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Mr. Lincoln’s Washington
Comments () | Published February 1, 2009
In July 1864, Confederate general Jubal Early’s troops skirmished with Union soldiers at Fort Stevens near Georgia Avenue in Northwest DC. Lincoln rode out to see the action and became the first American president to face enemy fire while in office. The restored fort is open to the public. Photograph by Chris Leaman.

Price of a Human Being

In 1861 the District of Columbia, like surrounding Virginia and Maryland, was slave territory. Congress had ended the slave trade in the District in 1850, but a decade later there were 3,185 slaves and 11,131 free African-Americans among the District’s population of 75,080. When Lincoln was a one-term congressman in 1848, he had proposed emancipating slaves in the capital and paying their owners for their monetary loss. That effort got nowhere, but in early 1862 Congress passed a similar bill. Lincoln hesitated to sign it, not sure what effect it would have on the border slave states that he was trying to hold in the Union.

As Lincoln pondered whether to sign, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts put the matter to him face-to-face, asking, “Do you know who at this moment is the largest slaveholder in this country? It is Abraham Lincoln, for he holds all of the 3,000 slaves of the District.” On April 16 he signed the bill that abolished slavery in the capital, setting off singing and praying in the kitchens and stables of the mighty.

With that, the old city hall on Judiciary Square became the site of the only compensated emancipation in American history. The building’s center section had been completed in 1820 and its two wings by 1840; since then it had served as city hall, courthouse, and at times a slave market. Outside it, after the war, the nation’s first statue of Abraham Lincoln would be erected. Today, after renovation, it is a courthouse again.

For more than 90 days in 1862, a three-man commission sat there, appointed by the President to determine the loyalty of slave owners asking compensation for their freed property and setting the price to be paid. The capital’s biggest slaveholder, George Washington Young, got more than $38,000 for his 69 human beings, most of them farmhands on his plantation east of the Anacostia River. In all, 966 cases were heard and 909 claims accepted. The average paid per slave was about $300, thus keeping the total within the $1 million allotted by Congress. Hundreds of Maryland and Virginia slaves had come into the District, hoping to become free, but the courts ordered that they be sent back to their owners.

Retreating From the Heat

Like other Washingtonians of their day, the Lincolns were plagued by bad water, primitive sanitation, diseases brought by incoming soldiers and civilians, and the miasma of summer in the Potomac bottomlands. In early 1862 they lost their favorite son, 11-year-old Willie, apparently to typhoid fever. That spring they decided to follow the suggestion of the previous president, James Buchanan, and spend summer nights at the Soldiers’ Home, almost 300 feet higher than the White House.

Lincoln enjoyed the ride back and forth—about four miles each way via Seventh Street and Rock Creek Church Road. Sometimes he went on horseback, sometimes in a barouche, a four-wheel carriage with a folding top. One morning he passed the poet and volunteer nurse Walt Whitman near Vermont Avenue and L Street, and the two exchanged bows of greeting. Another day, a rifle shot zinged past as Lincoln approached the home. After that, a cavalry escort clattered alongside with drawn sabers to protect him.

The Soldiers’ Home was more than a sanctuary from the heat of the city. There the President also got away from the stream of politicians, job seekers, and sightseers who jammed the corridors of the White House. But there was no escaping the reality of war. In the military cemetery steps away, workmen were burying rows of Union troops who died in battles in Virginia and hospitals in the District; when 8,000 graves filled those acres, Lincoln agreed to create another cemetery, on Robert E. Lee’s Arlington plantation across the river.

At the Soldiers’ Home, Lincoln labored over drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation. Aside from the White House itself, the Soldiers’ Home is the most significant site directly linked to Lincoln as president. After its historical importance was ignored for generations, it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974 and designated a National Monument in 2000. In a seven-year project completed last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has restored the house and its surroundings. The trust now operates it as the Lincoln Cottage, a site open to the public, and plans to establish there a Center for the Study of the Lincoln Presidency.

Death Among the Inventions

When the Civil War began, the Greek Revival building that now houses the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum was nearly 30 years old but still incomplete. It was serving not only its original purpose as the US Patent Office but as home to the Agriculture Department, the national archives, and a trove of historical relics that became the nucleus of the Smithsonian collection. Among the contraptions on display was a model of a riverboat fitted with inflatable pontoons for passing over sandbars, for which patent number 6469 was awarded in 1849 to an ex-flatboatman and ex-congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

When soldiers became cannon fodder in the 1860s, Lincoln came to know the Patent Office as one of the dozens of area churches, schools, hotels, and other buildings, including the Capitol, that were turned into hospitals. Walt Whitman wrote of how otherworldly it must have seemed to patients opening their eyes between long rows of fantastic inventions—“strange, solemn, and with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight . . . especially at night when lit up. . . . The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above . . . .”


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