On the front line of American history: Remarkable photos capture life in besieged Washington during the Civil War

These are the striking black-and-white images which capture America on the cusp of monumental change during the Civil War.

But instead of portraying dramatic events such as the bloody Battle of Antietam or Abraham Lincoln’s historic address at Gettysburg, the images reveal day-to-day life for those caught during wartime in Washington DC.
Defending the nation’s capital, which was ripe for invasion by Confederate forces that had set their sights on the city, became a top priority for the U.S. government.
The war transformed Washington from a modest semi-rural city below the Mason-Dixon line into an urban hub as people, government institutions and infrastructure all converged there, setting the stage for the rapid expansion of the city throughout the latter half of the 19th century.
Civil war broke out in 1861 when the South had seceded from the United States over the hot-button issue of slavery and its expansion into the western territories.
As the conflict dragged out, Washington DC became a military headquarters and logistics center - and local photographers rushed to capture the developments.
Thousands of volunteers streamed into the city to fight for the Union and local residents embraced the new arrivals.
The armies of the North desperately needed infrastructure, and so warehouses, supply depots, ammunition dumps, and factories were established to provide and distribute material. Civilian workers and contractors followed the arriving troops into the city to help the war effort.
At the beginning of the war, Washington's sole defense was one old fort built back in 1809. When Major General George B. McClellan assumed command of the Department of the Potomac, he became responsible for the capital's defense. He built fortifications on hills around the city and placed batteries of field artillery like Wiard guns in the gaps between these forts.
Hospitals and ambulance stations, known at the time as ambulance shops, in the Washington area became significant providers of medical services to wounded soldiers returning from the front lines.
Slavery was abolished throughout the District on April 16, 1862 - eight months before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation - with the passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act.
As a consequence, Washington attracted a large population of freed slaves, and many were employed in building the ring of fortresses that eventually surrounded the city for protection.
Among the most significant of these Civil War hospitals were the Armory Square Hospital, Finley Hospital, and the Campbell Hospital. More than 20,000 injured or ill soldiers received treatment in permanent and temporary hospitals in the capital.
During the war, the U.S. Patent Office, and, for a time, the Capitol building itself, were used as medical centers.
Some of the most important public figures of the era even served as nurses or medical assistants, among them poet Walt Whitman, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and Dorothea Dix.

Fishing the Forgotten River in the Nation’s Capital

Thousands of people consume fish from Washington, D.C.’s highly polluted Anacostia River, despite safety warnings.

 On a recent boat ride up the Anacostia River, the first warm day of spring had lured anglers to the riverbank. Cooped up over the winter, they seized the opportunity to return to their faithful friend—filled with catfish, perch and bass—to find some peace in nature and some dinner for the night.

But this was no Norman Rockwell painting. These fishermen were casting their lines into the urban waters of Washington, D.C., into a river notorious as one of the dirtiest in the nation. What's more, according to a recent study, they represented a small fraction of the 17,000 or more residents of this metropolitan area who are consuming fish from a river that has all the markings of a Superfund site.

Flanked by tackle boxes and coolers awaiting their catch, the fishermen sat on picnic benches and beach chairs alongside this murky river on its journey to the Potomac, recently named America's most endangered river. An overnight storm had dislodged garbage and petrochemicals from city streets and flushed them into the Anacostia. Plastic bottles, basketballs, and other detritus swam in an oily sheen that glistened upon the surface.

Just upstream from the multimillion-dollar Nationals Park, the anglers were book-ended by towering cranes, the beginning of a massive remediation project to remove three feet of toxic soil contaminants. And 30 feet upstream, built into the seawall constructed a century ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was a combined sewer outflow. This archaic stormwater conveyance mechanism continues to dump a billion gallons of human waste and toxic runoff directly into the Anacostia every year.

Still, the fishermen sat contentedly under the cool shade of towering trees, hauling their catch from the water. In fact, more than contented, they seemed happy, at ease in a city that is known for frenetic tension. Perhaps it is the presence of turtles sunning themselves on logs at the edge of the river, or the constant chatter of birds hidden in the trees, or the nearby corridor of forest upstream that whispers the promise of solitude despite the centuries of abuse the river has weathered. There is something uniquely liberating about spending the day on a river catching your own dinner.

