Reveille in Washington

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It is easy to forget that Washington in Lincoln’s day bore little relationship to the Washington of our day. In many ways the Washington of Lincoln’s time was still a small town, ill-prepared for the avalanche of rapid growth forced on it by the War. The classic account of Washington during the Civil War is Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington, published, ironically, in 1941, just as Washington was about to undergo another rapid period of expansion during World War II.

“Shops furbished their windows. Hotels and boardinghouses filled up, and so did the E Street Infirmary, the poorhouse and the county jail. Practical motives dictated the presence of all the winter sojourners. There were no parties of idle, amusement-seeking tourists. The townsfolk entertained their friends and relatives, and every winter a bevy of pretty girls came for the festivities of the social season; but, apart from these negligible few, Americans did not visit Washington for pleasure. Although it had many churches, an active Young Men’s Christian Association and a dignified official society, the city bore an unwholesome name among the pious folk of the nation. It was darkly imagined as a sink of iniquity, where weak-minded bachelors were exposed to the temptations of saloons, gambling hells and light women; and the prevalence of hotel life was instanced as a proof of the city’s immorality.”

The book, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1942, is a neglected masterpiece, and I am happy to say that a 70th anniversary edition has been published this month.

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  1. “published, ironically, in 1941, just as Washington was about to undergo another rapid period of expansion during World War II.”

    One of my favorite books is “Washington Goes to War” by David Brinkley (yes, THE David Brinkley) which addresses similar themes… including the WWII era social scene, the city’s reputation for vice and prostitution, the rush to find temporary housing, etc. A great example of how “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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