The building that today houses the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery—and many of the images in this special issue of The Atlantic—was originally the U.S. Patent Office, and later also housed the U.S. Department of the Interior. During the early years of the Civil War, the building served as a barracks for Union soldiers, and as a hospital and morgue after battles at Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Walt Whitman, who tended to the wounded as a nurse there, called it “the noblest of Washington buildings.” On March 6, 1865, Abraham Lincoln held his second inaugural ball on the third floor. (National Portrait Gallery)
Sheltering from a thunderstorm in an empty freight car, the one-term congressman—the one with the habit of telling dirty jokes, and dodging tough questions, and lying to deflect annoying visitors—squatted on the floor, wrapped his arms around his knees, and roared with laughter at his wife’s ridiculous ambition for him. “Just think of such a sucker as me as President!,” Abraham Lincoln told our correspondent, Henry Villard. Villard would later marvel that this man, who caused him “disgust and humiliation,” would prove “one of the great leaders of mankind in adversity.”
As the writers in this issue witnessed the country’s most terrible and transformative passage, they felt, and reported, the “magnetic personality” of John Brown; walked the anxious streets of Charleston on the eve of the attack on Fort Sumter; joined with Union soldiers quartering (and making mock speeches) in the House of Representatives; listened late one starlit night as Ulysses Grant, puffing on a Havana cigar by his tent, defended himself against the charge that he was a butcher of men. They saw the tide of war turn, and were in Richmond when it was liberated—when Lincoln, holding his young son’s hand, passed through the jubilant crowd, pausing to remove his hat and, in silence, return the bow of an elderly black man.
It is possible, in these pages, to enter into both the humanity of figures consecrated or condemned by history and the uncertainty the writers must have felt during the rush of events. Yes, we know that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. survived being shot in the neck at Antietam to become one of our greatest Supreme Court justices; but the reader may still share some of the tension of his father, a physician and a founder of this magazine, when, via “telegraphic messenger,” he received the harrowing news in the dead of night and set out for the wavering front line to search hospitals, improvised on battlefields and in churches, for his Captain H. (As the elder Holmes neared the front, he referred with asperity—could it have been despair?—to “our so-called civilization.”)
When The Atlantic originally published many of these pieces, the most-consequential questions the country has faced were wide open: Would the Union survive? Would slavery? What did it mean to be an American? And so the writers not only bore witness but also argued toward the answers. The founders of this magazine and its first contributors disagreed about many things, but, with the exception of the ambivalent Nathaniel Hawthorne, they were radicals in the cause of abolition. Along with the desire to cultivate an American literary voice, the moral and militant struggle against slavery—the struggle to free the idea of America from corrupting delusions—is what gave birth to The Atlantic and shaped its character.