The vice president, a Southern Democrat, was about to preside over the counting of the Electoral College ballots after a hotly disputed election. The mood was...

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The vice president, a Southern Democrat, was about to preside over the counting of the Electoral College ballots after a hotly disputed election. The mood was tense; the Republican candidate was expected to win, but there were fears an attempt might be made to disrupt the counting. Security was tight in the Senate chamber.

Sound familiar? If so, it’s merely another instance of history repeating itself — for the scenario just described occurred in 1860, not 2000. The vice president was John Breckinridge, not Al Gore, and the Republican candidate was Abraham Lincoln.

That event is among several described in “Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War” that bear striking parallels to recent occurrences. But author Ernest B. Furgurson draws no attention to the similarities; instead, he focuses single-mindedly on events in and around Washington, D.C., during the Civil War.

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“Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War”


by Ernest B. Furgurson

Knopf, 463 pp., $30


Margaret Leech covered that subject thoroughly in her oft-reprinted 1941 work, “Reveille in Washington,” which, Furgurson admits, apparently left “little else to say.” But in the years since, “thousands of letters and memoirs left by major and minor participants have come down from attics and been unearthed in repositories,” and these have revealed more “not only about grand political and military decisions, but also about hidden plots and the private lives of both heroes and villains.”

True enough, and Furgurson mines this material to embellish much of what was known previously. Inevitably much of his story centers on Abraham Lincoln, “the towering hero of all American history,” as Furgurson calls him, and his “dumpy” wife, Mary. But Furgurson also details the affairs of many other personages, both famous and obscure.

Along the way he offers some colorful anecdotes, even including a baseball score (Baltimore 40, Washington 24), and many vivid descriptions, such as the spectacle of “squads of vendors selling apples, nuts and lager beer” in the corridors of the Capitol.

The result is a fascinating work, one that complements rather than replaces Leech’s classic work on Washington at war.