Civil War: A Local Perspective

Apr 12, 2011

In April 1861 at the start of the war, the D.C. area was a hub of activity. Virginia militia was gathering in Arlington Heights - a prime location since it overlooked the Capitol. Petworth was still farmland with Union encampments springing up nearby. Construction was beginning on the ring of forts that would soon surround the city. Lincoln's cottage retreat -- the precursor to Camp David -- was nearby at the Old Soldiers' Home. And 16th Street didn't exist yet; the main road around town was Georgia Ave.

Join Garry Adelman from the Civil War Trust and Post Civil War experts Gene Thorp and Fritz Hahn as they discuss the Civil War as it unfolded in the Washington area.

More Civil War coverage

I sit just steps away from the General George H. Thomas Memorial in DC as I type. Thank you all for coming. Let's chat about the Civil War in DC, MD, and VA! 

Good afternoon everyone. I am happy to see so many good questions and am looking forward to answering as many with my colleagues as I can. First though, I need to wish my wife and my mother a happy birthday today. I guess I was born to be a Civil War buff.

I was surprised to learn the amount of time Lincoln spent at the Old Soldiers' Home. I wonder how spending time in the midst of veterans affected his thoughts about the war.

From what I have read, this was simply a natural thing for him to do. Anything else would have been foreign to Lincoln. He and his wife were closely involved with soldier care throughout the war, and very often without any press... 

Instead of targeting Fort Stevens, why didn't Jubal Early try to wraparound his forces and approach Washington from another direction?

Early's plan was multi faceted and among other things, he didn't want to attack in the obvious places--from the south of west. After all, who woudl expect the Southern army to attack from the north? Of the weakly manned DC defenses, those to the north were more vulbnerable than others. Early's reconnaissance proved this (at least the day before the battle!)  Also, Early hoped to meet a naval force at Point Lookout, Maryland, where he could liberate and arm thousands of Confederate troops. The path he took would have put him in position to do this. 

It's also important to note the Early wasn't "targeting" Fort Stevens in advance. In fact, on the morning on July 11, 1864, Early had scouts probing all along Washington's northernmost defenses, from Fort Reno (which guarded the important roads to Georgetown) out to Fort Lincoln. In the great "Mr. Lincoln's Forts," the authors write that Fort Reno was originally scouted as the site of Early's main attack, but its stout defenses (including a number of howitzers) made Early's scouts head further east, towards Fort Stevens.

I am a WDC tour guide. When at Arlington Cemetery, I only have a short amount of time to share important facts w/ the tourists. If I have less than 10 minutes to explain how WDC was affected by the Civil War, what would be the most important topics to share?

In ten minutes I would hit on the composition of the city and Georgetown in 1861, the dynamics of the government breaking in twain, the absolute insecurity that shook the capital as it awaited Union soliders, the squalor of the city as it housed the troops who arrived,  DC's transformation during the war into not only a free and heavily fortified city but into a city of consequence. All this and more is in Furgurson's Freedom Rising book. Read that and you'll be more than ready. Make sure you also learn about U.S. General Winfield Scott's threat to Virginia politicians that he would manure the grounds of Arlington with their remains if they tried to disrupt the 1861 inauguration. 

How extensive and effective was Confederate spying in DC prior and during the Civil War? Did a spy network exist? Is so, was it able to obtain compromising information and relay it to the Confederate government?

Excellent question! I think a bunch of work can still be done on this topic as I don't think we know enough about this yet but there is no doubt that in early 1861 numerous people were passing information Southward, many of whom were policians who had not yet resigned.  A questionable account suggests that Confederate President Jefferson Davis credited the noted spy Rose Greenhow with averting disaster at the Battle of Bull Run.  Ernest B. Furgurson's Freedom Rising gives a great general account of some of this, which is also my recommendation as the best Civil War Washington narrative. 

With all the development in DC and the surrounding area, are there any battlefields left to preserve?

