A skillful portrait of the nation’s capital as microcosm of a nation divided.
When newly elected President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington, D.C., writes Winkle (History/Univ. of Nebraska; Abraham and Mary Lincoln, 2011, etc.), he came to a city that had a strong reputation as what one British abolitionist called “the chief seat of the American slave-trade.” Indeed, slavery persisted there even when Lincoln took office, and when, in December 1861, a Massachusetts congressman proposed its abolition, the debate dragged on for months as “opponents raised a sweep of objections.” The Confederacy, well aware that slave owners and sympathizers were abundant in the capital, longed to seize Washington; by the end of the war, under Lincoln’s orders, it was probably the most heavily fortified city in the world, ringed by dozens of forts and artillery emplacements—and even so, the target of Rebel forays. Lincoln’s experiment in siege craft did not have to be applied to other cities, but he tested other innovations there, including the suspension of habeas corpus and the use of federal troops to maintain order. Moreover, Winkle notes in a particularly timely passage, concerns for Lincoln’s safety were so pressing that federal officials embarked on a secret, not strictly legal program of spying on presumed opponents, potential assassins and other conspirators. Lincoln’s years in the city coincided, necessarily, with the establishment of the great national cemetery at Arlington and other hallowed sites in the capital, while he himself established certain protocols, such as visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals, in which he might have laid eyes on Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman. By the end of the war, Lincoln and his lieutenants had converted Washington from a sleepy Southern town into one that was “increasingly northern in outlook and character.”
A deep-reaching study of a city in wartime, which Washingtonians and visitors, to say nothing of students of the Civil War, will find to be of great interest.