Repairs on the monument nearing completion?

I noticed today that the framework that has completely covered the Washington Monument for the last few months has been dismantled at the top, and you can now see the pyramidion. Hopefully, that means that the repairs are getting close to completion.

Thirty-Six Years

The building of the Washington Monument took 36 years from the laying of the cornerstone on July 4, 1848 to the setting of the capstone on December 6, 1884. Come explore the details of the construction of America's most famous monument, and learn how the construction was impacted by the political and social upheaval of the Civil War.

Post Earthquake Repairs

The Washington Monument has been closed to the public since the earthquake in August 2011, and the park service says that it will stay closed until needed repairs are complete. They recently erected scaffolding that rises almost to the level of the initial construction that halted in the mid-1850's, close to 150 feet, apparently to work on the facing stones near the base of the obelisk.

I noticed the scaffolding about a week ago. I didn't see any press releases that describe the work that is being done and there isn't anything specific on the park service's Washington Monument website, but I'm pretty sure that if you took the time to visit the monument, there would be somebody there to answer questions about it. I didn't have time this morning, I had just enough time to take the photo.

Construction of the Monument Begins Again

As the Centennial Celebration approached, members of congress and others began to realize that the unfinished obelisk really was an eyesore. Something needed to be done. Of course, we're still talking about Washington, D.C. so that something that needed doing wouldn't happen without a lot of discussion, argument and bickering...

This post will cover the last twelve years of the Monument's construction. If you haven't seen the entries for the years between 1848 and 1872, just scroll down.


In January, the House of Representatives appointed a committee to confer with the Society on what would be required to complete the monument in time for the centennial celebration in July 1876. Within a month, the committee reported that “This rich and massive shaft, though simple and plain, would be a noble monument, worthy of the sublime character which it is designed to testify.” Not everyone agreed; a local newspaper called it, “a wretched design, a wretched location and an insecure foundation.”

In February, First Lieutenant William Marshall, US Army Corps of Engineers, assigned to conduct a brief inspection of the monument’s foundation, reported:

“My examination has failed to show any important changes to the condition of the shaft since that time [of the last inspection in 1859, when the Corps of Engineers assigned Lt. Joseph Ives to inspect the foundation]. The masonry of the foundation courses is rubble of blue gneiss. The blocks are generally large and the work, for this class of masonry, good.”  He didn’t observe any evidence of significant changes or settling of the long neglected monument, though admittedly he only spent a very few days on his investigation before he made his report. He reviewed the record of inspection that Joseph Ives had made before the war, and agreed that “all questions as to the stability of the shaft itself have been answered by Lieutenant Ives, in whose conclusions I agree.”

The committee recommended that congress grant $200,000 to the society so that work could commence on completion of the shaft and construction of a terrace around the base of the monument, but congress completed their session before they voted on the bill.


“The monument affairs stand as usual, ‘masterly inactivity’ the order of the day. Nothing can be done or attempted in the way of proposed Congressional Cooperation until Lieutenant Marshall’s report be made, and then only if favorable.” Letter from John Carroll Brent and L.B. Smith, Baltimore MD.  This letter referred to Marshall’s second assignment, to conduct a longer, more comprehensive inspection of the monument and the foundation. When his second task was complete, he reported again that the monument was secure, but that the foundation was too small. He recommended a maximum height of only 400 feet; a 600-foot structure would cause “excessive pressure upon a soil not wholly incompressible.” He also made recommendations concerning the thicknesses of the walls of the shaft to reduce the overall weight, as well as a combination of brick wall tops and a roof made of cast-iron plates rather than stone. 

The Corps of Engineers forwarded Lieutenant Marshall’s second report to the Board of Engineers for Fortification in New York City. This group of senior engineers and general officers did not travel to the site, but noted that Marshall reported that the earth under the foundation was subjected to nearly 5 tons per square foot at the monument’s current, unfinished height. They calculated that raising the monument to 400 feet would increase the load to the earth by more than an additional third, which they thought would be far too much for safety. “We could not…with the information before us, recommend that any additional pressure should be thrown on the site of the Washington Monument.”

It became clear to all that, despite the patriotic efforts and desires, the monument to the Father of the Country would not be complete in time for the Centennial.

“It is a constant mortification to the people of the United States when they come to this city to see that mutilated monument about which so much has been said, and so patriotically, this evening. I hope something will be done to rescue that monument from its present condition, although I fear that it is now the symbol of the condition of our government.”  - The Honorable Samuel S. Cox, Representative from the Commonwealth of Virginia, speaking to the assembled House in June.

In the fall elections, the Democrats regained the House of Representatives for the first time since 1860. The tide was now moving strongly against the Radical Republicans. 1874 also marked the return to power by the Democrats in the state governments of Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas; there were now seven southern states that had been “redeemed” or returned to the control of the white conservatives.


In July, Edward Clark, the Commissioner of Public Buildings and Grounds, wrote to the Society. His letter ended thusly: “…in conclusion, I will state that the present appearance of the Monument and its surrounding are likely to repel visitors; but, if the grounds are cleared of these old and unsightly objects, they will be attracted to the monument and its museum…”

The Society took his advice. The next month, an advertisement appeared in the Washington Chronicle, Evening Star and the National Republican:

“On Tuesday, August 24th 1875 at 11 o’clock A. M. at the monument grounds, I will sell a large lot of wrought and cast iron, wood pickets, fence posts, lot of wood, sash, blinds, door frames, slats etc. etc. also one horse. At the same time and place several wooden buildings, large lot of marble and gneiss stone, engine and boiler machinery etc. etc. Terms Cash.”   They made about $1500 after the cost of advertising and the commission for the auctioneer.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed, preventing discrimination in public accommodations. It was the first effort by the legislature to stem segregation by states and companies that provided services to the public. It was largely a symbolic gesture and rarely enforced, particularly after federal troops were removed from the southern states. The Act would be declared unconstitutional eight years later by the Supreme Court, who declared that the state did not have the power to prevent individuals from discriminating.


On April 5th, the Virginia Marble Company in Loudoun County, which was within 12 miles of the W & O Rail Line, offered enough marble to complete the monument for free, if the Society would pay for quarrying and shipping.

By this point, everybody that had an interest in seeing through the completion of the monument; the public, Congress and the Society itself, had reached the conclusion that, whatever else was done, the part of the monument that had been completed would remain intact and be incorporated into the final structure. “…all idea of surrendering the character of the Monument or allowing the structure, as far as completed, to be taken down, should be positively and emphatically disavowed.”  This conclusion would bring its own significant challenges to the men chosen to complete the memorial, but sentiment was very strong that there was an obligation to the people who had contributed to the effort over the many years, either with their cash or their sweat or both, that must be met.

Despite the delay and additional controversy that the Fortification Board’s dire warning produced, congress approved a $200,000 donation to the Memorial Society for the resumption of construction of the Washington Memorial. The act that provided these funds stipulated that the Society must surrender all rights and property to the federal government, but would remain in place to advise and solicit donations for the continued construction efforts. A Joint Commission was established; chaired by the President, the Commission membership included the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, the Architect of the Capitol, Chief Engineer of the Army and the First Vice President of the Washington National Monument Society. The act also required yet another evaluation of the foundation, by a new board of officers of the Corps of Engineers, who dispatched Second Lieutenant Dan Kingman to conduct the latest foundation inspection.

In September, the Corps of Engineers Board of Officers reported:

“1. That the stratum of sand and clay upon which the monument rests is already loaded to the limit of prudence if not, indeed, to the limit of safety…

2. That additional weight imposed at the top of the structure would in all probability cause additional and possibly extensive spalling and splitting in the ashlar facing near the base.

3. It is evident that the masonry foundation was not given spread enough to carry safely the weight it was designed to place upon it.

4. There has been actual compression of the soil to the extent of eight to nine inches, the shaft is sensibly out of plumb and the foundation courses show increasing departure from horizontality.”  (This last observation was based upon an erroneous sighting done from the wrong bench mark; the board later conceded the mistake, but stood firm in their contention that the foundation was inadequate as it currently stood.)