Oh, my yes! While it is heartbreaking to see how much battlefield land has been lost, there are literally thousands of threatened acres to be preserved, even at some of the best-known area battlefields: Fredericksburg, Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg and more. See for more information. 

In toto, and discounting the federal activties here, were Washingtonians more sympathetic to the Union or Confederate cause on the eve of the war.

To many, Washington on the eve of the Civil War was a "Southern City." And many further believed that Washington could become the capital of the Confederacy. If I had to venture a guess, in toto, I would place Washington in the late winter of 1861 as teetering Southward. The more I've read about it, the more amazed I am, as was much of the populace, that Lincoln was even inaugurated in such an environment. After all, the then-vice president, John C. Breckinridge, soon to be a Confederate general, was essentially responsible for certifying Lincon's election!  

What was Olney like during the Civil War and what was the closest the area came to seeing some actual fighting?

Like many other places in the D.C. area, Olney went under a different name during the Civil War. Back then it was called Mechanicsville, and the small hamlet that is now Wheaton was called Lessborough. There actually was a good deal of Civil War activity in your area even though it was well north of the Potomac. During the Antietam Campaign in September of 1862 both Burnside's Union IX Corps - which would fight at Burnside's Bridge, and Hooker's I Corps - that fought in the Cornfield - passed through the town. In June of 1863, IStuart's cavalry moved through the area with wagon train he had captured at Rockville while trying to link up with Lee near Gettysburg.

There was a question up a moment ago about the Baltimore militia and why I had them displayed as neutral in the Post’s timeline when their leadership was heavy on the pro-secession side. It’s a great question and indeed, the leaders of the Baltimore militia were very much pro-south. However, there were many officers and soldiers in the ranks of that same militia that would lead Union troops. Before the riot, reports in the Baltimore newspapers show very strong support of the Union on the streets. There were frequent clashes between pro-Union and secessionist residents in the week after Fort Sumter. Immediately after the Pratt Street Riots, (April 19, 1861) there was a great deal of confusion as to what had actually happened. It seems that many did not know that the 6th Massachusetts soldiers had been attacked by mob instead of the other way around. The militia was called out after the riots to keep the peace. From what I have read, mostly newspapers and diaries, it seems that the militia was only ready to stop more troops from moving through the town but not anything more, despite what their leaders may have hoped.

With the closing of Walter Reed, will any attempt be made to create a viewscape from Fort Stevens to the monument on the Hospital grounds marking the tree from which shots at Lincoln were fired?

If you're an optimist, as I am, there's actually more than that afoot in light of the Walter Reed closing. Local groups are trying to tie together via trail many of the DC Circle Forts as well as endeavoring to enhance interpretation, viewshed and preservation. 

What other states saw battles on their soil?

It depends what you call a "battle" but at least sixteen of them. All the way up the coast from Florida to Pennsylvania and all those states westward to Texas and even Arizona. Most Northern states were spared actual battles but sabotage and other actions, affected them as well. 

Could you please discuss the role of Stafford County, Virginia in the Civil War? I'm from Michigan originally, and it still amazes me that our little "Yankee" county is anathema to some of the folks in the Fredericksburg area! The War Between the States is alive and well, from what I can tell!

Stafford County saw a great deal of activity during the war. In 1861 Confederates established batteries on the shores of the Potomac to interrupt shipping. From 1862 on, Aquia Creek was a major supply depot for the North in its Campaigns against Lee. Massive Union camps lined the heights overlooking the Rappahannock. I find it interesting though that there was far more activity along the Southern and Eastern part of the county because transportation routes back then were so different than they are now. Comparatively little happened along the northern part of the I-95 corridor where the main road (US 1) was rough and there were few people.

I've read and heard many times that a large Confederate flag raised in Alexandria in April of 1861 (over the Marshall House) could be seen from DC and perhaps even the White House. I was wondering if that was true. This was the flag that Col. Elmer Ellsworth was killed for tearing down during the Federal invasion on May 24, 1861. Thanks! - Jeremy, Ashburn

You can actually see a large piece of the flag that flew over the Marshall House hotel at the Fort Ward Museum, where there is an exhibit about Ellsworth. (It's one of the white stars, and is visibly stained with Ellsworth's blood.)

