Civil War

Filed Under:DC

'The real war will never get in the books'

When Walt Whitman first rushed to Washington in the winter of 1862, the trip had nothing to do with poetry.

It was Dec. 16 — nearly two years into the Civil War and seven years into Whitman’s poetry career — when the New York Herald listed a “First Lieutenant G.W. Whitmore” among the troops killed or wounded in Fredericksburg, Va. The misspelled listing was referring to George Whitman, Walt’s brother, who had enlisted in the Union Army in 1861.

Walt left immediately to search Washington’s hospitals. The poet would stay in the city for the next 11 years.

Filed Under:Virginia

Civil War Healing at Arlington National Cemetery

In June 1914, thousands celebrated the unveiling of a special memorial at Arlington Cemetery. (Photo source: Library of Congress) WETA Television's new documentary, Arlington National Cemetery (which premieres tomorrow night!) has inspired us to do some digging on cemetery history. Here's the background behind one of Arlington's most meaningful memorials.

On a warm, sunny day in June of 1914, a crowd gathered to witness the unveiling of what The Washington Post described as “a memorial of heroic size, commemorating war, but dedicated to peace.” It was an intricately designed, 32-foot tall granite monument deeply embedded with symbolic meaning for visitors to decode. A large statue of a woman facing southward dominated the top of the monument. In her extended arm was a laurel wreath meant to represent the sacrifices of fallen soldiers. Below her, a Biblical passage was inscribed, near four urns that symbolize the four years of the Civil War, and fourteen shields. Closer to the monument’s base are thirty-two life-sized figures, including Southerners of varying military branch, race, gender, occupation, and age, along with mythological characters such as Minerva, Goddess of War.[1]

So what was this new monument and why were so many people clamoring to see it?

Filed Under:Virginia

Arlington's First Official Unknown Soldier

Burial of the first official unknown soldier from World War I, on Nov. 11, 1921. Credit: U.S. ArmyAt Arlington National Cemetery, the subject of a new WETA program that premieres Feb. 5 at 8 p.m., one of the most haunting features is the Tomb of the Unknowns, also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

On the rear of the monument, there's a haunting inscription: Here rests in honored glory, an American soldier known but to God.

But the story of how the first official unknown soldier from World War I was selected for burial in the graves alongside the monument is a strange one. For one, he wasn't actually the first unidentified casualty to be entombed at Arlington.

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:DC

Lincoln's Codebreakers

In a previous post, we looked at how Abraham Lincoln utilized the telegraph during the Civil War to supervise his generals in the field and gather intelligence--sometimes by scanning telegrams intended for other Washington recipients. But in addition to working closely with Lincoln, the War Department's team of telegraph operators--who were based at the present-day location of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House--also were pressed into service to perform another critical function in the war effort. They also worked as cryptographers, encoding sensitive communications for the Union side, and as codebreakers, deciphering intercepted letters sent by Confederate officials and spies.

In an age when the federal government and the national security establishment was vastly smaller than it is today, David Homer Bates and three other operators--Thomas T. Eckert, Charles A. Tinker, and Albert B. Chandler--basically functioned as the 19th Century equivalent of the Fort Meade, Md.-based National Security Agency, which has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 employees and an arsenal of supercomputers and other gadgetry at its disposal.

Filed Under:DC

Lincoln's Secret Weapon: The Telegraph

Today, we Washingtonians rely upon Twitter, smart phones, and 24-hour cable news channels to continually fill our craving for information. But a century and a half ago, during the Civil War, the only source of instantaneous news from far away was the telegraph, and in Washington, there was only one place to get it: The Department of War's headquarters building, which stood at the present site of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. 

Before the war, amazingly, the government hadn't even possessed its own telegraph operation, instead relying upon the same commercial telegraph offices that civilians used.

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, Maryland, Virginia

New Online Exhibit from the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington

Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City, 1861 - 1865 logo.If you haven't seen it yet, make sure to check out the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington's new online exhibit, "Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City, 1861-1865." The exhibit, which launched yesterday, provides an interesting look at Civil War Washington through the lens of the Jewish experience in our fair city.

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