The board concluded with their concept of what the finished monument would be and what it would represent:

“It is a great, bare obelisk, plain to severity, a conception perhaps most suitable to symbolize the great character it would commemorate…for these very reasons, exacting in all its parts, and particularly in its foundation, all the perfection of elements and details that can be given to its material and workmanship. The stones which compose the foundation should be strong and perfect, truly shaped and accurately placed together. There should be no yielding of the parts, and no disturbance of the levels. Upon such a foundation, a monument could be reared fit to commemorate Washington, and worthy of the nation of whose foundations he was the chief master builder.”

This report from the board caused significant angst among the members of the Society. They felt that the report contained significant errors (particularly the erroneous eight or nine inches of soil compression that was found to be a mistake) and served only to further put off the long-delayed resumption of construction. The Society members felt, perhaps justifiably so, that the critics of Mills’ plan for the monument had merely cast around to find fault with something, anything, about the memorial; since attacking the design hadn’t worked and then criticizing the site didn’t work, they fell to saying the foundation wouldn’t support the memorial, and thus everything should be torn down and the project started completely from zero again.

The Society wrote, in part: “…The great scientific attainments of this last examining board will not be questioned and it would be an insult to suggest a doubt as to their fitness to perform the duty assigned to them, and their strict integrity in rendering a report of the result of their examination. But, Men of Science, of practical knowledge, of vast experience in such matters not biased in any way are of the opinion that the Army Examining Board have made a mistake…”

C. Seymour Dutton, one of the original competing architects who submitted proposals for the Monument’s design, was less diplomatic: “…Now while the worthlessness of the report in question has been abundantly shown…on the other hand, the absolute safety of the foundation has not been positively proved…I feel a deep personal interest in the completion of this monument upon the original design of a simple shaft and as I am unable from a professional point of view to see any serious practical difficulty in its way, allow me to sincerely express the hope that you may speedily be able to overcome all technical obstruction and proceed with the work…”

Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President in an extremely narrow (in fact, he lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden) and controversial election. The controversy centered around what became known the Compromise of 1877, in which the Democrat-controlled House accepted the results of the Electoral College, giving Hayes the presidency, in return for the complete removal of the remaining federal troops from the South.


The scathing letter from C. Seymour Dutton concerning the monument foundation wasn’t the only one:

“D. Sir, Three Generals were appointed to examine the strength of the foundation of the monument. Two lieutenants report on the same; one favorably, one adversely.

Well do I remember 40 years since, when a boy in Missouri, having contributed one dollar towards the erection of the structure, and have earnestly watched its progress ever since as occasion has called me to this city. Lt Marshall says that one corner is 1 6/10” out of line at the top. Admit it, what difference does it make? It is still far within the center of gravity and is a matter of no moment. [Pun not intended, one assumes]

The foundation must be of the very best to have sustained the present weight for twenty-five years. It is doubtful if the generals could do as well today.

But again you owe it to the original subscribers to stick to the original plan, and as one Lieutenant is as good as another, to have a third part on the commission whose decision shall be final, we do not wish the monument stopped on a tie.

 Respectfully, Charles Wiggins.”

In October, after months of conflict between the Society, whose members were convinced that the foundation was secure, and the Engineers’ Board, the Joint Congressional Commission concluded in their report to Congress: “It must be assumed that the foundation is insufficient to sustain the weight of the completed structure.” Congress agreed with their conclusion.

In the South, President Hayes withdrew federal troops, as he had promised, and restored home rule to states that had rebelled. The Era of Reconstruction was officially over; the Radicals had failed in their bid to rebuild the South in their vision. Segregation and inequality, as well as violence and fear, would reign in the South for generations before the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s would finally see concrete gains in the fight for equal rights for blacks.   


On June 14, authority by Congress was granted to strengthen the foundation of the Monument. Just to recap the years of conflict on this issue: Not counting the inspection done by Lieutenant Ives back just before the war (although his inspection and calculations were often referred to by later inspectors), there were at least four separate inspections of the unfinished shaft and the foundation over a period of five years. Additionally there were several scholarly reviews of the findings of those inspections, the latest being from the Engineers’ Board. There were also the many meetings, debates and exchanges of letters between the Society (the majority of whom at least were convinced that the foundation was sound and sufficient and that the many inspections and reviews were simply bureaucratic can-kicking), the Joint Congressional Commission (some members of which it seemed clear were looking for ways to delay the project), and the many private citizens who held some special interest in the monument and a desire to see it completed. 

For example, in June Larkin G. Mead, the sculptor who designed and built Lincoln's tomb, wrote to the commission with suggestions for depictions of Washington’s life. The suggestions included Mead's own four bas-reliefs: Washington taking command as Commander-in-Chief at Cambridge; The Surrender of Cornwallis; Washington resigning his commission; and the Inauguration of Washington as the first president. Eight statues he suggested: a Marion Dragoon, a Morgan Rifleman, a Valley Forge man, a Minuteman, a Green Mountain Boy, a Privateersman, a Frontiersman, and an Indian. Finally, he listed eight panels: War, Peace, Religion, Education, Commerce, Agriculture, Science, and Art; and a scene from Washington’s early life: “Braddock’s Surrender”.  Mead's letter is illustrative of a couple of things: one, people at the time were very familiar with the many outstanding examples of George Washington’s selfless and superlative service to his country; and two, it would have been nearly impossible to capture all of those contributions and achievements in a single memorial. 

On June 25th, Army HQ Special Order 136 appointed Lt. Colonel Thomas Casey, US Army Corps of Engineers to complete the Washington Monument. Captain George Davis was assigned as his assistant.

In late July, Casey presented extensive plans to the Joint Commission for raising the monument to 525 feet using marble with iron fasteners. These plans included extensive detail on the underpinning of the old foundation.

In a letter dated August 1st, Robert C. Winthrop argued again for a simple obelisk (as opposed to the original design):  “…I fall back on the simple shaft as at least not inferior to any of them in effect and as free from tinsel or tawdry.”

Casey’s notes from the fall include lots of construction activity (to prepare for work on the foundation apparently) but no mention of final plans. He does talk of bringing in miners from Baltimore for work on the foundation.

On October 1st, Casey’s plan for strengthening the foundation was approved. It would both underpin and extend the bottom surface of the foundation. It would take the foundation from its current depth to another 12 feet below the bottom of the original, almost to the level of the water table. The new foundation would extend out 18 feet beyond the old; making the outer edges of the new mass over 23 feet long on an edge. Three buttresses on each side would hold the old and the new foundations together.

When the monument was finished (Casey was, at this point, calculating for a 525 foot height), the total weight would be over eighty thousand tons, which translates to a pressure of  just over 5 tons per square foot for the soil and rock under the foundation, very close to the pressure that the unfinished obelisk placed on the original foundation.

He determined that the work to underpin the unfinished monument that weighed somewhere close to 32,000 tons, “evidently a delicate operation”, could succeed by “introducing the masonry in thin, vertical layers.”  He would tunnel under the original foundation in drifts that were no more than four feet wide, and then fill those drifts with Portland cement concrete. Dowel stones set into the face of the succeeding concrete slabs, along with alternating wider and narrower sections of each slab, which would help hold the layers together and create a strong bulk for the monument to rest upon.

When Casey’s plan was approved, Congress appropriated $36,000 for improving the foundation. Casey calculated that the work would cost just over $99,000 to complete. His plan was approved, and he was directed to begin work on the first of October, but he was specifically ordered not to exceed the $36,000 limit that had been set.

There was much to be done. The monument grounds had been seriously neglected, the only work for years had been to clean up and dispose of some of the more unsightly junk laying around. Casey had to procure materials, tools, and machinery, and he had to recruit and hire a crew of workers. He made specific mention of his desire to find men that were skilled in tunneling and mining work, and he went to Baltimore to find many of them. Carpenters, blacksmiths and stoneworkers were also needed. A new road to the site had to be put down that connected to 14th Street and rails laid for connection to allow deliveries from the rail depot.  When the direction to begin work came, Casey had 44 men working for him, including a mason, three stonecutters, two carpenters, drillers, riggers, laborers and a night watchman. By the end of the year, as work fully got underway, his workforce had more than doubled.

As Casey began his work on the foundation, it’s interesting to remember that, though the foundation was and is critically important to the monument, it was and is mostly unseen and thus not a concern of most of the people that had an interest in the monument. They were interested in the part that could be seen, and “interested” doesn’t begin to touch the emotion that people held on the subject of the design of the Washington Monument.

