Self Guided Tour of Georgetown in the Civil War
During the American Civil War, Georgetown was its own city, distinct from Washington. But it’s municipal status was not the only thing separating it from the Union capital – Georgetown was full of Confederate sympathizers.
From spies to soldiers, these “secesh” families lived next door to Union hospitals and boarding houses for officers in blue.
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Our tour is not in chronological order but rather the most logical walking route. We start at the corner of Wisconsin Ave and M St NW, the colloquial center of Georgetown. Many of the bus routes will get you to this location either coming in from downtown Washington or coming South from the Cathedral/Zoo.
As you begin, you’re at the corner of a very bustling commercial district. It would have been very similar during the Civil War but with unpaved roads with horse drawn carriages, men in tophats and ladies in hoop skirts.
A: McCandless’ Tavern
At the corner of M St NW and Wisconsin Ave NW, was McCandless’ Tavern – a notorious slave market which continued until Congress banned the slave trade in the District in 1862. Men would advertise the sale of or the need of slaves and would meet in the tavern to discuss the sale.
Continue east along M St NW keeping the PNC Bank to your left and walk past it until you reach 30th St NW.
B: Union Hotel Hospital
What is now the gold dome of a Suntrust bank, was the site of the Union Hotel and Tavern. It was one of the best places for lodging and social gatherings since 1796.
When the Union government gave notice to the owner and residents that it was too be turned over for hospital use, the residents left quietly – but took everything, including the chamberpots.
Louisa May Alcott would volunteer for a short six weeks as a nurse at this hospital during the war.
Turn left from M St NW onto 30th St NW and head up the hill to N St NW. Cross N St NW at the intersection and turn left on N, heading almost to the end of the block. You’ll come to a set of three Federal style row houses set farther back than the rest, with a small black “Service” door on the ground floor.
C: Wheatley and Gordon Houses: 3041-3045 N St NW
Here lived the Wheatley family, whose two sons, Walter and Francis snuck across the lines to join Confederate forces. When Francis was killed in action, Walter returned home to share the grave news.
He was turned in by a family servant as a Confederate to the provost guard and kept in the Old Capitol Prison. Next door, the Gordon family had a son survive the war. When he returned home, he had only the gray Confederate coat of his uniform to keep warm.
Though he took the military buttons off, the Union officers remaining in town knew exactly what he was – but they treated him as a soldier, not an enemy.
Turn around and head back down N St. When you near the corner of 30th, keep an eye across the street for the large red brick house on the corner of 30th and N.
D: Laird Dunlop House – 3014 N St NW
This was the home of Judge James Dunlop, Chief Justice of the DC Circuit Court. The story goes that he was kicked off the bench because of his Southern sympathies by President Lincoln. In reality, because you cannot remove someone from the bench just because you don’t like their political leanings, Lincoln disbanded the entire court.
A few weeks later, a new court was created with similar jurisdiction and all the judges held Northern sympathies. The Dunlop family held no grudges, and this house was sold to an elder Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of Abraham Lincoln.
Turn around to view the white brick house with black shutters on this corner of 30th and N.
E: Grafton Tyler House -1300 30th St NW
Dr. Grafton Tyler lived here during the Civil War and like Miss Lydia English, he did not enjoy looking at the Union flag across the street at Seminary Hospital.
So he shuttered his windows. Imagine four years of no air conditioning, no fresh breeze and the stifling heat of Georgetown summers. Towards the end of the war, the soldiers at the hospital were not yet well enough to return to battle, but they were well enough to cause some mischief. They realised the the good doctor was a southern sympathezier and with the South faltering, the soldiers decided to rub it in.
They draped the fences with black crepe and lit candles, singing songs of mourning for the loss of the South, sarcastically of course.
Cross 30th St now and continue north to the large white Colonial Apartment building, also with black shutters.
F: Seminary Hospital -1305 30th St NW
When the war broke out, this was Miss Lydia English’s Seminary School for Girls, a boarding house that taught local ladies how to be a good southern lady. With the wounded soldiers returning from battle in Northern Virginia and the local hospitals filled, the Union government took over the school and turned it into Seminary Hospital.
