Since the Capitol’s walls first began to rise, people have climbed to the crest of Capitol Hill to look out over the city. One visitor called Washington “the City of Magnificent Distances.” Jaded English author Charles Dickens tartly noted that the raw young capital “might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions,” a city on its way to becoming the capital of an ambitious country, but not yet living up to the billing. A closer look at the cityscape west of the Capitol illustrates just how much, and how little, filled the city’s magnificent distances in the years just after the Civil War.
This 1868 image shows the view looking west from the Capitol into those magnificent distances and intentions. The National Mall was a muddy, woodsy expanse, and home to a once busy canal that by the Civil War had turned fetid and largely obsolete. The land was still recovering from the Civil War years, when troops trampled the landscape and camped all over the city. At the same time, Congress began to expand and beautify the Capitol grounds. This vista takes in both the exhausted postwar city and the growing evidence of a proud, international capital.
Zoom in on some of this stereoview’s landmarks and compare them with other 1860s close-up photographs, below.
Looking down in the original stereoview, the edge of a circular pool sits directly below the balcony. It once served as a pedestal for the oldest military monument in the nation, honoring naval heroes of the First Barbary War. By the time of the photograph, the statue was gone, leaving either an “open basin full of gold fishes flashing in the sun” or a “pond of dirty fresh water, (not large enough for a small duck puddle)” depending on who you asked.
Past the pool pictured in the stereoview, visitors wander up and down the staircase that leads to the Capitol’s west front. Washingtonians often promenaded along the shady paths in the summers. Congress fenced the area in the 1830s to prevent cows from eating the shrubbery and saplings. In a few years, the mature trees tended to hide the grand view of the building, but they offered a green respite from the still-ugly city. Newfangled street lamps made the grounds popular even in the evenings.
In the center of the original image, one of the Capitol’s fountains is “lapsing in dreamy tune through the long June hours,” a visitor observed. Installed in 1859, the splashing water sometimes sprayed as high as 100 feet. The engineer behind it, Montgomery Meigs, almost burst his buttons with pride over managing to bring water from the Potomac via aqueduct. “I wish you could see it, my jet d’eau [water jet] in the Capitol Park,” he wrote his father. “I look upon it with constant pleasure, for it seems to spring rejoicing in the air & proclaiming its arrival for free use of the sick & well, rich & poor.”
Beyond the Capitol grounds in the original stereoview, the National Mall is beginning to take shape. The red turrets of the Smithsonian Institution’s Castle stand out against the sky. The building housed every aspect of the Smithsonian’s new endeavor to foster, as the founder wrote, “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Offices, lecture halls, exhibits, laboratories, and collection storage for collections space filled the Castle. The first Secretary of the Smithsonian’s family even lived in apartments on the top floor.
Just below the Castle in the stereoview, a series of white peaked roofs march across the Mall. They are temporary hospital wards, abandoned but still standing several years after the Civil War ended. Built close to the Southwest steamboat landing, the wards received the most gravely injured soldiers. “I devote myself much to Armory-square hospital because it contains by far the worst cases, most repulsive wounds, has the most suffering and most need of consolation,” volunteer nurse Walt Whitman wrote to his family back home. “I go every day without fail, and often at night - sometimes stay very late.”
At the left end of the row of wards sits the Washington Armory, the nucleus of the hospital complex during wartime. Like the wooden wards, it stood vacant in the late 1860s, part of the abandoned infrastructure that had hastily been thrown together in the wartime capital. Not until 1877 would the Armory find a new purpose as Smithsonian storage.
Today, the view down the Mall from the Capitol is very different. Marble terraces replace the park at the foot of the Capitol. The Armory and its wards are long gone, as are the canal and the trees and winding paths of the Mall. Instead, Smithsonian museums line a grassy vista all the way to the Washington Monument, which was under construction as the 1868 stereoview was taken. However, the Capitol itself remains, anchoring the seat of representative government.
For another view of Washington, check out East from the Capitol.
Sources: Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (London: Chapman and Hall, 1842); Janet A. Headley, "The Monument without a Public: The Case of the Tripoli Monument" Winterthur Portfolio 29, no. 4 (1994); Mary Clemmer, Ten Years in Washington (Hartford: Hartford Publishing Company, 1883); Robert O’Harrow, The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016); Walt Whitman, The Wound Dresser: A Series of Letters Written from the Hospitals in Washington During the War of the Rebellion, ed. Richard Maurice Bucke (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1898); Histories of the National Mall, accessed July 23, 2019, http://mallhistory.org; Thomas Forsythe Nelson, “An Old Letter: Some Forgotten History of the City and the Man: Washington,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, DC, Vol. 14 (1911).Follow @USHouseHistory