There were very few people at that time who thought that a simple, unadorned Egyptian-style obelisk was a suitable style for a memorial for George Washington. The Victorian aesthetic, which put high artistic value in “all that was intricate, irregular and complex”, rebelled completely against the austere, plain spike that was now being planned. Henry van Brunt, a well-respected critic and a proponent of Victorian architecture, wrote, “No person interested in our reputation as a civilized people can contemplate this completion without pain.”

Many designs were offered that met this thirst for Victorian complexity. One design in particular, from William Story, an architect that worked and lived in Italy, was especially well received, particularly from Story’s friends in Congress. It was ornate and far different than the Mills design but it did incorporate the unfinished stump, and because of that fact, Story’s supporters argued that it would meet the obligation to the original Society of not abandoning the original conception of the memorial.

As late as December of that year, the Society itself was still torn as to what direction the renewed construction should take, and they were apparently at some odds with the Joint Congressional Commission. An extract from the Society’s proceedings dated the 17th of December of that year:

“Whereas the Washington National Monument Society have seen and carefully examined the plan of the monument prepared by Mr. W. W. Story at the instance of members of Congress of the Committees on Public Buildings and Grounds of the Senate and the House of Representatives and regard it as vastly superior in artistic taste and beauty of design to any other modification of the original plan that has been suggested and whereas the proposed plan does not involve the necessity of taking down the work that has been done, or the dangerous operation of underpinning the foundation and will obviate objections that have been urged against the original plan, and it is believed will harmonize conflicting opinions and give general satisfaction to the country.

Therefore Resolved that the Society do hereby approve Mr. Story’s proposed modification, subject to such minor modifications as may be suggested in the construction. Resolved further that a committee of five (5) members of which our presiding officer be chairman, be appointed to confer with the said committees in regard to the further prosecution of the work.” 

The Society later issued a resolution backing away from their approval of the Story plan, citing the apparent confusion and miscommunication with the Commission, who were obviously (since they were providing the funds) the ones who were in charge of the construction.

Thomas Casey was also thinking about the monument as he worked on the foundation. The commission had directed him to plan for a new height of 525 feet. He planned to use masonry up to the 500 foot mark and then “to crown the shaft with a pyramidal roof of iron, which shall be 25 feet in height. This roof can be covered with hammered glass over some portions, to give light to the well of the monument.” He planned for the marble and stone shell of the monument to be vertical on the inside of the structure, with a thickness of nearly 9 feet at the bottom, tapering to 18 inches at the top. He calculated that the final weight of the finished monument, with its 30 ton iron roof, would be 43, 671 tons.

As Casey worked to strengthen the foundation, the debate on the design of the visible part of the monument continued in Congress for more than a year.


Work on the foundation continued into the summer, when it became delayed due to a lack of Portland cement. Deliveries from J.B. White & Bros. were curtailed due to a longshoremen strike. Casey had received from Congress additional funds for the foundation work that brought the total up to $64,000, still far short of his estimate of $99,000.

Though cement made with burnt lime had been used in ancient times on Roman roads and aqueducts, Portland cement was still a relatively new technology at this time. Named after the Isle of Portland off the coast of Dorset, England, the formula and technique for producing Portland cement was originally patented in 1824 by a mason from Leeds, and a cheaper and superior product was developed in the 1830’s in England. Though Portland cement was exported from England to the U.S. from that time, it wasn’t manufactured in America until the 1870’s.  Thomas Casey contracted his cement through the New York office of J.B.White and Brothers, a British firm that shipped the cement from their factory in Swanscombe. He reported difficulties in receiving shipments of cement many times; events like longshoremen strikes forced him to delay work, furlough workers and change his plans, but his perseverance and management skills allowed him to see the work completed.  

In October, Casey reported:  “During the month, the excavation into the old blue stone foundation for the central buttresses on each of the four faces was completed and the buttresses built of Portland cement concrete. The mixture of the concrete used in the buttresses was as follows: 1 bbl. cement, 1 ½ bbl. sand, 2 ¼ bbl. pebbles, and 3 bbl. broken stone. This concrete is much stronger than that used in the slab under the old foundation…The quantity of such excavation in the four buttresses was some 348 cubic yards while the quantity of concrete in the buttresses is some 530 cubic yards…

Casey’s mention that the buttresses were stronger than the slab refers to the fact that in the slab, he used a mixture with more sand, pebbles and crushed rock, and less Portland cement. The final section of this book is an Appendix which more fully explains the details of the new foundation and contains a rough illustration of the old and new parts of the foundation.

Casey also began excavation into the blue stone foundation beneath the floor of the monument to obtain a space for the winding drum of the elevator, and that work was completed during October. "This excavation was some 18 feet square and 8 feet deep, requiring the removal of 96 cubic yards of masonry. The floor of this pit was cemented and leveled off and the four blocks to carry the bottom of the elevator drums put in place…Three cuts were all that remained to complete the slab under the old foundation… the slab is 126 ft 6 in square, 13 ft 6 in in depth and extends 18 feet…The slab contains 7033 cubic yards of concrete…”

In the well of the monument, the wrought iron frame supports the stone, the staircase and the elevator shaft using a system of Phoenix columns, which are hollow posts made of panels of wrought iron riveted together. Phoenix columns are lighter and stronger that solid wrought iron posts, but it still took nearly 600 tons of iron to build the stairs and elevator shaft.

Casey wanted the engine for the elevator to be able to raise heavy loads at a rate of 50 feet per minute. He contracted with Otis Brothers to manufacture the elevator and its hoisting machinery. Elisha Otis had invented the safety elevator in the early 1850’s and demonstrated it at the 1854 World’s Fair. 

In August, Captain Davis inspected the Beaver Dam Quarry near Baltimore and acknowledged that the marble did not exactly match the Texas Station marble in the original courses.  He also inspected quarries in New England and New York looking for the right stone to use.  The search for marble to match the original was exhaustive, meticulous and, ultimately, not entirely successful. Nevertheless, Casey was very exacting in his specifications for marble , which had to be “strong, sound, and free from flint, shakes, powder cracks, or seams, and must in texture and color so conform to the marble now built in the monument as not to present any marked or striking contrast in color, lustre, or shade, when set in the wall.”

By the summer, Casey’s workforce had swelled to 175 men, most of who were still working on the foundation. 

It was in this year that the question of the design was finally and fully answered, resulting in the iconic and timeless monument we see today. In February, the American Ambassador to Italy, George Perkins Marsh, wrote to Senator George Edmunds of Vermont to express his interest in the memorial. Marsh was, among many other things, a well-studied expert in Egyptian obelisks. The Senator passed Marsh’s letter to Casey, who recognized that Marsh’s advice was exactly what Casey needed to successfully complete his assignment.

Robert Winthrop, who as Speaker of the House had given the keynote speech at the laying of the cornerstone for the monument back in 1848, emerged during this time as a champion for Casey and his revision of Mills’ original design for the monument. Winthrop’s support and influence were critical to Casey’s success, and directly influenced the final design of the monument.

Casey began establishing materials and equipment to start work on the obelisk before he finished with the foundation. There were three main parts to the obelisk: the marble for the outside, the granite for the inside, and the iron frame that would support the memorial.  The frame would also hold the staircase that goes to the top and the elevator and the elevator shaft. 


In May, the foundation was complete; total cost: $94,000.  Casey later wrote, in his own memoir, a brief passage that underscored just how successful his feat of engineering really was: “Any apparent tendency to deflection from the vertical was at once checked by undermining on the opposite side, and thus the mass was swayed at pleasure, until at the end the original slight deviation was materially corrected.” 

In July, Casey advertised for proposals for supplying 40,000 cubic feet of white marble. Casey originally awarded the marble contract to John A. Briggs in Sheffield, Massachusetts, but after getting a great deal of stone that was defective and wrong in color, after almost a year, he had only enough to raise the monument six feet, he cancelled the contract with Briggs and awarded his business to Hugh Sisson’s Beaver Dam quarry. Today Beaver Dam quarry, located in Cockeysville, Maryland, is a swimming resort.

Casey submitted his (nearly) final design plans to the Society. Based upon what he learned from his correspondence with George Marsh, Casey had made some significant changes to the direction he had received from the Congressional commission.