The flag itself was about 25 feet by 14 feet, which was huge for the time. The Marshall House -- now the Hotel Monaco -- is about six-and-a-half miles away from the White House, so I'm sure you could see it through a spyglass or something similar, but probably not with the naked eye.

What are some of the Civil War sites I can visit in the Germantown or Frederick, MD area? I'm pretty sure that the Museum of Civil War Medicine is in or near Frederick. Are there any battle sites up that way that you would recommend visiting? Thanks!

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick is grimly fascinating if you're into amputations and field hospitals -- and like big rusty-looking saws.

I'm a fan of the battlefield at Monocacy. There are multiple walking trails (with interpretive markers) that explain this key 1864 battle, which probably prevented Early from taking Washington by allowing Grant enough time to send men from the frontlines Port Republic to Washington by steamers.

If you're around the last weekend in April, there's a whole program of events based around the question of Maryland's sucession. You can find the full list on the NPS site for Monocacy.

To the list above, I would add, slightly farther afield, the South Mountain Battlefield (and War Correspondents' Memorial Arch) at Gapland as well as Harper's Ferry, just a jaunt down US 340.  There are numerous Civil War Trails signs with information all over the area at Poolesville, Jefferson, Point of Rocks, Brunswick, and more. 

Where would be the most likely place for an African American man living in Washington, D.C. to muster in during the Civil War? Cortez Austin

Wow, that's a great question, to which I do not have an exact answer for. However, I know that in 1862 there was a large Camp for slaves that had fled into northern lines at the base of Arlington Heights, near where the Key Bridge is now. Recruiter may have gone there to enlist men, but most likely there were several locations throughout the city.

That is a great question and I don't have a definitive answer either. I know that US Colored troops were mustered in Baltimore and environs and I have seen troops mustered in DC, but I cannot find where. 

I grew up on Rock Creek Church Road which intersects with Georgia Ave. It also passes Soldiers Home. I believe in Civil War times or even earlier this street was simply called "The Road to Church" referring to the Epicopal church that is very close to Soldier's Home. Is this true? Cortez Austin

I have a detailed map of the D.C. area in 1856-1859 which shows the area that you are writing about and the Rock Creek Church Road is labeled on that map. (Although Georgia Avenue is labeled the Seventh Street Turnpike) However, I would not be surprised if the locals of the time still called it "The Road to Church" Naming conventions back then were very loose.

I have noticed that little (in my opinion) has been written of the attempt to assassinate President Lincoln while he was horseback riding near Soldiers Home. I think that is a part of the DC history that needs to be recognized.

Agreed. The story goes that Lincoln was riding back to the Soliders' Home one night (alone, as he hated guards) when there was a shot from the darkness that knocked his hat off. They'll tell you all about it if you take a tour of Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers Home.

There were constant threats against Lincoln's life, dating back to before his inaguration, but Lincoln didn't seem to care. He would walk around at night, by himself, from the White House to the War Office or the Army Headquarters. Very strange (and lucky) when you think about how things could have gone.

I would again point to Furgurson's book but also to Matt Pinsker's study of the Lincon Cottage for more information. 

Was the Third Maine Regiment ever stationed near DC? Alan

I strongly feel that they spent the winter of 1861-62 in the area when they were in Heintzelman's Division in the Army of the Potomac. I don't know which camp or fort off the top of my head. 

Why did Lincoln & Congress pass bill freeing slaves in D.C. and paying compensation to Union supporting slave owners? Did this win over any slave owners? Did this help the freed slaves in any way?

If you go back to January 1849, when Lincoln was just a Congressman, you'll find that he proposed a bill for the emancipation of all slaves in Washington D.C., with owners receiving compensation  "at [the slave's] full cash value."

