Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming
2018 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Steve T. Phan, a Park Ranger and historian at the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Prior to his arrival at CWDW, Steve worked as an intern and park guide at Richmond National Battlefield Park, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and Rock Creek Park. A military history scholar of the Civil War era, Steve’s research focuses on military occupation, operational command, fortifications, and the Western Theater during the Civil War. He is the author of several articles about Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Civil War and is currently writing a guide book for the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Steve is also continuing his work on an extended research project about the Union Army First Corps and the life of General John F. Reynolds. He holds a Masters degree in American History, with a concentration in Public History.
Today, the Smithsonian is known for its world-famous exhibits, massive collections of American and natural history artifacts, and its contributions to research around the world. But many people don’t know the role the Smithsonian played during the Civil War. The Smithsonian Castle was finished in 1855 and would become the first home of the research center, the library, and the US Museum. The government recognized the importance of the Institution and, after war was declared, the US Secretary of War ordered Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian Secretary, be issued twelve muskets and 240 rounds of ammunition “for the protection of the Institute against lawless attacks.” The building was in a vulnerable position because it was situated in between the Capitol Building and the White House, and cut off from the rest of the city by the Washington Canal . The Institution was witness to soldiers on parade, as well as to the thousands of wounded soldiers sent back to the city after the First Battle of Bull Run. It suffered no war damage, but suffered from financial woes because Congress was more focused on paying for the war than paying the interest on the Smithson bequest. The inflation and currency devaluation of the era also affected finances.
When I decided to attend the Women’s March on Washington this past January, I tried desperately to keep the Civil War out of my mind. I didn’t want to court disaster. Whatever their politics, anyone who knows anything about the Civil War can hear the familiar wails of a nation groaning under the weight of paralyzing political factionalism, deep sectional divides, and a potential constitutional crisis—in the works long before the Trump presidency—surrounding the proper limit and application of executive power in our democracy, amongst other threats. But I just couldn’t allow myself to envision the worst. It made me physically sick to have to wonder, honestly, whether my home was on the verge of throwing away the sacrifices of millions of selfless patriots over the years simply because we could no longer see our neighbors, our family members, as human. Because we had so lost faith in the “unfinished work” that we would surrender liberty for safety, virtue for ambition, and love for power. That we would think ourselves so vulnerable, so small, that we would betray our friends and forsake the world. That we would stop being leaders because the job was no longer easy.
Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Rachel Shelden, Assistant Professor of American History at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Shelden specializes in the long nineteenth century. Her research and teaching interests include slavery and abolition, the Civil War, the U.S. South, and political and constitutional history. She is the author of Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, & the Coming of the Civil War (UNC Press, 2013), which received honorable mention for the Wiley-Silver Prize for the best first book on the American Civil War. Dr. Shelden is also co-editor, with Gary Gallagher, of A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History (University of Virginia Press, 2012). Her current project explores how judicial ethics influenced Supreme Court decisions and federal governance in the nineteenth century, particularly in cases of race, gender, and class.
CWI: What role did social politics play in antebellum political life in Washington, D.C.?
SHELDEN: The social life of congressmen and other members of the federal government was critically tied to politicking in antebellum Washington, D.C. Politicians who came to the capital city were expected to participate in the vibrant social life of Washington, attending parties, balls, and dinners, calling on (paying respects to) neighbors and other political actors, and generally engaging with the most prominent city residents. These politicians also typically lived with men from across the political and geographical spectrum, making bi-partisan and cross-sectional social life a critical part of the daily experience in Washington. Partially as a result of these social experiences and partially because of the difficult nature of hammering out policy in the public spaces of the Capitol, congressional business often happened in social settings rather than official political ones.
“Be careful what you wish for.” Had the volunteers of Dauphin County’s 127th Regiment heard this old adage before marching off to war in the summer of 1862? Undoubtedly. Even if they had, it was far from their minds as they drilled and waited and guarded the perimeter of Washington. These men had enlisted to fight, but now they found themselves consigned to guard duty for their first three months in the Army. Their fortunes would soon change, however, for better or for worse; unbeknownst to them, the Battle of Fredericksburg lurked in their future.
In autumn 1862, the members of the 127th Regiment at last found themselves departing dear Pennsylvania. But, if they believed that battle was in their immediate future, they were sorely mistaken. Samuel P. Conrad of Company C described the underwhelming experience in a set of letters to his friend Lewis Strickler back in Hummelstown. Although Conrad was enjoying the overall experience and had even gotten the opportunity to see the magnificence of the unfinished Capitol dome, he knew that he and his companions were not there on vacation. “I came down here to kill Rebels,” he grumbled, but the government “brought us down here to cut wood.” Washington had to be ready for siege if the Army of the Potomac failed, and someone had to be responsible for preparing for that contingency.