DC History through the Civil War


100,000,000 BC Dinosaurs hold most local power

66,000,000 BC Dinosaurs replaced by mammals such as the sabre tooth tiger

8,000,000 BC First signs of the Potomac River

8000 BC First Indians arrive in area

6000 BC Indians leave some projectile points lying around what will later become the American University campus.

Captain John Smith, entering the land of the Nacotchtanke, explores the Potomac River as far as Great Falls. Describes the Potomac as “frequented by otters, beavers, martens, and sables. Neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for small fish had any of us ever seen in a place. . .[The fish are] lying so thicke with their heads out of the water. . . neither better fish, nor more variety. . .had any of us ever seen in any place so swimming in the water.”

A party of whites raids the village of Nacotchtanke on the shores of the Anacostia. White settlement begins.

A visitor writes, “The Indians in one night commonly will catch thirty sturgeon in a place where the river is not above twelve fathoms broad. And as for deer, buffaloes, turkeys, the woods do swarm with them, and the soil is exceedingly fertile.”

Lord Baltimore grants a track of 1,000 acres to George Thompson in an area called Blew-Playne between Oxford Creek and the Eastern Branch (the Anacostia River)

Thomas Addison and James Stoddert obtain 3,000 acres between Rock Creek and the Potomac.

The original Indian tribes of the area have all been forced to leave


A survey marks the boundaries of Port Royal, one of about 15 estates deeded by lords Calvert of Maryland and comprising what would later be Washington.


Benjamin Banneker is born near Baltimore, Maryland in 1731; the only child of a free mulatto mother and African father, who had purchased his own freedom from slavery.

Georgetown is officially founded.


The Old Stone House, the oldest remaining house in DC, is constructed in Georgetown.


A January storm brings three feet of snow.


The Georgetown Presbyterian Church is founded. It is the oldest church in the area. “Stephen Bloomer Balch, a Revolutionary War soldier, established the church — then known as the Bridge Street Church and thought to be the first Presbyterian church in the District — in 1780. In 1782, the congregation moved into its first permanent building at what is now M and 30th streets in Northwest. Thomas Jefferson contributed $75 to enlarge the church in 1793, and as president in 1806 signed a congressional charter allowing the church to operate as a business.” WASH TIMES


Thomas Jefferson and James Madison suggest that Georgetown Maryland be the site of the future federal city.


A long cold winter leaves unbroken ice in the Potomac off Georgetown until March 15



PATRICK HENRY entertained strong suspicions that great dangers must result from the clause under consideration. . . Why demand a power which was not to be exercised? . . . [Congres has] a right, by this clause, to make a law that such a district shall be set apart for any purpose they please, and that any man who shall act contrary to their commands, within certain tell miles square, or any place they may select, and strongholds, shall be hanged without benefit of clergy. If they think any law necessary for their personal safety, after perpetrating the most tyrannical and oppressive deeds, cannot they make it by this sweeping clause? If it be necessary to provide, not only for this, but for any department or officer of Congress, does not this clause enable them to make a law for the purpose?. . . Is there any act, however atrocious, which they cannot do by virtue of this clause? Look at the use which has been made, in all parts of the world, of that human thing called power. Look at the predominant thirst of dominion which has invariably and uniformly prompted rulers to abuse their powers. Can you say that you will be safe when you give such unlimited powers, without any real responsibility? . . . Will not the members of Congress have the same passions which other rulers have had? . . .

I conjure you once more to remember the admonition of that sage man who told you that, when you give power, you know not what you give. I know the absolute necessity of an energetic government. But is it consistent with any principle of prudence or good policy to grant unlimited, unbounded authority, which is so totally unnecessary that gentlemen say it will never be exercised? But gentlemen say that we must make experiments. A wonderful and unheard-of experiment it will be, to give unlimited power unnecessarily! . . .
“Mr. George Mason thought that there were few clauses in the Constitution so dangerous as that which gave Congress exclusive power of legislation within ten miles square to augment the congressional powers. . . .What chance will poor men get, where Congress have the power of legislating in all cases whatever, and where judges and juries may be under their influence, and bound to support their operations? Even with juries the chance of justice may here be very small, as Congress have unlimited authority, legislative, executive, and judicial. . . Now, sir, if an attempt should be made to establish tyranny over the people, here are ten miles square where the greatest offender may meet protection. If any of their officers, or creatures, should attempt to oppress the people, or should actually perpetrate the blackest deed, he has nothing to do but get into the ten miles square. Why was this dangerous power given? . . .”


