Lincoln's Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, DC

Lincoln's Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, DC

by Kenneth J. Winkle

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The stirring history of a president and a capital city on the front lines of war and freedom.

In the late 1840s, Representative Abraham Lincoln resided at Mrs. Sprigg’s boardinghouse on Capitol Hill. Known as Abolition House, Mrs. Sprigg’s hosted lively dinner-table debates of antislavery politics by the congressional boarders. The unusually rapid


The stirring history of a president and a capital city on the front lines of war and freedom.

In the late 1840s, Representative Abraham Lincoln resided at Mrs. Sprigg’s boardinghouse on Capitol Hill. Known as Abolition House, Mrs. Sprigg’s hosted lively dinner-table debates of antislavery politics by the congressional boarders. The unusually rapid turnover in the enslaved staff suggested that there were frequent escapes north to freedom from Abolition House, likely a cog in the underground railroad. These early years in Washington proved formative for Lincoln.

In 1861, now in the White House, Lincoln could gaze out his office window and see the Confederate flag flying across the Potomac. Washington, DC, sat on the front lines of the Civil War. Vulnerable and insecure, the capital was rife with Confederate sympathizers. On the crossroads of slavery and freedom, the city was a refuge for thousands of contraband and fugitive slaves. The Lincoln administration took strict measures to tighten security and established camps to provide food, shelter, and medical care for contrabands. In 1863, a Freedman’s Village rose on the grounds of the Lee estate, where the Confederate flag once flew.

The president and Mrs. Lincoln personally comforted the wounded troops who flooded wartime Washington. In 1862, Lincoln spent July 4 riding in a train of ambulances carrying casualties from the Peninsula Campaign to Washington hospitals. He saluted the “One-Legged Brigade” assembled outside the White House as “orators,” their wounds eloquent expressions of sacrifice and dedication. The administration built more than one hundred military hospitals to care for Union casualties.

These are among the unforgettable scenes in Lincoln’s Citadel, a fresh, absorbing narrative history of Lincoln’s leadership in Civil War Washington. Here is the vivid story of how the Lincoln administration met the immense challenges the war posed to the city, transforming a vulnerable capital into a bastion for the Union.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Though one might assume the man atop the eponymous citadel would get the most attention, the newest from Lincoln biographer Winkle (The Young Eagle) is really about the nation’s capital—how it weathered and changed during the Civil War—and the citizens, slaves, and soldiers who lived in and moved through it. He describes his account as an “interior history” of Washington, D.C.—a phrase borrowed from Walt Whitman, from when the poet was in the city to find his brother George, who had been wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg—and that description is right on the money. Beginning with a portrait of the city before the war, Winkle examines the capital’s conflicted relationship with slavery, as well as the political implications of its unique geographical location—it’s not quite the North, and it’s not quite the South. When the Civil War finally starts, Winkle hits his stride, describing a community far more divided and dangerous than most people today can appreciate. Far from being a unified bastion of antislavery pols, the capital was plagued with interior troubles and threatened by encroaching Rebel forces. Well-researched and thoroughly engaging, Winkle’s history is a welcome addition to a body of Civil War literature that too often privileges men and massacres. (Aug.)
James M. McPherson
“Eloquently chronicles the transformation of the capital wrought by the Civil War.”
Matthew Pinsker
“Sets a new standard for research and insight into wartime Washington. Kenneth Winkle has taken the political intrigue of the nation’s besieged capital and turned it into the setting for a remarkable series of human stories about the ordinary men and women who rallied to help President Lincoln save the Union.”
Harold Holzer
“Kenneth Winkle has earned a reputation for original research, expert interpretation, and crackerjack storytelling, and all these attributes are on full display in Lincoln’s Citadel. This is an invaluable addition to the Lincoln bookshelf.”
Jay Winik
“A marvelous book—and a must-read!””
Library Journal
Winkle (history, Univ. of Nebraska; The Young Eagle), a noted Lincoln biographer, keeps Lincoln and his administration center stage here. This is not a brick-and-mortar study of Civil War Washington, DC, as experienced by its average citizens but rather a description of political and military life in the U.S. capital from Lincoln's term in the House of Representatives (1847–49) to the end of the Civil War. Winkle's discussion of the future president's life in Washington during the 1840s makes for an engaging introduction. Moving forward, he offers plenty of details and statistics—on everything from the size of herds of horses in the capital to wages for contraband slaves—demonstrating his impressive research; the results may be overwhelming for anyone with only a passing interest in the Civil War. Still, with his absorbing narrative style, Winkle makes an extraordinary amount of information reasonably accessible, and Lincoln and the city's political context prove the backbone of this book. The extensive notes section will aid serious readers. (Index not seen.) VERDICT This well-written volume, with its distinctive perspective on America's Civil War president, will appeal to anyone with a background in Civil War history.—Sara Miller, Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews
A skillful portrait of the nation's capital as microcosm of a nation divided. When newly elected President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington, D.C., writes Winkle (History/Univ. of Nebraska; Abraham and Mary Lincoln, 2011, etc.), he came to a city that had a strong reputation as what one British abolitionist called "the chief seat of the American slave-trade." Indeed, slavery persisted there even when Lincoln took office, and when, in December 1861, a Massachusetts congressman proposed its abolition, the debate dragged on for months as "opponents raised a sweep of objections." The Confederacy, well aware that slave owners and sympathizers were abundant in the capital, longed to seize Washington; by the end of the war, under Lincoln's orders, it was probably the most heavily fortified city in the world, ringed by dozens of forts and artillery emplacements--and even so, the target of Rebel forays. Lincoln's experiment in siege craft did not have to be applied to other cities, but he tested other innovations there, including the suspension of habeas corpus and the use of federal troops to maintain order. Moreover, Winkle notes in a particularly timely passage, concerns for Lincoln's safety were so pressing that federal officials embarked on a secret, not strictly legal program of spying on presumed opponents, potential assassins and other conspirators. Lincoln's years in the city coincided, necessarily, with the establishment of the great national cemetery at Arlington and other hallowed sites in the capital, while he himself established certain protocols, such as visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals, in which he might have laid eyes on Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman. By the end of the war, Lincoln and his lieutenants had converted Washington from a sleepy Southern town into one that was "increasingly northern in outlook and character." A deep-reaching study of a city in wartime, which Washingtonians and visitors, to say nothing of students of the Civil War, will find to be of great interest.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author

Kenneth J. Winkle, acclaimed Lincoln biographer and Civil War historian, is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The Young Eagle, his volume on Lincoln’s rise, is the standard account.

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