Historical Spots Reveal City’s Role in Civil War

Posted March 2, 2011 at 6:46pm

It’s been 150 years since the outbreak of the Civil War, and the sesquicentennial marks the perfect moment to delve into Washington, D.C.’s fascinating history. Whether you want to wander a little off the beaten path or just step right outside your office door, the city offers an array of Civil War sites and stories to discover.

“The closeness of it is so shocking to think about — it all just happened down I-95,” Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer said. “It was a Beltway war in many ways.”

For a true sense of Washington at war, tourists should put Fort Stevens and the Capitol at the top of their travel plans.

Fort Stevens

Tucked into a residential Northwest D.C. neighborhood is the site of one of the war’s most incredible moments — the only time a sitting president has come under enemy fire.

President Lincoln rode out to see the battle at Fort Stevens, one of the city’s major fortifications, on July 12, 1864. Lincoln stood on the battlements to view the skirmish, but when rebel sharpshooters began firing, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. allegedly yelled, “Get down, you damn fool!”

The story goes that Lincoln ducked to safety, and the Union held the capital. But it was a close call, both for Lincoln and the United States. The Confederate general leading the troops, Jubal A. Early, told one of his officers after the battle, “We didn’t take Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell.”

The National Park Service completed the restoration of this often-overlooked Civil War site in the city’s Brightwood neighborhood in 2010. Visitors can see cannons from the Civil War period and stand on the very spot that Lincoln did as he watched the battle. According to NPS spokesperson Bill Line, Fort Stevens is the best-preserved of the 26 parks that make up the Civil War Defenses of Washington and plans are in the works to link all the sites with a trail for hikers and bikers.

Fort Stevens is at Fort Stevens Drive and 13th Street Northwest. In 2010, the Civil War Trust placed Fort Stevens on its list of most endangered battlefields because of the threat of encroaching development.

The Capitol

It was once a hospital, a barracks and a bakery.

Tarps hung from the unfinished Dome, attempting to protect the Rotunda from the elements. Only 3,000 lucky soldiers could sleep on the cots set up throughout the building — the others searching for a place to rest often crept under desks in the House and Senate chambers for some shut-eye.

The Crypt and basement galleries stored barrels of pork and beef, with grains stacked high to stock the bakeries, also within the Capitol, producing more than 11,000 loaves of bread each day. Nurses and doctors walked the hallways and chambers of the Capitol’s makeshift hospital, using the grounds for triage. The Capitol was at war.

For a look back at this extraordinary time, the Capitol Visitor Center offers a special tour for Civil War buffs — and anyone who works on the Hill with a half-hour to spare. The tour’s wealth of fun facts and captivating stories gives even the most jaded staffer a fresh look at the Capitol.

Visitors explore the Old Supreme Court Chamber and the Old Senate Chamber, as well as the Crypt and Statuary Hall. Some are familiar sites, of course, but everything is seen through 19th-century eyes. After the tour ends, check out the collection of Civil War treasures on display in the CVC’s Exhibition Hall.

Lincoln fans can see the table that he stood over during his second inaugural address, when he sought to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” as well as the Lincoln catafalque built to hold his casket as his body lay in state in the Rotunda. It’s now out of hiding — from 1865 to 2008, the public could not easily visit the catafalque — and it’s well worth a stop for any sesquicentennial tourist.

In addition to the ongoing tour, the CVC will play host to a special event Saturday honoring the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s first inauguration. The ceremony kicks off at 10 a.m. and will feature remarks by Holzer, while actor Sam Waterston will read the inaugural address. The celebration ends with a re-enactment of Lincoln’s swearing-in. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) will serve as the Congressional host of the event, which is free and open to the public.

Holzer said holding the event in the CVC allows visitors a chance to come close to the fascinating history of the Capitol during the Civil War. Lincoln, he noted, insisted the workers continue to build the unfinished Dome as the war raged on.

“It’s a great story,” Holzer said. “A lot of people said to him, ‘You can’t continue construction because we need the iron,’ and Lincoln said, ‘It has to go on because it’s a sign the Union will go on.’”

And with the 150th anniversary thrusting the Civil War back in the spotlight, there’s no better way to spend a spring weekend.

The Capitol Visitor Center is open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Passes for the “Capitol and the Congress During the Civil War” tour, at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., are available at the information desks on the lower level of the CVC.