“If a federal town be necessary for the residence of congress and the public officers, it ought to be a small one, and the government of it fixed on republican and common law principles, carefully enumerated and established by the constitution. It is true, the states, when they shall cede places, may stipulate, that the laws and government of congress in them, shall always be formed on such principles; but it is easy to discern, that the stipulations of a state, or of the inhabitants of the place ceded, can be of but little avail against the power and gradual encroachments of the union. The principles ought to be established by the federal constitution, to which all the states are parties; but in no event can there be any need of so large a city and places for forts, etc. totally exempted from the laws and jurisdictions of the state governments.

“The city, and all the places in which the union shall have this exclusive jurisdiction, will be immediately under one entire government, that of the federal head; and be no part of any state, and consequently no part of the United States. . . Neither the laws of the states respecting taxes, the militia, crimes or property, will extend to them; nor is there a single stipulation in the constitution, that the inhabitants of this city, and these places, shall be governed by laws founded on principles of freedom. All questions, civil and criminal, arising on the laws of these places, which must be the laws of congress, must be decided in the federal courts. . .

“To avoid many of these intricacies and difficulties, and to avoid the undue and unnecessary extension of the federal judicial powers, it appears to me, that no federal districts ought to be allowed, and no federal city or town, except perhaps a small town, in which the government shall be republican, but in which congress shall have no jurisdiction over the inhabitants, but in common with the other inhabitants of the states. . .

“Such a city, or town, containing a hundred square miles, must soon be the great, the visible, and dazzling center, the mistress of fashions, and the fountain of politics. There may be a free or shackled press in this city, and the streams which may issue from it may overflow the country, and they will be poisonous or pure, as the fountain may be corrupt or not. But not to dwell on a subject that must give pain to the virtuous friends of freedom, I will only add, can a free and enlightened people create a common head so extensive, so prone to corruption and slavery, as this city probably will be, when they have it in their power to form one pure and chaste, frugal and republican.


The plan of the federal city, sir, departs from every principle of freedom, as far as the distance of the two polar stars from each other; for, subjecting the inhabitants of that district to the exclusive legislation of Congress, in whose appointment they have no share or vote, is laying a foundation on which may be erected as complete a tyranny as can be found in the Eastern world. Nor do I see how this evil can possibly be prevented, without razing the foundation of this happy place, where men are to live, without labor, upon the fruit of the labors of others; this political hive, where all the drones in the society are to be collected to feed on the honey of the land. How dangerous this city may be, and what its operation on the general liberties of this country, time alone must discover; but I pray God, it may not prove to this western world what the city of Rome, enjoying a similar constitution, did to the eastern.

Congress votes to establish the capital somewhere along the Potomac River.

President Washington selects the site for a new capital a few miles upstream from his spread.

Georgetown merchant buys 150 acres of Port Royal, admitting in a letter that “yesterday I was violently seized with that dabolical, frenzical disorder which have raged with such fury and pity for some time over the Federal City.”


“Before he quit in February 1792, angry that the commissioners would control implementation of his plan, Pierre L’Enfant had told President Washington that the Potomac Valley lacked the resources both in men and materials to build a capital worthy of the nation.” – Bob Arnebeck


About 300 people are living in Washington.


In 1795 Georgetown enacted an ordinance banning the congregation of more than 5 slaves in public with punishment of 39 lashes for the slaves and a $13 fine for their masters. The ordinance also punished indentured servants who were principally Irish emigrants. When the well-to-do in the District of Columbia castigated the lower sort, they usually cursed the blacks and Irish in the same breath. George Walker, a Georgetown merchant turned Washington land speculator, who had emigrated from Scotland, placed a newspaper ad to warn “straggly white persons and negroes” away from his orchard off Maryland Avenue NE. – Bob Arnebeck


The capital is transferred from Philadelphia to Washington, a town with 10,000 whites, 800 free blacks, and 3200 slaves. Moving the government isn’t that hard, since it has only 126 employees. The new capital is described by Secretary of the Treasury Wolcott:

There are few houses in any one place, and most of them small, miserable huts, which present an awful contrast to the public buildings. The people are poor, and as far as I can judge, they live like fishes, by eating each other. You may look in almost any direction, over an extent of ground nearly as large a the city of New York, without seeing a fence or any object except brick-kilns and temporary huts for laborers.

