The Divided Capital: How Washington D.C. was divided between the Union and Confederates

Union soldiers attacking, and defending, Confederate prisoners being marched through Washington.
Library of CongressUnion soldiers attacking, and defending, Confederate prisoners being marched through Washington.

August 31, 2012, 12:30 PM


Though Civil War Washington was the capital of the Union, its population was dangerously split between Northern and Southern sympathizers. Pro-South feelings ran strongest in the Georgetown section. Started as a tobacco port in 1751, Georgetown, long a separate city within the District of Columbia, was dominated by a few leading families, who ran their corner of Washington like royalty. The Peter family was one. Robert Peter had been first mayor of Georgetown; Martha Washington’s granddaughter had married his son. When the Civil War came, two of the Peter sons joined the Confederate Army. To the everlasting sorrow and resentment of the family, they were hanged as spies after being captured in civilian clothes by Union troops in Virginia.

Other Washington scions favored the rebels as well. Lloyd James Beall, a descendant of another Georgetown mayor and a West Point graduate, went south to become commandant of the Confederate States Marine Corps. Richard Smith Cox descended from yet a third mayor; after he joined the Confederate cause, the Union seized his elegant estate in Burleith, to the north of Georgetown, and housed escaped slaves there. The Deakins family traced itself back to men who were leaders in the American Revolution in Maryland, yet one descendant, William Deakins Cassin, was caught trying to get through the Union naval blockade and thrown into the Old Capitol Prison. Once home to Congress, the prison was the jail for Washington’s spies, suspected spies and captured Confederate soldiers.

In Washington the war divided families not only, as the cliché goes, by pitting brother against brother, but also by pitting father against son. William Gordon left Georgetown to join the Confederate Army, but his father spent the entire war working for the United States government in Washington. When the Mathews brothers went south, their father rewrote his will to disinherit them and then died, perhaps out of spite.

But Georgetowners didn’t limit themselves to overt, treasonous acts like joining the Confederate Army. Thomas Norton Conrad was headmaster of the Georgetown Institute, a school for boys; when war broke out, he began staging secessionist demonstrations there. He invited the United States Marine Band to play at graduation in June 1862 and then called for “Dixie” (oddly enough, the band complied). By the end of the summer, Gordon was in Old Capitol. He quickly got himself released by claiming he was clergy and headed south to enlist. Eventually, he returned as a spy, sneaking in and out of Georgetown and using a house in Port Tobacco, Md., as a way station on his journeys. The house belonged to Mary Surratt, who would be hanged for complicity with John Wilkes Booth in Lincoln’s assassination. Conrad didn’t join Booth’s cabal, but he hatched his own plans for kidnapping Lincoln. Obviously, they never went anywhere.


That John Marbury was a secessionist was surprising. His father, the Federalist William Marbury, had believed in strong central government. He had once sued President Thomas Jefferson, a Southern Democrat, for refusing to honor Marbury’s commission as a justice of the peace in Georgetown that was issued by outgoing President John Adams. Marbury lost, but the lawsuit, Marbury v. Madison, is famous for establishing the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution.

John Marbury never gave more than moral support to the South, but he was quite open about his feelings. So was the Georgetown banker William Corcoran. Son of yet another Georgetown mayor, Corcoran founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and was going to move his collection to a building under construction near the White House. Before it was completed, he became so worried that he might be arrested for his views that he fled to Europe. The United States promptly seized Corcoran’s gallery and turned it into a government warehouse for the duration. Today Corcoran’s edifice is the Renwick Gallery.

