Sarah Pryor (1830-1912), the daughter of a wealthy Virginian family, lived in Washington from 1859 until the outbreak of the Civil War. In her memoirs written in 1909, she recounts the grand society of antebellum D.C. and the shift to war tensions.
Charles William Janson was an Englishman who lived in and wrote about America from 1793 to 1806. He published the account of his travels in 1807, in The Stranger in America. The following is what he had to say about what was then called “Washington City”...
Gouvernuer gives a snapshot of the capital in very distinct time of the city — still a young city and still immersed in that peculiar institution of slavery. This description, especially concerning the haphazard city planning, falls well in line with previous Impressions of Washington we've posted on the blog. She also gives an enlightening summary of the commercial life in Washington.
William Howard Russell (1820 – 1907) was a reporter for The Times of the UK and he is considered the first war correspondent. In 1861, this intrepid reporter was sent to our very own capital to cover the Civil War. He recorded his arrival in his diary, which was later published and remains available to see exactly what this Irishman thought of Washington. Spoiler alert, he quite liked it!
March 25, 1861
I looked out and saw a vast mass of white marble towering above us on the left, stretching out in colonnaded porticoes, and long flanks of windowed masonry, and surmounted by an unfinished cupola, from which scaffold and cranes raised their black arms. This was the Capitol. To the right was a cleared space of mud, sand, and fields, studded with wooden sheds and huts, beyond which, again, could be seen rudimentary streets of small red brick houses, and some church-spires above them.
Frances Few, of a prominent New York family, spent the winter of 1808-1809 in Washington, D.C. with her aunt. She had a lot to say! Initially, Few was very pleased with the city and its parties. But as the 19-year-old’s stay wore on, she was decidedly less impressed with the city and its politics.
As you might remember from Nathanial Hawthorne’s impressions of Washington, the D.C. area was full of soldiers during the Civil War. Luckily for us, we can actually read an account from one of the soldiers thanks to the diary of Maximilian Hartman. A German tailor, Hartman immigrated to the U.S. to live with his brother in Pennsylvania. In 1861, both brothers joined up with the Union Army and headed south, eventually being stationed in Washington.
While many others from the time period had lambasted the capital city as a backwater, Hartman was quite impressed.
In 1873, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published their novel The Gilded Age, both as a parody of contemporary popular novels and to criticize political and economic corruption. In chapter 24, Twain and Warner take the reader on a virtual tour of the nation’s capital. They didn't paint a pretty picture.
You are assailed by a long rank of hackmen, who shake their whips in your face as you step out upon the sidewalk; you enter what they regard as a “carriage” in the capital, and you wonder why they do not take it out of service and put it in the museum. You reach your hotel presently- of course you have gone to the wrong one. There are a hundred and eighteen bad hotels, and only one good one. The most renowned and popular hotel of them all is perhaps the worst one known to history.
The city at large ... is a wide stretch of cheap little brick houses, with here and there a noble architectural pile lifting itself out of the midst- government buildings, these. ... You will wonder at the shortsightedness of the city fathers, when you come to inspect the streets, in that they do not dilute the mud a little more and use them for canals.
When Abigail Adams came to Washington, D.C. on November 16, 1800, she arrived at an infant city, sparse and not fully formed. Having just left the comforts of old Philadelphia, this must have been quite a shock. To make matters worse, her trip south had seen been rough. So, it’s safe to assume that she was in an irritable mood when she finally made it to D.C.
We should probably keep that in mind while reading her appraisal of the city because she was pretty harsh. The First Lady called the capital ‘a city only in name,’ and pulled no punches in her description of Georgetown.
With the Fourth of July festivities just around the corner, area residents are preparing for the merriment in all sorts of ways.
What is your pleasure? Grilling out at Gravelly Point? A backyard gathering with family and friends? Braving the crowds on the National Mall to watch the fireworks? Or maybe you are more of the stay-at-home type. If so, we recommend watching the A Capitol Fourth concert on WETA Television. We hear it’s really good.
Well, 150 years ago, there weren’t so many options but Washingtonians still put on quite a celebration for the nation’s birthday.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, visited Washington, D.C. in 1862, as the Capital was gearing up for war against the Confederacy. If you remember Hawthorne at all from school, you won’t be surprised to find he had a lot to say.
He was particularly taken by the artist Emmanuel Leutze's painting "Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way" in the U.S. Capitol and lamented what might happen to the work and the nation should the Union lose the war.