Abigail Adams was no more flattering of the unfinished “President’s Palace,” of which she said, “We have not the least fence, yard, or other convience without, and the great unfinished audience-room I make a drying-room of, to hang the clothes in.” She writes of her arrival, “Woods are all you see, from Baltimore until you reach the city, which is only so in name. Here and there is a small cot, without a glass window, interspersed among the forests, through which you travel miles without seeing any human being. In the city there are buildings enough, if they were compact and finished, to accommodate Congress and those attached to it; but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see not great comfort for them.”

Washington has its first fire, in a house next to the War Office.

One of the early free blacks, Yarrow Mamout, a devout Muslim, earns enough from his hauling business to buy a house in Georgetown .

More than a quarter of DC is black and nearly 20% of the blacks are free.


Thomas Jefferson walks to the Capitol for his inauguration from his boarding house two blocks away. After the ceremony he walks back and stays at the boarding house for another two weeks until his presidential quarters are ready.

Washington has its second fire – in the Treasury Office. The Federalists had just lost office and Republicans accused them of trying to destroy records.

Washington gets a municipal charter and white male property owners get to elect a city council. The president appoints the mayor, Robert Brent. During the next decade, Brent will also hold positions of justice of the peace, judge of the orphan’s court, paymaster general of the Army, curator for Columbian Institutes, member of the school board, president of Patriotic Bank, and president of the Columbian Manufacturing Company.


The “Poor House,” an infirmary and workhouse for “the disorderly” is established between 6th & 7th on M NW

The Mayor of the city appoints a chimney sweep to clean all chimneys in the city.

Black Codes, regulating activities of “free” blacks in the manner of apartheid, are enacted, including fines for blacks out after ten pm, requirement that freedmen carry documents, fines for playing cards or dice, and forty lashes for slaves caught at disorderly meetings. Cash bonds are required.


An Act to Prevent Swine from Going At Large is passed in Washington. This act designates Massachusetts Avenue as the southernmost boundary beyond which pigs were allowed to roam. By the 1830s, the area is known as the “Northern Liberties,” a term commonly given to regions beyond the limits of the city.


Aletha Tanner purchases her own freedom in 1810, then goes on to free her older sister and five of her children, eventually helping 18 people become emancipated.

First sewer line installed


For the first time, the city government spends money on fire equipment.

First mayoral election ends in a tie. Daniel Rapine defeats Robert Brent in a coin toss.

Election was decided in part by inmates of the poorhouse who were taken to the polls where candidates paid a 25 cent poll tax in return for a vote.


Robert Brent again loses a tie race for mayor, decided by a coin toss

Congress amends the city charter to create a board of aldermen and a common council. These bodies will elect the mayor.

The White House and other public buildings in the District of Columbia are torched by the British. At one point there are 20 fires going in the city.


Tobias Henson, a slave in the Anacostia area, purchases his freedom. He will later buy twenty-four acres and the freedom of his wife, two daughters, and five grandchildren. Writes Mary Halnon of the University of Virginia, “Henson added to his landholdings and by the 1870s his family was the principal landholder in the black community of Stantontown; they remained on the land until the 1940s, when the federal government condemned the community to build the Frederick Douglass public housing project. Another Anacostia slave, Alethia Browning Tanner, was able to purchase her freedom in 1810, paying almost a thousand dollars over the market value for a female slave; in the following decades she manumitted thirteen other family members.”