As soon as they hung the Union flag outside the house, Miss English would have none of it and moved around the corner so as to avoid seeing the flag. Dr. Mary Walker Edwards, the first women to receive the Medal of Honor, ocassionally worked here during the Civil War.
Continue north on 30th Street and turn left at next intersection on Dumbarton Ave NW and then left onto 29th St NW. Halfway up the block, you’ll see the two story red brick facade of a church.
G: Mount Zion United Methodist Church
Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, founded in 1816, is the oldest black American church in the district. This church however was built after the Civil War in the 1880s. Prior, it was located near 27th and P St NW. Here the congregation during the war was mostly free blacks and were able to help escaped slaves because churches were less likely to be searched.
Continue north on 29th Street and turn right onto P St NW. You are now walking along the main street of the historic black community in Georgetown, Herring Hill.
H: Herring Hill
This northeast part of Georgetown was a thriving black community well before and during the Civil War.
In 1860, 851 black families lived in a 15 square block area, working as gardeners and cooks for upper class families or as shop owners and barbers in the local community.
Walking along P St, turn left on 26th St NW. Note the smaller size of the houses in this neighborhood compared to those at the beginning of the tour. At the corner of 26th and Q St NW, you’ll see a large gravel parking lot. Behind it is a somewhat dilapidated cemetery. Ownership of this land is contested so it may be best not to trespass.
I: Mount Zion Cemetery – Underground Railroad
During the Civil War this served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The old vault, which still stands next to the church in the cemetery, hid slaves escaping north to Philadelphia. Residents would leave food and water in the vault and because it was out in the woods and often held the remains of recently deceased, it was a secluded, rarely visited place.
Turning left on Q St NW from 26th, you’ll continue west on Q and the right on 28th St NW. As the road ends, you’ll be walking along Oak Hill Cemetery on your right. Continue along R St NW as the road forces you to turn left until you reach the gatehouse of the cemetery on your right.
J: Oak Hill Cemetery
Buried in Oak Hill Cemetery are Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War under Abraham Lincoln; Antonia Ford Willard – a Virginian women arrested as a Confederate spy who would end up marrying her Union prison guard, stating on the marriage that she could not take revenge for her country “but I could torment one Yankee to death, so I took the Major.”
Lillie Mackall is also buried here, she was a beloved confidente and friend of famed Confederate spy, Rose O’Neal Greenhow.
For more about Rebel Rose, listen to our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All, episode all about her:
Two executed Confederate spies are buried here as well. William Orton Williams and “Gip” Peter, from Tudor Place, were caught impersonating Union soldiers in Ohio.
They say they were not spies but rather acting on a bet but they were hanged nonetheless. Being well-liked men, even most of the Union soldiers at the fort couldn’t watch. They were reburied here at Oak Hill Cemetery.
Continue along R St NW and you’ll pass Montrose Park and then Dumbarton Oaks on your right. After you pass 32nd Street, stop at the 5th house on your left.
K: Scott-Grant House: 3238 R St NW
During the Civil War, this house was owned by General Henry W. Halleck, who was chief of staff to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. On May 18, 1865, Grant accepted use of this house but likely only spent a little time here.
This grew into legend that this was Grant’s summer house while he was President – which may not have been true, as it would have provided little respite in the warmer months.
You’re at a much higher point of Georgetown than you were at the beginning. As the hill continues north, imagine there were no homes and commercial buildings. North of Georgetown here was mostly farm land and woods.
M: Red Hill – Signal Camp of Instruction
The Union Signal Camp of Instruction was set in in the “fields of Georgetown” – what is now the neighborhood of Glover Park.
In charge of the camp was Major Albert J. Myer – who discovered the Confederates were using the same signals, taught to them by his former assistant! He developed a new system of signals and began to use the electric telegraph.
The camp had more than 100 tents, a hospital, and a wooden-built officers barracks. The camp would close at the end of the war in 1865.
Turn back around and head back to 31nd Street and turn right. As you walk down the hill, you’ll see the large estate of Tudor Place on your right. If you want to stop for a visit inside Tudor Place and take one of their guided tours of the house and/or gardens, the entrance is before you get to Q St NW on the right.
