Olmsted’s Civil War Interlude: 1861-1863

After the early 1861 attack at Fort Sumpter, war between the North and South loomed on the horizon, and the Central Park board of commissioners could hardly refuse Frederick Law Olmsted’s (FLO’s) patriotic call to duty.

Although his leg—injured in a recent carriage accident—ruled out frontline help, he sought a less strenuous, thoughtful, Civil War contribution. Henry Whitney Bellows, esteemed New York minister and president of the newly formed Sanitary Commission, soon called on Olmsted to help organize the new commission to aid volunteer soldiers injured during the war. President Lincoln signed the legislation creating the volunteer organization in June 1861, and the Sanitary Commission opened that summer in Washington, DC. Olmsted’s arrival in June to begin his (presumably brief) executive secretary duties with the organization—just before the first Battle of Bull Run near the U.S. Capitol—was an eye-opening assignment for the organized writer, park-maker, problem solver, and landscape designer. Little did Olmsted know that early battles in the Mid-Atlantic and the South, before spreading westward, would become studies in horrific medical scenes needing his immediate energy and analysis.

Olmsted responded by picking up his pen—just as he had in 1850 while traveling through England, two years later traveling with his brother through the deep South, and again in 1858 walking through each unfinished vista in New York City’s new Central Park. Unlike FLO’s earlier documents written for publication in newspapers, books, or for park design panels, his intimate Civil War family letters and observations were for private and direct family digestion (or indigestion, given his vivid battlefield scenes). Destined for Olmsted historians to absorb, the letters portray Civil War events as they unfold. Early letters to family began his war duty gently enough. This one to his wife Mary and children, who were still settled in their Central Park home at Mount St. Vincent Convent on June 28, 1861, described his train journey down to DC, noting (as one would expect) natural scenery out his train window mixed with looming wartime signs along the way:

Dear Wife,

I came here in good order, arriving here at 6 p.m. yesterday. It was very hot, but not excessively dusty until this side of Baltimore & the discomfort less than I anticipated.

The farm-houses in Jersey frequently show the flag. South of Phila* [Philadelphia] they do not, but at Wilmington & other towns there is an abundance of them…In Baltimore, nothing. Fort McHenry only seen with half a dozen tents outside; but south of Bat* [Baltimore] just beyond the outskirts, a large camp on the right and beyond another on the left, shirt sleeves and motley; a broad meadow with a regiment resting on their arms, hospital tents close to the road with sun-struck fat men being fanned. No more soldiers until we reach the Relay House….

At the Annapolis junction a crowd of these uniforms & no uniforms & mixed. Lots of men lying at full length on the grass, dirty and loaferish. Arms stacked near by and sentinels in shirt sleeves & straw hats; a deserted camp-ground which I presume to be the 20th’s which went to Balto* yesterday….

In the suburbs of Washington several regimental camps are seen at a distance. About the station, Vermont soldiers with their coats unbuttoned but belted over & with muskets, dozens of basket wagons with four mules each. In the streets, more than half have some military insignia, but none are complete….

He checked into the busy Pennsylvania Avenue Willard’s hotel, then had a cup of tea. Continuing about his day, he described his first important field inspection with his guide George Waring, who had been a Central Park engineer and tenant on Olmsted’s Staten Island farm, but was now a major enlisted into the 39th New York Garibaldi Guard. (Olmsted and Waring would team up again years later for a major design project in Riverside, near Chicago.)

I went on to Waring’s camp which is two miles East of the Capitol…Waring’s…wall tent 8 or 9 ft square with a few boards for a floor, a rough table covered with oil cloth, a narrow bed 12 inches high, a wash stand, books on the table & lots of all sorts of uniforms and equipments…hung along the ends & down the middle of clothes lines…[Waring] took me to the Col’s tent, which I find should have been a hospital tent, & which is a big affair, on a pole in the center…A set of embroidered silver tea service on a packing case…a large table with books and papers…W [Waring] orders…ice water and ‘a glass of wine’…but soon Waring was called out of the tent on duty…

All this, before Olmsted could share Central Park and Staten Island reminisces and some needed military news. After a brandy, FLO camped out on a nearby bed:

& sleep pretty well, although waked often by the camp-noises, and challenges of sentinels & a visit of a field officer & escort on grand round duty, I believe…

