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10 Places in Washington to Relive the Civil War
Comments () | Published August 15, 2011
Frederick Douglass helped recruit black soldiers and met several times with Abraham Lincoln to discuss African-Americans' military service. Photograph courtesy of Smithsonian Institution/Corbis

5. Cedar Hill/Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
1411 W St., SE

For decades, Frederick Douglass was the eloquent voice of the nation’s conscience. Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, he escaped to the North at age 20 and went on to pen three autobiographies along with many articles and speeches. Unlike some other black abolitionists who believed that freed slaves would never find acceptance in America and could only return “home” to Africa, he insisted that they were and must remain Americans. He castigated the nation for its hypocrisy at the same time that he challenged it to fulfill the ideals in the Declaration of Independence.

During the Civil War, Douglass helped recruit black troops and met several times with Lincoln to discuss African-Americans’ service in the military. After the war, he moved to Washington, where he held several government posts, including recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. Hundreds of the city’s Victorian rowhouses bear Douglass’s signature on their original title documents.

In 1877, he bought Cedar Hill, an antebellum mansion in Anacostia that became a public monument after his death. The Douglass whom visitors encounter here is not the familiar, somewhat rigid icon but the private man—warm and passionate and proud. It’s the opposite of Lincoln’s cottage in the sense that every room is crammed full of his stuff, lovingly saved by his family: photos, books (from children’s poetry to political tracts), and a pair of well-worn shoes in the bedroom that look as if he just stepped out of them.

Wounded union troops were laid out between the display cases at the Patent Office Building. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress

6. Old Patent Office Building
Eighth and F sts., NW

After the Union defeat at Fredericksburg in 1862, hundreds of wounded men were sent by train and wagon to Washington to be cared for—and in many cases to die. The capital didn’t have the hospitals to accommodate all of them, so the soldiers were laid out on the floors of public buildings, including the Patent Office Building, where they found space among the rows of glass vitrines displaying models of American ingenuity.

One of the civilians who volunteered to nurse these suffering men was a minor government clerk and sometime poet whose brother, a Union lieutenant, had been among the wounded at Fredericksburg. Walt Whitman came almost every night, offering books, candy, or just tender caresses and reassuring words. Two years later, in the same building—now no longer a hospital—he witnessed a different scene: Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. With final Union victory imminent, the crowd grew so exuberant that it upended the buffet tables and trampled the foie gras, roast pheasant, and sponge cake.

The building now houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The two institutions exhibit many powerful works of art related to the Civil War, including paintings by Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson and original plaster casts of Lincoln’s face and hands.

Five years ago, in the midst of major renovations, workers stripping paint from a window frame found an inscription—initials and the date 1864—scratched by a Civil War soldier, possibly a wounded patient. Protected under a small sheet of Plexiglas, it can be seen near a corner of the third-floor galleries of contemporary art, a modest token of the past among the David Hockneys and Nam June Paiks.

Next: Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office

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Posted at 07:00 AM/ET, 08/15/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles