1860s

The Deal Done in the Dark

"Signing of the Alaska Treaty," a famous painting by Emanuel Leutze, depicts Seward and Stoeckl negotiating the Alaska purchase in the State Department on March 30, 1867.

In 1866, State Department employees were forced out of their old offices in the Northeast Executive Building because an extension to the Treasury Department was being constructed on that site. As a result, they moved into the Washington City Orphan Asylum, a small and unassuming brick building on the corner of 14th and S streets NW. Though the move was less than ideal, the walls of the new State Department would soon see major historical and diplomatic events unfold. One sleepless night in particular occurred on March 30, 1867: when Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the Alaska purchase.

How Les Misérables Became Lee's Miserables

Cover page from West & Johnston translation of Les Miserables, which was distributed to Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. (Source: Hathi Trust)

When Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables was published in the spring of 1862, it took the world by storm. Within weeks, American audiences began devouring a five-volume translation by renowned classicist Charles E. Wilbour. As the Civil War raged, soldiers on both sides of the lines gobbled up copies and carried them into battle. But here's the thing: Confederate soldiers weren't actually reading the same book as their Northern adversaries, and that was by design.

Lansburgh Corners the Market on Black Crêpe

“Lansburgh's Department Store - Washington DC - Adolf Cluss” (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lansburgh%27s_Department_Store_-_Washington_DC_-_Adolf_Cluss.jpg

April 14th, 1865 marks the date of one of the most shocking and memorable events in Washington and American history: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By 10:30 p.m. that night, the President’s death was looking imminent, and after hearing this news just two blocks over at 7th and D Streets NW, Gustave Lansburgh, owner of Lansburgh & Bros. Fancy Goods Agency, decided to start decorating his store in mourning black. It was this small decision that would transform Lansburgh’s dry goods store into one of the most prosperous Washington department stores for the next 113 years.

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth's Abduction Plot Gone Wrong

The story is well known: on April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln died the next morning in a boarding house across from the theater. Booth escaped – temporarily -- but was shot 12 days later in Virginia. 

What is lesser known is that Booth did not always plan on killing Lincoln. In fact, the actor’s original plan was not to strike a fatal blow. He wanted to abduct Lincoln, take him to Richmond and exchange him for Confederate soldiers then held in Union prisons.

Judith McGuire (Source: FindAGrave.com)

Civil War Alexandria Through the Eyes of Judith Brockenbrough McGuire

When the Civil War began looming on the horizon, Judith Brockenbrough McGuire (1813-1897) was the wealthy wife of a prominent citizen in Alexandria, and like many on both sides of the conflict, she believed in a speedy and perhaps even non-violent end to the conflict. In the days leading up to the war, McGuire recorded in her diary the increasingly depressing landscape of Alexandria. Give it a read and take a step back in time!

George Alfred Townsend in 1899. (Source: Wikipedia)

"Some of the noblest residences in Alexandria had been desecrated to licentious purposes."

One of the most remembered war correspondents was also the youngest reporter in the Civil War, George Alfred Townsend. Born in 1841, Townsend’s reports on the Battle of Five Forks and the Lincoln assassination gained him wide recognition, but before he had the chance to write those, Townsend visited the occupied city of Alexandria. Among his observations: "It would not accord with the chaste pages of this narrative to tell how some of the noblest residences in Alexandria had been desecrated to licentious purposes; now how, by night, the parlors of cosey homes flamed with riot and orgie [sic]."

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.

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