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Mr. Lincoln’s Washington
This was a very different place when Lincoln lived here, but those times—and his extraordinary spirit—still can be found in these landmarks. By Ernest B. Furgurson
Comments () | Published February 1, 2009
The first statue of Lincoln was erected at the old city hall in Judiciary Square. Now housing the DC Court of Appeals, the building also has served as a slave market and, under Lincoln, the site of America’s only compensated slave emancipation. Photograph by Chris Leaman.

The ghost of Abraham Lincoln hovers about Washington, especially over the sites that were familiar to him in his 49 months as president. Yet the Lincoln Memorial, built more than half a century after his death, is what many Americans see when they think of the great president.

The thousands who come at all hours to stand at the feet of the towering marble likeness inside the memorial can see that Lincoln’s eyes are cast somberly downward, as if he has just heard the news from Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. But nighttime visitors who look east across the Reflecting Pool, past the Washington Monument to the Capitol two miles away, take in the most uplifting sight in the city. At the far end of the Mall glows the Capitol dome, whose completion amid wartime agonies was the symbol of Union determination between 1861 and 1865. And atop the dome stands the bronze statue of Freedom, whose promise is still unfolding.

The Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian, and of course the White House are among the places Lincoln knew after he arrived in the alternately muddy and dusty capital. There was talk then of suspending work on the cast-iron dome of the Capitol for the duration of the Civil War, but Lincoln insisted that it go on. When it was done and the last section of the statue of Freedom was fitted into place just after noon on December 2, 1863, a crowd cheered and artillery fired a 35-gun salute, answered by forts around the city.

The Washington Monument was another story: After politics and scandal halted its construction in the mid-1850s, it stood as a 152-foot stump during the war, surrounded by troops and army cattle, with a slaughterhouse reeking beside it. Lincoln went out on the Mall and tested weapons such as the Spencer repeating rifle, sometimes overruling military bureaucrats who opposed adopting anything new. He liked to walk about the White House neighborhood, often alone, and spent many hours awaiting news at the telegraph office in the War Department next door.

A Quiet Arrival

As president-elect, Lincoln literally sneaked into Washington, arriving at the Baltimore & Ohio station—where Union Station stands today—just after dawn on February 23, 1861. He came ten hours ahead of schedule to avoid Baltimore mobs that had attacked Union troops and threatened to kill him as he passed through.

The next day he went with Senator William Seward to services at St. John’s Church, on 16th Street at Lafayette Park. They sat in the first pew, and although the newspapers had been full of his coming to town, hardly anyone recognized him. The papers of the time were not equipped to print photographs, and many of the published drawings were cartoons depicting Lincoln as a bumpkin, so most Americans did not know what he looked like.

St. John’s had been earning its nickname, Church of the Presidents, since James Madison’s time. Although Lincoln went there occasionally, he did not become a member. Instead he and Mrs. Lincoln took a family pew at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church at 13th Street—a building new then but since replaced at the same location.

Much of the President’s and the nation’s political life circled about Lafayette Park, where the statue of Andrew Jackson aboard his rearing horse had been erected before the war. Both the War and Navy departments were along the west side of the White House where the Eisenhower Executive Office Building now stands; State and Treasury were next door at 15th Street.

Seward became Lincoln’s secretary of State and closest adviser, and the two men spent many evenings talking strategy and swapping tales at Seward’s house on the east side of Lafayette Square. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair lived across Pennsylvania Avenue from Lincoln in the mansion used today for visiting dignitaries. The bewhiskered secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, lived on the north side of the square, on the site of the present Hay-Adams hotel. A couple of doors away, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the most famous of all Confederate spies, socialized with Union officers and senators until she was arrested by detective chief Allan Pinkerton, jailed, and eventually sent away to the South.

Swallowing His Pride

Most of the original homes around Lafayette Park have been replaced, but at the northeast corner still stands a Federal-style 1818 building known as the Dolley Madison House. There the widow of the fourth president lived for a dozen years while she presided over antebellum society. And there Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, was subjected to perhaps the most insulting treatment by an underling in the history of the country.

On November 1, 1861, Lincoln appointed George McClellan general in chief of the Union armies, apparently unaware that McClellan had been badmouthing him at every opportunity. A few evenings later, the President, Seward, and White House aide John Hay walked across the park to confer with the general at his quarters in the Dolley Madison House. A servant told them McClellan was at a wedding but would be home soon.

They waited an hour until the general came in and was informed that they were there. Without acknowledging them, he went upstairs. After another half hour, they sent word to remind him they were still waiting. The servant returned to say that the general had gone to bed. Hay wrote in his diary of “this unparalleled insolence of epaulets.” But on the way back across the park, Lincoln told him that “it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”

Between Lincoln’s inauguration in March and that autumn of 1861, the Union army had been defeated at Bull Run and again in the smaller clash at Ball’s Bluff near Leesburg. There the President’s friend Senator Edward Baker had been killed, sending Lincoln deeper into melancholia. The Confederates were still in strength on the outskirts of the capital; Fairfax County was the center of war.

Now the aged General Winfield Scott had been replaced by the 34-year-old McClellan, full of strut and promise. The President was offended by his arrogance, but he could not afford to show it; he needed McClellan.


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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 02/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles