Rick Roder
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History - Washington, D.C.



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    I love history, so writing encyclopedia entries is one of my favorite things. Here is a sample of an entry submitted to Facts on File. The revised copy is due to be published in December 2002. Remaining historically accurate while writing a piece that flows is quite a challenge. I think this piece shows my abilities in that regard.

    Richard J. Roder, "Washington, D.C.," in Encyclopedia of American History: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1856-1859, Volume 5, ed., Joan Waugh (New York: Facts on File 2003): 388-390.

    Washington, D.C.

    In the tense early days of the Civil War, as a diverse people undertook the dreadful task of choosing sides against one another, the city of Washington, D.C., found itself awash within a sea of doubt. Though its responsibilities were national, its regional concerns in 1861 were much more immediate. The ten-square-mile tract of the District of Columbia was bordered on three sides by Maryland, a state with a distinct Southern character whose overall allegiance was being played out day-to-day. Virginia, a Confederate stronghold, bordered the fourth side. Within the city Confederate flags appeared outside numerous homes and buildings. President Lincoln found himself and the Union government practically defenseless in the capital city.

    On April 19 a confrontation threatened to speed Maryland toward secession and isolate Washington. The 6th Massachusetts Regiment, the first fully armed unit to respond to Lincoln's call for troops, departed its home state to help defend Washington. Since no rail lines passed all the way through Baltimore, the unit had to detrain and march across the city to board another train. A mob formed in the path of the soldiers and they were eventually surrounded. Citizens began pelting them with rocks, bricks, and pistol fire. A few men of the 6th opened fire, and a nasty brawl ensued. By the time the 6th fought its way to its train and out of the city, four soldiers and twelve townspeople lay dead. As a result of the incident, Maryland's governor, Thomas Hicks - a unionist who had earlier prevented secession by refusing to call the Southern-rights legislature-was forced to approve the destruction of railroad bridges into the city. Secessionists tore down the telegraph lines that passed through Baltimore from Washington, and the Union capital was effectively severed from the North. Citizens and government clerks in Washington formed into volunteer companies, fearing an attack. However, the next day the New York 7th Regiment arrived by train, having commandeered and repaired a dilapidated steam engine in Annapolis. Other units soon followed and the imminent danger seemed passed.

    The defense of Washington, D.C., proved a chronic problem for Lincoln and his generals. Security and organizational problems abounded; office seekers had descended upon Washington with Lincoln's arrival and opportunists only increased upon the outbreak of war. Despite the unknowns in the city, Lincoln refused to end the White House tradition of public access. The city was strategically exposed, situated at the point of the "V" formed by the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Approaches into the "V" from the north abounded, bridges provided access from the south. When Colonel Charles P. Stone set about organizing the Washington militias he found a disturbing level of Southern sympathy. Most of one group, the National Rifles, defected to the Confederacy. The regiments that arrived in the early days of the war were impressive in number but questionable in quality. Most were untrained and found plenty of mischief in off-times; prostitution and drinking were rampant. For much of the war, Washington was a raucous, unsleeping city. Accommodations were insufficient; some of the soldiers even encamped in the Capitol Rotunda and the East Room of the White House.

    Colonel Joseph Mansfield, commander of the Department of Washington, undertook the construction of fortifications outside Washington. The projects were just underway when Union forces were defeated at First Bull Run in July of 1861. Washington, unsure of the Confederate army's capability, feared invasion. Although such invasion never came, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton made it clear that Union campaigns in Virginia would always include provisions for the defense of Washington. George McClellan later claimed that the policy drastically hindered his Peninsula campaign.

    Batteries and fortifications eventually encircled Washington, although they were almost constantly undermanned. Such was the case in July of 1864. As Ulysses Grant directed the siege of Petersburg with an eye to catching Richmond, Jubal Early was defeating Union forces on a march to Washington with 15,000 Rebel soldiers. On July 11 Early appeared outside the Washington defense works, five miles north of the White House. In response to the frantic appeals of the War Department, Grant dispatched the 6th Corps to Washington to bolster the convalescents, militia, and unit remnants on hand there. Early initiated a skirmish on July 12, the only combat personally witnessed by President Lincoln, who watched from Fort Stevens. Early was dissuaded from a full attack by the presence of the 6th Corps and withdrew.

    Washington was in an unfinished state in the 1860's. The District of Columbia at the time was composed of several small, distinctive communities in a rural setting. Local government was ineffective, so that several areas were considered unsafe. The Capitol building itself was undergoing a major renovation, which was continued without interruption during the Civil War. In fact, Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs spent considerable time and energy on the project. The Smithsonian Institute and the Treasury Building were prominent structures; the latter also housed the State Department. The Navy and War Departments were located in modest structures near the White House; Lincoln was usually able to walk there without being seen. Despite the capitol city's infancy, fragility, and vulnerability during the Civil War, President Lincoln never seriously considered removing the United States capitol to safer environs in the North. It stood as a proud symbol of the Union, far within territory that the Confederacy considered rightfully its own.

    Further Reading:

      Leech, Margaret. Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865 (1941).
      Stoddard, William Osborn. Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln's Secretary (2000).
      McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988).

    Richard J. Roder


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