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. 

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