Marsh had explained to Casey that the classic Egyptian obelisk was of a height that was equal to 10 times the length of the base, and that the obelisk tapered so that the base of the pyramidion cap would be two-thirds to three quarters of the base length on a side. This meant that the monument would have to be at least 550 feet high, rather than 525 feet, because the base was 55 feet on each side.

Additionally, the height of the pyramidion cap had to be the same as the length of the base, and the base of the cap fit exactly on top of the tapered shaft, with no ledge, overhang or molding.

Casey had written to Robert Winthrop, explaining his work on the foundation and requesting his support for his changed plan. Initially, Winthrop did not agree with Casey’s plan to incorporate the design elements that George Marsh had suggested, but Casey was eventually able to convince him that they were essential to making the monument not simply imposing on the capital skyline, but truly memorable and iconic, befitting the man it would represent. Winthrop was finally and completely convinced, and worked to champion Casey’s plan in the Society, the commission, and Congress and the public at large. In a letter to Congress, Winthrop wrote: “…a simple, sublime shaft, on a very spot selected by Washington himself…and rising nearer the skies than any known monument on earth, will be no unworthy memorial…”

In order to prepare the long-neglected monument for the resumption of construction, Casey and his men had to remove the top three courses of marble stones. These had been put in place during the period when the “Know-Nothings” had control of the society; the marble stones themselves were mainly pieces that had been previously rejected by the master mason, and, over the decades of inactivity, water had seeped into the masonry and forced the facing stones slightly out of place. Casey began the removal in late July and on August 7th, a small cornerstone laying ceremony was held at the 150 foot level with President Hayes presiding. The official party rode the Otis elevator to the top of the obelisk, and Hayes himself placed a small coin in the mortar just before the cornerstone was put in place.

By the end of the year, the marble obelisk reached 172 feet; the iron framework stood close to the 200 foot mark.


In this year, congress appropriated $150,000 for the construction. Casey’s crew would reach the 250 foot mark for the marble obelisk by the end of the year.

It was in this year that Captain Davis left the project to work as General Phillip Sheridan’s aide, and Bernard Green, a civil engineer and a long-time associate of Casey’s, became Casey’s primary assistant. Green, with whom Casey had worked back during the Civil War on coastal fortifications in Maine and other parts of New England, played a significant role in making the final significant changes to the design of the monument. Back in 1878, Casey’s plans had been for the pyramidion top of the obelisk to be made of iron with hammered glass windows. As construction progressed, the men realized that a wrought iron roof would be too heavy for the marble obelisk to support, as the marble blocks tapered thinner and thinner near the top. Additionally, they understood that the roof would corrode and rust in the weather, staining the white marble facing below. The pyramidion would have to be made of the same marble of the rest of the monument.

Green drew the plans for the marble top, and the masons strategized on how they would complete the construction. The plans would still have to be approved by the Joint Committee, and there was a long way to go in the construction before they would be ready to tackle the top. 

James Garfield was inaugurated as President in March. He would serve just until September of the same year, when he would succumb to an infection after being shot by lawyer Charles Guiteau in July.


The Monument would reach 340 feet by the end of this year. Almost all of the marble came from the Beaver Dam Quarry in Cockeysville, with just a small amount coming from Massachusetts and New York. In his end of year report, Casey estimated that he needed $250,000, in addition to the balance of roughly thirty thousand dollars that remained, to complete the monument. This estimate only covered the costs of the monument itself, including the interior staircase and elevator system, but not the hoped-for terrace and surrounding grounds.

There was no money for a lighting system for the interior, either. Electricity was still a new technology at the time. The first commercial electrical power plant started into operation earlier in the year, lighting a small part of lower Manhattan. 


“To the Honorable Horatio King, Secretary of the Washington National Monument Society

Dear Sir,

On Friday, the 16th of November, the masonry and interior iron frame of the monument will have reached the height of 400 feet above the level of the floor of the structure. If that day should be a pleasant one, it might be agreeable for the members of the Washington National Monument Society in the city to examine the works; and it gives me pleasure to extend an invitation to visit the Monument at 10 o’clock that morning (or if the day should be stormy, the first pleasant day succeeding) at which hour I shall be on the grounds to welcome the Society. 

Very Respectfully,

Your Obedient Servant,

Thomas L. Casey

Engineer in Charge”

At the peak of the construction effort, Casey employed a force of about 170 men, over 100 of which were stonecutters, who earned $2.50 to $3.00 per ten-hour day. The delivery of marble continued to be problematic throughout the construction, but granite, which was used on the interior of the monument, had fewer issues; the color of the stone didn’t matter as much and, while Casey was still particular about the other qualities of the stone, he had no trouble getting all he could use. Almost all of the granite came from quarries in Maine.

The Supreme Court ruled in this year that portions of the 1875 Civil Rights Act were unconstitutional, as private citizens and private businesses have the right to discriminate based upon race.


On the ninth of August, the masons set the last piece of marble in place for the shaft, completing it at the 500 foot level. Below the 450-foot level, the workers could use galvanized iron clamps, but above that, the walls were thinner and entirely made of marble. Mortise and tenon joints were used above 470 feet, the level at which the ribs for the pyramidion started.

The pyramidion would be 55 feet tall, the same as the length of each side of the base. This conformed to the theory of Egyptian obelisks that Ambassador Marsh had expounded. There are 262 pieces of marble in the pyramidion, none more than seven inches thick. They are supported by the twelve marble ribs that start at the 470 foot level and converge at the top. A special crane and derrick were built, along with the scaffolding needed, as the shaft was being completed. Work on the pyramidion cap started in September and the capstone, a solid piece of marble weighing about 1.5 tons and over 5 feet in height, was ready to be put in place by late November.

Though Marsh had recommended against them, Casey designed and set eight windows near the base of the pyramidion, so that visitors could look out of them. They each had a piece of marble for a shutter in a statuary bronze frame that could be closed and locked, for aesthetic purposes. “When the windows are closed by these shutters, the pyramidion is much improved in appearance,” Casey said, “and the interior shaft is protected from storm waters, which would otherwise flow into them from the roof and flood the upper platforms.”

The capstone apex, which is about 9 inches high and almost 6 inches on its sides, is made of aluminum, which at the time was very rare. Since it doesn’t tarnish in the same way that iron or alloys might, it hasn’t stained the marble, but it does conduct electricity well enough to serve as part of the lightning rod system for the monument. The capstone is inscribed with the names of the President, Chester Arthur and the names of the members of the Joint Commission as well as the names of Casey, Davis, Green and P.H. McLaughlin, the Master Mechanic. The words “Laus Deo” also appear, as well as the date the capstone and the apex were set: December 6, 1884.

On December 6, the capstone of the monument was set. The Washington Monument was completed.


February 21, the day before Washington’s Birthday, was the Dedication of the Washington Monument. The event was presided over by President Chester A. Arthur. 

In addition to the congressmen and senators attending and the representatives of the military, there were many state governors in attendance as well. Though the weather was cold and there was snow on the ground, it seemed that everyone in the District was present to celebrate the long-awaited completion of the Washington Monument.

The pamphlet for the Dedication has John Sherman, the Senator from Ohio and Chairman of the Joint Commission for the Monument, as the opening speaker. W.W. Corcoran, the First Vice President of the Society, and Colonel Thomas L. Casey also spoke. The Grand Masonic Lodge of the District of Columbia held a Masonic Ceremony and 100-gun salutes from the Navy Yard, the Artillery Headquarters and Fort Myer were given as the group walked from the Monument to the Capitol for orations in the Hall of the House of Representatives. After a prayer from the Reverend S. A. Wallis of Pohick Church (the Washington family church), an oration by Robert C. Winthrop, who as Speaker of the House back in 1848, presided over the cornerstone laying for the Monument, was given. His remarks were followed by John D. Long, a congressman from Massachusetts, and John W. Daniel from Virginia. Winthrop’s speech included this:

 “…No wonder the unsightly pile became the subject of pity or derision. No wonder there were periodical panics about the security of its foundation, and a chronic condemnation of the original design. No wonder that suggestions for tearing it all down began to be entertained in many minds, and were advocated by many pens and tongues. That truncated shaft, with its untidy surroundings, looked only like an insult to the memory of Washington.  It symbolized nothing but an ungrateful country, not destined as- God be thanked- it still was, to victory and grandeur and imperishable glory, but doomed to premature decay, to discord, strife, and ultimate disunion.  Its very presence was calculated to discourage many hearts from other things, as well as from itself. It was an abomination of desolation standing where it ought not. All that followed of confusion and contention in our country's history seemed foreshadowed and prefigured in that humiliating spectacle, and one could almost read on its sides in letters of blood, "Divided! Weighed in the balance! Found wanting!"

