Monday, October 15, 2012

"The Siege of Washington" by John and Charles Lockwood (2011)

The most fascinating thing about this book is the mystery of why the Confederacy did not immediately take possession of Washington, D.C., which would have ended the war; or at least put the South in the driver’s seat concerning a negotiated truce. Indeed, the Southern populace expected no less. They marched off to war, thinking that they would return within months, rather than years. What was the reasoning behind this ill-fated decision on the part of the Confederacy? Why was Washington so lightly defended at a time when it was crawling with rebel sympathizers, and surrounded by the slave holding states; Maryland, to the north; and Virginia, to the south?

In this book by authors John and Charles Lockwood, history comes alive as they explore these crucial questions, as well as the relationship his 2 key aides played during the 12 days between April 15th and April 25th, 1861; a mere 6 weeks after Lincoln had assumed the Presidency in March. These 2 remarkable men; John Nicolay; aged 29, from Springfield, where he had worked as Lincoln’s assistant; and John Hays, aged 22, who was hired as Nicolay’s assistant in Washington; were instrumental throughout Lincoln’s Presidency. But they were never more effective than they were in the crucial first days of the War Between the States, as the new President struggled to come to grips with the enormity of the task before him.

Calling upon General Winfield Scott, the General in Chief of the nation’s Army, plans were immediately put into effect to secure the roads and railways entering the city. Washington was; at that time, and on into my own youth; a decidedly “southern” town. Segregation existed there openly up until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The threat of hostilities breaking out within the city itself was a real and constant danger that had to be dealt with. To that end, the President called upon 75,000 Union volunteers, each of whom would serve for 3 months. Just as the South expected to crush the North in a short while, the North fully expected the same of themselves.

Also at stake were the territories out west. California talked openly of leaving the Union, and rather than join forces with the far distant Southern states, form a Republic of her own with Oregon and the Pacific Northwest territory which would later become the state of Washington.
Back in New York the same idea was forming. With New York City alone generating 2/3 of the nation’s import taxes on all goods which passed through its port, it was a “no-brainer” to figure out who would be paying the bulk of the cost of a war with the South. Also at stake for the merchants in New York was the 40 cents per dollar which they received from the export of cotton to England. Should the South be successful in establishing her own nation, the middle man in New York would be left with no percentage at all. Added to that was the threat of the “free negro”; 4 million to be exact; who would eventually move to the Northern cities, competing with white immigrant workers for the same jobs. That feeling alone led to the Draft Riots of July 1863, just as the Battle of Gettysburg was raging; causing valuable troops to be diverted to New York to fight in what was almost a “rear guard” action, rather than a mere riot.

Also threatening Washington was the City of Baltimore, with its own peculiar mixture of feelings concerning slavery. The city was also home to the Union Trust Bank, which held considerable reserves for the North. This made it imperative to hold onto Maryland, and after the events of April 18th, during which mobs in the city attacked the Union soldiers as they marched along Pratt Street, the city was under occupation for the remainder of the war. The troops had been marching from the old train station; which stood on President Street, at the Eastern end of today’s Harborplace; to the Camden Street Station, the site of today’s Camden Yards, home to the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. At the intersection of Charles and Pratt Streets the mob had grown to over 2,000 strong, and, armed with clubs and paving stones, attacked the troops.
In this wide ranging account, the author gives new thought to the importance of these 12 most perilous days of the war. Until now, the most engaging story of Lincoln’s assumption of the Presidency has always been the attempted assassination which occurred before he even took office. And, although the story of the Baltimore riot; and the later New York Draft Riot; have been told many times, this is the first book which I have read that puts all of these pieces together. The author has successfully re-created the excitement; and fear; of a time when our nation was at war, and the seat of government surrounded by her enemies.

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