
Remember when Dad put his bayonet on backward? Preserve such special reenactment memories with Civil War-themed scrapbook supplies. ($.75-$9, Petticoatparlor.com)
A proper lady does not wear Spanx. A well-made hoopskirt under one’s garment gracefully conceals any “problem areas.” ($70-$150, Verymerryseamstress.com)
Bold Brews for Battle
Civil War soldiers may have lacked food and warm clothing, but going without caffeine was unthinkable. They made coffee syrup using grounds and sugar, and carried it in flasks; when they had access to hot water, they poured in the mixture for an instant cup of joe, says Michael J. Varhola, author of “Life in Civil War America” (out Feb. 27, $23, Family Tree Books).
Hospitality on the Homefront
The average American in 1861 would have eaten far more fresh food than we do today, Varhola says. “People didn’t have refrigerators, so they weren’t able to keep things cold or frozen.” Food typically came straight from the farm, forest or nearest body of water; fish, meat and veggies were kept for the long-term only if they were smoked, pickled or salted. We asked Varhola for help preparing a dinner fit for your great-great-great-great-grandparents.
Use a wide variety of local produce. The “heirloom” apples and tomatoes we scour farmers markets for today were standard fare in the 19th century. “Everything was phenomenally more diverse,” Varhola says. You’d have been able to find hundreds of types of tomatoes while traveling from Maine to Mississippi — “and these would have been purple and yellow and white. Some would have been the size of a pingpong ball, some the size of a softball. They had different shelf lives and responded differently to cooking.” That diversity kept things interesting for chefs of the era, locavores long before it was trendy.
Prepare fresh game. Wild animals killed just hours before the meal are ideal entrees. (Remember? No refrigerators!) In addition to beef, veal and pork, folks ate duck, venison, wild boar and even pigeon. If you haven’t the time to spend deboning dinner, serve preserved meats.
Pour strong libations such as sherry and port, which were “a big deal” back in the day, according to Varhola. With a sweeter taste and a higher alcohol content than regular wines, fortified versions were often sipped during the dessert course. Got an iron stomach? Perhaps you’d rather swill an antiquated “switchel,” a cool drink made from water, juice, vinegar and sugar or molasses; or a “capillaire,” a thick, fruity beverage containing raw egg. Both were popular with all the cool kids, Varhola says.
Discover the Civil War: Part Two, Consequences
The second installment of the “Discovering the Civil War” exhibit is a can’t-miss, with many rarely viewed documents on display. Forgotten individuals — women who fought as men, and foreign-born soldiers — also finally get their day in the sun.
» National Archives, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; free; 202-357-5000.
Abraham Lincoln: The Final Casualty of the War
The National Museum of Health and Medicine’s display depicts Honest Abe’s final hours in distressing detail. Among the artifacts: the bullet that lodged in the president’s brain and ultimately took his life.
» National Museum of Health and Medicine, 6900 Georgia Ave. NW, Building 54; free; 202-782-2200.
Civil War Ball
Channel your inner Scarlett or Rhett at this era-authentic soiree, complete with live music and dessert. Dancing instruction — in styles such as the waltz, polka and Virginia reel — is included.
» Gadsby’s Tavern, 134 N. Royal St., Alexandria; $45 in advance, $50 at the door; 8 p.m.-11 p.m.; 703-838-4242.
Feb. 2 to March 1
American I AM: The African American Imprint
Covering 500 years of African-American history, this traveling show celebrates blacks’ role in shaping our culture. Artifacts include the “Doors of No Return” from Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle, through which Africans passed before being sold into slavery.
» National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW; $6-$12; 202-857-7588.
Women’s Fashions and Etiquette of the Civil War
“I do declare, Lottie, that brooch is SO 1859.” Learn what accessories the 1861 fashionista would have coveted from re-enactor and lecturer Amy Beechler.
» Blenheim House, 3610 Old Lee Highway; Fairfax; 2 p.m.; 703-591-0560.
Abraham Lincoln’s Life in Music
Historian and pianist Elizabeth Smith Brownstein, accompanied by violinist Laura Knutson, will perform a range of pieces beloved by Abe and offer insight into music of the era.
» St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church, 3149 Glen Carlyn Road, Falls Church; 4 p.m., free; 703-820-1904.