Before boarding the train back to Washington with his valuable store of information of field operations near DC, he finished the news of his first field visit:

In the morning I visited the hospital and talked with all the surgeons & saw all their kit & food & learned something—but this was much the best part of the camp. Breakfasted with the Col & staff…

A few weeks before the first Battle of Bull Run, his July 2, 1861, letter to his wife Mary offers a casual assessment of the recently inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln, which was the news everyone back home longed to hear:

I saw the President this morning walking with two or three other loafers to the War Department [on Pennsylvania Avenue near 17th]. He looked much younger than I had suppos’d , dressed in a cheap and nasty French black cloth suit just out of a tight carpet bag. Looked as if he would be an applicant for a Broadway squad policemanship, but a little too smart and careless. Turned and laughed familiarly at a joke upon himself which he overheard from my companion en passant.

FLO then added this last bit of news to his wife in his July 2 letter, relaying one of the most pressing problems in Washington at the time:

The present minor curse of Washington is flies. It is far worse than Staten Isld [Island] in fish time.

Olmsted would slowly improve his opinion and show admiration and acceptance of the new president as the year unfolded, while the politics of Washington showed more nuance to this New York newcomer. For example, his carefully worded letter from later that year held more news of President Lincoln. Neatly printed so the boy could read the text—unlike most of Olmsted’s hastily scribbled notes—he wrote to 9-year-old John Charles Olmsted on October 17, 1861:

Dear Charley,

…I went to the White House today and saw the President. He is a very tall man. He is not a handsome man. He is not graceful. But he is good. He speaks frankly and truly and straight out just what he is thinking. Commonly he is very sober but sometimes he laughs. And when he laughs he laughs very much and opens his mouth very deep. He said he was glad to see me and shook hands with me. It seemed as if he was. He did not look proud nor cross but a good sort of fellow…

FLO penned those notes soon after a Sanitary Commission meeting with the President on Pennsylvania Avenue, while John Charles (still “Charley” to family members) was living in New York’s Central Park.

After the Union loss at the first Battle of Bull Run in nearby Manassas, Virginia on July 21,1861, however, the news would take a darker turn in letters home and reports to the commission. From his perch on Pennsylvania Avenue at the Willard Hotel, he wrote his family about the sights and smells of the city and the horrors of nearby battle scenes witnessed so soon after his arrival. He also wrote the Sanitary Commission a more wrenching report, which initiated even more calls for reform. They were eventually successful, thanks to Olmsted and the commission’s determined inside approach for organization and change. To his devoted father back in Connecticut, FLO set this Washington, DC, scene on August 3, 1861, two weeks after the Union defeat at Bull Run, 30 miles outside Washington:

Dear Father:

It is a sweltering, calm, noxious tropical night, and I rise for relief…in a room at Willard’s [Hotel] not able to sleep…It has been dreadful here…To the humiliation of the defeat and the terrible humiliation of the mad flight, which transformed what we had been calling a grand army of gallant men into a miserable collection of dejected wild animals…

How terrible is the trial of our country, how weak…how unprepared we are to meet it, we are, impossible to find terms to express…We have now to reorganize, we have the sickly season of the Potomac at hand. We are hurrying more thousands of green men, badly prepared, totally undisciplined, and are to undertake the formation of an army of them within sight of the smoke and the camp-fires of a victorious enemy…

The defeat at Bull Run gave Olmsted new resolve to press for immediate changes in medical and army practices, with a plea to his father to allow temporary postponement of his ongoing work on Central Park until the war effort showed signs of success. After survey results of the men came into the Sanitary Commission field inspectors, FLO wrote even more vividly of the nearby retreat of troops and demoralization of the men before and after the defeat at Bull Run. In his report to the commissioners, having witnessed jolly officers in the Willard Hotel bar downstairs, Olmsted asked:

Did the government care at all for the “brave volunteer”? If so, why did he sometimes have food he could not eat, and sometimes not at all, for days together? Why should he be left to sleep in rotten straw and shoddy blankets, and sometimes for months with nothing at all, on the bare ground? Why should he be required to stand for an hour at noon, exposed to the sun of the hottest day of the year, in Pennsylvania avenue, while his colonel takes a drink with his friends at Willard’s…

His hefty report discouraged the commissioners at their September meeting, as he wrote his wife Mary:

My general report somewhat startled them. I traced the disaster—demoralization of the troops which was the real disaster—not to Bull Run but to the….poorness of our system of government for this purpose. They all admit that I carry their convictions, but they dare not have it published—saying that it would be the severest & most effective attack on the government.

