A City Transformed:
With most streets unpaved and many government buildings half-built, Washington in 1861 was ill prepared for the sudden chaos of war. Tens of thousands of soldiers, civilians, escaped slaves, and -- later -- newly emancipated men, women, and children flooded in.
Tent Cities and Shantytowns:
Wartime tripled the capital's population. In 1861 there were 50,000 people living in Washington City and 75,000 in the entire District of Columbia. By war's end, the count had ballooned to 200,000. The influx brought office seekers, patronage hunters, northern abolitionists, civilian suppliers for the Union war effort, prostitutes, and camp followers (wives, children, nurses, provisioners). Free blacks, "contrabands" (escaped slaves), and recently emancipated slaves came seeking a safe place to live a life of freedom. Newcomers scrambled to find in overcrowded tent cities and shantytowns, or in hastily built shacks lining the city's alleys.
Camps and Quarters:
Fewer than 500 troops guarded the nation's capital on New Year's Day in 1861, but within a week of the attack on Fort Sumter in mid-April, regiments from Pennsylvania and then Massachusetts and New York arrived. In this "instant" armed camp, Union troops pitched tents on the White House lawn and public squares and turned the Patent Office and other public buildings into military quarters. Civilians learned to live with drumming, bugling, and cannon fire, not to mention flourishing brothels.
Hospitals and Cemeteries:
Churches, hotels, schools, social halls, and even private homes became makeshift hospitals. The wounded lined the halls of the patent Office and Capitol. Thousands of unmarried northern women streamed into Washington to undertake the difficult work of nursing. On occasion, Mary Lincoln quietly made the rounds visiting the wounded in Union hospitals, several of which were near the White House.
At the peak of the war, 50,000 ill and gravely injured soldiers filled 22 hospitals. The beleaguered living buried the dead quickly, with little ceremony, in local cemeteries or the first national cemeteries, located at the Soldiers' Home and then Arlington.