Spies and Conspiracies: Espionage in the Civil War
Despite chaos on and off the battlefield, both sides used coded messages and undercover agents to try to undermine the other. A panel of historians and CIA experts shed light on Civil War intelligence.
International Spy Museum, 800 F St. NW; 7 p.m., free; 202-357-5053.
Feb. 8 & 9
An Example for All the Land
How did Washingtonians experience the Reconstruction years, particularly the abolition of slavery? That’s the subject of Kate Masur’s “An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.” She’ll read from and sign the book at these two events.
» National Archives, free, 12 p.m.
» President Lincoln Cottage, 3700 North Capitol St. NW; Feb. 9, 6 p.m., $10; 202-829-0436.
Lincoln’s Journey Begins
President Lincoln made an impromptu speech before departing Springfield, Ill., for the last time on Feb. 11, 1861. Exactly 150 years later, groups all over the world will read the Farewell Address simultaneously in an attempt to set a world record; our area’s is at Monocacy Battlefield.
» Monocacy National Battlefield, 5201 Urbana Pike, Frederick, Md.; free, 12 p.m.; 301-662-3515.
Peace Convention at 150: A Call to Compromise
Pre-war, politicians from both the North and South gathered at the Willard hotel to seek compromise. Though they produced a proposal that could have saved the Union, it was rejected by the Senate — no tragedy, as it would have expanded slavery. Scholars will analyze the gathering at this symposium.
» Willard InterContinental, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Civil War-Era African Americans in Medicine
Despite widespread slavery, a few free African-Americans attended medical school and led satisfying lives as surgeons and nurses. Historian and doctor Robert Slawson will share their stories.
» National Museum of Civil War Medicine, 48 East Patrick St., Frederick, Md.; $6.50, 11 a.m.; 301-695-1864.
Lincoln Birthday Banquet
Michael Krebs — who’s 6 feet 4 inches and has portrayed our tallest POTUS across the country, on numerous TV shows and, perhaps most notably, in the book trailer for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” — performs at this festive event, which includes dinner.
» Fort McNair, 4th and P streets SW; 6:30 p.m., $50; Lincolngroup.org.
The Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Hike
See the world from the perspective of a runaway slave on a kid-friendly hike through Leesylvania State Park. The area also served as a Confederate gun emplacement.
» Leesylvania State Park, 2001 Daniel K Ludwig Drive, Woodbridge, Va.; 11 a.m., hike included with admission, $5 per car; 703-730-8205.
Living History Encampment
Reenactors portray the United States Colored Troops at the installation ceremony for a living history encampment at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Monument and Museum, will recount some of the Colored Troops’ heroics.
» Martin Luther King Jr. Library, 901 G St. NW; 11 a.m., free; 202-727-0321.
All the News That’s Fit to Print: The Civil War Years
Civil War battlefield correspondents shaped the public’s outlook on the war. Historian Craig Symonds and Harold Holzer discuss journalists’ wartime experiences and share some of the New York Times’ accounts from the period.
» S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW; $25, 6:45 p.m.; 202-633-3030, Residentassociates.org.
Civil War Book Mart
History bookworms should make a beeline for this event featuring local and regional authors of Civil War-related books. While you’re there, check out the “graffiti” on the walls of Blenheim House — it’s one of the nation’s best-preserved and largest examples of scribblings from the time.
» Blenheim House, 12 p.m.- 4 p.m.
Abe was sworn into office on March 4, 1861. One hundred-fifty years and one day later, actor Sam Waterston, who portrayed him in the TV movie “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln,” will read the 16th president’s first inaugural address. A reenactment of the swearing-in ceremony will follow.
» Capitol Hill Visitor Center, free, 10 a.m.-12 p.m.; Lincolngroup.org.
After his inauguration ceremony, Lincoln reportedly dined on mock turtle soup; corned beef and cabbage; parsley potatoes; and blackberry pie. A similar menu, and speakers and live music, await those who register to attend this reenactment. (Wonder what mock turtle consists of …)
» Willard InterContinental, $75, 1 p.m.-3 p.m., Lincolngroup.org.
Patriots in Petticoats
Civil War battles were not for the faint of heart — nor, it was believed, were they for women’s eyes. But some antebellum ladies found their calling — and their inner badass — caring for the wounded and ill on the battlefield.
» National Museum of Civil War Medicine, $6.50, 11 a.m.
Written by Katie Aberbach, Kristen Page-Kirby, Jamie Page Deaton