Olmsted revised his report, as requested, and after publication the commission agreed to focus on suggested legislative reforms directly linked to the Army Medical Bureau. After months of congressional debate and changes to each paragraph, success, finally, for his medical reform legislation came on April 16, 1862. He reported it, with humor and humble respect for the process, to his father in a letter three days after the legislation was signed by the President:

As to the Sanitary Commission, our success is wonderfully complete. The Medical Bill, after being kicked about like a football, from House Committee & Committee & Committee, & thro’ similar process in Senate & from Senate to House & over and over again, at each kick losing on one side and gaining on another, until it was so thoroughly flabbergasted that nobody knew where or what it was, and a new one had to be started—this process repeated several times—all of a sudden a bill which is just the thing we wanted quietly passes thro’ both houses the same day and before we know it is a law…The President yesterday promised to nominate for Surgeon General, [William Alexander] Hammond, the very man whom, eight months ago, we picked out as the best man in the corps for that office…

He added news of his next Sanitary Commission assignment:

As you will see by the papers, I am getting up floating hospitals. I shall probably take command of the first in person and expect to bring 500 wounded men in her to New York. I have got the bedding, dressings, instruments and medicines secured to be ready Monday night. Have appointed my chief officers and assigned them their duties…

On July 3, 1862, FLO wrote his wife from one of those hospital ships, by Harrison’s Landing on the James River, noting (naturally) landscape forms and then comparing scenes there to the Staten Island shore near their old farmhouse:

Dear Wife:

I write in my stateroom on the Wilson Small, which lies two hundred feet east of the long pier of what we call Harrison’s Landing. The shore is like that of Staten Island at Redbank…Immediately in front, it rises with a rapid slope for a distance of 1,000 feet, and beyond is a gentle slope northward. There are slight undulations right and left, about as on the Leveridge farm, and from half a mile distant are open country in each direction, then regular skirts of woods. At the highest point of the swell in front is a fine old brick mansion (the central hospital)…

This “fine old mansion” above Harrison’s landing was once the manor house of of the plantation, and the birthplace of former president William Henry Harrison. Scenery and Staten Island shores remembered, the war news crept into the letter:

Our grand army is very nearly destroyed. I wonder if they will let you know it. It is striving bravely and cheerfully—heroically to the last, but there is an end to human endurance, and if the enemy with his double force, keep pushing on it, it cannot hold out much longer….

More scenery settings now for his wife, before finding solutions ahead, with the help of a new director:

The beach below the broken bank is filled with soldiers, some bathing, some washing clothes, many reading newspapers which have just arrived from New York; some…are wounded—I can see arms in splints. About the head of the pier there is a dense crowd of the wounded being led and carried one by one down to the hospital-boats at the end…Further to the left, through the low trees & bushes on the bank there is a city of tents to be seen…Head Quarters are a little to the left on swampy ground and this is not far from the military centre of our position.

For Olmsted, hope always laid in solutions to every problem, and he recently welcomed on board the newly appointed medical director of the Army of the Potomac, Jonathan Letterman. “I liked him at first sight better than any Surgeon U.S.A. that I have seen. He asks & offers cooperation and will have it with all my heart, so far as it is worthwhile to give it,” he wrote on June 30, 1862. Letterman greatly improved the emergency and ambulance transport operations during his war effort. But for now, on July 3, 1862, Olmsted was off to report directly to Washington on the immediate needs of the Army of the Potomac, with Letterman’s hearty approval. The three Army officers appointed to the Sanitary Commission remained aloof—and began skipping meetings with all the changes suggested to entrenched military ways. The New York appointees remained on board and enthusiastically endorsed, at first, Bellows and Olmsted’s ideas. Olmsted by now had moved from his Willard Hotel room and vantage point on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House to the new Sanitary Commission headquarters in the historic Adams House at 244 F Street.