And all the more so when your other dining options might be fast food, getting in line at a food bank, or going hungry, as is the case for some in this economically disadvantaged watershed.

Just a few blocks west of the river, the reality of the Anacostia's fishing community is unknown. In the more affluent neighborhoods of the Washington, D.C., metro area, the idea that anyone would eat a fish caught in the Anacostia seems unthinkable. This society long ago accepted the assumption that the river was dead—and the dead are easily forgotten.

But not everyone has abandoned the Anacostia. As in so many places, those who have the least are often most closely tied to the land. In Washington, D.C., fish from this river have fed some of the city's African Americans for many generations—from the bonded Africans sold on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay to refugees of the Civil War South, to some of today's unemployed and poor residents east of the river. They are joined by recent immigrants, mostly Spanish-speakers who have continued their custom of fishing for dinner from the rivers of Central America.

Feeding the Hungry

River advocates and city officials once thought most of the fishing on the river was catch-and-release and that the number of people consuming fish from the river was minimal.

"We thought 25 to 50 individuals at most," said Mike Bolinder, the Anacostia Riverkeeper, whose title is the same as the nonprofit organization he represents.

But a recent study conducted by the Riverkeeper and a consortium of other nonprofits and government agencies found fish consumption to be much more prevalent. The study found that three-quarters of those fishing on the river are eating, or sharing, their catch. Though river and human health advocates and agencies do not have definitive studies linking cancers and other health problems to consumption of the river's fish, the animals themselves tell a worrisome tale. Studies of the Anacostia's bottom-feeding fish like the brown bullhead catfish have shown that between 50 and 68 percent have liver tumors, and almost a quarter have visible skin lesions.

The District of Columbia government has issued advisories, but to little effect, according to Brian King, the city's associate director of fisheries and wildlife. The reasons, according to the fishing study, are tied to economics, but they are also rooted in language, culture, and even the primal forces of human dignity and generosity. For Spanish-speakers, conveying the risks of fish consumption is complicated—by language barriers, education levels, and immigration status, all of which can deter people from understanding advisories or even acquiring fishing licenses.

But even for those who have lived near the river for generations, the situation is complex. Some anglers have been fishing and eating out of the Anacostia for decades, and any warning from the government lacks credibility. "Surprise, surprise. We've been dumping toxic waste on them for 100 years. Why would they trust the government?" Bolinder said.

In many ways, history and memory have collided to build walls between the Anacostia community and the government and river advocates.

"Sixty-five percent of the anglers are black and 15 percent of this room is black," said King, at a recent meeting to discuss the results of the survey. "You can tell them not to eat the fish all day long; they're not going to believe you. You're fighting a lot of issues beyond fish toxicity here."

Some of those issues are nearly as old as the river itself—namely poverty and hunger. Even fishermen who don't eat the fish themselves, who understand there are health risks, will share the fish with others in need.

"If they have concerns about the health of the fish, it is being overcome by the gratification of helping others," said the survey conductor, Steve Raabe, president of Opinion Works. "They're thinking, 'Health risk? Okay, maybe. But this person's hungry and I'm going to help them right now.'"

This poses a predicament for those responsible for public outreach.

"How can you tell someone 'You might get cancer in ten years from this,' when they are hungry today?" asked Juliet Glassroth, a communications professional involved in the study.

Looking Ahead

Unfortunately, this sword has more than two edges for those responsible for river and community advocacy. Every negative headline for the river has the potential to energize supporters but also alienate visitors, and the Anacostia needs all the friends it can get.

It needs friends like Alphonzo Wright, and anglers like him, who embody the contentment that can be found on a riverbank.

"This is it!" Wright grinned widely on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May, holding a pole, waiting for a bite. Most spare moments he is found on a quiet stretch of the river hauling in fish—mostly catfish that he won't eat, but saves for a friend.

"I've been fishing since I was a kid, my whole family has," he said. "Fishing and bowling, that's what we all do."

People like Wright and the thousands of other anglers and kayakers who spend time on the river spark an added urgency for advocacy groups like the Riverkeeper, Anacostia Watershed Society, and others working to clean up the Anacostia. But restoring the river will take decades, even under the best of circumstances.

