May 2013

As the Thunder Rolls into DC

You can hear the rumble from miles away, a deep roar of engines joined together for a cause. This Memorial Day weekend, thousands of motorcyclists will ride in unison across Memorial Bridge, a moving force of memory and action for POW's and soldiers listed as Missing in Action. Rolling Thunder, as the demonstration is called, has been a Washington Memorial Day tradition since 1988. But do you know the history behind it?

Horatio Greenough’s Near Naked Washington

The nation’s capital is chock full of statues, memorials, monuments, historic markers, and museums. As the seat of the United States government, Washington has a unique niche as both a repository of history and as a tourist spot. Some monuments are world-famous, some now reside in hidden corners, some are the centers of conspiracy theories (as Dan Brown and National Treasure fans will know), and some have been forgotten altogether. One statue in particular has been all of these things – and more – since it was first created: Horatio Greenough’s George Washington.

Queen Up in Aisle 4

So, imagine you are doing your Saturday afternoon grocery shopping at the local supermarket. All of a sudden a motorcade pulls up. Out pops the Queen of England and the royal prince. They walk into the store and begin to wander the aisles, indulging in the free samples and chatting with customers. After a few minutes they exit the store, get back in their limo and drive off.

Seems pretty far fetched, right? Well, maybe so, but that is exactly what patrons at the (aptly named) Queenstown Giant Food store in West Hyattsville experienced in October 1957.

40 Years Ago, TVs Tuned to Watergate Hearings

May 17, 1973 began an enthralling summer of reality television in Washington. That morning Senate Watergate Committee chairman Sam Ervin banged his gavel and launched hearings to investigate the details of the Watergate scandal, which had rocked the nation the previous June. Americans from coast to coast watched with great interest, trying to determine “what the President knew and when he knew it.” (Short answer: He knew a lot and he had known it for a long time.)

Herndon’s Laura Ratcliffe: A “Very Active and Cunning Rebel”

It is generally an accepted practice of militaries around the world to not tell the enemy what you plan to do. It’s also a good idea to avoid passing secrets to enemy spies, especially if you know they are enemy spies. Apparently, however, Union troops stationed in Herndon, Virginia didn’t get the memo. Either that or they were too mesmerized by local belle Laura Ratcliffe to think straight. She was a smooth operator to be sure.

In February 1863, Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby was riding with his soldiers near Ratcliffe’s home scouting the enemy position and hoping to best whatever Union troops came his way. Mosby had wreaked havoc on the Yankees before but this time they were ready for him. They set up a picket on Centreville Road near Frying Pan Church and then hid a much larger force in the woods around it, hoping draw the Gray Ghost into an ambush.

When the White House Was in Alexandria

Alexandria Police with President Gerald Ford, 1974.

Everyone knows that the President lives at 1600 Pennsylvania in Washington, D.C. But some locals may remember a time that wasn’t the case. For ten days in August of 1974, the leader of the free world lived in a relatively modest red brick and white clapboard house in Alexandria, Virginia and commuted to the Oval Office each morning.

You could say that things moved quickly for Gerald Ford in the ‘70s.

Impressions of Washington: Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1862

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, visited Washington, D.C. in 1862, as the Capital was gearing up for war against the Confederacy. If you remember Hawthorne at all from school, you won’t be surprised to find he had a lot to say.

He was particularly taken by the artist Emmanuel Leutze's painting "Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way" in the U.S. Capitol and lamented what might happen to the work and the nation should the Union lose the war.

Where is Stonewall's Arm?

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville, and the mortal wounding of Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson -- a very significant event during the Civil War. Indeed, historians have long debated the impact of Jackson's death on Confederate performance in subsequent battles such as Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee, for one, felt the loss deeply, likening it to "losing my right arm."

While we are on the subject of lost arms...