In 1860, the Union capital, Washington, D.C., was a sleepy city of approximately 62,000 residents.
As capital of the United States, Washington became a significant civilian leadership, military headquarters, and logistics center during the Civil War. Defending the capital became a major priority of the War Department, and often dictated military strategy. In many ways, the war transformed Washington from a rather modest semi-rural city into the urban center of American federalism, as population, government, infrastructure, public and private buildings, and visitation all dramatically increased during the conflict, setting the stage for the rapid expansion of the city throughout the latter half of the 19th century.
Despite being the nation's capital, Washington was virtually deserted during the torrid summertime, until the outbreak of the Civil War. February 1861 saw the Peace Congress, a last-ditch attempt by delegates from 21 of the 34 states to avert what many saw as the impending Civil War, took place in the city's Willard Hotel. The effort failed and the War became a reality when Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina was bombarded in early April.
Faced with an open rebellion that had turned hostile, President Abraham Lincoln began organizing a military force to protect Washington. The Confederates desired to make Washington their capital and massed to take it. On April 10 forces began to trickle in to the city. On April 19, the Baltimore riot threated further reinforcements from arriving. Led by Andrew Carnegie, a railroad was built circumventing Baltimore, allowing soldiers to arrive on April 25, thereby saving the capital.
Thousands of raw volunteers (as well as many professional soldiers) came to the area to fight for the Union. By the mid-summer, Washington teemed with volunteer regiments and artillery batteries from throughout the North, and the city became the staging area for what became the Manassas Campaign. When Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell's beaten and demoralized army staggered back into Washington after the stunning Confederate victory, the realization came that the war might be prolonged, and efforts began to fortify the city in case of a Confederate assault. Following the defeat at Battle of First Bull Run, Lincoln knew he had to have a professional and trained army to protect the Capital area, and therefore began by organizing the Department on the Potomac on August 4, 1861, and the Army of the Potomac 16 days later.
Most Washington citizens embraced the arriving troops, although there were pockets of apathy and Southern sympathy.
The significant expansion of the federal government to administer the ever-expanding war effort - and its legacies, such as veterans' pensions - led to notable growth in the city's population, especially in 1862 and 1863 when the military forces and the supporting infrastructure dramatically expanded from early war days. The 1860 Census put the population at just over 75,000 persons, but by 1870 the District population had grown to nearly 132,000. Warehouses, supply depots, ammunition dumps, and factories were established to provide and distribute war materiel for the Federal armies, and civilian workers and contractors flocked to the city. By 1863, approximately 10,000 former slaves came to the city primarily from Maryland and Virginia.
At the start of the war, the Union had no policy to deal with the negroes seeking protection. Individual commanders made their own decisions. Some commanders put them to work for Union troops while others returned them to plantation owners. Union army officer Benjamin Butler refused to send three fugitives back. He classified the escaping slaves as contraband of war. This term meant that once the fleeing slaves crossed Union Army lines, they were classified as property. All enemy property that fell into Union hands constituted contraband and would not be returned. Because of Butler's actions, a federal policy was instituted on August 6, 1861 - fugitive slaves were declared to be “contraband of war” if their labor had been used to aid the Confederacy in anyway.
After arriving in the city, ex-slaves worked as laborers on the fortifications. They worked for less money and were often exploited. In August of 1862, workers were paid 40 cents, plus rations, a day for work—often they were not paid at all. Civil Engineer Edward Frost in a letter written to General William Denison Whipple comments:
Washington became a popular place for freed slaves to congregate, and many were employed in constructing the ring of fortresses that eventually surrounded the city. These strategic buttresses transformed the young capital into one of the world's most fortified cities.
Today, on forested hills surrounding the nation's capital are the remnants of a complex system of Civil War fortifications. At the beginning of the war, Washington's only defense was one old fort (Fort Washington, 12 miles (19 km) away to the south), and the Union Army soldiers themselves. When Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan assumed command of the Department of the Potomac on August 17, 1861, he became responsible for the capital's defense. McClellan began by laying out lines for a complete ring of entrenchments and fortifications that would cover 33 miles (53 km) of land. He built enclosed forts on high hills around the city, and placed well protected batteries of field artillery in the gaps between these forts, augmenting the 88 guns already placed on the defensive line facing Virginia and south. In between these batteries interconnected rifle pits were dug, allowing highly effective co-operative fire. This layout, once complete, would make the city one of the most heavily-defended locations in the world, and almost unassailable by nearly any number of men.
The capital's defenses for the most part deterred the Confederate Army from attacking. One notable exception was the Battle of Fort Stevens on July 11-12, 1864, in which Union soldiers repelled troops under the command of Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early. This battle was the first time since the War of 1812 that a U.S. president came under enemy fire during wartime when Lincoln visited the fort to observe the fighting.
By 1865 the defenses of Washington were most stout, amply covering both land and sea approaches. At war's end the now 37 miles (60 km) of line included at least 68 forts, over 20 miles (32 km) of rifle pits, and were supported by 32 miles (51 km) of military use only roads and four individual picket stations. 93 separate batteries of artillery had been placed on this line, comprising over 1,500 guns, both field & siege varieties, as well as mortars.
After the war these forts and entrenchments were largely ignored until 1902 when the McMillan Plan recognized the recreational potential in the pattern of the circle of Civil War defenses and called for their preservation. Today these sites make up the parks which surround the city.
By the end of the Civil War, as many as 40,000 negroes made their way to Washington. Many of these men and women lived in and around the forts vacated between 1865 and 1866. Two of these settlements were located in southern Anacostia near Battery Carroll and Fort Greble. To deal with these sprawling shanty towns, the government established Freedman's Village on the former Custis - Lee estate in Arlington, Virginia. Some historians claim that Freedman's Village was not intended to help intergrate blacks into society but, instead, intended to segregate the former slaves from white society.
Hospitals in the Washington area became significant providers of medical services to wounded soldiers needing long-term care after being transported to the city from the front lines. Among the most significant of these Civil War hospitals were the Armory Square Hospital, Finley Hospital, and the Campbell Hospital. More than 20,000 injured or ill soldiers received treatment in an array of permanent and temporary hospitals in the capital, including the U.S. Patent Office, and, for a time, the Capitol itself. Among the notables who served as nurses or medical assistants were poet Walt Whitman, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and Dorothea Dix. Novelist Louisa May Alcott served at a hospital in Georgetown. The United States Sanitary Commission had a significant presence in Washington, as did the United States Christian Commission and other relief agencies. The Freedman's Hospital was established in 1862 to serve the needs of the growing population of freed slaves.
As the war progressed, the overcrowding severely strained the city's water supply. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed a new aqueduct that brought 10,000 gallons of fresh water to the city each day. Police and fire protection were beefed up, and work resumed to complete the unfinished dome of the Capitol Building. However, for most of the war, Washington suffered from unpaved streets, poor sanitation and garbage collection, swarms of mosquitos facilitated by the dank canals and sewers, and poor ventilation in most public (and private) buildings.