“A fine old house occupied by Madison, John Q. & c.,” and still owned by the Adams family, Olmsted wrote his wife. His second floor room was “freshly prepared, carpeted and bedded, ready for me, opening into a fine board room which when board not in session will be my private office or parlor….” Three other board members occupied rooms upstairs, with the main headquarters on the first floor, Olmsted reported. “It is a great good fortune to be so intimate with so many good and respectable men…I am only ashamed to be enjoying it away from or without you, but let it not be without you.”

Park commissioners back in New York began to wonder if Olmsted’s temporary leave was perhaps permanent. While Mary and the children still lived in the park, they began to debate about better use of the convent building. A restaurant was suggested, but Olmsted scotched that idea. Eventually a military hospital moved into the park’s convent buildings. FLO found DC housing for his family in the fall of 1862. Owned by a steamboat captain, FLO’s description of the rented house (and its meager six-month lease) was less enticing than his current historic Adams House nest:

The house [at 332 G Street] isn’t so good as I thought it was. All the furniture is hideous. Captn Snow was Commander of first class small potato steamboat, and the house was filled up with what was left when she was worn out. I do hope you will bring things. I want the carpet covered with brown linen or hardware paper might do as it’s a hard-word steamboat carpet of the largest pattern I ever saw. Spiders seen thro’ [astronomer] Lord Rosse’s telescope with the rest under the mopboard. Yellow and blue, with green roses and red cauliflowers sticking up thro’ the spiders’ legs. There are ottomans made of it with the interior anatomy of a spider’s eye running over three sides. Bring something nice for the baby to be educated on.

There is a little book-case, not very little in the library…The next thing I want is curtains, drapery, tablecloths, everything of that kind you can hitch on, piano covers and things that will hide pieces of chairs. We have got to live on pinewood fires, chiefly, in fireplaces—hand irons and fenders will be wanted. But books and cloths and pictures—For these I beg. Your affectionate fellow sufferer.

Meanwhile, FLO’s Central Park partner, architect Calvert Vaux, too, worried about Olmsted’s longer absences from New York. He was also concerned about finishing the park extension to 110th Street, and about competing, elaborate, and unnecessary entry gates proposed for their 59th Street park entrance. Vaux asked Olmsted in January 1863 whether the two should resign their advisory status with Central Park. Vaux and Olmsted both collected meager advisory fees, but Vaux, because he was nearby, was doing all the work at hand to finish their park design. He wrote Olmsted for advice. Olmsted replied on February 16, 1863, “I am devoted to the park…I shall be thoroughly satisfied that what you think best, is best. Yours affectionately…” Vaux took Olmsted’s advice and resigned for both men soon after. The inappropriate entry gates were soon shelved. Later, the pair returned to their park consultant status and set up a professional partnership after Olmsted’s California years.

By early 1863, after a major Sanitary Commission donation came in from California earmarked for a newer auxiliary office for the war relief effort, the new Midwest bureaus would fight for a bigger slice of the financial pie. The commission, with few eye-witness reports from the western bureau, asked Olmsted to visit the Western Sanitary Commission’s new Midwest bureaus and gain support for central organizational efforts to hopefully ensure more cordial relationships with their Washington, DC, headquarters. In the spring of 1863, FLO set out on a 6-week scouting tour to visit the Midwest and Southern bureaus, stopping in more than a dozen cities before heading home through Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Once again, Olmsted was traveling, observing, and reporting his news and views of the countryside and the inhabitants—this time mostly soldiers and army men. He would return to some of those cities decades later, during his landscape architecture career. In St. Louis, he remarked on the new Mechanics Library and Mr. Shaw’s intended botanic garden as civilizing factors so far from the older established East Coast cities, and noted other civic improvements in Chicago and other towns along the way. The people out in the country also caught FLO’s eye and pen. During his stop along the Mississippi River to visit General Ulysses S. Grant in his floating headquarters near Memphis, Olmsted wrote a long letter to his father on April 1, 1863. Written from the Sanitary Commissions store boat, the Dunleith, it includes an account of the pleasant and illuminating outing:

Dear Father,

We are returning from a visit to the army before Vicksburg, which we reached on the 22nd. General Grant’s command consists of four army corps…Sherman’s corps alone remains in direct observation of Vicksburg. It is camped on a series of plantations, from one to two miles above the canal…Head quarters is on the steamboat Magnolia, which lies, nose up, on the only ground which I saw, above water, outside the levee below Milliken’s Bend. There were a dozen large steamboats at the same place…

The day after our arrival, Gen’l Grant sent an aide on our boat to take us [as] near to Vicksburg as it would be safe to go. It was near enough to set our watches by the town clock….

