Civil War D.C.

Arid hill, and sodden plain showed alike the horrid trail of war. Forts bristled above every hill-top. Soldiers were entrenched at every gate-way. Shed hospitals covered acres on acres in every suburb. Churches, art-halls and private mansions were filled with the wounded and dying of the American armies. The endless roll of the army wagon seemed never still. The rattle of the anguish-laden ambulance, the piercing cries of the sufferers… made morning, noon and night too dreadful to be borne.

Mary Clemmer Ames, Washington resident during the Civil War.[1]

The Civil War provided a dramatic backdrop for Lincoln’s refuge at the Soldiers’ Home. Washington DC’s central role in the war meant that Lincoln was always surrounded by war-related activities, whether he was in the White House or at the Soldiers’ Home. In order to see the effects of the war for himself, Lincoln visited many sites near the Soldiers’ Home. Residents of Washington became accustomed to seeing their President riding, sometimes alone, around the city. Lincoln ignored the dangers he faced in doing so.

The Soldiers’ Home was very close to Fort Slemmer, one of the forts that ringed the city, about a mile from Fort Stevens. It played a key role in repelling Confederate General Jubal Early’s July 1864 attack on the city. Lincoln insisted on visiting Fort Stevens when it was under attack and according to some accounts of the action, was nearly shot.

Military hospitals, including Harewood Hospital, Columbia College Hospital, Carver Hospital, and Mount Pleasant Hospital, were located in the outskirts of the city, near the Soldiers’ Home. Both President and Mrs. Lincoln frequently visited these hospitals to offer comfort to the soldiers, who cheered heartily for their Commander-in-Chief.[2]

Transformation of the City of Washington

In a broader sense during this period, the city of Washington was transformed from a small, young city into a seasoned national capital and seat of the Union war effort. From his country retreat at the Soldiers’ Home, President Lincoln and his family had the opportunity to experience first-hand the remarkable changes underway in the city and the surrounding countryside.

When the Civil War began in 1861, the city of Washington was barely 60 years old and was still considered provincial compared to the major cities of the eastern United States. The population of Washington in 1860 was just 61,122, at a time when the New Orleans population was near 170,000, Philadelphia had over half a million residents, and New York City was home to 1,175,000 people.

Visitors to Washington commented on the city’s unpaved streets that became rivers of mud with rainfall. The provincialism of the city also was evident in its unfinished public buildings and sparse residential development. Many of the neighborhoods in between the White House and Capitol were notorious for crimes and dirty conditions. It was during this period, when many residents and visitors could not imagine Washington ever becoming the elegant national capital its founders envisioned, that the city gained such derisive nicknames as “The City of Magnificent Distances.”

The outbreak of the Civil War thrust this immature city into a new role. As the national capital, it was the center of activity for the United States government, where the President and his advisors regularly met to coordinate the Union’s military efforts, foreign policy, and other wartime duties. Because it was close to the front lines during much of the war, the city served as an important hub of military activity, including training, medical treatment, and the provision of supplies to the Army.

These new uses transformed the city. Soldiers camped in tents on the outskirts of the city and often in makeshift quarters in government buildings – including the U.S. Capitol. Military parades enlivened the city’s wide boulevards. Injured soldiers began streaming into the city after the first major battles, quickly overflowing the city’s limited medical facilities. Sprawling new hospitals were set up throughout the region to accommodate the thousands of wounded soldiers who came for treatment.

During the forenoon Washington gets all over motley with these defeated soldiers’ queer-looking objects, strange eyes and faces drenched (the steady rain drizzles on all day) and fearfully worn, hungry, haggard, blister’d in the feet … They drop down anywhere, on the steps of houses, on some vacant lot, and deeply sleep.

— the poet Walt Whitman, describing the Union soldiers’ return from the Battle of Bull Run.[3]

As central as its role was in Union military operations, the city of Washington was located perilously close to the edge of Union territory. From the Soldiers’ Home, for example, one could see across the Potomac River into Confederate-held Virginia. This location meant that the threat of a Confederate invasion of Washington – and the capture of the seat of the Union government – was always very real to the residents of Washington.

To guard against a potential invasion, Army engineers constructed a defense system encircling the city. By the end of the war in 1865, these defenses included 68 enclosed forts and batteries, 93 unarmed batteries for field-guns, and 20 miles of rifle trenches. Military roads were built to connect the various defensive sites; some of these military roads remain in place today.[4]

Contraband Camps

The city of Washington was also a refuge for escaped slaves, and Lincoln visited some of the contraband camps where the fugitives lived. Early in the war, Union generals informally had established the policy that slaves who escaped to behind the Union Army lines would be considered “contraband of war,” and would not be returned to their masters. (President Lincoln later made this a formal policy, although he initially opposed it.) Many of these escaped slaves stayed in Washington, living in Army camps, in special camps set up by the government, or in unofficial settlements. The new arrivals joined a large community of free African Americans living in and around the city.

Mary Dines, an escaped slave, described at least two occasions when the President visited the contraband camp where she lived, which was located near the President’s route between the White House and the Soldiers’ Home. She reported that the President and Mrs. Lincoln, accompanied by a few guests, went to the camp to hear songs that the residents had prepared for them and seemed quite moved by the performance. The President returned for a more informal visit later and joined the residents in prayer and song.[5]

By living at the Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, President Lincoln seems to have had the opportunity to see wartime sights he might not have experienced had he lived in the White House year-round. While he did not record his impressions of the contraband camps, hospitals, cemeteries, and forts he visited, one can easily imagine that these vivid experiences made the costs and consequences of the Civil War very real to him.

[1] Ames, Mary Clemmer.   Ten Years in Washington.  Hartford, 1874 & 1882.  Quoted in The City of Washington: An Illustrated History.  The Junior League of Washington.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. p206.

[2] Pinsker, Matthew.  Lincoln’s Sanctuary.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.  p8.

[3] Walt Whitman, as quoted in The City of Washington: An Illustrated History.  p203.

[4] For information about the history and present-day condition of sites associated with the ring of fortifications, see:  Cooling III, Benjamin Franklin and Walton H. Owen II.  Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington.  Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: White Mane Publishing Company, 1988.

[5] Pinsker, Matthew.  Lincoln’s Sanctuary.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.  P92.

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