It’s been 150 years since the outbreak of the Civil War, and the sesquicentennial marks the perfect moment to delve into Washington, D.C.’s fascinating history. Whether you want to wander a little off the beaten path or just step right outside your office door, the city offers an array of Civil War sites and stories to discover.
“The closeness of it is so shocking to think about — it all just happened down I-95,” Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer said. “It was a Beltway war in many ways.”
For a true sense of Washington at war, tourists should put Fort Stevens and the Capitol at the top of their travel plans.
Tucked into a residential Northwest D.C. neighborhood is the site of one of the war’s most incredible moments — the only time a sitting president has come under enemy fire.
President Lincoln rode out to see the battle at Fort Stevens, one of the city’s major fortifications, on July 12, 1864. Lincoln stood on the battlements to view the skirmish, but when rebel sharpshooters began firing, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. allegedly yelled, “Get down, you damn fool!”
The story goes that Lincoln ducked to safety, and the Union held the capital. But it was a close call, both for Lincoln and the United States. The Confederate general leading the troops, Jubal A. Early, told one of his officers after the battle, “We didn’t take Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell.”
The National Park Service completed the restoration of this often-overlooked Civil War site in the city’s Brightwood neighborhood in 2010. Visitors can see cannons from the Civil War period and stand on the very spot that Lincoln did as he watched the battle. According to NPS spokesperson Bill Line, Fort Stevens is the best-preserved of the 26 parks that make up the Civil War Defenses of Washington and plans are in the works to link all the sites with a trail for hikers and bikers.
Fort Stevens is at Fort Stevens Drive and 13th Street Northwest. In 2010, the Civil War Trust placed Fort Stevens on its list of most endangered battlefields because of the threat of encroaching development.
It was once a hospital, a barracks and a bakery.
Tarps hung from the unfinished Dome, attempting to protect the Rotunda from the elements. Only 3,000 lucky soldiers could sleep on the cots set up throughout the building — the others searching for a place to rest often crept under desks in the House and Senate chambers for some shut-eye.
The Crypt and basement galleries stored barrels of pork and beef, with grains stacked high to stock the bakeries, also within the Capitol, producing more than 11,000 loaves of bread each day. Nurses and doctors walked the hallways and chambers of the Capitol’s makeshift hospital, using the grounds for triage. The Capitol was at war.