Two Conflicts One City: September 11, 2001 and the Civil War in Washington

Two Conflicts One City: September 11, 2001 and the Civil War in Washington

By Jocelyn Green

This coming Sunday, I’ll be back in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I lived in Virginia and worked on Capitol Hill in 2001, and September 11 will forever be ingrained in the fabric of who I am.

One scene (out of many) that always comes to mind was the mad rush of people running away, on foot, filling the streets of Washington, D.C., in a slow-motion race to get out. Women running in their stockings, their high heeled shoes in their hands. Men in suits and college kids in T-shirts and jeans—all of them, running away. Our nation’s capital was truly like a ghost town by the end of the day, and some people did not return for days, or for weeks.

Every gorgeous blue-sky day in September reminds me of 9-11-01. But for the last several months, I have also been remembering—no, studying—another historic event in our nation’s history. This year we honor the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Instead of being deserted, Washington swelled from a pre-war population of 63,000 to more than 200,000 people. Soldiers flooded in to protect the Union capital against the Confederate forces on the doorstep. Waves of sick and injured troops came washing back to it.

But soldiers were not the only ones flocking to danger. Women, too, left their hoop skirts and silks behind and boldly went to the seat of war as nurses. The idea was revolutionary—nurses had been male up to that point. But with only 28 surgeons for the entire Army of the North, the Medical Department was forced to accept a little help. And so, though the surgeons detested the decision, women nurses tended the wounds of war.

Many of these women were shunned by their family and friends, accused of being prostitutes (why else would a lady want to be around masses of half-naked men?), and once at the hospitals, they were treated even worse by the male medical staff who were trying to force them out.

It’s the story of these women that have inspired me to write my first historical novel, Narrow Passages, which follows the story of a wealthy New York woman who gives up everything for the chance to pursue a calling that takes her outside the walls of the Victorian home. The main character, Charlotte Waverly, is closely based on the real woman, twenty-eight year-old Georgeanna Woolsey, who recorded this:

Some of the bravest women I have ever known were among this first company of army nurses. . . . Some of them were women of the truest refinement and culture; and day after day they quietly and patiently worked, doing, by order of the surgeon, things which not one of those gentlemen would have dared to ask of a woman whose male relative stood able and ready to defend her and report him. I have seen small white hands scrubbing floors, washing windows, and performing all menial offices. I have known women, delicately cared for at home, half fed in hospitals, hard worked day and night, and given, when sleep must be had, a wretched closet just large enough for a camp bed to stand in. I have known surgeons who purposely and ingeniously arranged these inconveniences with the avowed intention of driving away all women from their hospitals.

These annoyances could not have been endured by the nurses but for the knowledge that they were pioneers, who were, if possible, to gain standing ground for others. . . *

So this weekend, I certainly honor the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and remember with a heavy heart the terrorism that caused tens of thousands to flee the capital, my former back yard. But I also can’t help but remember the anniversary of the Civil War, and celebrate the women whose heroism compelled them to stay. Read more about the incredible journey of Charlotte Waverly in Narrow Passages, to be released next spring from River North Fiction.

Read more about Jocelyn’s experience in Washington on 9/11 ten years ago. Visit her blog at .

*Bacon, Georgeanna Woolsey and Eliza Woolsey Howland, My Heart Toward Home: Letters of a Family During the Civil War. Roseville, Minnesota: Edinborough Press, 2001 (81).

  1. September 20th, 2011

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