L: Tudor Place
Tudor Place was owned by the Peter family, cousins to the Lee family. Britannia Peter (married name Kennon) lived here with her son as a widow at the outbreak of the war. While she had originally left, she was afraid the house and its belongings might be ransacked or comandeered by Union, since every knew where he loyalities lie. She beat them to the punch and moved home and opened the house as a boarding house for Union officers. The only rule in the house was that you could not talk about the war in front of her – since she would not agree with her lodgers. This rule turned the boarding house into a quite the respite and many union officers remarked on the serenity of having tea in the back garden, all while hearing the sounds of cannons no so far away in Virgina. After the war, this would be the last place in the district that Robert E. Lee would visit before he died.
From Tudor Place, continue down 31 St NW to P St and turn right. Looking across the street, the 6th house from the corner.
N: Union General George Henry Thomas
3108 P St NW – General Thomas was a Virgina man, already in the US Army when Virgina seceded. He refused to leave and thus his family disowned him. He was a successful commander in the West, saving the Union army from humiliating defeat and earning the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga.”
Head back to 31 St NW and continue south down the hill. At the corner of O St, you’ll see the bell tower of Christ Church.
O: Christ Episcopal Church
Most of the congregation of this church were Southern and many left during the war, leaving the church on hard times. In this time, churches rented pews – so you paid for your seat, but most of the seats would remain empty.
When the church was ordered to pray for Union victory, the rector, Dr. William Norwood, a secessionist himself, refused and left the church. The temporary rectors sent each week would find the ladies leave in a huff at the mention of such a prayer.
However, the church would mourn the loss of President Lincoln with 30 days of black crepe and hours of tolling of the bell.
Continue down 31st NW and turn right onto Dumbarton Ave until you reach the Dumbarton United Methodist Church on your right.
P: Dumbarton United Methodist Church
On March 7, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln attended the church service here. The congregation would see him weep during the service.
Continue along Dumbarton Ave NW, cross Wisconsin Ave NW and turn left until you reach O St NW. You’ll see Martin’s Tavern (our favorite place to eat in Georgetown!) and behind it on Wisconsin Ave is the Gap store.
Q: Forrest Hall 1258 Wisconsin Ave NW
It was here that Georgetown decided to stay in the Union, reluctantly. A vote was called for though most men refused to speak or participate. Five men, none of whom declared being part of Lincoln’s Party, decided not to secede from the Union. Though it’s a Gap now, this was a military prison used for deserters from the Union, as well as spies, during the war.
It was called “The Last Ditch” and the former ballroom was used to hold more than 500 men and women. Famed Confederate spy Belle Boyd was kept here until she was moved to Old Capitol Prison. The building owner was given ten cents for damage done during the war.
Head back to N St NW and continue west, keeping Martin’s Tavern on your left. A short while down on your right, you’ll see a red brick building speckled with white paint.
R- Lincoln’s Seance House – 3226 N St NW
On Feb 5, 1863, Lincoln is said to have attended a seance at this house. Living here were the Lauries, whose daughter was said to be a medium. Mrs. Lincoln brought her husband with her to one of the events where the connected with an old Dr. Bamford.
The piano was also a key part of the experience – it would rise up with the slightest touch of the hand.
Being the ever comedian, Lincoln climbed on top and laid down on the piano declaring that now they should be able to keep it down!
Continue down N St NW and turn right on 36th St NW and the large columns on your right are Holy Trinity Church.
S -Holy Trinity Church
Like many other buildings in the area, this church was too commandeered during the war. It was used as a hospital in 1862, after the Second Battle of Bull Run/Manassas to treat over than 200 injured soldiers. Not longer after, and before the war was over, the building was returned the to the congregation in 1863.
The congregation was reimbursed $350 for use of the building.
T -Georgetown University
There is much Civil War history here at the university. This was not what campus looked like, even the historic Healy Hall in front of you came after the war. The Civil War took a great toll on the student body which dropped from 313 to 17 at the start of the war. 1,141 students and alumni enlisted in the war on both sides.