...An unfinished, fragmentary, crumbling monument to Washington would have been a fit emblem of a divided and ruined Country. Washington himself would not have had it finished. He would have desired no tribute, however imposing, from either half of a disunited Republic. He would have turned with abhorrence from being thought the Father of anything less than One Country, with one Constitution and one Destiny.

And how cheering and how inspiring the reflection, how grand and glorious the fact, that no sooner were our unhappy contentions at an end, no sooner were Union and Liberty one and inseparable, once more and, as we trust and believe, forever reasserted and reassured, than this monument to Washington gave signs of fresh life, began to attract new interest and new effort, and soon was seen rising again slowly but steadily toward the skies— stone after stone, course upon course, piled up in peace, with foundations extended to the full demand of the enormous weight to be placed upon them, until we can now hail it as complete!

...The Union was nearest and dearest to his great heart. ‘The Union in any event,’ were the most emphatic words of his immortal Farewell Address. Nothing less than the Union would ever have been accepted or recognized by him as a monument commensurate with his services and his fame. Nothing less ought ever to be accepted or recognized as such by us, or by those who shall rise up, generation after generation, to do homage to his memory!"


The War Years

Antietam Battlefield
This post will cover the time of the Civil War and Reconstruction. If you haven't seen the post covering the twelve years from the start of the construction in 1848 to 1860, just scroll down to the post titled "Building Begins".

As I've mentioned before, "The Civil War happened!" is the standard answer to the question "Why did it take so long to build the Washington Monument?", but that's at best an incomplete answer that gives the impression that everything stopped in Washington during the war. In fact, there was all kinds of construction taking place in the District of Columbia during the war years. Much of it was because of the war, of course; the ring of fortifications around DC and the expansion of work at the Navy Yard are obvious examples of war-related construction. But there was plenty of other activity as well: Work on the Capitol dome continued throughout the war years, for example, while the unfinished obelisk of the Washington Monument stood a lonely vigil over cattle. It's true!


In May, Dougherty reported to the Society that Lieutenant Beckwith, US Army, had presented him with an order from President Lincoln directing him to use the monument grounds for cattle belonging to the government and that there were now some forty-five head in the enclosure.

General Winfield Scott, in command of the Union forces, had ordered Army troops into Washington to protect it from incursions from Virginia, just across the river. Throughout the war years, the monument grounds would serve as part of the logistics support structure for Union troops, and the unfinished obelisk would stand neglected.

Construction efforts would instead be centered on fortifications for the city, such as Fort Stevens, in northwest Washington where present-day Georgia Avenue runs through Brightwood. The fort and its surrounding earthworks displaced the homes and farms of free blacks who were the landowners. In all, by early 1864 there would be a complete 37-mile ring around the capital, 68 forts and many artillery batteries and blockhouses, all linked by trenches and rifle nests. This included the southern shore of the Potomac and the area that is now Alexandria and Arlington; once the Federal forces arrived in Washington, they occupied that part of Virginia in defense of the capital.

A Peace Conference of representatives of seven of the seceded slave states, including the slave state Maryland which had not seceded, was held in Washington in February, hosted by the lame duck President James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. General Scott’s drilling troops, newly arrived in the city, gave the delegates of the conference something to consider as they walked to the Executive Mansion to meet President Buchanan, who pleaded with them to find some compromise.

Just before his inauguration, Lincoln told a group of supporters in Philadelphia: “…I may say in advance that there will be no bloodshed (with the seceding states) unless it is forced upon the government. The government will not use force, unless force is used upon it.”

Later in the spring, when Fort Sumter lay under siege in South Carolina, Lincoln was hesitant to recognize this as the starting point of the war. He took care to inform the governor that the federal troops he dispatched to relieve the men in the fort were only bringing food, not ammunition. It made little difference:  On April 14, after a day or so of bombardment directed by the newly formed Confederate army, the Federal forces surrendered the fort. 

On April 19, Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore caused a riot to prevent Union troops from reaching Washington. In response, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, the right of a person accused of a crime to appear before a judge before being incarcerated, for persons detained along the transportation route between Philadelphia and Washington. This allowed Union forces to capture people working for the Confederacy and hold them indefinitely without trial.

This was controversial then and continues to be today. It has been argued by some that in doing this, Lincoln violated the Constitution. In fact, the Constitution (Article I, Section 9) says, "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”

 Lincoln would proclaim, without seeking the consent of Congress, the writ suspended several times during the war. Whether this power of suspension is for the Executive Branch to wield, or if it belongs to the Legislature, is a question the Constitution doesn't specifically address. If one accepts that the Civil War may have threatened “public safety” and if responsibility for public safety during wartime is the Commander-in-Chief's, then it appears that Lincoln was well within his Constitutional bounds.

“Lest there be some uneasiness as to what is to be the course of government towards the southern states,” Lincoln said in his July 4th address, “ after the rebellion shall have been suppressed, the Executive deems it proper to say, it will be his purpose then, as ever, to be guided by the Constitution and the laws.” Less than three weeks later, General Scott’s Union forces would be routed by the Confederates in Manassas, Virginia, also known as Bull Run, less than 50 miles from Washington. “Suppressing the rebellion” would prove to be easier said than done.

Thomas Casey was transferred to Portland, Maine, where he was placed in charge of constructing defensive works on the coast and recruiting engineers to join the Corps of Engineers. He would remain there until well after the war was over.


For two days in April, Union and Confederate soldiers battled in a densely wooded area between Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River and the old Shiloh Church. It was a bloody two days: nearly 24,000 men had been killed or wounded, with many of the wounded left to lie unattended on the battlefield to die in the cold, rainy night between the days’ battles. The leader of the Union forces, U. S. Grant, realized at the end of the battle that it represented the true character of the Civil War: the two opposing sides were near equal and no battle would be completely conclusive; it would be a war of attrition and the victor would be the side that could bear the brunt of tragedy and the pain of battle. Grant would take that lesson with him on to the siege of Vicksburg and, at the bitter end of the war, the taking of Richmond.

Union forces captured New Orleans soon after the Battle of Shiloh, and Lincoln wrote his view of how reconstruction of the South might have been in a letter to a Union supporter in Louisiana: “The army will be withdrawn so soon as such state government can dispense with its presence; and the people of the state can then upon the old constitutional terms, govern themselves to their own liking.”

In mid-April, President Lincoln signed an act abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia. He later signed the Second Confiscation Act, which allowed for the federal government to seize all real property of anyone taking up arms against the government. This bill was quite limited in scope and not often enforced in practice; Lincoln felt that permanent federal seizure of property was unconstitutional, and demanded a resolution added to the language of the bill that said that any land seized would be returned to the heirs of the offender after his death.

By late May, Stonewall Jackson was pushing into northern Virginia again. The Confederates would again defeat the Union army in Manassas that summer and Robert E. Lee would cross the Potomac into Maryland in early September.

The Battle of Antietam, later that same month, was another ambiguous result. It has the infamous distinction of being the single bloodiest day, with nearly 23,000 casualties (dead, wounded, missing/captured), in American war history, beating out both D-Day in Normandy and the Iwo Jima landing.

The casualties were pretty evenly distributed and there was no clear victory, though General George McClellan (whom Lincoln would soon fire) tried to claim it as his as Lee withdrew his much smaller force back across the Potomac. The North's apparent advantage did serve a political purpose, though. It allowed President Lincoln to call it a Union victory and to issue his draft Emancipation Proclamation, which helped to undercut the rebellion in the South, gaining support from Northern abolitionists as well as European governments who were closely observing the War Between the States.

The Emancipation Proclamation seemed to be a significant departure from Lincoln’s earlier stated designs. Just a few weeks before he issued the draft Proclamation, he had stated, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery…What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help the Union.” Lincoln saw the Emancipation Proclamation as war measure, and wrote it that way. It did not apply everywhere in the Union, but only in the states in rebellion, and it made no appeal to universal rights of man, but only to military requirements. In his written address to Congress in December, Lincoln outlined more completely his plan for gradual emancipation that would take place over more than thirty years. This protracted plan, he argued, “spares both races from the evils of sudden derangement; while most of those whose habitual course of thought will be disturbed by the measure will have passed away before its consummation. They will never see it.”  

