Book Review: Mr. Lincoln’s Washington

Mr. Lincoln’s Washington:  A Panorama Of Events In Washington From 1861 To 1865 Taken From Local Newspapers And With Over 250 Illustrations, by Stanley Kimmel

I picked up this particular volume because it looked like a quirky Civil War book that had something unique and striking to say about both Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  It might seem impossible given the large number of books that exist about both subjects [1], but this book manages to do so by looking at a niche that is often not explored heavily by historians of the Civil War, and that niche is looking what was published during Lincoln’s administration in the newspapers of Washington DC itself.  When we ponder the grand overarching narrative of the Civil War, it is useful from time to time to ponder and examine the effect of the Civil War and the way it was viewed from the point of view of small areas.  Just as there is room for fascinating narratives of grand strategy, there is also a place for small biographies and local histories, and this book serves as an excellent example of a local history.  The particular volume I purchased in Estacada at a used book store was a volume given in 1968 to Ron on his becoming an Eagle Scout by his Uncle Henry and Aunt Mila.  Whoever these people are, they had good taste in books.

As is noted helpfully by its dust jacket, this book contains over 62,000 words in around 220 pages that include a large amount of very excellent and often deeply amusing photography and woodcuts from the Civil War era.  The political cartoonists of the age were pretty savage, but their work was also genuinely humorous and equally useful in our contemporary age.  Witness, for example, the cartoon looking at office seekers trying to present themselves as Lincoln men in 1861 after having voted for Pierce in 1852 and Buchanan in 1856, something that is not so unfamiliar in our own political context.  The book itself is organized in a generally chronological fashion, with occasional section breaks, moving from Lincoln’s arrival in Washington DC shortly before his inauguration and ending in 1865 with the grand review of the Army of the Potomac and Sherman’s army and the execution of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination.  In between the book mixes the author’s thoughtful text and a great deal of useful photographs, maps, and artwork from the period that demonstrate some of the excellence of the journalism of the period, even as they expose a great deal of the sources of error and partisanship in the newspapers of the time that are also fairly common in our own contemporary press with its heavy editorializing and its propagandistic tinge.

There are a lot of little joys and insights one gains from reading this book.  For example, the author manages to compile a great many advertisements for fugitive slaves during the beginning of the Civil War, when the effect that the war would have on slavery was not entirely understood.  Lincoln is shown as being gracious with a population he considers to be not entirely friendly, and there are a great deal of interesting scandals, including one involving the imprisonment of the city’s mayor, that took place in the context of the Civil War.  Complaints about dust and fetid swamps and canals are frequent, and the population of our nation’s capital is shown as being extremely nervous during the time of the Civil War.  Apparently even then the city was known for its slums, for its houses of ill repute (and not just the House of Representatives either), and for its devotion to illicit smuggling and espionage efforts.  The fortification of the city from 1861 onward is noted in maps and photos and artwork, and there are a lot of interesting little stories that could easily be forgotten by those whose knowledge of the District of Columbia during this time is slight.  Some of the stories are particularly poignant, not just including those about Lincoln’s death but also the story of Robert E. Lee telling his wife to destroy the house that they know will be seized by the government because of his treasonous behavior in leaving the U.S. Army and her not being able to succeed before the house and its grounds are taken for Arlington National Cemetery and looted to boot.  The book even has the space to include notes about the fashion of the city’s balls and soirees, showing that even in wartime matters about fads and fashions did not disappear altogether.  For those who are interested in a quirky and unique book on Civil War history, this is a worthwhile one.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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