Updated: Aug 1, 2019
Thaddeus Lowe was explaining to Abraham Lincoln how Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, commanding general of the Union Army, had not been able to meet with him in spite of a letter of introduction from Lincoln. “The President looked at me a moment, laughed, arose and seizing his tall silk hat bade me ‘come on.’ He proposed to find out what was the matter with Scott.”
“We soon reached the General’s headquarters. This time the General’s guard turned out as the sentry called ‘The President of the United States.’ The Orderly saluted and presto, we stalked into the presence of the old General, who certainly looked startled. ‘General,’ said the President, ‘this is my friend Professor Lowe, who is organizing an Aeronautic Corps for the Army, and is to be its Chief. I wish you would facilitate his work in everyway’…It was extraordinary how matters changed, the atmosphere cleared at once. The General gave the orders with Alacrity, and when I returned with the President to the White House, I had at last letters… which made me Chief of the Corps of Aeronautics of the United States Army…” 1
There are many other accounts of President Lincoln’s visits to Scott’s headquarters in Washington during the early days of the Civil War. But strangely, the location of Scott’s office in Washington has never been clearly identified. No letter from “Army Headquarters” or the War Department ever shows an address for the office. Authors since have tended to place the general in various locations of their choosing. Most frequently it would be either the War Department building (where Scott did have an office after the War with Mexico) or the Winder Building. Others would go with the vague descriptions of a building on Seventeenth Street, “opposite the War Department.”
The Library of Congress has had a photograph of a townhouse in a row of buildings entitled “Headquarters of Genr. Scott, 17th and I streets.” This building has a white plaque proclaiming that it was the “Headquarters of Gen. Scott.” I have never seen the picture used in any publication. The address given was too far removed from the neighborhood of the War Department that its authenticity was doubted. My research convinced me that this was a picture of the right building but that it was labeled incorrectly. Some of the evidence is described here.
This photo from the Library of Congress was probably taken near the time of the 1902 GAR encampment in Washington. The white plaque under the window at left reads “Headquarters of Gen. Scott” and bears the number 102 relating to the event’s program brochure. The corrected address puts the building directly “opposite the War Department” during the Civil War.
This week, the Library took the unusual step of revising its information on a historic photo based on strong evidence submitted. The new title identifies the address of the structure as “616 Seventeenth Street, Washington, D.C.” That number would place this house three doors south of G Street and directly across Seventeenth Street NW, from the Civil War-era War Department Building.2
The plaque in the Library’s photo was described in a pamphlet published in 1902 for the 36th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, a meeting of Civil War veterans at Washington, D.C. A list of 200 sites in the District of Columbia that were related to the war was printed as a souvenir for the Encampment.3 This guide makes the following distinctions between Scott’s and other headquarters sites on 17th Street and the Winder Building:
No. 102 – Seventeenth Street Near G Street, N.W. This building was the headquarters of General Scott. No. 103 – F and Seventeenth Street, N.W., Winder Building. Headquarters of the Chief of Engineers. No. 104 – F and Seventeenth Street, N.W. Headquarters of General Halleck, and afterwards of General Grant.
The Official Program for this reunion of old comrades lauded the efforts of the Committee on Historical Sites, under Gen. Marcus Benjamin, a noted historian. Their 49 committee members were all veterans who had served in Washington during the war. The host committee of the Encampment passed a resolution encouraging Congress to enact a law that would replace “the temporary wooden site plaques” with permanent historical markers.4
The photo shows a four-story building when British journalist W.H. Russell described a “three-story house.”5 The four-story building shows differing brick colorations and window styles suggesting that an additional floor had been added to what was originally a three-story structure. The house in this photo appears to have originally looked as described by a Civil War observer as Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott’s headquarters building.
The Scott building was the middle right in this row of buildings that were probably built about 1840. This detailed drawing of the War Department neighborhood may have have been prepared by Robert Mills. This concept for a replacement War Department is the mirror image of his Treasury Department design.
No less an authority than the Duke of Wellington had pronounced Lt. General Winfield Scott to be “the greatest soldier of the age.” Scott was widely described by his countrymen as “second only to Washington” in the importance of his service to the nation. He arrived in Washington on December 12, 1860 determined to stem the secession crisis and secure the threatened capital for Lincoln’s inauguration. In January, 1861, the general’s staff had arranged for an office where Scott could meet in privacy and security with many of the greatest men in the land from both north and south as they sought Scott’s advice and tried to influence his opinion. Abraham Lincoln called on him on the first day he arrived in Washington immediately after meeting with President Buchanan. Lincoln and his cabinet members were frequent visitors at the general’s headquarters throughout the first year of the Civil War until Scott’s retirement from the Army on November 1, 1861.
Several new Scott biographies have helped to place his historical importance in a better light. His reputation suffered after the Civil War as his less attractive personal traits were given greater emphasis. Revisionism notwithstanding, he was a dominant figure in the history of the Secession Winter of 1860-61, the security of the Federal capital, and the beginning actions of the Civil War. Now we have a visual representation of a highly significant site during that critical period in Washington D.C. The house is long gone and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Building stands there today. But in early 1861 this was where President Lincoln and many other notable men came to learn how to fight a continental war from the only man in America who had that experience, Winfield Scott.
Footnotes: 1. Thaddeus Lowe, Memoirs (Unpublished, Smithsonian Institution manuscripts) 73-74 2. “Headquarters of Genr. Scott, 616 Seventeenth Street, Washington, D.C.” (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs, LC-DIG-npcc-00133) 3. Catalogue of Points of Historic Interest published for 36th Annual Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (Washington, D.C: Lippman Printing Co., 1902) ref: LC Civil War maps (2nd edition) 679, 5 4. Official Program of the 36th Annual Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (Washington, D.C: Costigan and Costello, 1902) 47 5. William Howard Russell, My Diary, North and South (Boston: T.O.H.P. Burnham, 1863) 382