Publication Date

December 1, 2003

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Washington, D.C. is a city born out of conflict and compromise, so it is no wonder that war and peace have shaped the city from its beginnings to the present.

Even before there was a Washington, D.C., this region was a contested space between northern and southern Indians. The local Piscataway Indians chose to place themselves under the protection of the Iroquois Confederacy in the 18th century, abandoning their ancestral homelands for the promise of peace. After their defeat in the French and Indian Wars, those who returned found a land changed forever by European settlement.

At the close of the Revolutionary War, Continental Army soldiers staged an armed demonstration in Philadelphia against the state government, demanding back pay. When the Pennsylvania legislature refused to call up the Philadelphia militia, Congress perceived it as a threat to the federal government, whose capital depended on protection from the state. As a result, in the Constitution of 1789, Congress proposed creating a permanent seat of government or federal district under exclusive congressional jurisdiction to avoid dependence on a particular state. Northern and southern leaders compromised on the new district’s location. The northerners agreed to locate the seat of government in the slave-holding south, while southern leaders agreed to assume the wartime debts of the northern states.

The City of Washington, laid out according to Peter (the name Pierre adopted) Charles L’Enfant’s plan, was still only partially built when it was attacked by British troops during the War of 1812 in August 1814. While President James Madison and members of the government fled to safety, Dolley Madison packed up belongings, papers, and a portrait of George Washington, and left the city. British Admiral Cockburn ordered the burning of public buildings, but spared private property, including the Patent Office located in Blodgett’s Hotel. The White House and Capitol, still barely complete, were burned, as well as the Navy Yard, which was set on fire by its commandant to prevent the British from capturing its ammunition. Following the conflagration, questions arose whether to rebuild the city or to move the capital to a new location. Local residents carried the day by offering to raise funds to rebuild the city. James Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent, establishing peace with Great Britain, in the Octagon, a private residence that served as the temporary White House.

During the Civil War, Washington once again found itself in the center of a military conflict. Adjacent to the Confederacy and surrounded by southern sympathizers in Maryland and Virginia, the city became an armed camp for the duration of the war. The city began to mobilize almost as soon as Lincoln was elected. A peace conference held at the Willard Hotel in February 1861 was too late to bring the states back together. Lincoln was inaugurated in March and Virginia seceded in April 1861. Workers and troops were brought in to construct the ring of forts that were needed to defend the city. Northerners came to work for the war effort, while southern sympathizers left to join the Confederacy. In 1864 the population of the city was 140,000, nearly double that recorded in the 1860 census. Soldiers were quartered everywhere in the city—in the Capitol, Treasury Building, Patent Office, City Hall, and private residences as well as in the military encampments that were hastily assembled throughout the city. The grounds of the Washington Monument became a stock yard and slaughter house to feed the troops and stable their horses. Fifty thousand men served in the Army of the Potomac. After the Battle of Bull Run, the flood of wounded soldiers turned Washington into a hospital site, attracting volunteers like Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix to assist in the nursing and care of the wounded. In July 1864, Washington was once again under fire when Confederate troops attacked Fort Stevens, located in the District along what is now Georgia Avenue. A small group of District militia, government clerks, and veterans from the hospitals held off the attack until reinforcements arrived.

War intensified the pace of life in the capital. For the women employed by the Treasury and Government Printing Office, it meant new opportunities for employment. The influx of soldiers increased drinking, gambling, and prostitution in the city. There were also more wholesome amusements, such as baseball games between local baseball clubs and military regiments played on the White House lawn. By 1865, 40,000 former slaves had sought a haven in Washington. The many Civil War statues and monuments that mark the circles and squares of the city remain a lasting legacy of the war and its impact on Washington.

The United States entered World War I in 1917. Once again Washington became the administrative center of the nation’s war efforts. The Navy Yard became a large manufacturer of ordinance. The population grew rapidly again as people flocked to the capital for federal jobs—creating severe housing shortages. Some of those who came were “dollar-a-year” men, like wealthy businessman Bernard Baruch, who organized the War Industries Board and refused the usual salary. Many more were clerks and office workers who swelled the wartime bureaucracies. During the war 130,000 soldiers were stationed within a 25-mile radius of Washington. At the time of the armistice, the population had reached 525,000, an addition of 80,000 new residents. Even the government ran out of space, erecting temporary buildings on the Mall that remained long after the war was over. Once again there were opportunities for women in jobs left vacant by men who enlisted. Women’s suffrage advocates, including Alice Paul of the National Women’s Party, picketed the White House in 1917. In 1918, the Spanish Flu infected 35,000 residents and eventually killed 3,500.

World War II profoundly affected the city. The city became a hive of activity attracting “government girls,” federal employees, and soldiers. Many Washingtonians were attending a football game in Griffith Stadium on December 7, 1941, when the announcer began asking various high-ranking government and military personnel to report to their offices. Many local residents remember the unusual announcements as their first introduction to Pearl Harbor. Construction on the Pentagon (begun in 1941) was rushed to completion in 1943, when 40,000 employees went to work in the new facility. During the war as many as 5,000 new government workers arrived in Washington each month. The 1933 population of 70,000 federal employees had grown to 276,000 by the end of the war. Housing shortages were met by creating boarding houses and new apartments from existing homes.

Despite demobilization following the end of the war, the military remained a large presence in Washington, its attention now directed toward the emerging cold war with the Soviet Union. Moreover, the armed services were now joined by an expanding intelligence community that included the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Administration, and a rapidly growing Federal Bureau of Investigation. Driven in part by fear of nuclear attack, government agencies began to locate their offices away from the central core of Washington in the surrounding suburbs, accelerating the suburbanization of the city’s population. Political upheavals in Southeast Asia, South and Central America, and Africa produced an influx of refugees.

The “War on Terrorism” has once again made Washington a focal point of national security concerns. The section of the Pentagon destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks has been rebuilt, but the city remains in a state of alert with increased security, closed streets, and a landscape of concrete barriers. As with earlier wars, this newest mobilization has spurred the creation of new jobs and increased demands for office space.

As always, Washington responds to war and peace. Even the creation of new monuments memorializing past wars can be fraught with controversy. The Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the soon-to-be-completed World War II Memorial elicit strong emotions and feelings among the millions of visitors who come each year to Washington.

Barbara Franco is president and CEO of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Kenneth R. Bowling is co-editor of the First Federal Congress Project and teaches at George Washington University.