Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Siege of Washington

Fortunately for the United States, when the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the Southern states were as ill prepared to wage war as the Union states.  Had it been otherwise, the South might have ended the war in a matter of days by overrunning the nation’s capitol and capturing its entire government.  Historians have often wondered why the South did not go for the kill anyway, having more to gain than to lose in a battle to take Washington.  In The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union, historians John and Charles Lockwood explain.

Washington was poorly defended on April 14 when Fort Sumter was surrendered to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard.  President Lincoln, recognizing the country’s precarious situation, issued a call for troops the next day, Monday, April 15, and several Northern governors immediately began to mobilize state militias for Washington’s defense.  Actually getting those troops to Washington would prove to be the hard part. 

Located some 60 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Washington D.C. was solidly within slave-holding territory, and was, in fact, surrounded by the largely hostile populations of two states seen as likely to secede from the Union: Virginia and Maryland.  The best way to get Union troops to Washington was to use the rail lines that passed through Baltimore – something that the citizens of Baltimore were determined to stop from happening.  As the First Pennsylvania Volunteers, the Sixth and Eighth Massachusetts, and the Seventh New York tried to make their way to President Lincoln’s defense, it became a race to see which army would arrive first: North or South.

John and Charles Lockwood, using private letters, diaries, newspaper stories, and firsthand accounts from Lincoln’s secretaries (John Hay and John Nicolay), paint a vivid picture of life in a city whose citizens expected to be overrun by a hostile army at any moment.  A substantial portion of the city’s population sympathized with the Southern position, adding to President Lincoln’s concern about whether Washington could effectively be defended against an invading Southern army.  As conditions worsened, and it appeared more and more certain that Washington would be invaded, those who could leave, did so.  By April 22, telegraph communication with the outside world had been cut off and it was impossible to reach the city by rail.  As food supplies dwindled and bank runs became the order of the day, the nation’s capitol was truly under siege.

The Siege of Washington is a well constructed, but at times repetitive, account of a twelve-day period (April 14-25, 1861), during which America’s future might have been set on an entirely different path.  The authors, by using the words of those who were there, recreate what it was like for Washington’s citizens as they waited to see whose army would reach them first.  Civil War buffs will appreciate this one.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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