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The National Mall During the Civil War: An 1863 Photo

This photo of the National Mall during the Civil War from the Library of Congress highlights how much the National Mall (and Washington, DC) has changed. This photograph of the National Mall taken around 1863 is filled with historical significance and shows how the National Mall was at the height of the Civil War.

In this photo, you can see the Botanic Garden’s original greenhouse, the iconic Smithsonian Castle, the long gone Armory Square Hospital, the B&O Railroad, the half-finished Washington Monument, and the original shoreline of the Potomac River.


This old photo is my favorite historical photo of the National Mall in Washington, DC and there’s so much going on to talk about! #greenscreen #washingtondc #dchistory #only1dc #historytok

♬ original sound – not bored in DC | valerie

The National Mall During the Civil War

At the time of the Civil War, the National Mall did not have much development on it. The Capitol was still being built, as was the Washington Monument. The Smithsonian Castle was the only cultural institution on the Mall at the time. The Armory Hospital (now long gone) stood on the Mall, and wards extended to the canal.

Washington City Canal

When Pierre L’Enfant was planning the new capital city of Washington, DC, he had laid out a series of canals that would later become the Washington City Canal. Washington City was separate from Georgetown and from Washington County. Washington City ended at Boundary Road (now Florida Avenue), and everything north of there was Washington County (including Cowtown).

This canal turned Tiber Creek (aka Goose Creek) into a canal along its natural path through what is today Constitution Avenue from 17th street (then shoreline of the Potomac River) and 3rd Street NW.

It would connect to the James Creek south of the Capitol, emptying into the Anacostia River and providing an easier path from ports on the Anacostia to Georgetown and vice versa. Due to the tides, it was difficult for ships to navigate around the southern tip of what is today Buzzard Point, and this canal would smooth out traffic to the most important port city in Maryland.

In this photo, you can see the Washington City Canal go from where it turns south near 6th Street NW, and turns south again in front of the Capitol. You can also see the portion of the canal where the Tiber Creek flows directly into the canal in the bottom right.

By the time this photo was taken, the canal was more of an open sewer than state of the art infrastructure.

Botanic Garden: The Capitol’s Greenhouses

The Botanic Garden can be seen in front of the Capitol, but this is not the current building we have today. This Botanic Garden greenhouse was built in 1850 a bit further north than the present day spot, where the Capitol Reflecting Pool is today.

You’ll notice that the greenhouse in this photo is much smaller than the current greenhouse, which was built in 1933.

Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Castle is one of the few buildings on the National Mall in 1863, and it seems to stick out like a sore thumb compared to today, when it is nearly in line with other Smithsonian museums. It had been built 1855.

Armory Square Hospital: Civil War Hospital on the National Mall

During the Civil War, a hospital was built where the Air and Space Museum currently stands. Known as Columbia Armory or Armory Square Hospital, it treated some of the more serious injuries from Union soldiers in the Civil War. The small buildings that look like tents you see on the mall were wards for patients, spread out across the width of the Mall.

B&O Railroad on Maryland Avenue

Not just a railroad from Monopoly, the B&O railroad had a branch that went from Baltimore to Washington, DC. Here you can see it go along Maryland Avenue, which the railroad still does, albeit on raised tracks.

There is a bridge at the end of the tracks at the Potomac, but the train didn’t go over the bridge until 1862. Instead, before that, the train would need to be unloaded and then carted over Long Bridge into Virginia, where it would be loaded onto the trains of the Washington Alexandria Railroad.

At the time, they didn’t think the bridge would be able to handle the weight of the trains. With the civil War, the government realized the necessity, reinforcing the bridge and laying railroad tracks. Today, Long Bridge is used for Amtrak and VRE trains as well as CSX freight trains.

Washington Monument, Half Finished

During the Civil War, construction was halted on the Washington Monument and here, it is half finished. It’s difficult to see in this photo.

In this photo also taken around 1863, but from the Smithsonian Castle, you can more clearly see the Washington Monument in its unfinished state. You can also see the small island that was directly in front of the White House.

Original Shoreline of the Potomac

Right beyond the Washington Monument, you can see the Potomac River. In the 1860s, the land beyond 17th street on the mall did not exist.

The Tidal Basin as well as East and West Potomac Parks were created in the 1880s after repeated flooding.

What do you think is the most interesting part about this photo?

Valerie Moore

Having lived in Washington, DC for the past 16 years, Valerie has a lot of thoughts about the best things to do, eat, and know around the city. She loves doing deep dives into the interesting things she finds, and sharing with the world. You'll often find her dog, Lil Mikey, along for the ride.

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