- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2005

About 2,000 history buffs from the East Coast converged on St. Elizabeths Hospital in the District this weekend to learn about Civil War medicine.

St. Elizabeths occupies a special place in the hearts of Civil War historians and re-enactors. As the first federal mental facility in the United States, it served as a hospital for sick and wounded soldiers during the 1860s. As many as 500 Civil War soldiers, both black and white, are buried in its cemetery.

“They were the leading psychiatric hospital specializing particularly in war,” said Maizie Cummings, 44, who organized the weekend’s activities. “The first part of its history, which includes the Civil War, is so incredible.”

This year marks the facility’s 150th anniversary. To celebrate, organizers brought in re-enactors and medical historians to talk about the hospital’s place in American history.

Frank Gallo, 49, of Silver Spring brought his 4-year-old twin boys, Alex and Jason, to see the people dressed as soldiers.

“I like the machines best, the telegraph machines. I like the soldiers best, too,” Alex said.

Alex and Jason wandered through the displays on the lawn at the hospital, examining costumes, flags and communications equipment.

The events included an era-appropriate open-air church service, singing of black spirituals and a memorial service at the cemetery.

“This is a historic place you can’t get on very often,” said Robert Parker, 59, of Brandywine who re-enacts a Confederate general. “It’s unique because both Confederate and Union soldiers are buried together and they didn’t segregate white from black.”

St. Elizabeths still operates as a mental hospital, though the original 1855 building has deteriorated and is closed for preservation.

The property, transferred from the federal government to the District in 1987, covers 300 acres and is not open to the public. The facility is home to about 600 patients, including would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr.


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