Saturday, July 4, 2015

July 5, 1861 - Capitol Hill as the battle nears

William Howard Russell, the most famous war correspondent for the most powerful newspaper on earth, The Times of London, was in close contact with Consul Robert Bunch,  Our Man in Charleston. As the battle looms in northern Virginia, he visits Capitol Hill.

July 5, 1861—… Mr. Bigelow [the “whilom editor of the ‘Evening Post’” and “a leading Republican”] was of opinion that the army would move at once ; “But,” said I, “where is the transport, where the cavalry and guns?”

“Oh,” replied he, “I suppose we have got everything that is required. I know nothing of these things, but I am told cavalry are no use in the wooded country towards Richmond.”

I have not yet been able to go through the camps, but I doubt very much whether the material or commissariat of the grand army of the North is at all adequate to a campaign. The presumption and ignorance of the New York journals would be ridiculous were they not so mischievous. They describe “this horde of battalion companies unofficered, clad in all kinds of different uniform, diversely equipped, perfectly ignorant of the principles of military obedience and concerted action,” for so I hear it described by United States officers themselves, as being “the greatest army the world ever saw ; perfect in officers and discipline ; unsurpassed in devotion and courage; furnished with every requisite; and destined on its first march to sweep into Richmond, and to obliterate from the Potomac to New Orleans every trace of rebellion.”

The Congress met to-day to hear the President’s Message read. Somehow or other there is not such anxiety and eagerness to hear what Mr. Lincoln has to say as one could expect on such a momentous occasion. It would seem as if the forthcoming appeal to arms had overshadowed every other sentiment in the minds of the people. They are waiting for deeds, and care not for words. The confidence of the New York papers, and of the citizens, soldiers, and public speakers, contrast with the dubious and gloomy views of the military men ; but of this Message itself there are some incidents independent of the occasion to render it curious, if not interesting. The President has, it is said, written much of it in his own fashion, which has been revised and altered by his Ministers ; but he has written it again and repeated himself, and after many struggles a good deal of pure Lincolnism goes down to Congress. …

There is always a ruinous look about an unfinished building when it is occupied and devoted to business. The Capitol is situated on a hill, one face of which is scarped by the road, and has the appearance of being formed of heaps of rubbish. Towards Pennsylvania Avenue the long frontage abuts on a lawn shaded by trees, through which walks and avenues lead to the many entrances under the porticoes and colonnades ; the face which corresponds on the other side looks out on heaps of brick and mortar, cut stone, and a waste of marble blocks lying half buried in the earth and cumbering the ground, which, in the magnificent ideas of the founders and planners of the city, was to be occupied by stately streets. The cleverness of certain speculators in land prevented the execution of the original idea, which was to radiate all the main avenues of the city from the Capitol as a centre, the intermediate streets being formed by circles drawn at regularly increasing intervals from the Capitol, and intersected by the radii. The speculators purchased up the land on the side between the Navy Yard and the site of the Capitol; the result the land is unoccupied, except by paltry houses, and the capitalists are ruined.

The Capitol would be best described by a series of photographs. Like the Great Republic itself, it is unfinished. It resembles it in another respect : it looks best at a distance ; and, again, it is incongruous in its parts. The passages are so dark that artificial light is often required to enable one to find his way. The offices and bureaux of the committees are better than the chambers of the Senate and the House of Representatives. All the encaustics and the white marble and stone staircases suffer from tobacco juice, though there is a liberal display of spittoons at every corner. The official messengers, doorkeepers, and porters wear no distinctive badge or dress. No policemen are on duty, as in our Houses of Parliament; no soldiery, gendarmerie, or sergens-de-ville in the precincts ; the crowd wanders about the passages as it pleases, and shows the utmost propriety, never going where it ought not to intrude. There is a special gallery set apart for women; the reporters are commodiously placed in an ample gallery, above the Speaker’s chair ; the diplomatic circle have their gallery facing the reporters, and they are placed so low down in the somewhat depressed chamber, that every word can be heard from speakers in the remotest parts of the house very distinctly. …

The galleries were by no means full, and in that reserved for the diplomatic body the most notable person was M. Mercier, the Minister of France, who, fixing his intelligent and eager face between both hands, watched with keen scrutiny the attitude and conduct of the Senate.

Balloon view of the unfinished Capitol dome and Washington D.C. from "Harper's Weekly" courtesy of The American Library of Paris. Look closely. Can you find the White House?

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