The following day he set the riverside for his family:

…we went with Medical Director Hewit to look at the camps, riding on the levee and across one plantation on a corduroy road. The ground inside the levee even, is elsewhere impassable, the ground being all soaked, where is is not flooded, with the ‘seepage-water’ straining through and under the levees. The camps are near the levee; the tents are furnished with bedsteads made of saplings, lifting the men a few inches above the ground; the men of one battery, having been flooded out elsewhere, had pitched their tent on terraces cut in the shape of the levee, forming a very picturesque camp…the swell caused by our boat rolled into one of the tents…

In contrast to the soggy scene and soil, the health of the men took center stage in FLO’s letter to his father, two years after the war started along with the U. S. Sanitary Commission:

In fact the health of the army, tho’ not as good as that of the army in general, is amazingly good. You cannot conceive how well and happy the men in general looked. They are mostly now well broken in and know how to take care of themselves…I never saw men looking healthier and happier. The food is abundant, varied and most excellent in quality…they are well clothed…

Returning to the Magnolia flagship, “we took tea with General Grant,” Olmsted reported to his father. Grant lived in a “cabin of the boat; there is a sentry, or an apology for one, at the boat’s gangway, but he stops no one from going on board…” During tea, in fact, Grant and Olmsted were much interrupted, before Grant apologized and invited Olmsted to return the next day for a talk. The next night, Olmsted returned to Grant’s cabin on the Magnolia:

had an hour’s conversation with him. He is one of the most engaging men…Small, quiet, gentle, modest—extremely, even uncomfortably modest—frank, confiding and of an exceedingly kind disposition. He gives you the impression of a man of strong will, however, and of capacity…As a general, I should think his quality was that of quick common sense judgments, unobstructed by prejudices, and deep abiding quiet resolution.

Due to waves from traffic along the river, Olmsted’s pen kept sliding from his hand, so he finished the letter in pencil. During his voyage and train ride back to Washington, DC, Olmsted reflected to his friends on trends in the Midwest cities of St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, and Cincinnati during the war years. He particularly enjoyed discovering the new Mechanics Library and botanic garden beginnings in St. Louis, and commented on architecture in cities along the way.

Back in Washington, DC, reporting his successful journey to the western Sanitary bureaus and the cooperation he achieved (even if temporary), he realized his work organizing the relief effort for the commission was nearing its end. Western bureaus needed more power to better manage their own contributions, and while many of the local relief efforts eventually became permanent charitable organizations, a decade after the war, the Washington, DC, Sanitary Commission simply faded into obscurity.

Back in New York, where many of the Sanitary Commission members were now meeting regularly, Olmsted was called into a meeting with Mayor George Opdyke. Would Olmsted be interested in managing, for New York investors, the Mariposa gold mining estate in the Sierras out in California?  By coincidence the mayor was one of the investors in the Mariposa Estate, once owned by explorer and politician John Fremont. Olmsted’s bosses would now be New York investors, instead of New York civic-minded reformers. He set sail right away for the Mariposa Estate out west. His family joined him soon after. For two years, they and new friends enjoyed country pursuits—hiking, horseback riding, fresh air, and the discovery of new scenery in the Yosemite Valley nearby.


—Joan Hockaday, author of Greenscapes: Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest


Henry Whitney Bellows, founder of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1861.  A New York minister, he invited Olmsted to join the commission in 1861.  Bellows had written a favorable review of the social benefits of Central Park for New York residents.  Bellows later visited Olmsted during his California years on the Mariposa Estate.


Harrison’s Landing, on the James River, where Olmsted observed and wrote his wife about troop movements (and scenery too) from his hospital transport ship on July 3, 1862. Lithograph after a sketch by A. R. Waud in Century, 1885.

Frederick Law Olmsted c. 1862, courtesy of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, Mass.



Next month, Olmsted’s two years in California, with his family, managing the Mariposa Estate in the Sierras, and discovering and writing about the Yosemite Valley nearby, from 1863 to 1865.