9. Fort Stevens Park
13th and Quackenbos sts., NW
This patch of green space in DC’s Brightwood neighborhood has two claims to fame. It’s the only Civil War battlefield within the District. More significant, it’s the only battlefield where a sitting President of the United States came under enemy fire.
Lincoln’s too-close brush with the war came on July 12, 1864. The Rebel cavalry commander Jubal Early had staged a daring raid on the capital’s outskirts. Though aware that he stood no real chance of capturing the well-defended city, Early decided to assault the Union lines anyhow, to win a victory for Southern morale if nothing else.
The Confederate snipers must have been astonished to see, looming above the earthworks opposite, the silhouette of a lanky, stovepipe-hatted figure familiar from cartoons and lithographs: Lincoln had come out to observe the clash. Several eyewitnesses recorded that he took cover only after the Yankee officer at his side was felled by a rebel bullet; another wrote that a young Union staff captain—who happened to be Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the future Supreme Court justice—shouted, “Get down, you damn fool!”
Today the small park, with its reconstructed segment of fortifications, is hemmed in on every side by modernity: parked cars, a radio tower, and apartment houses from the middle of the last century. The ground is littered with the archaeology of very recent history: Someone sat beside this gunport eating a Big Mac; someone smoked a cigar on the earthwork opposite. But if I hunch down with my volume of Shelby Foote, ignore the sound of rush-hour traffic on 13th Street, and face toward the low green mounds, it could almost be 1864.
10. Mary Surratt Boarding House
604 H St., NW
The plain brick dwelling on H Street resembled hundreds of other cheap boarding houses in Civil War–era Washington. But the events that played out secretly here in late 1864 and early 1865 were anything but ordinary. In this building, landlady Mary Surratt hosted John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators as they plotted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
The English-basement level, which was the dining room and kitchen of the old boarding house, is now a Chinese and Japanese restaurant called Wok and Roll. Nothing of the historic interior remains. The upper floors, which contain apartments off-limits to the public—and to historical researchers, it seems—are apparently much more intact.
The food served by Mrs. Surratt’s latter-day heirs is, I have to confess, only so-so. Still, it’s worth sitting down for a little while over steamed dumplings or egg-drop soup, contemplating the murder of a President and the changes wrought by time.
This article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.