1860s

Filed Under:DC, Virginia

Contraband Camps of Northern Virginia

 

It's easy to remember the battles -- First Manassas, Second Manassas, Antietam and more -- but the Washington, D.C. area was also home to many other significant Civil War events, too. After all, it was here that Col. Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and followed his home state of Virginia to the Confederacy; it was here that President Lincoln directed the Union's war effort; it was here that the President was assassinated in 1865.

And, it was also here that thousands of African Americans first experienced freedom after generations in bondage through the "contraband" camps, which the federal government created on the abandoned lands of secessionists during the war. 

Local Civil War blogger Ron Baumgarten has been exploring these largely-forgotten camps recently on his Civil War blog, All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac and will be sharing some of his research in a talk for the Arlington Historical Society this Thursday night at 7pm. The program is free and takes place in the Reinsch Library auditorium at Marymount University.

I recently sat down with Ron and he gave me a preview of his talk. Check out the video above and read more after the jump!

Filed Under:DC, Virginia

Elizabeth Keckley: D.C.'s Dressmaker to the Stars

Elizabeth Keckley. (Photo from Documenting the American South collection at UNC-Chapel Hill via Wikipedia)In 1867, Mary Todd Lincoln became embroiled in the “old clothes” scandal. But this story isn’t about Mrs. Lincoln; it’s about one of her associates, dressmaker to the stars, Elizabeth Keckley.

Keckley was born a slave in Virginia around 1820. Her earliest duty was to watch after the baby of the white family; she was beaten severely for making mistakes. Following the sexual abuse of her mother, which led to Keckley’s birth, Keckley herself was sexually assaulted.

In addition, she was loaned out to a family in St. Louis who used the income she brought in from dressmaking to support themselves.  From her autobiography:

With my needle, I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.

In 1860, Keckley was able to buy her freedom with the sum of $12,000. Her clients, the well-to-do women of St. Louis had heard of her struggles to raise the money and passed the hat between themselves to provide the amount.

Keckley moved to D.C. to set up shop and teach young colored women in her trade. Here she confronted the laws obstructing the movement of freed people in the capital. Unless she could obtain a license to stay in the capital (which required money) and have someone vouch that she was free, Keckley would have to leave. Here again the lady clients of Keckley came to her aid.

Shortly after her arrival in Washington, Keckley entered the employ of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, though she still made dresses for other women of the city, like Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

Keckley’s time with Mary Todd Lincoln, however, is particularly noted by historians, who use Keckley's book to draw conclusions about the First family’s private life.

Filed Under:DC

Impressions of Washington: Union Soldier Maximilian Hartman, 1861

November 30, 1861 entry in Maximilian Hartman's diaryAs you might remember from Nathanial Hawthorne’s impressions of Washington, the D.C. area was full of soldiers during the Civil War. Luckily for us, we can actually read an account from one of the soldiers thanks to the diary of Maximilian Hartman. A German tailor, Hartman immigrated to the U.S. to live with his brother in Pennsylvania. In 1861, both brothers joined up with the Union Army and headed south, eventually being stationed in Washington.

While many others from the time period had lambasted the capital city as a backwater, Maximilian was quite impressed.

Filed Under:DC, Maryland, Virginia

Cross-Dressing Civil War Piracy on the Potomac

USS Pawnee (Photo source: Wikipedia)In the summer of 1861 the Confederate States found themselves annoyed by the U.S.S. Pawnee, a gunboat that patrolled the Potomac and made it difficult for the southerners to receive supplies from northern sympathizers. Fortunately for the Confederates, Col. Richard Thomas Zarvona had a plan...

Filed Under:Virginia

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

Laura Ratcliffe was a well known Confederate sympathizer, yet Union troops still boasted to her about their plans to capture Col. John S. Mosby. Um, that was a mistake. (Photo source: Wikipedia) (Photo source: Wikipedia)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.

Filed Under:DC

Impressions of Washington: Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1862

Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Washington in 1862 as the city was gearing for war and was taken by Emmanuel Leutze's artwork in the Capitol. (Photo source: Wikipedia)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.

Filed Under:Virginia

Where is Stonewall's Arm?

Marker for Stonewall Jackson's Arm Grave.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...

Filed Under:DC

Assassin's Cranium

We couldn't get a photo of Powell's actual skull so just imagine this one with reeeeeally bad teeth. Source: Smithsonian's Written in Bone exhibit) Lewis Powell, the would-be assassin of Secretary of State William H. Seward, was prone to goof-ups. You might even say he had the tendency to lose his head.

As you know from our previous post, Powell was one of the co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination plot. After his bloody rampage in the Seward home, Powell was tried and hanged along with three other conspirators on July 7, 1865. That should have been the end of the story, but it took over one hundred years for Powell's tale to come to an end.

Filed Under:DC

Even More Little Known Victims of the Lincoln Assassination Plot

Lewis Powell, coloured by Minus user Mad Madsen (@zuzahgaming).April 14th, 1865 was a pretty bad day for a lot of people. Lincoln was assassinated, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone had their lives torn apart, and Secretary of State William H. Seward was brutally stabbed along with most of his family and a few bystanders.

Oh, you hadn’t heard about that last one?

Booth and his co-conspirators’ plan was larger than just the assassination of Lincoln. Their plot included a number of top officials in the U.S. government whose death they hoped would bring the country to its knees. Lewis Powell, a twenty year old Confederate soldier, was chosen to assassinate the Secretary of State.

Luckily for the Sewards, Powell was probably the worst assassin in American history.

Filed Under:DC

Little Known Victims of the Lincoln Assassination

Currier and Ives, The Assassination of Lincoln at Ford's Theater, April 14, 1865. (Photo Source: Wikipedia)If you’re up on your Academy Awards news, then you know that people are loco for Lincoln. This historical drama is nominated for twelve out of seventeen applicable awards: Best Picture, Leading Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Writing - Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Directing, Cinematography, Film Editing, Music – Original Score, Production Design, and Sound Mixing. Basically, if you haven’t seen it yet, Hollywood really thinks you should.

But great movies can sometimes leave stuff out, and that’s where we step in. Here’s a story of some of the other folks affected by the conspirators of the Lincoln assassination plot.

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