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Reveille in Washington

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington is more than a classic work of history: it is a piece of history in its own right.

Leech was a fascinating woman and trailblazer: a 1915 graduate of Vassar, a devoted volunteer during the First World War, a New York magazine writer and participant in the famous Algonquin Table. A prolific historian, she was a woman with a remarkable affinity for Pulitzers: Not only did she win the Prize twice (the first woman ever to do so), but in 1928 she also married a Pulitzer, Ralph, publisher of the New York World and son of the Joseph Pulitzer who founded the Prize.

Reveille is the book that won Leech her first Pulitzer, and you can see why: It is a riveting history of the capital city at war, with a brilliant eye for every detail, from the methods of military government in the capital to the location of the brothels, from dance steps to labor strife, from the rise of a black middle class to fashions in catering.

Leech’s book takes on additional power from the date of publication: 1941. We read Leech’s account of a capital transformed by war in the knowledge of the imminence of another war, and another transformation of America’s odd and unloved capital city.

Reveille can be read as an extended footnote on that impromptu address of Abraham Lincoln’s I quoted in Bookshelf 54:

What has occured in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.

Leech’s characters are just as Lincoln described them: weak and strong, silly and wise, bad and good. For every self-abnegating Clara Barton, there is a self-aggrandizing Joe Hooker; for every patriotic Edwin Stanton a treacherous Rose Greenhow.

(Greenhow was a wealthy widow and popular hostess in the Washington of the 1850s. Her house stood about where the Hay-Adams hotel now stands – just off Lafayette Square, across the street from St. John’s Episcopal Church. Greenhow was no very great beauty, but she was a supremely gifted flatterer – a much more valuable attribute in Washington, then as now. According to Leech, Greenhow carried on flirtations, and probably much more than flirtations, with a number of important Republican leaders. One of them shared with her the Federal plan of march in advance of the Battle of Bull Run. Greenhow passed this information to the Confederate army, contributing to the first terrible Union defeat. She was detained as a spy, but treated remarkably leniently, possibly because of her sex, possibly because of her social standing … also possibly to shield her paramours.)

The pompous, the corrupt, the vindictive, the incompetent, and more of the corrupt … these filled Civil War Washington – and indeed the Civil War White House. The White House head gardener was on the take, the guest rooms were filled with secessionist sympathizers, and the first lady was a compulsive shopper who failed to pay her bills.

Gambling, whoring, drinking, opportunism, hysteria are not shown in the white marble monuments with which we commemorate the generation that saved the Union and overthrew slavery. Their latter-day equivalents in the “greatest generation” are likewise fading out of memory. This forgetfulness lends glory to the past – but often betrays us into error in the present.

I remember reading some time ago a blogpost – I forget exactly where and cannot recover the cite – about some veterans of World War II intelligence-gathering who solemnly insisted that they never, ever resorted to rough methods. Not them! They were too fine and high-minded. Then I read in Max Hastings about an interrogation that went as follows:

In the terrible winter battles of 1944-45, six captured German officers are led into a little house in eastern France. One chair was placed in the center of the main room. The first is seated in the chair. He is asked: “How many men and guns do you have in the town up ahead?” The German refuses to answer. His American interrogator does not repeat the question. He pulls out his pistol, shoots the officer in the head, and pushes the body to the floor. The next officer is seated in the same chair. “How many men and guns?” He talked.

The evils of the past do not excuse the evils of the present. But accurate knowledge can at least protect us from naivety, impossible standards, and equally impossible ancestor-worship.

Margaret Leech’s classic history is as fresh and lively today as in 1941 – and the shadows of the past deepen the interest of a book about a capital waging one desperate war, written on the eve of another, and read by this reader in the midst of a third.

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