Friday, May 13, 2011

Lockwood & Lockwood: "THE SIEGE OF WASHINGTON: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union"

[The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union by John and Charles Lockwood (Oxford University Press, 2011). Hardcover, map, illustrations, notes, index. 320 pages. ISBN:9780199759897 $27.95]

Oxford is one of the few, perhaps the only, university press currently publishing the full range of Civil War literature, from popular history to specialist monographs. The Siege of Washington, by brothers John and Charles Lockwood,  is perhaps best categorized among the former.  The pair certainly construct an engrossing narrative, infusing it with countless stories detailing the anxiety and panic felt among resident black and white civilians, newspapermen, government workers, soldiers, and politicians. Among the seemingly few individuals with level heads were General-in-Chief Winfield Scott and Inspector General of the District of Columbia militia Colonel Charles P. Stone, the latter ably arranging the capital defenses.  In setting the popular mood, the authors allow rumors and plots of invading Confederate, Virginia, and Maryland hordes to pervade their narrative.  The effect of this is to place the reader among the denizens of the city during the period April 14-25, without the benefit of hindsight, and get a feel for the emotional highs and lows felt by the District population between the surrender of Fort Sumter and the arrival in Washington of the first regiments of northern volunteers.

It is often very melodramatic, and this excitement will undoubtedly appeal to the more general interest Civil War history reader.  However,  those less averse to having the wet blanket of reality thrown over a good story will find less satisfaction until the epilogue is reached.  Here, the authors admit to what many readers already know,  that there never were any serious plans by responsible heads of secessionist militias or Confederate forces to seize Washington.  The Lockwoods do seem less ready to concede that the city was never under siege, which is understandable given how often the term is misused [the book's title is unfortunate in this regard].  Although there were temporary food shortages and a banking crisis, the tearing up of railroad track and telegraph lines by roving mobs and packets of Maryland militia does not constitute a siege, and no northern volunteer regiments moving through the countryside outside of Baltimore were directly confronted on their way to Washington. Virginia state forces were ordered to remain within their borders and the Potomac River itself was also never blockaded, then or later, as the excellent work of historian Mary Alice Wills has amply demonstrated.

In its depiction of the rumors, events, and popular attitudes prevalent during the twelve days following April 14, 1861, The Siege of Washington succeeds as an exercise in the 'you-are-there' reading experience.  Whether it ultimately serves to further the mythologizing of these events will likely depend upon the background of the reader.

Other CWBA reviews of Oxford UP titles:

* The Civil War: A Concise History
* The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War
* Lincoln and His Admirals
* The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858
* The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant
* Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North
* Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War

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