The Ball has opened.
—Hartford Courant, April 13, 1861
When Charles Dickens visited Washington, D.C., during the 1840s, he was unimpressed. “It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances,” he said, “but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions.” He considered it characterized by “spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament.”
A few years after Dickens wrote these caustic lines, America, puffed up with pride, in light of her successful war with Mexico and expansion to the Pacific, happily threw tax dollars into federal construction. Workmen began building an obelisk to honor George Washington, Father of His Country. According to its design, it would, when completed, soar to a height of 600 feet—making it the tallest man-made structure in the world. The Treasury Building underwent major expansion. Also, two massive wings were added to the Capitol, and the new galleries looking down on the House and Senate could each seat over a thousand observers. And someday, when the cast-iron dome of the Rotunda was finished, topped by a statue of Victory spreading her arms above it to embrace the city and the nation beyond, its roof, 400 feet above the ground, would approximate the height of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and St. Peter’s in Rome. Not far away, over at the Patent Office, slack-jawed visitors ogled hundreds of the latest national inventions.
It was easy in those days to wander through such federal buildings. A guidebook proudly said of Washington’s public edifices: “No armed sentinels morosely oppose the entrance of the humblest; patience seems to be the universal characteristic of the employees.” Even the White House was often open to the public, and its grounds served as a kind of city park, with gravel walkways and pleasant trees and a fountain. When weather permitted, on Wednesday evenings the Marine Band gave concerts on the lawn of the Executive Mansion.
The District offered convenient and inexpensive public transport. For a nickel, travelers went by omnibus from the Capitol to Georgetown, or from Columbia College to the Potomac, or from Seventh Street to the navy yard.
For those who were hungry, Washington City offered scores of eateries; if one wished to tipple, it had hundreds of watering holes. The city was home to four relatively swank hotels—including the largest, the National, in whose saloons politicians often came to chat and drowse; and Willard’s (near the White House). Pennsylvania Avenue was cobblestoned for part of its length and handsome trees lined its sides. During each spring, pink peach blossoms tumbled delicately to the ground and the air grew redolent with the scent of magnolias. The flora of the capital magically reflected its position between North and South, having a smattering of plants from both sections—orchids and black walnut, hackberry and sassafras.2
According to the 1860 census, the population of the District was 75,080. This figure included 8,733 who lived in Georgetown, a good-sized town both older and quite separate in those days from what was called Washington City. The District’s population also included 5,225 people who resided in neither Georgetown nor Washington City, who were described by the census as living in the “rural” sector. Here, farmers worked the tired land above the Capitol. When Abraham Lincoln wished for a little quiet time, he often rode out along the dusty country paths that meandered through that agrarian northern part of the District.
Washington City had its problems. Discreet locals did not usually mention this fact, but the place had numerous prostitutes and gambling establishments. Crime was rampant in parts of Washington City. The District’s entire police force numbered only sixteen during daylight hours and fifty at night. Many private homes were squalid, and except for a few impressive shops on Pennsylvania Avenue, most stores were small, dirty, unpainted, shabby. The majority of the city’s population consisted of hotel maids and Irish laborers, of hackmen and faro dealers, of clerks and washerwomen. About 20 percent of the population was African American, including 11,131 free blacks and 3,185 slaves.
When the District was first created during the 1790s from land donated by Virginia and Maryland, the federal government did not bother to write special slave laws; it merely adopted the regulations the two states had been using. During ensuing years, both Virginia and Maryland moderated their slave codes, but the District did not, retaining the much harsher colonial regulations. Until halfway into the Civil War, according to District statutes, if a black person struck a white, the miscreant could legally be cropped (that is, have part of his or her ears cut off). For the crime of “false witness,” an African American could be punished by a court with thirty-nine lashes, and have his or her ears nailed to a pillory before cropping. Among the punishments judges meted out to District blacks were beheading and quartering. All African Americans were required to carry a document showing their status—free or slave. Visiting blacks were often not aware of this regulation. Cases occurred of free Northern African Americans snatched from the District’s streets and thrown into prison for lack of the necessary documentation, then sold into slavery to cover “jail fees.” (It was 1862 before Congress finally voted to outlaw slavery in the District. When Lincoln signed the bill into law, he declared himself “gratified” that it provided for payment to the owners, and also that money was being set aside to colonize the freed blacks somewhere else, far outside the United States.)3
Georgetown, serving as the District’s chief port, was situated at the fall line of the Potomac. Ships jammed its docks; old photographs show a tangle of masts of assorted vessels tied at the wharves. In early 1861 Georgetown was still a bustling commercial town, home to about fifty flour mills that ground grain brought from the interior of Virginia or Maryland. Georgetown was also the center of America’s largest shad and herring market.
Some visitors arriving in the national capital were surprised that so much of it was still a wilderness. Deer, otter, skunks, and opossums seemed everywhere. So were nine different types of turtles, nine species of frogs, and toads—to say nothing of countless snakes and salamanders and water lizards. The District was home to eighteen different bivalves and thirty-two univalves. It was also a stopping place for birds migrating north in the spring and south in the autumn. During April, lovers picnicking near Rock Creek might have noticed warblers, small flycatchers, and thrushes. By summertime a person could espy ducks of great variety, sandpipers and cardinal grosbeaks, rails and black-throated buntings. Locals fished the nearby Potomac for eel, pike, sturgeon, perch, or sunfish.