Surratt wasn’t the only woman in Washington whose heart was with the South. The flamboyant Rose Greenhow was openly sympathetic and a spy. For several months, she was under house arrest near the White House before being transferred to Old Capitol. Still sassy and rebellious, she made her jailors rue that day. Exasperated, they arranged transportation to Richmond, Va., where she received a personal welcome from Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Turnover at Old Capitol was high. Its 300 cells couldn’t accommodate all those suspected of aiding and abetting the South. At the start of the war, Congressman John Potter of Wisconsin chaired the House Select Committee on Loyalty of Clerks and looked for spies in government. (Almost 100 years later, Senator Joseph McCarthy from the same state would investigate Communists in government). Unsurprisingly, after summoning 450 witnesses, Potter found the spies he was looking for. Even the War Department, he said, had a nest that posted letters to Richmond in the department’s mailbag. However, the mailbag was the only thing removed. The effort to root out spies never fared much better. Lincoln’s homeland security agencies arrested more than 13,000 people for disloyalty; most were let go. Of the 80 people brought before the Dix-Pierrepont Commission Lincoln appointed to hear disloyalty cases, 65 were released as harmless.

One Georgetown family had more complex ties to the South. Nathan Loughborough went to Washington in 1800 when the capital was moved there from Philadelphia. He was a senior official in the Treasury Department and a protégé of that consummate strong central government Federalist, Alexander Hamilton – in fact, Loughborough named one of his sons Hamilton. Nathan left government to go into banking and bought a 250-acre country estate in the District of Columbia, north of Georgetown. He named it Grassland. After Nathan died, Hamilton Loughborough, a lawyer by training, took over and became a gentleman farmer with slaves working the land. He also succeeded to a large tobacco plantation that Nathan had in nearby Bethesda, Md., with more slaves. Even today a predominantly African-American church founded by those slaves marks one edge of the old plantation, which is now a subdivision. Loughborough owned property in Richmond, too.

But the Civil War completely upended Hamilton’s life. To defend the capital, the Union Army built Fort Gaines on the edge of the Grassland estate. Other forts went up on nearby farms. Although Hamilton was a close friend of the commandant of Gaines, Gen. Regis de Trobriand, this didn’t stop the Army from tearing down the buildings at his Bethesda plantation to get wood to build the forts. Hamilton was a Georgetown College alumnus, and Jesuits from there kept a country retreat within shouting distance of his home. But the Army kicked the Jesuits out and used the place for a headquarters. Gen. Erasmus Darwin Keyes, who was stationed there, wooed and wed one of Hamilton’s daughters. In short, Loughborough’s bucolic Grassland, and his family, were surrounded by the Yankee war machine, and his Bethesda plantation was ransacked. To make ends meet, he had to rent bedrooms at the mansion to army officers.

But there was another side to the Loughboroughs. Like descendants of other Georgetowners, Hamilton’s son Henry enlisted in the Confederate Army. Henry was engaged to a Richmond girl, Margaret Cabell McClelland Brown, and they later married. Her Cabell ancestors were “F.F.V.,” a First Family of Virginia. A relative, the Kentuckian John Cabell Breckenridge, was vice president from 1857 to 1861. He ran for president against Lincoln in 1861 as the Southern Democrats’ nominee. When Kentucky didn’t secede after Lincoln won, Breckenridge did: The former vice president accepted a commission as a general in the Confederate Army. On her McClelland side, Margaret was a second cousin of Union General George B. McClellan. Her grandfather and his were brothers, growing up in Pennsylvania, though Margaret’s grandfather moved to Virginia and kept the “d” in the family name. Her uncle, James McClelland, a colonel in the Confederate Army, and George McClellan looked so much alike that Confederate troops once mistook him for the Union general and took him prisoner.

Hamilton’s son and daughter-in-law weren’t the only family members with open Southern sympathies. His sister was arrested for trying to smuggle trunks full of dresses into Virginia. She was put in Old Capitol and then, like Rose Greenhow, exiled to Richmond. Hamilton’s son-in-law, Union General Keyes, confessed an attraction to Southern women. He is reported to have been romantically involved with Greenhow before the war, and he continued to visit her home in Washington during the war, at least until she was arrested.

