Civil War Washington Is Focus of ‘Freedom Rising’

Posted December 10, 2004 at 1:04pm

As a war for “a new birth of freedom” was being waged in backyards and city streets all across America during the bloody years of the Civil War, Freedom herself was fighting a separate battle right here in the very heart of Washington, D.C.

It was a grueling struggle to travel just 287 feet — the height of the Capitol Dome.

By the time Freedom was finally lifted to her perch atop the newly built dome on Dec. 2, 1863, she had long since become a symbol of resolve in a time of uncertainty. She was a “barometer of what was happening during the war,” said Washington-based author Ernest Furgurson, whose latest book, “Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War,” was released last month by Alfred A. Knopf Press.

In telling the story of how the crown jewel was finally placed on the Capitol’s new headpiece, Furgurson also is telling the story of the rebirth of the District of Columbia. The war transformed the city from a mere meeting point of separate state delegations to “the seat of a forceful central government.”

“Freedom Rising” shows readers what life was like in this changing city which sat on the front lines — both politically and militarily — by masterfully weaving together the stories of Washington’s most influential, and most ordinary, citizens. Furgurson’s book isn’t the first tome on what Washington was like during the Civil War; Margaret Leech’s 1942 Pulitzer Prize winner “Reveille in Washington 1860-1865” has long been considered the authority on the subject. But Furgurson’s new novel gives the reader fresh insights into that history by drawing on 40-plus years of new research and freshly uncovered letters and diaries. His inclusion of more minorities and women into his book make the whole picture of Washington fuller and richer.

Furgurson, who spent five years researching and writing his book, takes the reader from the intense speeches, debates and fights on the floor of the House and Senate, to local stops for runaway slaves on Washington’s “underground railroad.” He relates the frustration of both censored Washington journalists and overworked Washington nurses. Personal stories of people like Julia Ward Howe — who awoke before dawn one morning at the Willard Hotel to pen the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — are what drive this work.

“Freedom Rising” is Furgurson’s fourth book on Civil War history. The Virginia native, who served in the U.S. Marines before becoming a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, admits he has been a Civil War buff since childhood. His four great-grandfathers all fought in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; three were wounded in battle, and one was captured and died in the Union prison of Fort Delaware. Furgurson wrote this book as a companion piece to his 1996 work, “Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War,” which takes a similar look at the capital of the Confederacy during the war.

Throughout “Freedom Rising,” Furgurson always returns to President Abraham Lincoln.

“Lincoln has to be the main character of Washington during the war, but there was also an immense cast of supporting characters,” he said.

One episode Furgurson delights in discussing is how Lincoln had to sneak into Washington for his own inauguration. Trains coming into the District had to travel through the hostile city of Baltimore, where federal soldiers already had been attacked and several residents had openly threatened to kill the newly-elected president, on their way to the capital. Rather than risk an attack, Lincoln and the famed Civil War-era detective Allan Pinkerton thought it best that the newly-elected president travel through the city in the middle of the night, stole away and disguised, to avoid any would-be assassins. However, a small hitch in the plan left Lincoln’s car waiting in the middle of Baltimore for its connection.

“Thus, for nearly two hours, Lincoln had to lie listening in the darkness in the heart of the city where men were allegedly waiting to kill him. … Then the late train from the west finally arrived, coupled to the waiting car, and puffed away toward Washington,” Furgurson wrote.

It was a scary time living just a river’s width away from enemy territory. Being just 100 miles from Richmond put the District constantly in the crosshairs and, according to Furgurson, the city was never more in danger than it was in the days just after Virginia voted for succession.

Washington was literally cut off by Southern sympathizers in Maryland blocking access to the city. With threats reaching the city from beyond the Potomac, the Capitol, City Hall and the Treasury Department headquarters were all turned into strongholds where, in the case of a quick Confederate strike, the government hoped to hold out until more Union troops arrived.

And through all of this, even after the early chants of “On to Richmond!” began to fade in the streets and Washingtonians began to settle in for a drawn-out fight, Architect of the Capitol Thomas Walter continued to labor away, hoping to finally complete the Capitol’s new cast-iron Dome. It was a project that he had begun in 1855.

“It really was the great project of his life,” Furgurson said of Walter’s Dome. His trials and tribulations included personal, bureaucratic, political and weather troubles, and even an entire year of work stoppage from 1861 to 1862. As the city and nation watched, the Dome slowly continued to rise and Walter’s “determination became a symbol of Union determination during the war. It was a great moment on December 2, 1863,” when Freedom finally stood looking out over the city, he said. “The cannon boomed on Capitol Hill and was answered by cannons firing from forts around the city. It’s an important and symbolic event that most people don’t know about.”

It’s these lesser-known Civil War-era stories that Furgurson, who has lived in the District since 1960, thinks today’s Washingtonians will most appreciate in his book.

“I think people who live here ought to get a real kick out of it,” said Furgurson, who originally hails from Danville, Va., the last capital of the Confederacy. “They’ll get a sense of how close this was to them. They are sitting in the very spots and buildings where these dramatic events took place and may not even know it.”

Furgurson thinks today’s residents and policy makers will see that “the backbiting and political hardball is not a new thing by any stretch of the imagination. … Both interparty and intraparty politics have been played out in a life and death fashion in the past.”

“This is the Washington that’s been here and is going to be here; that’s a valuable lesson,” he said.