The D.C. Emancipation Act, which came out of Congress in April 1862, freed thousands of slaves in D.C. and paid their owners roughly $300 each for them. (It also provided $100 for the slave if they wanted to resettle in Haiti or Liberia.)

From the primary sources I've seen, including letters from senators to Lincoln after the D.C. bill was enacted, it didn't spread outside the capital because there was great concern that compensating slave owners while also trying to pay for the war would bankrupt the treasury.

And, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln issued a few months after the D.C. act passed, made the idea of compensating Southern slaveholders moot.

Did President Lincoln want to end slavery, so other countries would consider the US as equal. Greg Little

I would say no. Lincoln opposed slavery but proclaimed he had no desire, nor right, to free slaves just for the sake of doing so. His application of selective emancipation bears out that he was willing to free some, none or all, depending on the circumstances created by the war. His aim, and the structure around which he freed to slaves, was to preserve or restore the Union. Having said that, he knew that at least Britain and France would have trouble siding with the South after Lincoln made emancipation as war aim. 

Are there any new additions to battlefield interpretation to know about?

All the time, happily. The numbers of new, enhanced or improved CiviL War sites is too many to list. I look very forward to the opening at the new location fo the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum. On the battlefields front, the Civil War Trust will open it's 1.5 mile long interpretive trail at Mine Run: Payne's Farm Battlefield near Chancellorsville, VA. 

My relatives from that era lived in Stafford Co. and Prince William Co., Virginia. My grandmother told me that her parents and my grandfather's parents came to live in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. I would like to know what records I might search to find out if they really were here?

That's a tough one as if they moved during the war, they most likley would not be in DC for the 1860 census. Your best bet is to find out if one was a soldier. If they were and if there was a pension applicatiojn involved, you can use resources at, or to learn more. This woudl onljy work if he fought for the Union. If so, the actual pension records woudl include residential information.   ONe more thought is if they owned a business or were in trade, they may be listed in the DC city directories available at the DC Public Library downtown.  

At the start of the Civil War in DC, was Arlington already a county within the Commonwealth of Virginia? Also, when did the Federal Government decide to use Robert E. Lee's estate to use as a cemetary?

First question first: It became Alexandria County after the great retrocession of Arlington and Alexandria in 1847.

The Federal Government seized Arlington House in 1863 over unpaid taxes, which was slightly unfair -- can't say I could see the Lees coming in person to pay the estate's taxes, and in fact, the Lees' sons sued over this (and won compensation) after the war. However, the house and had been occupied by the Union Army as early as May 1861, with a village for freed slaves springing up in 1863.

But it didn't become a cemetery until 1864, when the cemeteries at the Soldiers Home and other sites around D.C. became full.

Garry, what would you recommend as the best civil war themed day trip from Washington, DC? And should one do a guided tour or self-guided? Thanks!

That's a tough one and I will get skewered no matter what I say. I'll start with "it depends." If you are rather new to the Civil War and its battlefields, I would recommend going to Gettysburg and securing a Licensed Battlefield Guide for a 2 hour tour. You'll not only quickly learn about the war's greatest battle, but the guide will answer your most burning questions--how were battles fought, why did troops seem to fight in that stupid way, how to fire a cannon, what happened to the prisoners, the dead, the wounded, etc...   If you are more experienced or well read, I would recommend trips to Manassas, Antietam and if you get up early to the incredible sites around Fredericksburg. No matter how much you have read, I strongly suggest you make use of NPS ranger programs. In general, they really know their stuff.   (warning: promo coming up...) The Civil War Trust will next month release its Civil War 150 book--an essenital to do list during the 150th anniversary and there are lots of DC area things to do. 

First, birthday wishes to Mr. Thorp's mom and wife! I'd appreciate any suggestions on introducing the Civil War to kids. Last summer, we took them to the Fredericksburg Battlefield. My youngest was enthralled with the park ranger's talk. In my case, I have boys, ages 11 and 9.