According to a 2011 study, "A New Day for the Anacostia," compiled by the nonprofit DC Appleseed, the outlook for Anacostia restoration depends largely on the willingness of the federal government to fully fund and lead clean-up of a river that it was largely responsible for despoiling. (In part through polluted runoff from the adjacent Washington Navy Yard, which is now a Superfund site.)

Ultimately, this latest chapter in the river's history could be a turning point toward ecological salvation and environmental justice. Much depends on the ability of advocates to harness the chronicle of the Anacostia fishermen into an irrefutable call for action.

"Written right into the Clean Water Act is 'this river should be fishable and swimmable,' said Bolinder. "This is the clarion call to clean up the river so that we don't rob the community of their right to go catch fish, and bring it home and eat it."

City of Scandal: Washington DC Teeming With Locations Haunted by Unsavory History

Between the monuments and museums and interspersed among the lobbying firms and political consulting companies that pepper Washington, D.C., lie an array of inconspicuous buildings that have housed some of the nation's juiciest political scandals.

From the famous Watergate building to the lesser-known Jefferson Hotel, the country's capital city has been home to its fair share of dishonesty, deception and indecency.

Here's a look at the places where some of the country's most prominent politicians made some of their worst choices.

Watergate Office Building

It was the scandal that rocked the White House and cemented the then-swanky Watergate Office Building into political corruption history. In 1972 five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters that spanned the sixth floor of the 12-story Watergate East building in an attempt to wiretap the offices. They were arrested in Suite 610 with thousands of dollars in cash.

That cash was traced through President Nixon's re-election committee and all the way back to the president himself, who allegedly tried to cover up the break-in. Nixon resigned two years later.

While "Watergate" has become synonymous with political corruption, the building itself is still used as offices, retail stores and residences, which sit between the Georgetown and Foggy Bottom areas if D.C. along the Potomac River. Several companies now operate out of the sixth floor offices where the break-in occurred, although about 2,000 sq. ft. of the space is still up for lease.

1400 M Street Northwest room 727


Westin Washington, D.C. City Center

Then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was five blocks from the White House when he took two long drags off of a crack pipe while lounging with his lady friend Rasheeda Moore in room 727 of what was then called the Vista International Hotel.

FBI agents, who were working with Moore and had installed hidden cameras in the room, stormed in and arrested the mayor, who was later charged with drug possession. "B*tch set me up," Barry muttered repeatedly as he was led out of the room in handcuffs. Barry served six months in federal prison and was re-elected mayor four years later. Since Barry's now-infamous arrest in 1990, the Vista Hotel has changed hands multiple times and is now a renovated Westin Hotel.

1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

White House's Oval Office

Monica Lewinsky was only 22 years old when she came to the White House as an unpaid intern for then-President Bill Clinton's chief of staff in 1995. Four months later President Clinton led her into the presidential study adjoining the Oval Office where their 16-month affair began.

According to reports given to Congress during Clinton's impeachment trial, the president and Lewinsky had multiple sexual encounters in the Oval Office, the president's study and the bathroom near the Oval Office.

More than a year after their affair ended, Clinton admitted to the country in a televised address that he "did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate."

Tidal Basin

Speaking of prostitutes, stripper Anabel Battistella aka "the Argentine Firecracker" earned herself the nickname "Tidal Basin Bombshell" after she jumped out of a car with former Rep. Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., and into the Tidal Basin, a large pond between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.

Mills, then the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee, was driving Battistella home with a few friends after a night of drinking. Mills had apparently been having an extended affair with the stripper.

When the park police pulled the car over because it did not have its lights on, Battistella made a run for it and had to be rescued from the Tidal Basin.

1250 South Hayes Street, Arlington, Virginia

Ritz Carleton Hotel parking lot

Former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., did not even have to step foot inside The Pentagon City Ritz Carleton hotel to make it one of the D.C. area's most scandalous sites. That's where Jefferson picked up a briefcase filled with a $100,000 bribe that he received for helping a telecommunications company expand their business to Nigeria.

Jefferson used his clout as a Congressman to meet with the Nigerian president and vice president on behalf of the company, which gave him $400,000 and a 30 percent equity stake in return.

Federal investigators caught wind of the scheme and searched Jefferson's home and office in the Rayburn House Office Building. They found $90,000 hidden in the freezer of his Washington, D.C., house.

