1860s

A General, a Queen, and the President

Tom Thumb, -1883, with wife in wedding costume., 1863. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2005685454/.

February of 1863 saw one of the most anticipated celebrity weddings of its time—after all, what better to provide a momentary distraction from the realities of the Civil War than a little star gossip? The bride and groom were General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) and the Queen of Beauty Lavinia Warren, of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum (which would later become Barnum’s Circus) in New York City. At 12:30 p.m. on February 10, 1863 in Manhattan’s Grace Episcopal Church, Tom and Lavinia wed in the presence of an enormous crowd, which spilled out onto Broadway and for many more miles into the City, thanks to Barnum’s extensive publicizing of the event. People across America were fascinated by Barnum’s Tom Thumb and the President of the United States was no exception. The Lincolns were so enthralled by Barnum’s acts that they invited the newlywed Strattons to the White House for a wedding reception just a few days later.

Print shows a hen with three chicks in a farmyard.

Fowl Play in Washington: the City’s History of Chicken Thievery

Washington has seen its fair share of crimes: mafia operations, drug networks, triple murder… But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one of the city’s most pervasive crimes was one we today might find difficult to imagine: chicken thievery. In today’s urban landscape, the phenomenon may seem difficult to imagine; but 150 years ago chicken robbery was widespread -- and serious business. The practice was dangerous and, at times, even fatal.

Portrait of Alexander Gardner with a camera, taken around 1860

A Tale of Two Photographers: Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner

If you lived in nineteenth-century D.C. and wanted your picture taken, you couldn’t just whip out your own camera—you’d visit Pennsylvania Avenue NW, known locally as “photographer’s row.” This stretch of the avenue, between the White House and the nearly-finished Capitol building, was home to a cluster of photography studios and galleries. Between 1858 and 1881, the most fashionable and famous was Brady’s National Photographic Art Gallery. It was run by Mathew Brady and his manager, Alexander Gardner, whose partnership endured its own civil war. 

The Deal Done in the Dark

"Signing of the Alaska Treaty," a famous painting by Emanuel Leutze, depicts Seward and Stoeckl negotiating the Alaska purchase in the State Department on March 30, 1867.

In 1866, State Department employees were forced out of their old offices in the Northeast Executive Building because an extension to the Treasury Department was being constructed on that site. As a result, they moved into the Washington City Orphan Asylum, a small and unassuming brick building on the corner of 14th and S streets NW. Though the move was less than ideal, the walls of the new State Department would soon see major historical and diplomatic events unfold. One sleepless night in particular occurred on March 30, 1867: when Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the Alaska purchase.

How Les Misérables Became Lee's Miserables

Cover page from West & Johnston translation of Les Miserables, which was distributed to Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. (Source: Hathi Trust)

When Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables was published in the spring of 1862, it took the world by storm. Within weeks, American audiences began devouring a five-volume translation by renowned classicist Charles E. Wilbour. As the Civil War raged, soldiers on both sides of the lines gobbled up copies and carried them into battle. But here's the thing: Confederate soldiers weren't actually reading the same book as their Northern adversaries, and that was by design.

Lansburgh Corners the Market on Black Crêpe

“Lansburgh's Department Store - Washington DC - Adolf Cluss” (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lansburgh%27s_Department_Store_-_Washington_DC_-_Adolf_Cluss.jpg

April 14th, 1865 marks the date of one of the most shocking and memorable events in Washington and American history: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By 10:30 p.m. that night, the President’s death was looking imminent, and after hearing this news just two blocks over at 7th and D Streets NW, Gustave Lansburgh, owner of Lansburgh & Bros. Fancy Goods Agency, decided to start decorating his store in mourning black. It was this small decision that would transform Lansburgh’s dry goods store into one of the most prosperous Washington department stores for the next 113 years.

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth's Abduction Plot Gone Wrong

The story is well known: on April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln died the next morning in a boarding house across from the theater. Booth escaped – temporarily -- but was shot 12 days later in Virginia. 

What is lesser known is that Booth did not always plan on killing Lincoln. In fact, the actor’s original plan was not to strike a fatal blow. He wanted to abduct Lincoln, take him to Richmond and exchange him for Confederate soldiers then held in Union prisons.

Judith McGuire (Source: FindAGrave.com)

Civil War Alexandria Through the Eyes of Judith Brockenbrough McGuire

When the Civil War began looming on the horizon, Judith Brockenbrough McGuire (1813-1897) was the wealthy wife of a prominent citizen in Alexandria, and like many on both sides of the conflict, she believed in a speedy and perhaps even non-violent end to the conflict. In the days leading up to the war, McGuire recorded in her diary the increasingly depressing landscape of Alexandria. Give it a read and take a step back in time!

George Alfred Townsend in 1899. (Source: Wikipedia)

"Some of the noblest residences in Alexandria had been desecrated to licentious purposes."

One of the most remembered war correspondents was also the youngest reporter in the Civil War, George Alfred Townsend. Born in 1841, Townsend’s reports on the Battle of Five Forks and the Lincoln assassination gained him wide recognition, but before he had the chance to write those, Townsend visited the occupied city of Alexandria. Among his observations: "It would not accord with the chaste pages of this narrative to tell how some of the noblest residences in Alexandria had been desecrated to licentious purposes; now how, by night, the parlors of cosey homes flamed with riot and orgie [sic]."

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