1860s

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]."

The First Treasury Girls

 Female clerks leaving the Treasury Department

Of all the Union government departments during the Civil War, the Treasury in particular was working overtime. In 1862, Congress passed the first Legal Tender Act, which gave the federal government the authority to issue currency. But with so many men off to war, who would make the money? Treasurer Frances E. Spinner took a note from the US Patent Office (which had a few female clerks) when he decided in 1862 to hire Jennie Douglas to trim money. Douglas would be the first of many young women to work for the government and, while most accepted them, these pioneers faced some unique challenges.

Civil War Alexandria's Knights of the Golden Circle

An alleged secret history of the Knights of the Golden Circle published in 1863

During the Union army's occupation of Alexandria from 1861 to1865, young Confederate ladies would have had no one around to drop a handkerchief for other than Union soldiers. Well, that wasn’t going to work, not when "the slight difference of color [between gray and blue] symbolized all the difference between heaven and hell." So what's the next resort? Obviously, forming a local branch of the secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle.

Death of Col. Ellsworth After hauling down the rebel flag, at the taking of Alexandria, Va., May 24th 1861

First Union Officer Killed in Civil War Was a Friend of Lincoln

Possibly the toughest part of being a President is having to send U.S. forces into combat, knowing that some of them will not return alive.  After the Civil War began in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had to face that terrible reality very quickly. On the morning of May 24, 1861, a personal friend of the President, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, became the first Union officer to be killed in the conflict in nearby Alexandria, Virginia.

 

Cipriano Ferrandini addresses other members of the Baltimore plot. Image orginally printed in From The Spy of the Rebellion, by Allan Pinkerton, 1883. (Source: Maryland State Archives)

The Thwarted Plot to Kill Lincoln on the Streets of Baltimore

Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency on November 6, 1860, was the catalyst for vehement anger in the South, where the wave of secession had already begun to stir. The anger at the president-elect became so great that several conspirators vowed he would never reach the capitol to be inaugurated.

By many accounts, Lincoln was aware but unmoved by the threats that rose around him in early 1861 as he prepared to relocate from his home in Springfield, Illinois to the White House. He planned a grand 2,000-mile whistle-stop tour that would take his train through seventy cities and towns on the way to his inauguration. He was sure to be greeted by thousands of well-wishers, but a more sinister element was also gathering.

Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C.

In December 1862, Walt Whitman was at his family's home in Brooklyn, New York when he read newspaper reports that "George Whitmore" of the 51st New York Infantry Regiment had been wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Walt and his family became concerned immediately. There was no one by the name of "George Whitmore" in the 51st New York. There was, however, a "George Whitman" — Walt's younger brother.

Kate Chase c. 1861 (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Kate Chase: Washington's 19th Century Supreme

In the second half of the 19th century, Kate Chase (1840-1899) was known the country over as the most beautiful and influential woman there ever was in Washington. She occupied the most powerful position in Washington society that a woman could hold, and held sway far beyond her gender. A National Tribune article from 1898, a year before her death, called her life the history of the Civil war itself, stating:

"No one woman had more to do with influencing the movements on the military and the political chessboard than she, and it was her influence largely that kept McClellan at the head of the military.”

In 1920, veterans of the Battle of Fort Stevens erected a stone marker paying tribute to President Lincoln's presence at the battle. (Photo source: National Park Service)

"Get down, you fool!": Lincoln's Scare at Fort Stevens

The only time a sitting U.S. President came under enemy fire happened right here in Washington -- at Fort Stevens -- when Confederates under Lt. Gen. Jubal Early advanced on the fort while President Lincoln was there.

Friend of the Blog and Tenleytown, D.C. native Jim Corbley recounts the harrowing incident -- which included some terse words for the President from his aide-de-camp, future Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes -- in this special guest post.

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