- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

In 1942, Margaret Leech won the Pulitzer Prize in history for her classic narrative of the District in the Civil War years, “Reveille in Washington.” Her opening words — “The general is older than the capital” — did more than describe Gen. Winfield Scott; they engaged the reader in a way that few books do.

The excellence of “Reveille in Washington” served to intimidate historians for decades, but no longer. Ernest B. Furgurson, a onetime reporter for the Baltimore Sun who has written extensively about the Civil War, has again told the story of the war from the Washington perspective, and the result is another fine book, “Freedom Rising.”

Mr. Furgurson takes the reader through the uneasy months in 1861 when Washington was riddled with secessionist residents and all but undefended against a Confederate assault. He tells the little-known story of Col. Charles P. Stone, who rallied the D.C. militia but later ran afoul of some powers in Congress and was for a time imprisoned without charge.

The war served to divide virtually every segment of Washington society. Churches split into pro-Union and pro-Confederate factions. One congregation reached a point where members were “knocking one another down in the aisles, calling each other ‘liars’ and ‘blackguards’ &c; &c.;”

Civil rights were an early casualty in the Lincoln administration. As Mr. Furgurson points out, “Arresting citizens who talked and editors who wrote too freely was just the beginning; soon the government was shutting down newspapers that it deemed helpful to the enemy.”

The government was expanding and spending money as never before, and there seemed to be corruption everywhere. The Treasury was a hotbed of political patronage and more. According to one observer, “The Treasury has been converted into the most extensive Whorehouse in the nation. … At least 30 members of Congress have their women in [the Treasury] department.”

For much of the war, Lincoln sought in vain for a general with the aggressiveness and skill to take on Gen. Robert E. Lee. For a time, Gen. George B. McClellan appeared to be that man, and Mr. Furgurson draws a memorable portrait:

“[McClellan] seemed meant for command: smart, stocky, of middle height, his dark hair and mustache glossy with health, his practiced pose pleading for reproduction in bronze and marble. … When McClellan was not at his desk studying and planning, he was riding out among the troops, being seen, asking what they needed, winning their confidence.”

But McClellan was not the man for the job. A stream of defeatist telegrams from McClellan after his failed Peninsular campaign prompted Lincoln to remark, “I who am not a specially brave man have had to sustain the sinking courage of these professional fighters in critical times.”

The author is interested in Civil War espionage, and relates at length the stories of two pro-Confederate spies, Rose Greenhow and Antonia Ford. Greenhow’s social connections led the Federals to handle her with care, exiling her to the South despite evidence that would have meant the scaffold for any man. Antonia Ford was equally fortunate, escaping arrest and eventually marrying one of the proprietors of Willard’s Hotel.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Furgurson devotes more attention to Washington’s black population than did Margaret Leech more than half a century earlier. When allowed to enlist in the Union Army, black privates were paid only $7 per month, as opposed to $13 for whites. When Frederick Douglass, the leading black activist of his day, complained of this to Lincoln, he got sympathy but little satisfaction. Black men fighting slavery had a greater incentive than whites, the president said, and paying them less was a way of easing the resentment of many Northern soldiers.

Mr. Furgurson finds secondary themes as well as major ones in Civil War Washington. He notes instances in which women were known to have served in the Union forces masquerading as men. He tells of Walt Whitman, who not only ministered to Union wounded, but also carried on a very public affair with a male streetcar conductor.

It’s all here. Ernest Furgurson has written a book worthy to stand alongside “Reveille in Washington.”

John M. Taylor lives in McLean. His books on the Civil War period include “William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand.”

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