Thanks for the wishes! I think for kids, it depends on what interest they already have in the topic. I dragged my parents to battlefields throughout the area and could not get enough. My kids however are not me. I have been taking them to the battlefield parks around here - Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas, etc, -  since they were born but I have not pushed the topic at all. The trips have been more about spending time outside. However, more recently, as they have been getting older, questions have started to pop up about what all the cannons and monuments are about. I guess I would just say let them be curious about it. Take them to the parks and see what sticks. My daughter doesn't mind going to Antietam because she knows there is a great ice cream place in town and a cool playground there too. Good luck!

Are there any Civil War cartography displays currently on exhibit in the area?

That is a great question. I don't know of any at this moment, but one fantastic place to go online is the Library of Congress. They have an amazing collection which can be found at:


Who was better - Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote?

Catton by two lengths, in my opinion. Equal writing, fewer inacuracies. 

To revisit the question regarding Early's intentions, I would surmise that releasing Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout was a pipe dream. The Union controlled the waterways, and prisoners would have been a literal grindstone around Old Jube's neck. He did not have the resources, naval, quartermaster, or otherwise to even attempt to free the POWs. Plus, the further east and south he got, the greater the risk of being penned in.

I have to say, from what I've read about Early, that I agree with you for exactly the same reason -- the idea that he could free all the prisoners at Camp Lookout and then fight his way back to the Valley on land beggars belief, especially when you consider how quickly Grant was able to get the Sixth Corps up to Washington to fight in the battle for Fort Stevens, and how easy it would be to crush Early and (presumably not well-armed) thousands of POWs.

Agreed, agreed. Pipe dream or not, however, it was on his mind... 

I have a host of Union Civil War ancestors, all from Maine. My great-great-grandfather was with the 6th Maine, his 3 brothers with the First Maine Heavy Artillery, his two cousins with the 16th Maine, and his uncle with the 20th Maine. All were officers. All but one was wounded; one brother and both cousins died from their wounds. My great-great-grandfather received a Medal of Honor for his actions during the Chancellorsville Campaign. Luckily for my family, he left behind his detailed Civil War diaries, as well as over 100 letters that he wrote my (future) great-great-grandmother. These provide many interesting insights both into the War and into the life of a soldier. Researching my Civil War ancestors has been a fascinating hobby, and the fact that they spent so much time in the immediate area really helps me to connect to them and imagine what their experience was like. I just want to encourage others to research their Civil War ancestors; it's worth checking to see if any male ancestors of service age during that time served. There is so much more information readily available now that it has become much easier to do so in recent years. You may even find that your ancestor traveled much of the same terrain that you do every day! For a question... What would you consider to be the local "must see" Civil War "thing" (site, artifact, etc.) that we are least likely to already know about?

For my money, the White Oak Civil War Museum in Stafford County, VA, just east of Fredericksburg. It is little known, but has more Civil War artifacts on display, if you're into that sort of thing, than any other museum. Literally hundreds of thousands of bullets, buckles, bayonets, slave ID tags,--every single thing a soldier used.  It's a real hidden gem.  There are score more hidden gems that I hope see more light of day across the country (Camp Nelson in Kentucky, for one!)  

I'm going to take the opposite tack and say the Battleground National Cemetery on Georgia Avenue, just because I think that it's so forgotten.

It's the final resting place of 40 Union soldiers killed in the battle of Fort Stevens (and one veteran who chose to be buried there after he died in the 1930s). There are monuments to the four volunteer companies who fought in the battle, too. (One of them, dedicated to the 25th New York Calvary, was on the cover of the Weekend Section last Friday.)

It's just an incredibly special little place, only one acre in size, shoehorned into a busy stretch of Georgia Avenue just south of Walter Reed.

Both of the suggestions already made are great. I'm a railroad buff too so I am going to suggest the Thomas Viaduct in Patapsco State Park. Almost all Union troops in the Eastern theatre had to pass over it and the bridge is still in use by CSX today.