Lincoln wrote privately to a critic of the Proclamation; “You dislike the Emancipation Proclamation, and perhaps would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional. I think differently. I think the Constitution invests its Commander-in-Chief with the law of war. The most that can be said--if so much--is that slaves are property. Is there--has there ever been--any question that by the law of war, property, both of friends and enemies, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it helps us, or hurts the enemy?”


The area around the monument continued to serve as a cattle yard; a hay barn and a slaughterhouse were constructed on the site, further emphasizing the ignominy into which the monument had fallen. It was an eyesore in the city and an embarrassment to the Union.  Late in the year, on December 2nd, the Statue of Freedom would be placed on the top of the Capitol dome, the construction of which had started just a few years before the war broke out, and would conclude just at the war's end. 

Lincoln issued his formal Emancipation Proclamation on the first day of the New Year. Perhaps the most significant event of the entire war, the Proclamation set the stage for the Reconstruction era and ultimately changed the nation forever. Its issuance was quickly followed by a Union victory in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and the faltering start of the campaign to take Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg was strategically important due to the town's position on the Mississippi. It was, as Jefferson Davis put it, “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together” It would fall to Grant’s siege in July, concurrently with Meade’s victory in Gettysburg. 

The Battle of Gettysburg served as the high-water mark for the South’s invasion of the North. Encompassing the drama and emotion of events like Chamberlain’s 20th Maine defending Little Round Top, the carnage of Devil’s Den, and Pickett’s disastrous charge into the waiting Northern artillery on Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg is the center of many Americans’ understanding about the Civil War.  Lincoln’s address at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery, given on the 19th of November, ends “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

In December, Lincoln issued a proclamation of amnesty to the southern states that required a minimum of ten per cent of voters to take an oath of allegiance. This group would then be allowed to organize a state government, which Lincoln would recognize as valid.  This put the president in conflict with the congress, who later passed the Wade-Davis bill that required that each rebelling state be run initially by a military governor, who would receive allegiance oaths from a majority of voters and then allow a state convention to be elected, which would repudiate that state’s secession and end slavery as that body’s first official acts.

Lincoln silently refused to sign the bill, killing it by pocket veto. The two Radical Republicans that sponsored the bill, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Representative Henry Winter Davis of Maryland, angrily claimed that “the authority of Congress is paramount” and the President should “confine himself to his executive duties…and leave political reorganization to Congress.”  

Lincoln ignored the bill in part because it contained language that would have forced each of the rebelling states to ban slavery before they could be readmitted to the Union, which made the bill unconstitutional (the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, hadn’t even been drafted at this point) in the view of the administration. 

Lincoln’s other objection was that the bill was based upon the idea that the southern states would have to “rejoin” the Union. Lincoln’s administration never recognized the South’s right to secede and took the position that the declarations and bills passed by the seceding states were null. The Union was not at war with treasonous states, according to Lincoln, it was merely striving to “compel the obedience of rebellious individuals.” It seems perhaps a too-subtle point from today’s perspective, but it was an important distinction as Lincoln contemplated restoring normalcy and prosperity to the entire nation after completion of the war. The viewpoint of the Radicals in congress who opposed Lincoln was that the South was a separate and alien nation; this mindset would color much about how Reconstruction would play out in the absence of Lincoln’s leadership and influence.


While no work was done on the Washington Monument, everywhere else in Washington construction was transforming the city. The war had brought manufacturing, everything from artillery shells to steamships, to the District, and the work attracted people. From the docks of the Navy Yard to the Armory to the still-unfinished dome of the Capitol to the railroad yards in Georgetown, the bustling city was open for business.

Owing to the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, the Union army’s fortunes appeared to have turned for the better, as well as the political fortunes of Abraham Lincoln. The hero of Vicksburg, Ulysses S. Grant, came to Washington in March to meet President Lincoln, receive his commission to Lieutenant General, and hear his Commander in Chief’s orders to take command of the Union forces and with them to take the city of Richmond, the rebel capital.

In April, Grant issued his secret orders for the Union forces, which included Sherman’s combined Armies of the Cumberland, the Tennessee and the Ohio in Georgia, and the Army of the Potomac under Meade in northern Virginia. The two separate federal forces would advance simultaneously, and Meade’s forces would cross the Rapidan and conquer the rebel capital.

It would be months before that deed would be completed, and Washington would suffer an attack by General Early and his Confederate raiders in the meantime: the Battle of Fort Stevens. President Lincoln himself, who came out to the fort to witness the battle, came under fire from Confederate snipers as he stood on the parapet observing the battle. The grass-covered remains of the fort are now a park in Northwest DC.  After the war, Early would say, “We didn’t take Washington, but we scared hell out of Abe Lincoln!”     

Fort Stevens

Through the month of May, Grant moved his forces south towards Richmond. By the end of the month, he took on the fortified positions of Lee’s Confederates in Cold Harbor, about thirty miles east of the Southern capital. While most of the fighting came on June 3, the battle stretched out over a week and the Union forces took heavy losses, much to Grant’s lasting regret. The end game was set, however, and Lee was never able to move away from the area around Richmond again. By the 16th of June, the Union army was crossing the James River south towards Petersburg, to begin the long siege that would finally end the fighting. 

In Tennessee, a small Confederate victory in April, the brief retaking of Fort Pillow on the Mississippi, would become an infamous and controversial scandal, the alleged massacre of surrendering men of the US Colored Troops at the hands of General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate soldiers. Forrest himself, though he later denied having ordered the killing of defenseless men, wrote, “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards…It is hoped these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”

Farther south, Sherman’s forces advanced on Atlanta; the city would fall on the 2nd of September.

Running for re-election against the general he had fired after Antietam, George McClellan, Lincoln garnered 55 percent of the popular vote and 234 to 21 of the Electoral College votes. He hoped to use this landslide victory to gain the submission of the Radicals in congress and put forth his plan for Reconstruction, but there was still fighting to be done before he could focus on rebuilding.  One week after Lincoln’s reelection on November 9th, Sherman began his March to the Sea, to finally crush the morale of the rebelling states. 

Back in Virginia, General Sheridan was pursuing Early’s Confederate raiders, the same forces that had assaulted Washington in the spring. Sheridan won a decisive battle at Cedar Creek, just west of Front Royal, in October, setting Early and his forces on the defensive; they would not be able to threaten Washington again.

Late December found Sherman advancing on Savannah, Georgia. The strategic coastal city would fall on the 21st. W.E.B. Du Bois, the historian and founder of the NAACP, wrote in 1901 of Sherman’s impact in the South:

“Three characteristic things one might have seen in Sherman's raid through Georgia, which threw the new situation in deep and shadowy relief: the Conqueror, the Conquered, and the Negro. Some see all significance in the grim front of the destroyer, and some in the bitter sufferers of the lost cause. But to me neither soldier nor fugitive speaks with so deep a meaning as that dark and human cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift columns, swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing and choking them. In vain were they ordered back, in vain were bridges hewn from beneath their feet; on they trudged and writhed and surged, until they rolled into Savannah, a starved and naked horde of tens of thousands.”

The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, traveled to Savannah to meet with black leaders to discuss how the freedmen would meet their new-found liberty. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land…till it by our own labor.” It’s difficult to argue this point, but how to give land to the blacks? Should the former slaveholders and supporters of secession have their lands seized and turned over to the blacks? There was the Second Confiscation Act, passed in ’62 that subjected the property of rebels to seizure, but Lincoln forced the limitation of this act, which was a war measure, to the lives of the rebels only; the land was to be returned to their heirs after their deaths. The question of how to provide land to blacks would not be fully answered for years.

Lincoln continued to develop and evolve his thinking about the great issue at hand. In a letter to General Wadsworth, an abolitionist from New York who was serving in the Union army without pay (and would soon pay the ultimate sacrifice by falling to a fatal gunshot wound at the Battle of the Wilderness), Lincoln wrote: “How to better the condition of the colored race has long been a study which has attracted my serious and careful attention; hence I think I am clear and decided as to what course I shall pursue in the premises, regarding it a religious duty, as the nation's guardian of these people, who have so heroically vindicated their manhood on the battle-field, where, in assisting to save the life of the Republic, they have demonstrated in blood their right to the ballot, which is but the humane protection of the flag they have so fearlessly defended.”


