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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Looking Back at 'The Siege of Washington'

Lockwoods detail when the North nearly lost the Civil War

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War and has been the occasion for many books on a conflict that continues to fascinate Americans. One of the war's great puzzles was why the Confederacy failed to seize Washington, D.C., defended in the early weeks by fewer than 2,000 sailors, marines and militia. The White House could have been shelled by artillery from Robert E. Lee's estate on Arlington Heights.

In The Siege of Washington (Oxford University Press), John and Charles Lockwood pore over newspapers from the period along with the diaries, letters and memoirs of participants and witnesses. Grounded in scholarship yet written with clarity for general readers, The Siege assumes the page-turning excitement of a thriller with the requisite race against time: Will Northern militia regiments arrive to save Washington from almost certain occupation? Many of the units had a difficult journey by rail through Baltimore, where mobs of Southern sympathizers attacked them with rocks, bottles and clubs. If D.C. fell to the Confederacy, the course of the war might have swerved in an entirely different direction.

For many weeks the outcome was uncertain. Among the military officers and government officials who didn't resign and head to the South were covert Confederates happy to act as spies. The city's population was divided, with supporters of Lincoln in the midst of "traitors," as the administration described its foes.

As to the big question: Why did the Confederacy fail to seize Washington when it was virtually defenseless? Apparently, the Confederate cabinet was hoping militants from Maryland or maybe the Commonwealth of Virginia would do the work for them. At that stage, the Confederate army was a work in progress. Time slipped away, opportunities were lost and the war of attrition began. The largely agricultural South had scant hope of beating the rapidly industrializing North in a drawn-out struggle.