Commentary: Historically, D.C. No Stranger to Attacks

Edward C. Smith
American University
September 20, 2001

In putting into perspective the September 11 terrorist attack on America, historian Edward C. Smith recalls how the British burned down the White House and the Capitol and how Washington could so easily have been invaded by the Confederacy after the first battle of the Civil War. The world wars of the last century turned Washington into a world capital. It is, Smith writes, a city defined by war.

America's victory over the British during the Revolutionary War created a new republic and also created the need for a permanent capital.

Although "conceived" in 1790, Washington was not born (meaning the presence of buildings and residents) until 1800. And because George Washington "Was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen" the city was named in his honor and located on the Potomac River very near his estate at Mount Vernon. The quote is from the funeral oration for Washington presented by General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee.

In 1812, partially as an attempt to regain their lost colonies, the British invaded America for the second time. The war was waged throughout the country and during August 1814 the invaders captured the capital and immediately began to set the city ablaze.

For the sole purpose of humiliating young America, the U.S Capitol, the White House, the Navy Yard (founded by President Thomas Jefferson and the first such federal facility in the country), and many other public buildings were shamelessly and utterly destroyed. The citizens of the city—and of the nation—were devastated by the large-scale and wanton destruction.

During the days and weeks following the ravaging of the city there were many spirited conversations among congressmen regarding Washington's safety and its future as the country's capital.

There were many members of congress who felt that Washington was in a very vulnerable location, only 35 miles (40 kilometers) from the Chesapeake Bay. Consequently, some serious proposals were made to relocate the nation's capital to somewhere in Ohio or some other place in the Midwest where it would not be accessible to an amphibious attack.

However, as time progressed, the government resolved to remain on the banks of the Potomac and like the Phoenix bird of Egyptian mythology, the capital city rose from its ashes to soar again. Thus, as "terrorists," the British Army failed miserably in its mission to rob America of its cherished independence.

Capital Across the River from the Confederacy

After the firing on Fort Sumter, Virginia and three other states seceded from the Union. As an immediate consequence of Virginia's action, the northernmost confederate state was across the river from the nation's capital.

Lest we forget, during the four years of war, from 1861 to 1865, 60 percent of all Civil War battles were fought on the blood-soaked soil of Virginia. General Robert E. Lee only fought two battles outside of his state and they were at Antietam in Maryland in 1862 and at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in 1863.

Early in the war, the Confederacy moved its capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond, Virginia, only one hundred miles (160 kilometers) south of Washington, D.C.

Continued on Next Page >>


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