Jefferson was convicted on 11 counts of bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and racketeering

45 Independence Avenue Southwest

Rayburn House Office Building

Deep in the sub-basement of the Rayburn House Office Building lies the Congressional "Wellness Center" (aka gym), a place only current or former members of Congress can go.

Few others have seen inside the steel doors that unceremoniously mark its entrance. That was, until former Rep. Anthony Weiner tweeted a half-naked photo of himself with the Congressional men's locker room in the background.

The photos, posted on TMZ, went viral and after two weeks of rampant rumors and denials Weiner finally resigned.

1200 16th St. NW

Jefferson Hotel

While Clinton was having a not-so-secretive affair with Lewinsky in the Oval Office, the chief political strategist for his re-election campaign was having a steamy affair of his own five blocks away at the Jefferson Hotel.

In suite 205 the married Morris had a year-long relationship with a $200-per-hour call girl, Sherry Rowlands. The tabloid Star broke the scandal in 1996 and Morris resigned shortly afterward.

Because having sex with a prostitute is not illegal in D.C., although soliciting sex with one is, Morris was never charged with a crime.

4407 W St. NW

FBI's Georgetown meeting house

To the unknowing passerby the red brick house in D.C.'s upscale Georgetown neighborhood looks like just any other house on just another residential street. But for two years the ordinary house was home to the FBI sting operation code named ABSCAM that tried to catch federal lawmakers who would trade political favors for cash.

The FBI remodeled the house to conceal cameras, microphones and a high-tech security system.

Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. was one of the lawmakers caught in the sting after he agreed to use his position to further his business venture. He was convicted on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy in 1981 and served three years in prison.

133 C St. SE

Christian Men's House

This hundred-year-old row house is a double whammy for political scandals.

Both Sen. John Ensign and Representative-turned South Carolina Gov. Mark Stanford had high-profile affairs and were frequent visitors to the house, which served as a place for prayer and religious devotion for the five congressman, including Ensign, who lived there and the many other politicians who frequented the house.

Ensign resigned from the Senate after word got out that he was having an affair with his best friend and top aide's wife. Stanford, who often went to the house as a congressman and later as governor, was nearly impeached by the South Carolina legislature after disappearing for a week and having an affair with an Argentine mistress.

Moving Buildings To Save D.C.'s Historic Foundation

K Street may be synonymous with Washington, D.C.'s thriving lobbying industry, but for decades, K Street between 6th and 7th streets NW has been a dilapidated city block of 19th and early 20th century brick buildings. In recent months, staffers at NPR have witnessed the transformation of the entire city block, located behind NPR's Washington headquarters.

Six historic structures were jacked up one by one and rolled out of the way. Five of those now sit on one end of an empty plot of dirt, waiting to be transplanted near their original spots on the block, which will be the home of a new 11-story, steel-and-glass office building for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

But unlike most urban gentrification projects that get rid of old buildings to make way for new ones, the new AAMC building will incorporate these old brick buildings as new restaurants and retail shops, re-creating the old streetscape while simultaneously transforming it. The $200 million-plus project raises questions of what's important to keep in a city and what should just be replaced.

Judging A Building's History

These old buildings of the 600 block of K Street NW have seen far better days. Before they were moved, a hulking two-story, yellow-brick garage built in 1918 sat at one end of the block, and at the other end, a squat car wash that was once an auto shop. Midblock sat a couple of faded grande dames. There were also three skinny Victorian-era row houses. Most recently, one was known to be a brothel.

The car wash was the first building to be moved, and it took hours to transplant it 40 feet. But crew member Kevin Kolb of Expert House Movers says these old brick structures are worth saving.

"Brick is solid. It wears. It has age," Kolb says. "It's like an old man's face. There are lines and wrinkles in it. But you know, you can power-wash that away and clean it."

The AAMC project is saving not just the building facades but also most of the depth of the buildings a historic preservation strategy welcomed by Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League, who says "facade jobs" became rampant in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s and stuck out like sore thumbs on revitalized city streets.

Miller says the value of historic buildings, like books, should not be judged by their covers.

"A lot of things have to do with the history of the building," Miller says. "There could be some very nondescript building [that has] this wonderful history behind it."

According to Miller, the nondescript buildings of K Street NW tell the story of a once-thriving German immigrant neighborhood and the early automotive era, as nearby streets became a commuter corridor.

