1860s

The First Treasury Girls

February 18, 1865 Harpers Weekly print of female clerks leaving the Treasury Department.

Of all the Union government departments during the Civil War, the Treasury in particular was working overtime. In 1862, Congress passed the first Legal Tender Act, which gave the federal government the authority to issue currency. But with so many men off to war, who would make the money? Treasurer Frances E. Spinner took a note from the US Patent Office (which had a few female clerks) when he decided in 1862 to hire Jennie Douglas to trim money. Douglas would be the first of many young women to work for the government and, while most accepted them, these pioneers faced some unique challenges.

Civil War Alexandria's Knights of the Golden Circle

An alleged secret history of the Knights of the Golden Circle published in 1863. (Source: Wikipedia)

During the Union army's occupation of Alexandria (1861-1865), young Confederate ladies would have had no one around to drop a handkerchief for other than Union soldiers. Well, that wasn’t going to work, not when "the slight difference of color [between gray and blue] symbolized all the difference between heaven and hell." So what's the next resort? Obviously, forming a local branch of the secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle.

Cipriano Ferrandini addresses other members of the Baltimore plot. Image orginally printed in From The Spy of the Rebellion, by Allan Pinkerton, 1883. (Source: Maryland State Archives)

The Thwarted Plot to Kill Lincoln on the Streets of Baltimore

Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency on November 6, 1860, was the catalyst for vehement anger in the South, where the wave of secession had already begun to stir. The anger at the president-elect became so great that several conspirators vowed he would never reach the capitol to be inaugurated.

By many accounts, Lincoln was aware but unmoved by the threats that rose around him in early 1861 as he prepared to relocate from his home in Springfield, Illinois to the White House. He planned a grand 2000-mile whistle stop tour that would take his train through seventy cities and towns on the way to his inauguration. He was sure to be greeted by thousands of well-wishers, but a more sinister element was also gathering.

Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C.


The kids are back in school but they aren't the only ones who can get an education. On Thursday, September 10 at 7pm, the Arlington Historical Society opens its 2015-2016 program season with a talk by Garrett Peck, author of Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C.: The Civil War and America's Great Poet. The talk will take place in Marymount University's Reinsch Library auditorium and is free and open to the public.

In advance of his talk, Garrett was kind enough to sit down with Boundary Stones and give us a preview. Check out the video above and learn more after the jump.

Kate Chase c. 1861 (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Kate Chase: Washington's 19th Century Supreme

In the second half of the 19th century, Kate Chase (1840-1899) was known the country over as the most beautiful and influential woman there ever was in Washington. She occupied the most powerful position in Washington society that a woman could hold, and held sway far beyond her gender. A National Tribune article from 1898, a year before her death, called her life the history of the Civil war itself, stating:

"No one woman had more to do with influencing the movements on the military and the political chessboard than she, and it was her influence largely that kept McClellan at the head of the military.”

In 1920, veterans of the Battle of Fort Stevens erected a stone marker paying tribute to President Lincoln's presence at the battle. (Photo source: National Park Service)

"Get down, you fool!": Lincoln's Scare at Fort Stevens

This weekend marks a special anniversary: the only time a sitting U.S. President came under enemy fire. It happened right here in Washington -- at Fort Stevens -- when Confederates under Lt. Gen. Jubal Early advanced on the fort while President Lincoln was there.

Friend of the Blog and Tenleytown, D.C. native Jim Corbley recounts the harrowing incident -- which included some terse words for the President from his aide-de-camp, future Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes -- in this special guest post.

Bread Kneaded on Capitol Hill

The Capitol's grand Civil War bakery occupied the majority of the building's large basement. (Photo Source: Architect of the Capitol)

As congressmen convened for a special session in July of 1861, they were welcomed into the Capitol by the smell of baking bread. Just months into the Civil War, the building had already seen thousands of troops pass through its doors, and now it was the site of one of the largest bakeries the world had ever known. Twenty ovens, each with the capacity of holding hundreds of loaves of bread, were housed in the basement, and multitudes of men spent hours tending yeast and kneading dough. Having been in recess for less than four months, the congressmen were astounded, and some even annoyed, with this new mammoth bakery occupying their space. But a lot had changed for the country – and for the Capitol – in that short period of time.

The Confederate Army's "Old South Ball" at the University of Maryland: Fact or Fiction?

A depiction of a stereotypical "Old South Ball."

The University of Maryland being close to the then-Confederate border with Virginia made it a site of some significance in the Civil War, when the Union and the Confederate army both stayed on campus within a three-month span; the latter would throw the University into controversy when it was accused of throwing the Confederate officers a ball. It's an established campus legend, but is it historical fact? We delve into the encampment, the Confederate sympathies at the University, and the subsequent government investigation under the cut.

The Oldest Profession in Washington

Hookers Division, located in the area around the White House, was one of Washington's major Red Light Districts in the 19th century. (Source: Library of Congress)

Not to cast any doubt on the virtue of our historical statesman, but for the latter half of the 1800s, at least two major red light districts were right in the center of D.C., even “within sight of the White House.”

One of the most notorious of these was Hooker’s Division, on the west end of the federal triangle and right on the National Mall. With the White House to the north, the Capital to the east, and the business district within walking distance, it was pretty perfectly positioned.  The area got its name during the Civil War, when Union General Hooker moved everything seedy in the capital to a choice few spots. The name also at least partially arose from how often Hooker’s men visited the district (hint: a lot). The Evening Star had this to say of Hooker’s Division in 1863:

There are at present, more houses of this character [ill-repute], by ten times, in the city than have ever existed here before, and loose characters can now be counted by the thousands.

Though he wasn't a big fan of the term, William Howard Russell gained international reknown as one of the first war correspondents when reporting of conflicts for The Times newspaper. In 1861, his duties brought him to Washington. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Impressions of Washington: William Howard Russell, 1861

William Howard Russell (1820 – 1907) was a reporter for The Times of the UK; he is considered the first war correspondent. In 1861, this intrepid reporter was sent to our very own capital to cover the Civil War. He recorded his arrival in his diary, which was later published and remains available to see exactly what this Irishman thought of Washington. Spoiler alert, he quite liked it!

March 25, 1861

I looked out and saw a vast mass of white marble towering above us on the left, stretching out in colonnaded porticoes, and long flanks of windowed masonry, and surmounted by an unfinished cupola, from which scaffold and cranes raised their black arms. This was the Capitol. To the right was a cleared space of mud, sand, and fields, studded with wooden sheds and huts, beyond which, again, could be seen rudimentary streets of small red brick houses, and some church-spires above them.

Pages