On January 31, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, abolishing slavery in the United States. The following day, General Sherman would start moving his Union forces from Savannah to meet up with the Army of the Potomac and support the siege of Petersburg and Richmond. Sherman reached Columbia, South Carolina in the middle of February. On the 17th, after a brief period of artillery fire from the Federals, Columbia, the birthplace of secession and rebellion, surrendered.

Sherman, who witnessed the poverty and despair of the blacks that had escaped from the plantations, took matters into his own hands. His Special Field Order Number 15 set aside the coastal islands off South Carolina and Georgia and the abandoned lands along the mouths of the rivers for settlement of the freedmen. The lands were divided into forty acre plots and nearly 40,000 blacks were settled, though it would only be a short-lived experiment. After the war, President Johnson had the land returned to the original owners. Other experiments involving the settlement of blacks on seized lands were tried as well during this time, but they were all temporary.

In fact, all plans of the radicals for giving confiscated property to the freed blacks ultimately failed. It wasn’t that there was no concern for the economic state of the freed slaves, or that they wouldn’t have benefited from receiving land from the government, or not have been industrious enough to make a profit. It was that the entire idea of redistribution of property from its rightful owner to another, deserving though that other might be, went totally against the principles upon which the country had been founded.

As one editorial put it: “A division of rich men’s lands amongst the landless…would give a shock to our whole social and political system from which it would hardly recover without the loss of liberty… [a scheme] in which provision is made for the violation of a greater number of the principles of good government and for the opening of a deeper sink of corruption has never been submitted to a legislative body.” 

Lincoln’s inauguration was on the 4th of March, and it appeared that his second term would be spent, not on war, but on the rebuilding of the nation. “…With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

His policy of amnesty seemed to have been effective, at least to a point.  A pro-Union government had been established in Tennessee and a Whig Unionist governor had been elected. Louisiana and Arkansas also had Union loyalist groups ready to form new state governments. In Alexandria, there had been a rump Virginia legislature and a Unionist state government that had been recognized by the administration and had operated throughout the war. 

Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide assistance to both former slaves and white refugees with food, clothing, shelter, and a means of finding work. The Bureau has been a target for criticism from the time it was created for corruption, incompetence and fostering segregation and the general mistreatment of Southern blacks.

Some of that criticism is undoubtedly well-deserved; there were many examples of the Bureau’s being complicit in injurious behavior by whites towards blacks. But it also did much to help the condition of the freedmen; it did in fact provide food and medical care to hundreds of thousands, and did much to improve the condition of the former slaves, setting up schools, finding work and supporting individuals with labor disputes and legal issues.

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of that time: “Behind the mists of ruin and rapine waved the calico dresses of women who dared, and after the hoarse mouthings of the field gangs rang the rhythm of the alphabet. Rich and poor they were, serious and curious. Bereaved now of a father, now of a brother, now of more than these, they came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses among the white and black of the South. They did their work well. In that first year they taught 100,000 souls, and more.”

It’s important to remember the context of the time and the huge social upheaval the end of slavery imposed to both whites and blacks.  Even the most ardent of supporters of equality for blacks knew that time was needed. Speaking on the question of voting rights for the freedmen, Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical abolitionist from Pennsylvania who later led the charge to impeach Johnson, equivocated: “Whether those who have fought our battles should all be allowed to vote, or only those of a paler hue, I leave to be discussed in the future when Congress can take legitimate cognizance of it.”

Lee’s forces retreated from Petersburg and Richmond in early April and allowed those cities to fall to Union forces. On April 9th, after a brief skirmish that convinced the Confederate general that he was finally out-matched, Grant and Lee met in a house in a town called Appomattox Court House, to discuss terms of General Lee’s surrender.

On Good Friday just five days later, John Wilkes Booth, who was part of an extensive conspiracy, shot President Lincoln in the back of the head as he sat watching a play in Ford’s Theatre in Washington. The same night, Lewis Powell (who also went by the name Paine) attacked Secretary of State William Seward and his son Frederick. Seward survived Powell’s vicious knife attack, though he carried the scars the rest of his life.

Booth escaped into Virginia, but was tracked down and shot by Union soldiers in Port Royal less than two weeks after the assassination of the president. Powell was found at the Surratt boarding house the day after the attacks, and was tried and hung with the other conspirators in July.

Jefferson Davis, the former Confederate president, was taken into custody by Union cavalrymen in Georgia and spent over three years in prison before being granted amnesty by President Johnson in 1868. 

In the south, state governments established the “Black Codes” which set very restrictive limits on the meaning of ‘liberty’ for Freemen. Under the codes, blacks would not be allowed to vote or to be citizens, nor would they be able to own firearms or move about freely. Though these Codes would be stricken down the following year, they set the stage for the segregated, white-dominated south that became the reality after Lincoln’s vision for healing the country died with him.

The Joint Committee on Reconstruction was formed on the 13th of December, based upon a resolution submitted by Thaddeus Stevens. The committee was charged to “inquire into the condition of the states which formed the Confederate States of America, and report whether any of them are entitled to be represented in either house of Congress.”


In February, President Andrew Johnson presided over the first postwar meeting of the Washington National Monument Society. “Let us restore the Union, and let us proceed with the Monument as its symbol…” Despite this support from the highest office in the land, the Monument would continue to languish in its unfinished state for many more years.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was passed over Johnson’s veto to ensure the rights of the emancipated slaves, anticipated and informed the Fourteenth Amendment by conferring basic rights of citizenship to all regardless of race, color or former status of slavery.  There was wide-spread resistance to the Act; groups such as the Ku Klux Klan used terrorism and violence to oppose it.

In the South, the war’s aftermath was poverty and a breakdown of civil government and the rule of law. Some former Confederate soldiers, returning home to desolation and despair, turned to crime and banditry, and used their military experience to attempt to reestablish what they saw as the white man’s rightful place in their society’s order.

Congress also passed a renewed bill for the Freedmen’s Bureau, again over Johnson’s veto. Opposition to Reconstruction policies were not limited to the southern states; while many agreed that slavery was evil, very few held the view that whites and blacks were equal socially. The anger and turmoil over Reconstruction allowed politicians a new angle upon which to run for office all over the country: white supremacy.  In the gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania, a political broadside proclaimed: “The Freedman's Bureau! An agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man. Twice vetoed by the President, and made a law by Congress. Support Congress & you support the Negro. Sustain the President & you protect the white man!” 

In the congressional elections that fall, Radical Republicans gained two/thirds majority control of both houses of the congress; Radical Reconstruction was about to begin in earnest.


The Washington Monument Society resumed its efforts to raise money, but with very little success. The postwar years were difficult and people focused their attention on seemingly less trivial matters.

In January, the Congress called itself into special session, effectively usurping for the first time a power reserved for the Executive Branch, in order to vote that the first session of the new congress start in March of that year, rather than wait until the era's traditional start time of December. This would prevent President Johnson from acting without the will of the Republican congress. They also sought to limit the President’s powers by attaching a clause to the Army Appropriation Act that stated that the Commander in Chief could only issue orders to the military through the “General of the Army” (who was still Ulysses Grant at the time) whose headquarters must be in the District, and who could not be sent elsewhere without the approval of the Senate. This extra-ordinary session also saw Congress issue the Tenure of Office Act, a bald attempt to prevent Johnson from replacing Secretary of War Stanton, the last cabinet member from Lincoln’s administration that sympathized with the Radical Republican view of the Reconstruction.

The Reconstruction Act of 1867 split the South into 5 military districts, each with its own military governor from the North. Each state had to have their state constitution approved and they were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which made citizens of all the freed slaves, before they were allowed to rejoin the Union. The language of the preamble was a stark departure from Lincoln’s vision of reconciliation: “…no legal State governments or adequate protection for life or property now exists in the Rebel States… [this act would enforce] peace and good order…in said States until loyalty and republican State governments can be legally established.” 

