As congressmen convened for a special session in July 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 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.
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.
William Howard Russell (1820 – 1907) was a reporter for The Times of the UK and 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.
Lost Civil War History: Northern Virginia Contraband Camps
Civil War blogger Ron Baumgarten discusses a often-forgotten aspect of Civil War history.
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.
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.
As 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, Hartman was quite impressed.
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.
WETA Television's documentary, Arlington National Cemetery 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.
So what was this new monument and why were so many people clamoring to see it?
At Arlington National Cemetery, 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.