This has abeen a great way to spend some time on this start of the 150th annivesary! Thanks for so many great questions and remember to support battlefield preservation!  (and thanks, too for putting up with my many typos!)    Garry 

Well, it has been a very good session. I wish I had time to answer more questions, but daily maps await. Looking forward to doing this again!

How would you get a child interested in the Civil War? Living in bucolic Carroll County, my son (for some reason) is enamored with the Middle Ages, but he doesn't think the Civil War is important. Any advice?

Perhaps before the necessary battlefield visit (which have all manner of cool things for kids to do), depending on his age, perhaps he or she could hold a CiviL War bullet, see the movie Glory, eat a piece of Hardtack, view Civil War photos in 3D, go to Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg, VA. A host of options. In my experience, there are scores of "windows" into historical periods and you just need to find which one is right. Don't push it too hard, though, IMHO--they'll head the other direction! 

See for all manner of teacher resorces that include activities you can do at home that might inspire! 

When I was growing up (pre-Internet age), I got hooked by a combination of reading, battlefield visits and museums. If you can find a time to take him to, say, Fort Ward when they're hosting an artillery display or something that involves guns and cannons, that's usually a sure-fire option. The Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick is cool in a "that's so GROSS" kind of way.

But I agree that the battlefield visits are key, especially if you can make it at a time when there's something going on. If your son's not really into the Civil War yet, big empty fields dotted with fences and replica cannons might not do it for him. Getting to see how people lived, what they ate, give him a chance to see the guns and the uniforms up close.

I'm also curious about an upcoming exhibit about Civil War Spies at the Spy Museum -- could be the thing to kickstart some interest in those who are bored by the focus on generals.

Oh, and my favorite Civil War book for kids (or the one I remember reading at least a few times at that age) was Jean Fritz's "Stonewall." Fantastic.

Thanks for all the great questions. If you have any more D.C.-centric queries about Civil War events and activities, feel free to submit them during the regular Got Plans? discussion at 1 p.m. Thursday.

In This Chat
Garry Adelman
Director of History and Education for the Civil War Trust, Garry Adelman earned his B.A. in business from Michigan State University and his M.A. in history at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, co-author or editor of Antietam: Then & Now (2005), The Myth of Little Round Top (2003), The Early Gettysburg Battlefield (2001), Little Round Top: A Detailed Tour Guide (2000), and the award-winning Devil's Den: A History and Guide (1997) as well as eight Civil War image booklets. He has two more books coming out this spring. He has published articles in The Gettysburg Magazine and Hallowed Ground and conceived and drafted the text for wayside exhibits at the Third Winchester, First Day at Chancellorsville, Mine Run and Slaughter Pen Farm battlefields. A frequent lecturer at Civil War Round Tables, he has also appeared as a speaker on HISTORY, C-Span, and Pennsylvania Cable Network. He is the vice president of the Center for Civil War Photography and is a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg.
Fritz Hahn
Fritz Hahn is the Weekend Section's Bars and Clubs reporter, and also the author of the Weekend Section's recent guide to Civil War sites in Washington D.C. He grew up in P.G. County and fell in love with history at an early age. (His parents probably took him to every Civil War battlefield between Petersburg and Gettysburg at least once.) American History was his specialty on quiz teams from middle school through college, and still his favorite subject at pub quizzes. He loves Washington D.C. and reading histories of the Civil War; a dust-jacketed first edition of Margaret Leech's "Reveille in Washington" is among his favorite possessions.
Gene Thorp
Gene Thorp is an award winning Washington Post Cartographer. He has been a student of the American Civil War since childhood and has reenacted, volunteered for the National Park Service and worked as a designer and cartographer for the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, now the Civil War Trust. Thorp is an advisor and researcher for the Post's anniversary commemoration of the Civil War. His newest interactives, Battles and Casualties of the Civil War and Fury Unleashed can be found here.
Recent Chats
  • Next: