Thursday, March 5, 2015

Q&A with Mark N. Ozer

Mark N. Ozer is the author most recently of the books Washington D.C. and the Civil War and Boston: Persons and Places. His many other books include Baltimore: Persons and Places, 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: Looking at a different city you've written about, how does Boston’s history affect the city today?

A: Boston 's origins very much continue to affect the city today. Uniquely settled by educated persons, the Puritans fostered education from the start.

They founded a college to train their ministers in 1636. Having received a substantial bequest and half of the mainly theological library of a graduate of Emmanuel College in Cambridge called John Harvard, they named their college for him in gratitude.

The library so started has been continuously the largest of its kind in the country, if not the world. In the late 17th century, Cotton Mather was a minister and graduate of Harvard who was also a member of the Royal Society in London. Amassed over several generations, his library in Boston was the capital of the "Republic of Letters" in North America.

Boston was the source in the 18th century of much of the political thinking that brought about the American Revolution; there also in the 19th arose many of the reform movements of the antebellum era and the foundations of American literary culture.

Boston acceded its primacy as a city to the greater physical growth of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, while retaining much longer primacy in cultural leadership. Harvard College remained their educational bastion.

After the Civil War, literary trends began to arise elsewhere, as did art and architecture. There was a short burst starting in the 1870s evidenced by the Museum of Fine Arts and the great Boston Public Library. The residues of that efflorescence have maintained the city's standing among the great cultural centers of the world. …

Boston fell behind other cities in the era of large-scale industrialization both in wealth and influence. It leads once again now when the Information Revolution takes the place of the earlier one based on energy and machines.

The city and its region's highly educated population in the 21st century continue to make an ongoing contribution to intellectual innovation in the age of the computer and biotechnology. In 2010, for the first time since the 1870s, the population rise in the core city has been greater than in the surrounding suburban belt.

From its start, the words of the founder of the Lowell Institute at the time of its formation in 1836 still ring true that “the prosperity of New England, an otherwise barren and unproductive land, is based on the intelligence and information of its inhabitants.” 

Q: Now, moving on to Baltimore--you describe Baltimore as both a southern and a northern city. In what ways does it fit into each of those categories?

A: Baltimore is both a southern and northern city. That dichotomy has lent to its charm and livability, but has also been one of the drawbacks to its ongoing viability. It is known as a city of neighborhoods that engender great loyalty and commitment by inhabitants to their own specific locales.

It is a Southern city in that it lies in a colony first established in the 17th century based on slave-based tobacco plantations in southern and eastern Maryland.

In the 18th century, Baltimore grew as a town based on the grain trade. The wheat came from non-slaveholding small farmers in the west and north, and was ground into flour by water-powered grist mills. It was then carried by ship built there from its excellent ice-free port. Baltimore was in Maryland but not entirely part of it.

However, the slaveholding landowners made up much of the city's early political, economic and social elite. Their attitudes pervaded the city's culture. Antebellum, the city had a large poorly housed black population both slave and already freed.

For example, Frederick Douglass, born a slave on a tobacco plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, worked in the city shipyards as a laborer for wages before escaping to freedom in the North.

It remained in the Union during the Civil War, if only precariously, as exemplified by the attack on Union troops on their way to relieve the national capital in April 1861. Not being "in rebellion," the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did not officially apply.

Nevertheless, the 1862 emancipation in the neighboring District of Columbia effectively nullified the Fugitive Slave Act. Slaves began to escape across the border to seek freedom.

In 1864 prior to the 13th Amendment, Maryland emancipated its black slaves. Nevertheless, never having seceded, the state never underwent Reconstruction. It failed to ratify or implement the 14th Civil Rights and 15th Voting Rights Amendments.

By its site on the Chesapeake Bay, commercial ties after the Civil War remained closely connected to the South, evidenced by the very large-scale wholesale "Baltimore Bargain House." …

It grew as a large commercial and industrial northern-type city in the 19th and 20th century. It had important railroad ties to the West and North as well as to the South. Following the path of the National Road, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was the first and remained the shortest route west….

The Baltimore region retains its divided nature that reflects its historical dichotomy. For example, its schools remained for long segregated and are still of poor quality. In the 21st century, industry has fled and the tax-paying population has largely shifted to the suburban fringe, firmly separated from the city. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier version of this Q&A, please click here.

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