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.