Washington at the Start of the Civil War

Our tale beings with an ebook.

I subscribe to Early Bird Books’ daily emails of discounted ebooks. Friday they usually send out a multi-category sale, and on Sundays there’s usually a history-specific sale. At some point along they way, they offered Lucinda Prout Janke’s A Guide to Civil War Washington, DC, a book that is exactly as you’d suspect from the title — a look at what Civil War Washington was like.

My Gardner anestors moved to Washington from Baltimore during the Civil War, settling on Capitol Hill, first about a block from G Street SE (and Christ Church), later moving to M Street SE a few years later, and then to 11th Street SE a few years after that.

I’ve looked at maps and paintings of what Washington looked like then, so adding this book to my collection was pretty much a no-brainer.

The book is illustrated — maps, buildings, portraits — and I came across this interesting image. The Capitol, under construction. The city behind it. A river in the distance.

Image of the unfinished Capitol in 1861, apparently looking east
Image of the Capitol from A Guide to Civil War Washington, DC

I’ve seen a number of pictures like this before. An 1852 painting like this is my desktop wallpaper at work. The 1856 painting hangs on my office wall at home. The painting in A Guide to Civil War Washington is similar — but there’s one significant difference. The 1852 and 1856 paintings are aspirational. They show the Washington that will be or might be — the finished dome, a completed Washington Monument in its original design. The painting in the book? The Capitol dome is unfinished.

I wanted to see this painting better. But first I had to figure out what I was looking at.

One obvious problem — the 1852 and 1856 paintings are looking west from the Capitol (though the shadows are pointing in the wrong direction). Based on the river, the painting in the book faces east, toward what is now RFK Stadium and the Anacostia.

I screenshotted the image from my Kindle, cropped the image, and tried Google Image Search. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I wondered. Is it possible that I’m not looking toward Congressional Cemetery and the Anacostia? Is it possible the image is flipped horizontally? I fired up GIMP, flipped the image, and suddenly everything in the image made sense to me as it hadn’t before.

The image from the book flipped and corrected. The Capitol, unfinished, is in the foreground. In the distance, the incomplete Washington Monument. Beyond that, the  Potomac River.
Corrected image from A Guide to Civil War Washington, DC

Even at its small size, I could say, “That’s the Washington Monument, that’s the Smithsonian Castle, that’s Trinity Episcopal, that’s Pennsylvania Avenue. that’s the Washington City Canal.” As it was in the book, everything was out of place. Flipped correctly, everything was where I knew it should be.

A Google Image Search on the corrected image took me to the late Cokie Roberts’ book, Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, as her book uses this image, or one very similar to it, as part of its cover. (I’ve seen this book at the local Books-a-Million in the past, but never bought it.) But this didn’t help me…

…until, months later, I had an idea.

The image I had screenshotted from my Kindle was very poor. The cover images of Cokie Roberts’ book were of a better resolution. What if I took the cover, cropped it to the part of the image I wanted — the Capitol and the Mall — and ran that through Google Image Search.

I occasionally have brilliant ideas. Because this accomplished exactly what I wanted.

I found the original image.

George Henry Andrews’ “Birdseye View of the City of Washington, with the Capitol in the Foreground,” for the Illustrated London News, May 1861. (The Senate has a version of the image as well.)

Andrews' Birdseye View of the City of Washington
Andrews’ Birdseye View of the City of Washington

That’s a very familiar looking image! Similar but also different from other images like this I have and have seen.

The Washington Monument appears to be a stub. Its Washington is the Washington as it was in 1861, not the city its builders hoped it would be (and, in the case of the Monument, never was).

The Capitol dome is unfinished, as is the House Wing (ie., the south wing) of the building.

Let’s look closer at some familiar locations.

Detail of Andrews' Birdseye View, showing the Smithsonian Castle and the unfinished Washington Monument.
The Washington Monument (center) and the Smithsonian Castle (center-left)

In addition to the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian Castle, Mary Anne Hall’s brothel is at left. The Washington City Canal at this point was little more than an open air sewer.

Detail of Andrews' Birdseye View, showing the Old Naval Observatory
The Old Naval Observatory (center)

The White House is in this image of the Old Naval Observatory along Pennsylvania Avenue, but the image is so murky it’s impossible to make out.

Trinity Episcopal (center)

I always look for James Renwick’s Trinity Episcopal Church, based on his rejected design for the Smithsonian Castle, in images like this. No particular reason; it’s simply a cool landmark that was unfortunately torn down long ago.

I love old images like this. 🙂

Published by Allyn Gibson

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

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