Nearly 20,000 U. S. troops were sent to the south to fulfill this mandate. They made up part of the new fabric of southern life, along with carpetbaggers, Freedmen Bureau agents, scalawags, freedmen, and the vanquished southern whites. It was an unstable mix and the violence and criminality was high. In his “Report of the condition of the South, investigator Carl Shurz wrote:  “The number of murders and assaults perpetrated upon Negroes is very great; we can form only an approximative (sic) estimate of what is going on in those parts of the South which are not closely garrisoned, and from which no regular reports are received, by what occurs under the very eyes of our military authorities.”

Frederick Douglass wrote an open letter to Congress which was published in the Atlantic Monthly, appealing for the legislature to address the question of black suffrage. In it, he succinctly described the conditions in the South and clearly laid out what the future would hold:

“… It is plain that, if the right [to vote] belongs to any, it belongs to all. The doctrine that some men have no rights that others are bound to respect, is a doctrine which we must banish as we have banished slavery, from which it emanated… The work of destruction has already been set in motion all over the South. Peace to the country has literally meant war to the loyal men of the South, white and black; and negro suffrage is the measure to arrest and put an end to that dreadful strife…Statesmen, beware what you do...Will you repeat the mistake of your fathers, who sinned ignorantly? Or will you profit by the blood-bought wisdom all round you, and forever expel every vestige of the old abomination from our national borders?"

Thomas Casey was transferred from Maine to Washington, D.C. to serve as an assistant in the office of the Chief of Engineers.


As the nation struggled with Reconstruction, the Washington Monument continued to be neglected. Mark Twain wrote that “It (the unfinished shaft of the obelisk) is just the general size and shape, and possesses about the dignity, of a sugar mill chimney.”  The next few years would see almost no activity on anyone’s part to pursue the resumption of the construction effort. The forlorn, incomplete stump had ceased to be noticed in the daily life of the District, and nobody paid it the least of thought or attention.

In an episode of political drama that underscored the enmity left over from the war, Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives, who characterized his firing of the War Secretary Edwin Stanton as a “high crime and misdemeanor”. He was acquitted in the Senate by one vote.

The Fourteenth Amendment, which gave citizenship to all freedmen, was passed by congress but bitterly opposed in the South. It would be years before it was fully ratified, even as it became a requirement for rebel states to re-join the Union.

Du Bois wrote about this time: 

“ must not forget an instant the drift of things in the later sixties: Lee had surrendered, Lincoln was dead, and Johnson and Congress were at loggerheads; the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted, the Fourteenth pending, and the Fifteenth declared in force in 1870. Guerrilla raiding, the ever present flickering afterflame of war, was spending its force against the Negroes, and all the Southern land was awakening as from some wild dream to poverty and social revolution."

Thaddeus Stevens, the influential Radical, died in this year, the first of many Radicals to leave the public scene with no one behind them to take up the cause of permanent equality and suffrage for the freedmen.


Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated as President in March. His successful campaign was due in part to the black voters in the South, and he immediately won favor with the Radicals by selecting Stanton to stay in his Cabinet position as Secretary of War. His administration would become infamous for corruption and for the beginning of the white southern “conservative” push to regain political power from the Radical governments.  

Grant lacked the political skill that was necessary in this time of immense social upheaval; he was certainly no Lincoln. He was ineffective in dealing with the scandals in which members of his cabinet became embroiled and he lacked the zeal of the Radical Republicans to crush the white landholders that resisted the Reconstruction. This should not have been a surprise from the man who was so humble in victory at Appomattox.

Much of the criticism against Grant came from quarters that didn’t want to see a restored Union so much as an irresistible Federal power, one with no checks from a politically active South. Despite the problems of his administration, Grant was effective in solidifying many of the Reconstruction gains sought by the Radicals. He sought consultation with black leaders, worked to protect suffrage and equal rights for blacks in the southern states and practically waged war against the Ku Klux Klan, all but eliminating them during his time in office. Still, the beginnings of the white South’s “redemption” and the abandonment of the reconstruction effort which allowed the segregated South to arise were clearly to be found in the early days of Grant’s presidency.


The June 1st edition of the Daily National Republican had an article about an interment for Union soldiers at the Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill, even though Arlington National Cemetery had opened in 1864. The paper also had a recap of the Nationals’ victory over the Olympics in baseball. The Nationals, not the same franchise as today's Washington team, of course, wouldn’t officially be a professional team until two years later.

It continued to be a slow time for those interested in seeing the Monument completed. Not until the Centennial Celebration got closer did anyone even consider the monument.

The Justice Department, to support the Attorney General who up to that time had served as a part-time assistant to the president, was created.

Georgia, after ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment, would be the final Confederate state to be readmitted to the Union.

It appeared that the state of the freedman continued to improve in the start of the new decade. The final correction to the foundation of the Republic brought about by the Civil War was completed in the passing by congress of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote for African-American men. Hiram Rhodes Revels, a Republican from Missouri, was the first black man elected to the U.S. Senate.

Not all was well, however, in the cause of the southern blacks. The waste and corruption of the Freedman’s Bureau and the Reconstruction effort in general, perpetrated by a small but notorious minority of northern carpetbaggers and southern scalawags, seemed to vindicate the southern white conservative “Redeemers”, as they came to be known in the post-Reconstruction South. Racial prejudice, in both the North and the South, was also widespread and intractable. An article that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the same periodical that gave a stage for Frederick Douglass, purported to give an informed view of the states of the blacks by a former Union Army officer, Nathaniel Shaler. He wrote that they were much the same as they were under slavery, though “perhaps less merry than before, the careless laugh of the old slave is now rarely heard, for it belonged to a creature who had never pondered the question of where his next meal was to come from.” Shaler insisted that those who pushed for equality and suffrage for the black simply didn’t understand “how thoroughly exotic the Negro is…one cannot appreciate the difficulties of making him a part of the social system which fits us… [with his] passions of a mental organization widely differing from our own.”

Economic interests also overcame the desire for radical reconstruction of the South. In order for northern entrepreneurs and investors to do business in the southern states, there had to be a halt to the violence and uncertainty, and a restoration of stable local and state governments. It appeared to those interested in investing in and taking a financial chance on the South, including Republicans, that the white southern conservatives were the only ones who could set the stage for economic growth.


The Washington City Canal, of which Tiber Creek near the Monument grounds was part, had fallen into disuse over the last twenty years. Never a very pleasant creek, the Tiber had become an open sewer during the Civil War years. City planners began a project in this year that created a tunnel to accommodate the water and covered over Tiber Creek, leaving a small pond between the Monument and the White House. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1871, more commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, was enacted.  It was specifically requested by President Grant and was aimed at stemming the violence and terrorism against blacks in the South. It allowed the president to suspend habeas corpus and suppress uprisings in states as he saw fit.

The sentiment against the radical reconstruction effort continued to grow. Grant’s Secretary of the Interior, Jacob Cox of Ohio, recommended that the administration seek to gain the “intelligent, well-to-do, and controlling class” of white southerners as their allies, essentially a return to Lincoln’s more reconciliatory policies towards the rebel states that he had envisioned before his death.

In June, the corporations of the cities of Washington and Georgetown were abolished and a single Presidentially-appointed government for the entire District of Columbia was established by the District of Columbia Organic Act. While this is the beginning of Washington, D.C. as we know it today, it was much later that the citizens of the district were allowed to elect their own mayor. 


U. S. Grant signed the Amnesty Act into law which restored voting and office-holding privileges to secessionists (all but about 500 of the military leadership of the CSA). This Act impacted about 150,000 former CSA soldiers. Despite the fact that this essentially established an instant voting bloc against him, Grant was re-elected to office by a wide margin.

Grant ran against Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune. Greeley was a staunch abolitionist but he also believed the rebel states should have been allowed to secede peacefully; this was only one example of his seemingly self-contradictory political stances. Perhaps luckily for Greeley, who lost so emphatically despite having the support of the Democrats and the Liberal Republicans, he is the only Presidential candidate to die before the Electoral College ballots were counted.

Liberal Republicans were made up of one-time radicals who were against the Grant administration and who thought that the reconstruction effort should be over and the military troops brought home. They had lost interest in supporting the freedmen, which allowed their temporary alliance with the Democrats. The Liberal Republican Party scarcely outlived their candidate, and the membership split and moved (back, in most cases) into the Democrat and Republican parties.