Gaslight shone from the windows of the Capitol. The old mahogany clock outside the Senate chamber ticked past midnight on March 4, 1861, as one of the most momentous days in America’s history—and in Washington’s—began.
Through the small hours of the night, the lawmakers argued, fulminated, cajoled. For years, this building had been the scene of mounting rancor: hailstorms of invective, showers of vitriol. Northerners had excoriated Southern “slave drivers”; Southerners had blasted Northern abolitionists. Legislative debates had degenerated into fistfights; senators had brandished revolvers on the floor.
But tonight was unprecedented. For the first time in history, the Senate had convened on a Sunday. Legislators reasoned that the Lord cared more about preserving the Union than about keeping the Sabbath. The body’s senior member, one of its last remaining moderates, rose to address his colleagues. “We are about to adjourn,” he said, hoarse with despair. “We have done nothing. Even the Senate of the United States, beholding this great ruin around them, beholding dismemberment and revolution going on, and civil war threatened as the result, have been able to do nothing; we have done absolutely nothing.”
Every person in the room knew that within a few hours, the moment would come that would almost certainly pitch the nation over the precipice. At noon, a dangerous and unfamiliar politician from Illinois—a man who had not even set foot in Washington for the past decade—would stand just a few yards away, on the east portico, and take the oath of office as 16th President of the United States. Already half the South had seceded in protest, and the rest seemed likely to follow. Whatever happened afterward, the country would never be the same.
Nor would its capital. The Civil War would change Washington more than any other event in its history. In 1861, Washington was like some third-world capitals today: an overgrown village in which the national government just happened to hold sway and a place where luxury hotels stood amid slums and open sewers. Charles Dickens had called it a “city of magnificent intentions.” Now, for the first time, the reality would start to match the dreams. And a capital built on—in fact built by—slavery would begin to embrace freedom.
The morning of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration marked the dawn of a new Washington.