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  • Richard Byrne

Washington DC in John Strausbaugh's City of Sedition

John Strausbaugh has been a mentor and friend for 30 years now, so it's a delight to report that his new book -- City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War -- is a terrific and terrifying excavation of a key moment in the metropolis' history -- an era that permanently shaped Gotham's culture, commerce, and race relations.

Having finally established itself as the major city in the United States by the 1820s, Strausbaugh's book establishes that New York played an outsized role in the Civil War despite never being the scene of a major engagement in the conflict. The city endured the most violent and bloody riot in American history in when a new round of conscription for the Union Army was announced in July 1863 -- right after the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. New York's newspapers, pamphleteers, politicians, and preachers also played crucial roles in the political fortunes of the abolitionist movement and the electoral fortunes of Abraham Lincoln.

Yet as I read through City of Sedition, I did keep track of the moments when this very New York story intersected with the history of the nation's capital. And in advance of his reading at Washington DC's Politics & Prose on Friday, August 19, 2016, I offer three of City of Sedition's DC moments and invite you to come hear Strausbaugh talk about the book.

1. Herman Melville. Job Seeker

Strausbaugh observes that despite his lack of strong political leanings, novelist and poet Herman Melville was one of those who flocked to DC in 1861 after Abraham Lincoln's victory to try and secure a position in the new administration.

"To the extent the he had politics," Strausbaugh writes of Melville, "he leaned toward the conservative and the Democrat, which didn't make him the likeliest candidate for a Reublican posting."

Melville's family -- including a politically connected uncle, Amos Nourse -- networked for the writer before Melville joined the thousands who descended on DC at Lincoln's March inaugural.

"At Lincoln's inaugural levee," Strausbaugh continues, "[Melville and Nourse] stood in the reception line for ninety minutes watching Lincoln shake hands, Melville said, 'like a man sawing wood at so much per cord.' It was as close as Herman came to lobbying. He loitered in the city for a couple of weeks, sitting on park benches, gazing balefully at the Capitol dome and Washington Monument, both of them unfinished and ominously broken-looking. At the end of March, he went back to the Berkshires, jobless."

2. The Fire Zouaves save Willard's Hotel

When New Yorker and aspiring military man Elmer Ellsworth met a veteran of the colorful French Zouaves, he decided to transform his Illinois militia into an American version, even down to the pantaloons and fezes.

As war approached in 1860, Ellsworth took his unit -- dubbed the "United States Zouave Cadets" -- on tour. They were an immediate hit in New York City, creating a fashion craze and being written into plays and music hall numbers. He even got an invitation from President-elect Lincoln to work on his transition team.

When Fort Sumter surrendered in 1861, Ellsworth decided to recruit a Zouave company from the ranks of New York City's fire fighters. Strausbaugh observes that they were "a tough, unruly lot" who got even worse when they marched down to garrison DC in the first weeks months of the conflict.

"Few had ever tasted military discipline," Strausbaugh writes, "and, let loose in a new city, some went wild. There were reports of their slipping out at might, breaking into shops, stealing food and cigars and 'gentlemen's carriages,' raiding brothels and getting drunk in restaurants."

The Fire Zouaves came in handy on May 9, 1861, however, when a fire broke out a few doors down from one of the capital's landmarks -- Willard's Hotel. While DC firefighters dawdled, Ellsworth and a number of Fire Zouaves broke into firehouses, pulled out their gear, and beat back and vanquished the fire themselves.

Strausbaugh relates a report from New York Times correspondent Henry J. Wisner that the episode helped "retrieve the character of the regiment from the disgrace cast upon by the excesses of the few rogues who have been turned out of its ranks."

Ellsworth, however, met a tragic end a few weeks later as the first casualty of the conflict, when he tore down the Stars and Bars from an inn in nearby Alexandria, Virginia and was shot dead by the innkeeper. His body was taken back to New York for a massive funeral.

3. Dan Sickles' Bones

Union General Dan Sickles is one of the main characters in City of Sedition, and it's impossible to tidily summarize the messy and eventful life of the man in a blog post. The story of his preening, politicking, and volcanic temper, however, is one of the recurring delights of Strausbaugh's book.

The DC element to the Sickles tale, however, starts at the Battle of Gettysburg. A rash decision by Sickles on the second day of that battle to disobey a direct order to hold his position at the left flank of the Union line almost cost the North the battle.

Rather than hold his ground, Sickles chose to advance his men into what he saw as more favorable terrain. Since the Confederate plan of attack on the second day of the battle was to test both flanks of the Union position, Sickles' maneuver led to massive slaughter and a near calamity as the flank he was entrusted with was thisclose to being turned by the ferocious Southern offensive.

As Strausbaugh relates, not only did Sickles lose almost a third of his men that afternoon, he also lost his right leg when it was smashed by shrapnel from a Confederate cannonball.

"Surgeons amputated Sickles's leg low on the thigh," writes Strausbaugh. "Severed limbs were usually tossed in piles outside the medical tents for later disposal, but Daniel E. Sickles was not going to let a leg he'd so gloriously sacrificed for his country suffer such ignominy. He instructed the surgeons to box it up and send it to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, which had put out a request for notable specimens. The museum displayed the fractured bones in a glass vitrine. For the rest of his life, he'd go visit them whenever he was in Washington."

Today, you can still see Dan Sickles' bones at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring.

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