Hamilton too consorted with Southerners, but less openly. Among those who dropped by Grassland was a Jesuit priest from Georgetown College, Father Josesph Bixio. In addition to his work at the college, Bixio was a chaplain in the Confederate Army. He passed between the lines clandestinely and visited both Hamilton at Grassland and daughter-in-law Margaret in Richmond. Even Hamilton’s butcher was a Southern sympathizer. According to a later recollection Margaret wrote, the Loughboroughs wanted to know what had happened at the First Battle of Bull Run. (The New York Times initially reported a Union victory.). Hamilton’s wife sent a servant to the butcher with a message: “Tell me the correct news. When the boy returned,” Mrs. Loughborough “sent the cook out of the kitchen on an errand and then unskewered the meat. There she found a short note: ‘Whipped them like H—, they won’t stop running till Judgement day.’”

Given the varied sympathies of the visitors to Grassland – Union generals, the officers at Gaines, Confederate chaplains – Hamilton must have constantly wondered which side the next rider coming up the lane was on. In July 1864, it was his son Henry. In all likelihood, he was accompanied by Confederate general General John McCausland. In a now-lost diary, Margaret said that Henry was with the large Confederate force under the command of General. Jubal Early that raided Washington then. Henry used the occasion to sneak through Union lines in the dark for dinner with his parents at Grassland.

McCausland, for his part, said in an interview shortly before his death in 1927 that he was along on Early’s raid and rode into an unoccupied Union fort in northwest Washington and looked down on the city. Although McCausland didn’t say how he got there nor did he name the fort, most likely Henry led the way to Gaines, the only fort fitting McCausland’s description. This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that McCausland had camped his cavalry on the Bethesda farm of Jacob Louis Bohrer; he was Hamilton Loughborough’s first cousin by marriage. McCausland’s was the deepest penetration of the Union defenses around the capital in the war by a uniformed Confederate general.

In March 1865, Hamilton’s wife obtained a pass, signed by Lincoln, to allow daughter-in-law Margaret to pass through the lines and head north to the safety of Grassland. She was there when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. A week later, on Friday, April 14, Booth assassinated Lincoln. Margaret remembered: “The neighbors who brought all of our bad news ran a milk wagon which served the White House and Cabinet officers with milk and cream. While we were at breakfast on April 15th, (Holy Saturday) he rushed in saying ‘Lincoln is killed.’”

The next morning, according to local lore, Union troops knocked on the door at Grassland. They wanted to question Hamilton about reports he had facilitated Booth’s escape by hiding him in the cellar. Loughborough was so shocked by the accusation that he suffered a stroke and, later, died. Margaret didn’t mention this in her published writings, and the allegation was not true. Booth escaped in the opposite direction. Instead, Margaret made a point of saying that Hamilton was a loyal Union man and that he was alone getting ready for Easter mass when he suffered a seizure.

At the end of the war, men who had worn the Confederate uniform were welcomed back into the Union if they swore an oath of loyalty. Henry Loughborough did so a week after Lee’s surrender. It took General McCausland two years. He was under indictment by authorities in Pennsylvania for asking the town of Chambersburg to pay ransom or be burned (he burned it), and he wouldn’t swear allegiance to the United States until he got a pardon from Ulysses S. Grant. Margaret didn’t wear a uniform, but she too swore an oath of loyalty – after getting Robert E. Lee’s personal assurance that it was the right thing to do.

By the time she published her recollection of these events in 1912, Margaret’s loyalty to the United States was beyond question. One of her sons had gone to West Point and fought in the Spanish-American War. But she must not have felt it was safe to tell all. While her private diary said that Henry was in Jubal Early’s raid on Washington, she didn’t mention this tidbit in the public recollections she wrote for the Daughters of the Confederacy.

Instead, she put Henry far away from the action, writing that at the time of the raid, he was in “West Virginia to impress horses for the C.S.A.” Forty-seven years after the end of the Civil War, she felt secrets still needed to be kept. There is a final irony. Today, Hamilton Loughborough’s Grassland estate, where Henry dined at home in Confederate uniform and where the burner of Chambersburg rode into Fort Gaines, is headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security.

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