August 24 – Americans set fire to the Anacostia bridge to hinder the approach of British troops. The battle of Bladensburg begins at noon; the Americans are routed within hours. Dolly Madison leaves the White House with Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. By 7:30 pm. the British are marching down Bladensburg Pike towards the Capitol. Around 8 pm the Americans set the Navy Yard on fire to prevent it from falling to the British. By 9 pm, British arsonists set fire to the Capitol. By 11 pm the White House is burning, followed by the Treasury Building. The next day, the War and State offices are burned and DC is hit by the worst wind storm in memory. The heavy rains help to put out the fires. The British leave town. According to the National Intelligencer, “No houses were half as much plundered by the enemy as by the knavish wretches about the town who profited from the general distress.” [Source: Al Kilbourne, Maret School]

Congress approves the direct election of a mayor.

Conditions established by city council for non-slave blacks to stay in the city, including that they “enter into bonds with two freehold sureties, in the penalty of $500, conditional on his or her good conduct, that they will not become chargeable to the Corporation (or wards of the city) for the space of twelve months; the bond to be renewed every year for three years. On failure to do this, he or she must depart the city or be committed to the workhouse not exceeding twelve months in any one imprisonment.” The number of slaves has doubled since 1800 but will start to decline. The number of free blacks will continue to grow.




President Andrew Jackson ends practice of presidential inaugurations being organized by local citizens.

President Andrew Jackson urges Congress to allow DC residents to elect a nonvoting delegate to that body “with the same privileges that are allowed to other territories of the United States.”


I deem it my duty again to call your attention to the condition of the District of Columbia. It was doubtless wise in the framers of our Constitution to place the people of this District under the jurisdiction of the general government, but to accomplish the objects they had in view it is not necessary that this people should be deprived of all the privileges of self-government. Independently of the difficulty of inducing the representatives of distant states to turn their attention to projects of laws which are not of the highest interest to their constituents, they are not individually, nor in Congress collectively, well qualified to legislate over the local concerns of this District. Consequently its interests are much neglected and the people are almost afraid to present their grievances, lest a body in which they are not represented and which feels little sympathy in their local relations should in its attempt to make laws for them do more harm than good. . . . . Is it not just to allow them at least a delegate to Congress, if not a local legislature, to make laws for the District, subject to the approval or rejection of Congress? I earnestly recommend the extension to them of every political right which their interests require and which may be compatible with the Constitution.

Construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal begins on the same day the first spade of dirt is turned for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The canal will be finished in 1850. The canal is the only one remaining from the 19th century with a working towpath.

MAYOR JOSEPH GALES, JR., Dec. 23, 1828: Whereas it has been too much the habit of idle and inconsiderate persons, on Christmas and New Year’s Day and Eve to indulge in firing off guns, pistols, squibs, and crackers, and burning of gun-powder in divers other ways, to the great annoyance of the peaceable inhabitants of this city, and to the manifest danger of their persons and property – all which practices, where they are not contrary to the express ordinances of the corporation, amount to “disorderly conduct,” and as such are punishable by law: Now, therefore, with a view to prevent such disorderly practices, I, Joseph Gales, jr. Mayor of Washington, do enjoin upon all Police Constables, Ward Commissioners, and others, whose duty it is to preserve peace and good order, to be diligent in the execution of their several duties, and to apprehend and bring to justice all persons so offending against the laws.


From 1837 to 1872, except during the Civil War, rail passengers to the south have to take a 6 mile steamship trip to Fredericksburg to board the Richmond Fredericksburg & Potomac RR

It is “not uncommon to pull 4,000 shad or 300,000 herring in one seine haul. One haul of 450 rockfish with as average weight of sixty pounds was documented. Hundreds of sturgeon were captured on a single night near the US Arsenal in Washington” (Niles Weekly Register).


Congress bans anti-slavery literature in DC.

Beverly Snow, a free black restaurant owner, allegedly insults the wives and daughters of white Navy Yard mechanics. In the riot that follows, white mobs destroy the homes, churches, and schools of free blacks. In the wake of the riot, Congress increases the surety bonds for free blacks.

Businesses licenses are denied African-Americans for everything except driving carts and carriages.

Washington branch of the B&O RR opens with the local station at 2nd & Penna Ave NW (now the Mall)

January temperatures reach -16 degrees, It won’t again get that cold until 1899.


