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The Capitol, the 1860s.
Washington, D.C., during the American Civil War, was a significant civilian leadership, military headquarters, and logistics center. As the capital of the United States, defending the city and the District of Columbia (which were not coterminous at the time) became a major priority of the War Department, and often dictated military strategy. In many ways, the War transformed Washington from a rather modest, semi-rural city into an urban center of national importance as population, government, infrastructure, public and private buildings, and visitation all dramatically increased during the conflict. This set the stage for the rapid expansion of the city throughout the latter half of the 19th century.
At the beginning of the war, Washington's only defense was one old fort (Fort Washington, 12 miles (19 km) away to the south), and the Union Army soldiers themselves. When Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan assumed command of the Department of the Potomac on August 17, 1861, he became responsible for the capital's defense. McClellan began by laying out lines for a complete ring of entrenchments and fortifications that would cover 33 miles (53 km) of land. He built enclosed forts on high hills around the city and placed well-protected batteries of field artillery in the gaps between these forts, augmenting the 88 guns already placed on the defensive line facing Virginia and South.[6] In between these batteries interconnected rifle pits were dug, allowing highly effective co-operative fire. This layout, once complete, would make the city one of the most heavily-defended locations in the world, and almost unassailable by nearly any number of men.
The capital's defenses, for the most part, deterred the Confederate Army from attacking. One notable exception was the Battle of Fort Stevens on July 11–12, 1864, in which Union soldiers repelled troops under the command of Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early. This battle was the first time since the War of 1812 that a U.S. president came under enemy fire during wartime when Lincoln visited the fort to observe the fighting.
By 1865 the defenses of Washington were most stout, amply covering both land and sea approaches. At war's end the now 37 miles (60 km) of line included at least 68 forts, over 20 miles (32 km) of rifle pits, and were supported by 32 miles (51 km) of military use only roads and four individual picket stations. 93 separate batteries of artillery had been placed on this line, comprising over 1,500 guns, both field & siege varieties, as well as mortars.
On April 14, 1865, just days after the end of the war, Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater by John Wilkes Booth during the play Our American Cousin. The next morning, at 7:22 AM, President Lincoln died in the house across the street, the first American president to be assassinated. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said, "Now he belongs to the ages" (or perhaps "angels"). The residents and visitors to the city experienced a wide array of reactions, from stunned disbelief to rage. Stanton immediately closed off most major roads and bridges, and the city was placed under martial law. Scores of residents and workers were questioned during the growing investigation, and a handful were detained or arrested on suspicion of having aided the assassins or for a perception they were withholding information.
Lincoln's body was displayed in the Capitol rotunda, and thousands of Washington residents, as well as throngs of visitors, stood in long queues for hours to glimpse the fallen president. Hotels and restaurants were filled, bringing an unexpected windfall to their owners. Following the identification and eventual arrest of the actual conspirators, the city was the site of the trial and execution of several of the assassins, and again, Washington was the center of the nation's media attention.