Mount Vernon is a priceless national treasure and symbol of America's foremost founding father. But were it not for a tiny staff guarding it through the 1860s, it might not have survived the Civil War. At the head of this skeleton crew was a soft-spoken, unassuming New York secretary who politely put her foot down and said: This is George Washington's ground, and your war will stop here.
Military leadership, including President Lincoln, saw the potential of military balloons, and the public believed they would change the landscape of the Civil War, aiding the Union’s eventual success. Only two years later though, what would be known as the “Balloon Corps” would be dissolved. So, what ended the use of this promising and successful aerial endeavor?
On the night of February 24, 1867 in the nation’s capital, Scarlet Crow, a visiting Sioux chief, mysteriously disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened. Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate oral history proposed that he was kidnapped, while the Evening Star newspaper put forth that he had simply wandered and gotten lost. What is indisputable, however, is that after that night, Scarlet Crow was never seen alive again.
During the Civil War, the U.S. Capitol served stints as a military barracks, a bakery, and a hospital for wounded soldiers, all while the building was under construction. After the war, the bakery was dismantled and the soldiers left — well, all but one …
What do a five-year-old boy, a woman working at a train station and an African American newspaperman have in common? Samuel J. Seymour, Sarah V. E. White and Samuel H. Hatton were little-known Washingtonian witnesses to some of the most influential murders in history: those of U.S. Presidents.
In the mid nineteenth-century, one-third (or more!) of all U.S. currency was counterfeit. The banking system was broken and every private bank issued unique paper bills. By the 1860s, the government had to take action: currency became nationally standardized and the Secret Service was born.
February of 1863 saw one of the most anticipated celebrity weddings of its time—after all, what better to provide a momentary distraction from the realities of the Civil War than a little star gossip? The bride and groom were General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) and the Queen of Beauty Lavinia Warren, of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum (which would later become Barnum’s Circus) in New York City. At 12:30 p.m. on February 10, 1863 in Manhattan’s Grace Episcopal Church, Tom and Lavinia wed in the presence of an enormous crowd, which spilled out onto Broadway and for many more miles into the City, thanks to Barnum’s extensive publicizing of the event. People across America were fascinated by Barnum’s Tom Thumb and the President of the United States was no exception. The Lincolns were so enthralled by Barnum’s acts that they invited the newlywed Strattons to the White House for a wedding reception just a few days later.
Washington has seen its fair share of crimes: mafia operations, drug networks, triple murder… But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one of the city’s most pervasive crimes was one we today might find difficult to imagine: chicken thievery. In today’s urban landscape, the phenomenon may seem difficult to imagine; but 150 years ago chicken robbery was widespread -- and serious business. The practice was dangerous and, at times, even fatal.
If you lived in nineteenth-century D.C. and wanted your picture taken, you couldn’t just whip out your own camera — you’d visit Pennsylvania Avenue NW, known locally as “photographer’s row.” This stretch of the avenue, between the White House and the nearly-finished Capitol building, was home to a cluster of photography studios and galleries. Between 1858 and 1881, the most fashionable and famous was Brady’s National Photographic Art Gallery. It was run by Mathew Brady and his manager, Alexander Gardner, whose partnership endured its own civil war.
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.