Congress prohibits dueling in District of Columbia.


Sitting in the Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol, Samuel FB Morse taps out “What hath God wrought” on his new invention, the telegraph. The message is received in Baltimore


In his inaugural address, William Henry Harrison says, “The people of the District of Columbia are not the subjects of the people of the States, but free American citizens. . . . The legislation of Congress should be adapted to their peculiar position and wants and be conformable with their deliberate opinions of their own interests.”


The Washington Infirmary is established at Judiciary Square.

The sewing machine is patented by John J. Greenough of Washington, DC

CHARLES DICKENS ON WASHINGTON: In 1842, just before Alexandria was retroceded, Charles Dickens arrived in DC from Philly by steamboat. In “American Notes for General Circulation” he described Washington as “the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva” because so many officials chewed tobacco and spit… on the walls, floors, everywhere. Here is more of what he wrote: “The hotel in which we live, is a long row of small houses fronting on the street, and opening at the back upon a common yard, in which hangs a great triangle. Whenever a servant is wanted, somebody beats on this triangle from one stroke up to seven, according to the number of the house in which his presence is required; and as all the servants are always being wanted, and none of them ever come, this enlivening engine is in full performance the whole day through. Clothes are drying in the same yard; female slaves, with cotton handkerchiefs twisted round their heads, are running to and fro on the hotel business; black waiters cross and recross with dishes in their hands; two great dogs are playing upon a mound of loose bricks in the centre of the little square; a pig is turning up his stomach to the sun, and grunting ‘that’s comfortable!’; and neither the men, nor the women, not the dogs, nor the pig, nor any created creature, takes the smallest notice of the triangle, which is tingling madly all the time. …


Alexandria and what is now Arlington are retroceded to Virginia. History of retrocession by Mark Richards


77 slaves sureptitously board the sailing vessel “Pearl” for a planned escape that will be aborted when the ship was captured 140 miles from Washington. In an interesting example of the conflicts involved in class and race, a free black hack driver reputedly blew the whistle on the Pearl – angry that one of the slave women aboard had refused his hand in marriage. He was allegedly also angry at others who had tipped him insufficiently when he drove them to the pie

The number of elected posts is expanded to include a board of assessors, surveyor, tax collector and registrar.


Becomes illegal to bring slaves into the city for sale but slaves owned by District families can still be sold.

The C&O Canal finally reaches Cumberland, MD, at a cost of $11 million


A white woman, Myrtilla Miner opens a school to teach black women to be teachers.

Washington gets its first Chinese resident.

Fire at the Library of Congress destroys about two-thirds of its 55,000 volume collection including two thirds of the private collection of Thomas Jefferson

The B&O opens a railroad station on New Jersey Avenue at C NW.


John Philip Sousa is born in DC. Educated in the city’s schools he will become conducted of the US Marine Band for 12 years and of his own band for 39 years.

A white-only settlement, Uniontown, is established east of the river near Nichols Avenue and Good Hope Road. Banned are “negroes, mulattoes, pigs, or soap boiling.”

Five citizens are killed and fifteen are wounded in a election day riot started by members of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party. Their candidate loses by a handful of votes. The rioters are aided by thugs from the Baltimore firefighter’s gang known as the Plug Uglies. The riot was suppressed by US Marines following an order from the Navy Secretary to have all Marines at headquarters “report forthwith, at the City Hall.”

The whole place looks run up at night. . . and it is impossible to remove the impression that, when Congress is over, the whole place is taken down, and packed up again till wanted. – London journalist Edward Dicey


New aqueduct brings water to city.

The National Base-Ball Club is organized.


