When Abraham Lincoln took his oath of office as the 16th President of the United States in March 1861, Washington, D.C., was a city under siege.
The new president quickly realized that without securing the capital city, the Union would fall to the Confederacy and slavery – a practice Lincoln loathed – would continue unabated.
Lincoln forged ahead “cleaning the devil out of Washington,” as he said, transforming the city into a Union fortress. All along, the city also shaped the man who has become the most revered president in the nation’s history. This relationship between a man and a city besieged by war is explored in a new book by Kenneth Winkle, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and Lincoln scholar.
Winkle’s book, “Lincoln’s Citadel,” is an examination of the time Lincoln spent in Washington from his days in Congress through his assassination. The book was published by W.W. Norton & Co. in mid-August.
Previously, little information about the city of Washington has been shared in the more than 14,000 volumes on Lincoln and his presidency. Through his research for the book, which included reading every edition of the daily newspapers in Washington at the time, Winkle, Sorenson Professor of American history, formed a cohesive understanding of Washington in the early 19th century, which he shares with readers.
“I did not realize, and I don’t think most Americans realize, what a dangerous place Washington was during the war,” Winkle said. “Just by itself, it was a city of 60,000 people, the 12th-largest city in the U.S. at the time. It was dangerous because of disease, crime and disorder in general.
“There were constant plots to overthrow the government, invade Washington, kill Lincoln and disrupt the war effort. Lincoln’s first task as president was to get control of Washington because he knew the Union would not survive if Washington fell.”
As a community and family historian, Winkle previously published The Young Eagle, which analyzes Lincoln’s rise to prominence as well as the impact of his hometown of Springfield, Ill., had on shaping his beliefs and political prowess. Lincoln’s Citadel begins with Lincoln’s decision to move his family with him to a boarding house in 1847 while serving his only two-year term in Congress. But it was no ordinary boarding house.
“I discovered that Lincoln was more involved in anti-slavery activities than anyone ever imagined,” Winkle said. “In fact, he lived in a boarding house that was full of Abolitionists and was called ‘Abolition House.’ Few historians have explored this information.”
In the book, Winkle writes about the high turnover of the staff, noting it was most likely a stop on the Underground Railroad. He also shares anecdotes and stories of how various boarders at Abolition House further cemented Lincoln’s resolve against slavery.
Ultimately, Winkle writes, the secession of 11 southern states from the Union helped Lincoln end slavery. And the city of Washington played a vital role in proving to the Union that it was possible to free the slaves.
“The pervasive presence of slavery in Washington before the war shaped the entire city,” Winkle said. “During the war, 40,000 fugitive slaves came to Washington looking for freedom and this required Lincoln to think about slavery in a way that he had never considered before.
“Congress and Lincoln ended slavery in Washington in April 1862, eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation, making Washington an experiment in freedom,” he said. “Many questioned how do you address the institution of slavery that had caused the war and how do you free slaves? That was not easy to do. Lincoln worked with Congress to free the slaves in Washington as a prelude to freeing slaves everywhere.”
At the time of Lincoln’s death, Washington was a city transformed, Winkle writes, much to the credit of the president.
“He used Washington as a citadel to win the war,” Winkle said. “The Union had to defend Washington as the nation’s Capital. As commander-in-chief, Lincoln had total wartime control of Washington.
“Not only did he defend it, but he reformed it. He hoped to turn Washington into the kind of society the Union was fighting for and a full example of the founding ideals of freedom, equality and justice.”