The War, revisitedPublished 10:03pm Tuesday, July 5, 2011
With the nation in the midst of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, historical tourism is more popular than ever, and with so much of that history to be found right here in Virginia and the Carolinas, there’s a gas-saving, educational vacation alternative close to home.
And when it comes to historic sites from the War Between the States, few 68-square-mile areas of the country can rival Washington, D.C., in significance.
Perhaps one of the best-known Civil War sites of all is located in the District of Columbia, and it only came into the history books after the war had ended.
Ford’s Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth while attending a showing of “Our American Cousin,” annually draws thousands of visitors to its historic halls.
The theater didn’t begin its life showing plays, though. The building initially was built as the First Baptist Church and remained a house of worship until the Ford brothers bought it and transformed it into a theater, according to Lauren Beyea, a publicist for the Ford’s Theatre Society.
After Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, the federal government seized the building, and the Fords were forced to refund the ticket purchases of numerous patrons, Beyea said. Photographer Mathew Brady recorded the crime scene meticulously.
The building then fell into great disrepair, Beyea said. It was converted to an office building until the 1960s, when it was named a National Historic Site. It was entirely renovated at that time, based upon Brady’s photographs.
These days, people who visit Ford’s Theatre can catch a show, take a tour and learn about the aftermath of the assassination. They can see the president’s box where the assassination took place, view the suit Lincoln was wearing when he was shot and use interactive exhibits to learn about Booth’s life.
“We typically do productions that are American plays,” Beyea said. “We touch back to the American experience and Lincoln’s legacy of understanding and all the things he left our nation throughout his presidency.”
Those who come at the right time of year — say, January or February — can even step into the president’s box itself and view the theater in the same way Lincoln did the moment before he was shot.
“It’s closed off to the public, except during some parts of the year,” Beyea said. “It’s such a small space we really aren’t able to accommodate people through there.”
Those who come when it’s not busy, however, can have the special privilege of stepping foot onto the historic spot.
The Ford’s Theatre is open daily throughout the year (except Thanksgiving and Christmas days) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Advance tickets are available for $2.50, though a limited number of free tickets are available each day on a first-come, first-served basis. The programming varies daily, and there may be occasions when visitors cannot enter the theater because of rehearsals. Check www.fordstheatre.org for schedules.
Across the street, the Petersen House is scheduled to reopen this summer after an extensive rehabilitation project. The former boarding house where Lincoln died after his shooting has been maintained as a historic house museum since 1933 by the National Park Service.
At the Petersen House, visitors can pass through the room where Lincoln died, view a reproduction of his deathbed and learn more about the private family that was flung into the spotlight by helping tend to the dying president. After its renovation, the Petersen House is open at the same times as and accessed with the same ticket as the Ford’s Theatre.
Before his death, Lincoln also made history as the only sitting U.S. president to come under direct enemy fire. He watched a battle from the top of Fort Stevens, one of 68 earthworks forts built to protect the nation’s capital during the war. That’s where, according to the story, the future Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., shouted “Get down, you damn fool!” at the president.
The battle near Fort Stevens was the only time that elements of the Confederate army attacked the capital city, according to Mary Brazell, an interpretive park ranger at Rock Creek Park, where Fort Stevens is located.
Brazell said Lincoln frequently spent his summer months at the nearby Old Soldiers’ Home, also known as the Lincoln Cottage, to escape the downtown heat. That’s how he happened to be in the vicinity on July 9, 1864, when fighting began.
A portion of the fort has been reconstructed, and a three-dimensional map shows visitors how it would have looked during the Civil War. Panel displays also help tourists learn about the fort’s historic involvement in the Civil War.
Nearby Fort DeRussy, also located in Rock Creek Park, is the closest to its original condition of all 68 forts that were built, Brazell said. All of the forts hosted fighting men not only during the two-day battle, but also throughout the entire war — many of them dying of diseases before they ever saw combat.
“A lot of them risked their lives not just for the bullets of the enemy,” Brazell said.
Also near the forts is the Battleground National Cemetery, one of the smallest national cemeteries in the country. Forty-one Civil War soldiers lie buried there. All but one died in the Battle of Fort Stevens — the remaining veteran survived the battle and chose to be buried there upon his death at a ripe old age in the 1930s. A restoration project in the cemetery just was completed in late May, Brazell said.
The cemetery is located on Georgia Avenue, just south of Walter Reed Medical Center.
For more Civil War history in Washington, try the following sites:
- The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 14th Street NW and Constitution Avenue NW. Iconic items in the Civil War exhibit include the chairs and table used by Grant and Lee at Appomattox, the stuffed horse of Gen. Phillip Sheridan and part of the armor plating from the CSS Virginia. Call 202-633-1000 for more information.
- The African American Civil War Museum, 1200 U St. NW. Exhibits include photographs, documents, artifacts and interactive presentations describing the U.S. Colored Troops, including a memorial listing more than 200,000 black men who served in the Civil War. Call 202-667-2667 for more information.
- President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, entrance at Rock Creek Church Road NW and Upshur Street NW. This is where Lincoln spent his summers during his presidency. A visitor center with interactive displays and exhibits is included. Call 202-829-0436.