Conceived in the 1790s by French architect Pierre L'Enfant, Washington, D.C., was a capital "federal city," imposed upon a "local city of southern towns, villages, and farms that had preceded it." By the mid 1800s the streets of Washington, except for paved Pennsylvania Avenue, were a vast geometric grid of dirt roads that, when it rained, turned into elongated swamps of foot-deep mud.
Public sanitation was nonexistent. Epidemic diseases such as scarlet fever, measles and typhus were a constant threat. President Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever in February 1862.
Crime was rampant, and Washington's woefully inadequate police force kept a minimum of order. And despite its federal, Northern connection, Washington was, when Lincoln assumed the presidency on March 4, 1861, a dynamic, Southern, slave-owning city.
Kenneth J. Winkle, Lincoln biographer (The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln, 2001) and professor of history at the University of Nebraska, has written a revealing work, Lincoln's Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, D.C. Unlike most Civil War books that deal with generals or battles, Winkle's volume concentrates upon the "interior history" of America's capital and how it transformed during this contentious period as the nation itself transformed.
Winkle begins his story in December 1847, when Illinois' Abraham Lincoln, a newly elected Republican member of the House of Representatives, moved into Mrs. Ann Sprigg's boardinghouse, nicknamed "Abolition House" because nearly all the congressional boarders sympathized with that cause. Then, jumping ahead 12 years, he describes newly elected President Lincoln's ignominious February 1861 entrance into Washington. As Lincoln's train made its 800-mile trip from Springfield, Ill., letters threatening death dogged him. "May the hand of the devil strike you down before long — You are destroying the country. Damn you — every breath you take." Changing trains and sneaking through hyper-dangerous Baltimore at 3:30 a.m., Lincoln sported a concealing "broad-brimmed felt hat that he could pull down over his eyes and a 'Gentleman's shawl' that he could pull up over his face." He also stooped "to disguise his conspicuous six-foot-four-inch height."
Winkle examines Lincoln's desperate attempts to keep up Washington's defenses against "border state" (i.e., neutral) Maryland and openly defiant Virginia, whose Confederate flags could be clearly seen flying across the Potomac River. After the Union's disastrous defeat at the Battle of Bull Run, just 30 miles from the capital, Lincoln ordered that both sides of Washington's three bridges across the Potomac be fortified. He ordered the construction of 68 new forts, 93 artillery batteries with 800 cannon, and 20 miles of trenches to surround the city. Gen. George B. McClellan, in charge of the city's defenses, now commanded 50,000 infantry troops, 1,000 cavalry and 650 artillerymen. Medical personnel, especially nurses, were badly needed as 1 million casualties poured into Washington's hospitals.
Fugitive slaves from seceding states flocked to the capital, and freedom. On April 16, 1862, Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, forerunner to the more geographically comprehensive Emancipation Proclamation (effective Jan. 1, 1863). Winkle tells us that 40,000 fugitive and freed slaves came to Washington during the Civil War.
By war's end, Washington had become a cleaner, more sophisticated, more Northern city. A better water supply was installed, better sanitation, lighting, police, schools. The war had transformed the nation and, spectacularly, this city.