The Civil War transformed Washington from a sleepy outpost into a federal city, its population nearly doubling between 1860 and 1870. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress
During the two years I spent writing a book about the Civil War, I often felt as if I were living as much in the 19th century as in the 21st. After a long day at the Library of Congress going over old newspapers and yellowing manuscripts, I would emerge from the building and see ghosts everywhere in Washington.
There on the east side of the Capitol were the young soldiers I had just been reading about, playing baseball beneath long-vanished chestnut trees in the first spring of the war. Pennsylvania Avenue, shimmering in the hazy sunlight of a summer afternoon, seemed wreathed in the dust clouds of regiments marching in review. Amid the crowds of commuters at 14th and L streets Northwest, I saw the figure of Walt Whitman, standing on the corner where he used to wait to catch a glimpse of Abraham Lincoln en route to the President’s summer cottage.
Even for less obsessive seekers of lost time, there are lots of places in and around Washington where the Civil War past remains very much present. Unlike many foreign capitals, ours is
not a city where history is obvious and ubiquitous: The grime of centuries doesn’t encrust our gleaming monuments, and looking at the White House, it can be hard to imagine that JFK lived there, let alone Lincoln.
But in this 150th-anniversary year of the start of America’s greatest conflict, here are ten local places—most off the tourist track—where I find the Civil War not just visible but vivid.
1. Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park and National Cemetery
This is no Gettysburg or Antietam. No tour buses disturb the silence. There’s no visitors center or gift shop, nowhere you can buy so much as a postcard. The battlefield is not much to look at—just a broad clearing and a couple of cannons in the woods, near the edge of a quiet suburban neighborhood—and the cemetery contains only a couple of dozen graves.
Yet the tragedy and drama of the Civil War are as palpable as they are at few other places. Here, on October 21, 1861, a force of 1,700 Union soldiers crossed the Potomac from the Maryland side and found themselves in their own version of hell. Their inexperienced commander, Colonel Edward D. Baker—a sitting US senator and a close friend of Lincoln’s—put his troops in an impossible position, with Confederate sharpshooters in front of them and the 90-foot bluff behind.
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On a recent Sunday, a friend and I brought the first volume of Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy with us and sat on a fallen log at the base of that bluff, reading aloud. The long-ago scene came to life: Yankee soldiers fleeing headlong, scrambling and falling down the steep incline, clambering desperately into the few available boats, only to capsize them in their panic. Here in the muddy river—now placid except for a heron that brushes over the surface—men drowned or were picked off one by one as rebels on the precipice lashed the water with bullets. Bodies drifted miles downstream; some were fished out along what is now the Maine Avenue wharf in DC.
When news of Baker’s death reached Lincoln at the War Department, he walked back to the White House alone, weeping.
Marble headstones stand in a semicircle near the rim of the bluff. All but one—the grave of a Massachusetts private named James Allen—are marked “unknown.”
2. Arlington House
Arlington National Cemetery
Here above the Potomac River stands the proud neoclassical mansion that, in the spring of 1861, was the home of a US Army colonel named Robert E. Lee. Historians still debate what happened in these rooms that April as the Union came apart and Virginia prepared to secede. A recently discovered letter suggests that Lee—who had informally been offered command of the Union troops defending Washington—agonized here over whether to cast his loyalties with his state or his country. Nearly all his close family members opposed secession from the Union.
Lee must have stood on this veranda—which offered, as it still does, a panorama of the city across the river—and contemplated all he was about to leave behind, the familiar capital that was about to become enemy territory. In the end, he sat down alone in his office and penned a letter of resignation from the Army, which a trusted slave delivered to the War Department.
By the end of May, the Lees were gone and federal troops occupied the mansion, setting up a telegraph station in the dining room and digging entrenchments in the formal gardens. Soon they began planting graves: by the dozens, then hundreds, then thousands.
The general would never return to his beloved house. His widow visited once after the war, shortly before her death. Infirm and distraught at the sight of her former home transformed into a cemetery, she didn’t get out of her carriage.
Next: President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home