A Compromise Of Old And New

Miller's organization thoroughly researched these buildings and prepared paperwork to nominate them for national historic status. Preservation often complicates developers' plans with restrictions, permits and legal fees. So that background work also gave Miller leverage in any potential clash with developers.

But in the case of the AAMC project, there was a negotiation, not a fight. The DC Preservation League compromised with developers at Douglas Development Corp. on saving these structures without historic status. Negotiations were not too contentious because it turns out this developer likes saving old buildings.

Paul Millstein, the gung-ho head of construction at Douglas Development, says he was amazed by the concept of moving buildings to preserve them.

"You know, people move a house [or] they move a table. [But] we're moving buildings! I mean, what could be more exciting?" he asks.

But Millstein admits projects such as this one combining old buildings with new are impractical, and they scare lenders away.

"There's not an institution or financier or lender out there that we've ever been able to convince these make sense," Millstein says. "[There are] so many things that can go wrong from moving structures."

Still, even though it's costing millions to move these old buildings and incorporate them into the new one, Millstein sees a real benefit.

"I think it makes the buildings richer. It gives them a better feeling. They have the feng shui to them," he says.

'A Speck Of Sand In An Oyster'

Shalom Baranes is the architect of the new building. His sweeping contemporary design has space carved out for this motley assemblage of old brick. He says incorporating the old structures into the new building is "a little bit like placing a speck of sand in an oyster," ultimately "deforming" the structure but in a good way.

"I think it makes for a much more exciting urban landscape. You sense time," Baranes say. "One of the great things about living in the city is that it has this fourth dimension of time. As you walk down the street, you sense what was done 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and those are things we don't want to lose."

Day by day, as the old buildings have been rolled away, a man has come around to capture the smaller increments of time passing on this block of K Street

"I am taking a picture of the history," says Kebrab Tekla, an immigrant from Ethiopia, as he stands outside the chain link fence surrounding the construction site, taking photos with his cellphone.

Tekla lived on this block for 25 years, back when the neighborhood was a crime-ridden wasteland. He rented the house for many years before buying it for about $300,000. He was paid more than $2 million to move.

Tekla was the last property owner to sell, and his house was demolished. But he did manage to save a bit of it.

"I saved some of my house bricks, so I have contact with them every day," Tekla says. "It's history because all my children [were] born in this house and my father, he died in this house."

That history is being rewritten as this part of Washington, D.C., undergoes massive change with new development built around signposts of the city that used to be.


Defending DC

Co. K 3rd Mass. Heavy Artillery, Fort Stevens in Washington, D.C., during the American Civil War.

In 1860, the Union capital, Washington, D.C., was a sleepy city of approximately 62,000 residents. The city sat almost completely unprotected, with Fort Washington, the lone fortification, being 12 miles south. Virginia, a Confederate state, lay on one side of the city, and Maryland, a slave-owning state, was on the other, leaving Washington dangerously vulnerable. Realizing the potential danger the city faced, the Union army constructed additional fortifications for the city. By 1865, the Defenses of Washington included 68 forts, supported by 93 detached batteries for field guns, 20 miles of rifle pits, and covered ways, wooden blockhouses at three key points, 32 miles of military roads, several stockaded bridgeheads, and four picket stations. Along the circumference of the 37-mile circle of fortifications were emplacements for a total of 1501 field and siege guns of which 807 guns and 98 mortars were in place. The defenseless city of 1860 had become one of the most heavily fortified cities of the world.

Not only did the defenses serve their purpose well by deterring Confederate attack on the capital, but they impacted the city culturally, socially, and politically. For example, many enslaved people came to the fort system for protection and settled nearby, changing the cultural landscape of the city. The population doubled in less than five years and changed in character from southern origin to northern newcomers.

The physical landscape was drastically affected, as well. Miles and miles of trees and many buildings were razed to construct the defense system--creating a fort-capped circle around the city.


Outside the White House Gates

Poor people's march on down Connecticut to Layfette Park

1938 hosery workers strike, looks like the train station in back

1915 F Street, Treasury Bld

1909 Female police officer DC

1909 DC police on a paddy wagon

Carrying coal

1891, Sioux delegation to Washington DC


Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon1784 by Rossiter and Mignot 1859

‘Memucan Hunt - Envoy, Minister Plenipotentiary, from the Republic of Texas’ Daguerreotype taken between 1844 and 1857