News & Politics

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.

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.

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 . . . .”

Five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, the Lincolns went out for an evening at Ford’s Theatre. As they watched a comedy from the presidential box, John Wilkes Booth shot the President, leaped to the stage, and escaped. Lincoln died the next morning. Closed recently for renovations, the theater reopens this month. Photograph by Chris Leaman.

Rebels at the Door

The year that decided the war was 1864. By summer, Ulysses Grant had taken the Union army to the gates of Richmond, but on the way it had suffered about as many casualties as Lee had men in his army when the campaign began. After the battle of Cold Harbor, Lincoln went to Philadelphia to speak at a fundraising fair. “This war of ours, in its magnitude and in its duration, is one of the most terrible,” he said. “It has carried mourning to almost every home until it can almost be said, ‘The heavens are hung in black.’ ”

Upon return, he learned that an explosion at the US Arsenal, on the site of today’s Fort McNair, had burned 23 workers to death, most of them young Irish girls with such names as Bridget Dunn and Kate Branahan. Lincoln joined a procession of 150 carriages to their burial at Congressional Cemetery, where a monument to the arsenal victims now stands.

Less than a month later, the war was suddenly within earshot of the White House, only five miles away, within the District of Columbia for the first and only time. Confederate general Jubal Early had crossed the Potomac far upstream and swung down toward Washington. Probing the ring of forts defending the capital, he had deployed his army in front of Fort Stevens, out what is now Georgia Avenue, a mile within the District. Cannon roared as reserve troops, office clerks, and convalescent soldiers rushed to the barricades.

The President rode out to see what was happening. He climbed atop the fort’s earthen parapet as musket rounds flew past and stood there until, as John Hay wrote, a soldier told him to “get down or he would have his head knocked off.” The President descended but did the same thing the following day. As he stood tall in his stovepipe hat, a rebel sharpshooter’s bullet struck a military surgeon nearby. This time an officer reprimanded Lincoln, saying that if the President did not comply, he would order a squad to bring him down. Lincoln obeyed and replied, “You would do quite right, my boy.”

There at Fort Stevens, now partially restored and open to the public, Lincoln became the only American president to face enemy fire while in office. After a sharp clash, Jubal Early saw that reinforcements from Grant were arriving and withdrew. Before the year was out, Atlanta fell, Lincoln was reelected, and Grant squeezed Lee’s army outside Richmond.

Triumph—and Tragedy

On the first Sunday in April of 1865, news came that Grant had taken Richmond. The following day, Lincoln, who had been at Grant’s headquarters, walked the streets of the fallen Confederate capital to cheers from liberated slaves. On his return, he and Mrs. Lincoln rode to the White House together. She was uneasy. Looking about, she said the city was “full of enemies.” The President brushed the thought away. “Enemies,” he said. “Never again must we repeat that word.”

Late that evening, April 9, the long-awaited telegram came from Grant’s headquarters: Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House. At daybreak, a 500-gun salute shook the windows of Washington. The population swarmed into the streets, singing and waving banners.

On the evening of April 14, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre on Tenth Street to see Laura Keene in the popular comedy Our American Cousin. They invited several friends before young Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, agreed to join them. The four arrived late, and Keene briefly interrupted the show to greet them.

Looking down from the flag-draped presidential box, they were enjoying the repartee on stage when at about 10:15 the actor Harry Hawk ended a punch line with “you sockdolagizing old mantrap!” Amid the laughter, John Wilkes Booth, a sensational young actor and Southern zealot, aimed a pocket pistol from two feet behind the President and fired, striking Lincoln behind the left ear. Booth leaped from the presidential box onto the stage and limped out the theater’s rear door to a waiting horse. He escaped into southern Maryland, then crossed the Potomac into Virginia, where he was shot in a blazing barn 12 nights later.

Doctors in the theater carried Lincoln across the street to the home of a tailor. There they worked over him until, at 7:22 the next morning, his heart beat its last. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, among the many who had gathered, said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Ford’s Theatre, now a National Historic Site, is due to reopen after renovations on February 12, the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.

This article is from the February 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here