HENRY ADAMS, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS – As in 1800 and 1850, so in 1860, the same rude colony was camped in the same forest, with the same unfinished Greek temples for work-rooms, and sloughs for roads. The government has an air of social instability and incompleteness that went far to support the right of secession in theory as in facts; but right or wrong, secession was likely to be easy where there was so little to secede from. The Union was a sentiment, but not much more, and in December, 1860, the sentiment about the Capitol was chiefly hostile, so far as it made itself felt. John Adams was better off in Philadelphia is 1776 than his great-grandson Henry in 1860 in Washington


In the period April 9-27, 1861, 3019 local men enlisted to protect the capital. By December 1, 1861, the District had 2823 3-month men in service, of whom 1000 who had enlisted for the duration of the war. After the war, the Grand Army of the Republic published figures that DC had furnished a total 16,534 men, of whom 290 died. This figure included 1,353 sailors and marines, 3,269 ‘colored troops,’ and 11,912 soldiers. – Carlton Fletcher

Metropolitan Police Department is formed. Up to then the city had only an auxiliary watch with one captain and 15 cops. President Lincoln sends a member of the board of commissioners to New York City to find out how it’s done.



Emancipation of DC’s remaining 3,200 slaves.

Separate white and black public schools established.

Horsecar service begins with a line between the Capitol and the State Department.

Louisia May Alcott begins working as a nurse at Union Hospital, treating Civil War soldiers. She contracts typhoid from which she never fully recovers.

Henry Cooke obtains a charter for the construction of a streetcar system.

Following Union defeats, Washington becomes a sick bay for some 20,000 wounded soldiers. By the end of the war there will be 50 military hospitals in the city. Patients were cared for in the Capitol and on the south lawn of the White House. Georgetown College and St. Elizabeth’s are also used. Angel Price has written, “It has been estimated that the hospitals killed as many as they saved.” According to one estimate, the fatality rate for amputees is 26%. The wounded are brought to the hospitals by ambulance drivers whom one surgeon describes as “the most vulgar, ignorant, and profane men I ever came in contact with.” PHOTO OF ARMORY HOSPITAL WITH CAPITOL IN BACKGROUND. WASHINGTON’S CIVIL WAR HOSPITALS


DC forms a paid fire department.

Forget the Alamo;
Remember Ft. Stevens

One of the crucial – but little known – confrontations of the Civil War took place within the city itself. Were it not for Union reinforcements arriving in the nick of time, the whole history of the Civil War might have turned out differently.

In the summer of 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early pushed his way towards Maryland with 20,000 men. General Wallace, a Union recruit trainer in Baltimore, found himself faced with an invasion but was uncertain whether the target was Washington or Baltimore. Wallace chose Frederick, MD, to make his stand, with the help of troops sent by train from Baltimore. With only 6,000 troops to defend six miles of river, he found himself overwhelmed. On the afternoon of July 9, the Union force left some 1,800 casualties and retreated to Baltimore. The confederates lost 1,300 men.

Though his own force was battered, Early knew the immense coup that capturing Washington would be. Further he probably knew that Washington had only about 9,000 regular troops to guard the whole city, Grant having removed some 14,000 soldiers to help him battle Lee around Richmond and Petersburg. Early sent out sorties on July 11 toward Ft. Stevens, located at the north end of Washington. They found a battlement protected only by home guards, clerks, and recovering soldiers literally rousted from their hospital beds to help defend the city. a ragtag force of 2,300.

By light of the next day, however, Early found the fort manned by regular troops, reinforcements who had arrived from Virginia and who repulsed Early’s sorties. By the end of the day, Early was in full retreat. There had been 874 casualties.

Among the spectators for the two days were Abraham Lincoln and his wife. One Ohio soldier would remember, “Lincoln got to the fort ahead of us. He was quiet and grave. He mounted the parapet so he could see better, and I saw him there in full view of the Johnnies, watching them and what went on inside. You can imagine what a target he made with tall form and stovepipe hat.”

Lincoln became the only president ever to have come under direct fire and, according to legend, was told by a young soldier named Oliver Wendell Holmes [r] to “get down, you damn fool.” Another story has a colonel telling Lincoln, “Please come down to a safe place. If you do not, it will be my duty to call a file of men and make you.” Lincoln replied, “And you would be quite right, my boy. You are in command of this fort. I should be the last man to set an example of disobedience.”

The Union force held and Early gave up his invasion of Maryland and DC and returned to the upper Potomac at a crossing known as White’s Ford, which would later become the home-port of perhaps the world’s only ferry whose bridge consisted of an overstuffed armchair on the same deck as the cars. It was called the “Jubal Early.”

Early admitted to his staff that “We didn’t take Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like Hell.”


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