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War and the City

PEOPLE WHO HAVE called Washington, D.C. home have their fingerprints all over history, but the city itself is thought to be dull, inconsequential, and lacking in soulfulness. “A city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency,” John F. Kennedy famously groused. “A great, scrambling, slack-baked embryo of a city,” sneered an unimpressed nineteenth-century reporter. Even among content Washingtonians today, who rightly boast of their city’s cosmopolitan populace, its leafy neighborhoods, its easy sense of community—even among them a certain embarrassment often lurks. 

The reissue of Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865 provides a powerful reminder of how crude this sentiment is. Leech, who published three novels before this work of history appeared in 1941, offers a smart and witty account of wartime Washington’s transformation from an administrative backwater to the locus of renewed federal power. This encyclopedic portrait won Leech, who died in 1974, her first of two Pulitzer Prizes for history. (It might not have hurt that she was married to the son of Joseph Pulitzer.)

Reveille in Washington could stand on its own as a first-rate chronicle of how the political elites handled the war. Many of Leech’s characters are familiar names from American history, and they are brought to life in a new way with the spark of her pen. Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, is compared in the twilight of his presidency to “a nervous gentleman on a runaway horse, longing for the ride to be over.” Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s irascible Secretary of War, is said to have the body of “a powerful gnome.”

But the book’s main character is really the city itself. On the eve of the Civil War, Washington was just an “idea set in wilderness,” Leech writes. Seventy years had elapsed since Pierre L’Enfant had unfurled his blueprint for the fledgling republic’s new capital, and his grand plan had been only half-heartedly executed. The town was both “pretentious and unfulfilled”; its sights were “six scattered buildings, a few dubious statues and one-third of an obelisk.” On account of a poor sanitation system, it stunk like a “medieval plague spot.” Among the nation at large, the capital had a reputation for being ugly and home to more than its fair share of prostitutes, swindlers, and “secesh,” or people loyal to the South. “Hardly worth defending, except for the éclat of the thing,” sniffed one disappointed Union soldier who arrived to guard Washington in the spring of 1861.

The siege of Fort Sumter in April of that year put an end to the capital’s days as a neglected ornament of nation-building. Stuck between Confederate Virginia and a reluctantly Unionist Maryland, Washington was in the enemy’s crosshairs from the start, and knew it. “Wherever men looked, they saw the shapes of danger,” Leech writes. After a short and tense delay, Union soldiers piled into the jittery city, and a menagerie of journalists, merchants, prostitutes, and doctors rode in on their coattails. Collectively the newcomers injected the District with a shot of adrenaline, and its effects would never quite fade.

In May, Washington got its first taste of the costs of war, when Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a twenty-four-year-old lawyer and friend of Lincoln’s, was killed in a skirmish in Virginia. The capital mourned the young soldier with a sorrow that would seem extravagant in light of the carnage that was to follow. When the news surfaced that the first major conflict of the war was brewing in July 1861, well-heeled D.C. residents hired carriages to transport them to Manassas, Virginia, to take in the spectacle over a picnic lunch. 

The First Battle of Bull Run took the lives of almost a thousand men, and it destroyed the city’s foolish enthusiasm for war. Defeated Union soldiers “staggered through the staring city like sleepwalkers, dropped on the steps of houses, crumpled on the curbstones with their heads against the lampposts.” The soldiers who had the strength to do so begged for food and alcohol. As the war progressed and the battlegrounds around the city metastasized, anything with a roof was turned into a hospital—churches, Georgetown College, the House and Senate chambers of Congress. “Like some new exhibit of ghastliness, waxy faces lay in rows between the shining glass cabinets, filled with curiosities, foreign presents, and the models of inventions,” Leech writes of the clinic set up in the cavernous Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum). “The nurses’ heels clicked on the marble floor, and over all lay the heavy smell of putrefaction and death.” The Union would build so many new infirmaries that a year after the First Battle of Bull Run, “a stranger, wandering about the city, might find his way by using the low, pale masses of the hospitals as landmarks.”

The city teemed with the wounded, but Washingtonians themselves were largely absent from the battlefield. Many residents were Southern sympathizers who would not serve in the Union army, or government clerks chained to their desks. (How little things have changed.) In an attempt to suss out those who were both, the House set up a Committee on the Loyalty of Government Clerks, and received more than five hundred reports of suspicious activity. A few of the more egregious secessionists were hauled into jail, including Rose Greenhow, a prominent and wealthy Washingtonian imprisoned for spying for the Confederacy. (Her eight-year-old daughter came along with her.) For the most part, though, flush from a humming wartime economy and under huge strain, Washington was “en fête—drunk, some people said, in its crazy pursuit of pleasure.” In time, of course, a few sex scandals erupted, including one involving the first female employees of the federal government, who were on staff at the Treasury Department.

Occasionally the unmeasured glee was tempered. The city’s residents looked unkindly on the emancipation of the city’s slaves in April, 1862—eight and a half months before Lincoln made it national policy. “Like a little kingdom under the heel of a foreign invader, the city sat sullen, smarting and resentful,” Leech writes about this revolutionary decision’s aftermath. “Loyal or disunionist, its citizens had no sympathy with abolition.” Pro-slavery Washingtonians with experience on Capitol Hill may have consoled themselves with a page from a politician’s playbook: a change in policy does not always mean a change in practice. Indeed, the stiffest of prejudices still remained in the District. Freed slaves continued to work for their former masters. Without provocation, blacks were attacked on the streets. Schools for black children were promised, but did not open. As Lincoln hoped, some brave black men chose to enlist in the Union army. But still more set up house in “poverty-stricken settlements,” performing the groundwork for another long century of marginalization of African Americans.

Washington would face its most serious military threat late in the war, in July 1864, when General Robert E. Lee directed an attack on the capital, hoping to distract Grant’s army from the gleaming prize of Richmond. The Confederate army cut Washington’s telegraph cables to the North and scrambled the railroad tracks to Baltimore. But little could faze Washington save a Confederate flag flying from the dome of the Capitol. “No city ever heard the noise of cannon in its suburbs with a greater appearance of sang-froid,” Leech relates. The tired rebels would get no farther than the suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland.

The real blow came the next year with the assassination of President Lincoln. The city, which had just staged Dionysian celebrations after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, sank, like the entire North, into rage and despair. Its wartime leader gone, Washington settled uneasily into a new postwar identity. Some thought the city would go back to its languid way of life. But Washington was no longer a “baby among capitals,” and the country no longer at odds about states’ rights. For better or worse, Washington had a new authority to match its grown-up profile: it was now the seat of a robust and unified federal government.

Several writers—Walt Whitman in Specimen Days, Louisa May Alcott in Hospital Sketches—wrote more intimately and movingly about life in the capital during the Civil War, but neither did so with the scope or the ambition of Leech. The steady clip of Leech’s accomplished book is in a way perfectly suited to Washington. One of the city’s greatest assets—and flaws—is that it has always been a place where the vast majority of human energy is directed toward the present moment. Where Lincoln once haunted the War Department for telegrams bearing news from the front, Obama now fiddles with his Blackberry. It makes sense, then, that a certain pride has not bloomed from the city’s heady history: Washingtonians simply believe that they have more important things to think about. What Reveille in Washington memorably demonstrates, however, is that thanks to the Civil War, it is a complex and fascinating history that they ignore.

Megan Buskey is on the editorial staff of The Wilson Quarterly.