Interpretations

The essays in this section analyze the often unacknowledged changes in Washington's urban fabric during the Civil War. The editors hope that these essays assist users in the discovery of cross-disciplinary data collected from scattered print and electronic archives and that they invite scholarly communication and elaboration.

Essays

Washington, the Strategic Capital

Situated in the midst of the Eastern Theatre of war and sandwiched between two slave states, Washington, DC, held tremendous strategic, political, and moral significance for both the Union and the Confederacy. Strategically, Washington was the greatest military target and potential prize for Confederate armies, just as capturing Richmond remained the Union’s primary military goal throughout the war. Read more...

Washington, the Symbolic Capital

Surrounded by Confederate armies in Virginia and southern sympathizers in Maryland and lying just one hundred miles from the Confederate capital, Richmond, Civil War Washington was a beleaguered island of nationalism amid a sea of disunion.  At the outset of the war, the federal government’s hold on Washington was so precarious that Abraham Lincoln had to enter the city by night, wearing a disguise, to lay his claim to the contested presidency.  Soon, he arrested the mayor for disloyalty, declared martial law to keep the railroad running to Baltimore, and stood in the window of the White House watching as a Confederate flag waved in Alexandria just across the Potomac. During four years of war, Confederate armies threatened Washington repeatedly and, during the summer of 1864, actually attacked the city. By the end of the Civil War, however, Washington had emerged as the paramount symbol of national unity—as well as freedom and equality—that it remains to this day. Read more...

Washington, the Scientific Capital

America’s first scientific capital was Philadelphia, by virtue of its population, public spirit, and commercial orientation but also through the looming figure of Benjamin Franklin, who was renowned throughout Europe for his pioneering research on electricity. The American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Hospital, and the College of Philadelphia all cemented the city’s claim to scientific primacy by the time of the American Revolution. As the seat of the federal government from 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia also hosted the U.S. Mint, the Patent Office, and the U.S. Census. In 1800, however, the national capital moved to Washington, DC, which soon became a natural rival to Philadelphia for leadership in the blossoming world of American science. Read more...

Project Blog

For updates on research-in-progress and site development, see our blog, Dispatches from Civil War Washington.