The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days that Shook the Union. By John Lockwood and Charles Lockwood. Oxford University Press. 2011. xiv + 298pp. $27.95.


In this engaging work, the brothers John and Charles Lockwood seek to fill a seemingly rare void in the voluminous literature on the Civil War. They discuss the twelve anxious days in late April 1861 – between the time President Abraham Lincoln called for troops to put down the rebellion one day after Fort Sumter surrendered and the moment when enough Union volunteer units finally arrived in Washington to make the capture of the nation's capital unlikely. The authors tell an interesting if perhaps hyperbolic story. It is difficult to maintain a great deal of suspense since every reader knows that Washington not only did not fall, but also was not even seriously threatened by Confederate forces, despite much belligerent rhetoric by some southern sympathizers. However, the Lockwoods make a strong case that perception at the time was different from reality. Many residents in Washington and the North earnestly believed the capital was in grave danger during that time.

The authors detail the improvised steps that the Federal government took to prevent the capture of the capital. These steps included hastily forming two ‘military’ units for temporary duty under the command of Senators James H. Lane of Kansas and Cassius Clay of Kentucky (both founding members of the Republican Party) – the latter's force was composed primarily of older roughs. Treasury Department clerks were also organized into makeshift battalions as a last-ditch guard. Defensive bastions were created around the White House, Capitol building and the Treasury building, as the last strongholds of resistance in case of attack.

The authors point out the suspect loyalties of many living in D.C., and the fear that many residents maintained that southern sympathizers – especially those in key government positions, of which there were more than a few – would work to undermine the defences and hand the city over to the Confederates. Additionally, gangs of thugs from outside the city also appeared in Washington to take advantage of the frightened populace. Since no enemy units actually reached Washington, the most interesting story told here focused on the trek that Union forces took to get to D.C., especially the conflicts in Baltimore as the strongly pro-Confederate crowd in that city attempted to deny Union troops transit through its streets to the beleaguered capital. The authors lucidly and engagingly describe the attacks on the 6th Massachusetts Regiment and the destruction of the railroad track that forced other units to bypass the city, adding even more delay to the potential rescue of Washington.

The fear that northern residents had for the nation's capital was really misguided. They feared phantom legions that never were close to materializing. One of the main points that emerge from the book (but not one that the authors necessarily stress) is that at a very early stage Virginia and Confederate authorities rejected any assault on the capital. Former Governor Henry Wise postulated on the subject, but got no practical support from the Virginia Governor John Letcher, Confederate authorities or the legitimate military authorities in Virginia. Washington was never truly under threat in any capacity other than in the minds of anxious northerners.

The book takes a traditional narrative approach to the two-week period, offering little in the way of analysis or drawing greater conclusions from this brief period. While it may be of limited value to scholars, it is a strong narrative, with sections of very entertaining and even eloquent writing. The authors do a good job of using newspapers and contemporary correspondence to reveal that the residents really feared a Confederate attack. However, the strong narrative is marred by unusually sloppy editing. This reader found several dozen copy-editing mistakes and typographical errors without seeking them out. Though editing is not something that is normally discussed in reviews, these errors must be mentioned because they constitute the part of the book most worthy of criticism; they detracted from the reading and became noticeable by their ubiquity. This reflects poorly on the authors and the editing oversight at Oxford (who knows better). Readers deserve much better than this.