Monday, January 12, 2015

Q&A with Mark N. Ozer

Mark N. Ozer is the author of the new book Washington D.C. and the Civil War. His many other books include Washington D.C. and the War of 1812 and Washington D.C.: Politics and Place. A former professor of neurology at the Georgetown University Medical School, he is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: You describe the Civil War as "the central event in the history of Washington, D.C." How did it change the city? 

A: The Civil War was the central event in the history of Washington, D.C. The city grew both in size and diversity as well as importance. Still a straggly "Federal City" of about 60,000 in 1860, it tripled in population by 1870.

The original local Tidewater slaveholding landowners left, while a much larger number of new Union men came from the West and North. The local black population, made up of a small number of locally born freedmen and slaves (freed in 1862), tripled by persons coming from rural northern Virginia and southern Maryland. 

The original "City of Washington," as laid out by Peter L'Enfant, ending at Florida Avenue, became amalgamated with the existing town of Georgetown and the rural County of Washington to form a government of the entire District of Columbia.

The city had become a major focus of the war and had risen to be seen as the "capital" of a nation-state rather than the mere "Seat of Government."

President Grant overcame all objections to insist that the government would not move elsewhere, perhaps to a more central site like St. Louis. To assure that, he supported the building of the enlarged State, War and Navy Building (now the Old Executive Office Building) on 17th Street adjacent to the White House.

The capital of the victorious Union and the Republican Party, memorials and statues filled the streets and parks to embody the story of the Civil War. 

Q: How many forts were constructed around the city during the war and what was their impact? 

A: Washington was a major war objective. By 1863, there was an entire perimeter of 63 forts, 93 batteries and over 800 guns manned by 25,000 men. Its defense was also one of the tasks of the Army of the Potomac.

The offensive strategy of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had to be responsive. Because of the extensive defenses, Lee could not attack the city directly.

He attacked at Antietam in September 1862 and again at Gettysburg in July 1863 in an attempt to lure the Army of the Potomac into battle with the aim of defeating it, thus leaving Washington relatively undefended. 

Q: What are some of the most important legacies of the war for the city, both architecturally and historically? 

A: The war created a nation-state whose capital became far more important than heretofore. The federal government increased in size and responsibility, with the city becoming larger and more prominent in the life of the country.

In addition to the many statues and other mementos of the war were the buildings, such as the Federal Pension Bureau, which illustrated the significance of the entire pension system. 

Q: As someone who's written many books about D.C.'s history, what particularly interests you about the city? 

A: No less than the American flag "stands for the republic" in the Pledge of Allegiance, so does the city. It is the symbol of the country.

Its streets streaming from the U.S. Capitol, with the prominent building on the hill that represents the legislature and Article I of the Constitution connecting with the home of the executive in the White House; the avenues named after the states; the streets named after famous Americans and the geography of the country.

The buildings, where they are, what they look like, are all symbolic. It is a city, but also a national shrine that has evolved as the country has evolved into a more diverse place. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I continue to work on cities, with a book coming out on Boston and Philadelphia. I am continuing my series on Washington to include its history in the 20th century when it became an imperial capital and then the capital of the New Deal and the successive wars of the 20th century.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Mark N. Ozer will be speaking at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., on January 17, 2015.

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