Pick number two in my Top 10 List: Reveille In Washington 1860-1865.
Many books about the Civil War have been written, and many are good, but one that I think belongs on every bookshelf is Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Reveille In Washington 1860-1865. With all of the “battles and leaders” interpretations of the War Between the States, it sometimes takes a bit of effort to remember that there was also a political side to the fighting, and that most of it took place in Washington, D. C. Leech’s book never lets the reader forget. In my opinion, this now-neglected book is the best “Washington novel” written, no matter what the year.
Leech herself is a very interesting person. Born in 1893 in Newburgh, New York, Margaret Kernochan Leech was one of the foremost American historians of her time and the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes in History. Reveille In Washington 1860-1865 was an immediate best seller, and received the Pulitzer in 1942. A later book, In the Days of McKinley (1959), a portrait of the presidency and the nation at the turn of the century, won the Bancroft Prize in American History, the Pulitzer Prize in History, and an Ohioana Award in 1960. Both books were Book of the Month Club selections.
She was a member of New York’s infamous Algonquin Round Table, where she formed life-long friendships. The Algonquin writers appreciated her “trigger-fast wit” and hearty appetite for the group’s habitual gaiety. Her writing hallmark is her combination of wit and elegance, combined with fact. Commenting on writing history, Leech told the New York Times that, “Writing history requires much that is necessary in fiction. That is, you must have your own light, your own point of view for each scene.”
Her light shines brightly on Abraham Lincoln, Louisa May Alcott, and Walt Whitman, among others. Leech gives us Washington’s Civil War, showing both the profound ways in which the town changed during the course of the conflict and, most crucially, how its ever-precarious state–internally and externally–affected the war’s conduct. In 1861, Washington was unfinished, filthy, and foul smelling. In six decades of being the nation’s capital, only half a dozen official government buildings had been finished, and they were separated by long stretches of mire. Scaffolding covered the area that was to be the dome of the Capital. Flocks of geese joined congressmen on the thoroughfares, and hogs congregated on Capital Hill and in Judiciary Square. “It was a Southern town,” Leech writes, “without the picturesqueness, but with the indolence, the disorder, and the want of sanitation.”
As Lincoln took office, Southern states continued to secede. Rumors of conspiracy abounded, spies were busy as termites, and such unsavory characters as Baltimore’s “plug-uglies” arrived in town. The appalling prospect of the Union capital falling into Confederate hands demanded military relief from Northern militia units such as the glorious “kid-glove” 7th Regiment of New York. Upon their arrival, Leech observes with characteristic tartness:
. . . the young gentlemen had had several days’ experience of the inconvenience of war . . . The sandwiches prepared for them under the supervision of Delmonico, had long ago been eaten; and they had had to leave at Annapolis a thousand velvet-covered camp stools. . . . They had come to save the capital, and were proudly aware of their own pluck and perseverance.
Margaret Leech’s description of the high spirits, color, and dash of those early volunteer regiments in all their exotic plumage takes on an almost hectic sparkle against the bleakness and misery to come. As the wounded and captured begin to flow into Washington from bloody, futile encounters with Confederate forces, public buildings not already serving as barracks become prisons and hospitals. In the Patent Office, “like some new exhibit of ghastliness, waxy faces lay in rows between the shining glass cabinets filled with curiosities, foreign presents, and models of inventions. The nurses’ heels clicked on the marble floor, and all over lay the heavy smell of putrefaction and death.”
Washington, described in all its wonderful, eccentric detail, provides
the perspective from which Leech examines the overall pursuit of the war–including the ineptness and obstructive jealousies of many of the Union generals. Both Winfield Scott and George McClellan fall to the cut of Leech’s witty observations, purposefully puncturing their pompous mannerisms. There are cameos of well known civilians: Frederick Law Olmstead, pursuing the work of the Sanitary Commission; Andrew Carnegie supervising telegraph lines and rail transport; the “portly, graying, and quietly dandified” William Howard Russell reporting for the London Times; “shy little spinster” Clara Barton organizing supplies and caring for the wounded, as were nurse volunteers Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott, the latter taken aback momentarily when asked to give a soldier a sponge bath.
This is a character-driven history and the chronicle of a city, but it is, also, a deft review of military strategy, and political maneuvering between and within political parties. It is a fast-paced account of the developments that resulted in, among other things, the suspension of habeas corpus, the levying of income tax, the draft and, most importantly, the emancipation of slaves, first in the city of Washington itself, then universally. Leech also traces carefully the strange and convoluted conspiracy that led, ultimately, to Lincoln’s assassination.
The book begins in a merry, rather ironic vein. It ends in sorrow and regret. “Rich with the wastage of armies, the perennial fields were green. On the Capital dome, Armed Freedom rested on her sheathed sword.”
If the value of a book may be judged, in part, on how well it holds up after repeated readings, then this one is a true winner. I have read it almost annually for many years, and it has never failed to keep me riveted to its pages.
Best of all, you can get it from amazon.com for under five dollars–even the latest reissue with the impressively endorsing “Foreword” by James McPherson.