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The Civil War Revisited

Washington, D.C.: Surprises on a self-guided tour showcasing chilling relics

October 01, 2000|DALE M. BROWN | Dale M. Brown is a frequent contributor to The Times' Travel section

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, Union 3rd Army Corps commander, regularly visited his right leg. After losing it at Gettysburg, where it was amputated above the knee, he had it boxed and sent, with his compliments, for display at the new Army Medical Museum here. For years, on the anniversary of its loss, the general visited the museum to pay his respects to the limb.

The shattered bone is only one of several curiosities in the National Museum of Health and Medicine at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. My wife, Liet, and I made the museum a stop in June on a fascinating self-guided tour of Civil War Washington.

Washington lacks the battlefields of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, but it does have important Civil War sites of its own. There are the obvious ones, such as Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was shot, and the Petersen House across the street, where he died. But after those we were in for some surprises, including Lincoln's summer "White House," unknown even to most Washingtonians until President Clinton dedicated it as a national monument in July.

Our tour even took a personal turn when I uncovered at the National Archives the service and pension records of a great-uncle who had served as an infantryman during the war.

We had come to the National Museum of Health and Medicine on the city's north side because of the permanent exhibit devoted to Civil War medical practices. Here we learned that although about 200,000 men were killed on the battlefield, double that number died of wounds and disease.

Reconstructive surgery was becoming more tolerable, thanks to the use of ether. Our hearts went out to one poor fellow whose face had been horribly torn in battle; the surgeon's efforts, traced in drawings and two models of the patient's head, did little to disguise the damage.

Moving from display case to display case containing everything from bone saws to specimens in alcohol, we were startled to find ourselves confronting the lead bullet that killed Lincoln, the long surgical probe used to extract it, fragments of the president's skull, a lock of his hair cut from the wound site and a bloodstained cuff from his shirt.

The day before, we had been about five blocks east of the White House visiting Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and the Petersen House. Standing on the theater stage and pointing to the flag-draped presidential balcony, a young National Park Service interpreter described, in chilling detail, the events of April 14, 1865. So vivid were her descriptions that, at the medical museum, we found ourselves examining the bullet and the sinuous probe with morbid intensity.

The fresh memory of the dim room of the Petersen House and the short bed in which Lincoln was placed (diagonally, to accommodate his 6-foot-4 frame) made these mementos of his final moments even more moving.

From the Petersen House, we could have waved down a taxi and gone a couple of miles east to the Library of Congress. A display there shows items removed from Lincoln's pockets, including two pairs of spectacles, one set still bearing a piece of string the president had used to mend a hinge; a handkerchief with "A. Lincoln" embroidered in red thread; a leather wallet holding nine newspaper clippings, some praising his policies; and the puzzler, a Confederate $5 bill. We had seen these artifacts on a previous occasion. So from the Petersen House, we walked to the Surratt boardinghouse a few blocks away. Here Booth planned the assassination with John Surratt, the son of the boardinghouse owner Mary Surratt.

On the way, we passed the Greek-style Patent Office Building, now home to the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art, both closed for renovation. During the war, the Patent Office was a hospital, and among those who cared for the wounded were poet Walt Whitman and nurse Clara Barton, whom soldiers called "the angel of the battlefield."

All around us, as part of the building boom and preservation fever of downtown, facades of old buildings were being shorn of signs, layers of paint and other modern improvements. When we reached the 1840s Surratt boardinghouse, we were amused to see it contained a Chinese restaurant, just one of many in Washington's Chinatown.

In a walking mood, we continued on foot a couple of blocks to the Old City Hall, now a courthouse. A handsome Greek Revival structure dating from the 1820s, it also did duty as a temporary hospital. After Lincoln signed an 1862 bill eliminating slavery in Washington, former slaveholders came to City Hall to petition the government for compensation. About 3,000 claims were filed.

Two blocks away is the old Pension Office, today the National Building Museum. This amazing Italian Renaissance structure is wrapped with a narrow terra-cotta frieze 1,200 feet long. It beautifully depicts members of the Union's infantry, artillery, cavalry, naval, quartermaster and medical corps on the march or at work.

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