Anyone who has driven through Washington D.C. can probably tell a personal horror story about the city’s numerous traffic circles. Tourists frequently get caught in DuPont Circle, destined to make multiple trips around the central fountain erected by Admiral Francis Du Pont, the Mexican-American War hero who captured San Diego.
Note. The biggest problem with driving in the capital seems to be the large number of cabs driven by people who apparently have arrived in the country the previous week and have only a rudimentary understanding of either the city or our traffic laws. A couple of years ago, I caught a yellow cab and asked to be taken to the Argentine Embassy. When the driver said he didn’t know the address, I told him to just go to the White House and I would direct him from there. To which the cabbie answered, “The White House? Where’s that?”
If you haven’t been to the capital, the city is laid out in a grid with streets named after letters running East/West, and streets running north/South named after numbers. To this perfectly understandable system, wide thoroughfares running at strange diagonals crisscross the city and wherever two of these avenues cross, there are multi-lane traffic circles with cars circling counter clockwise endlessly searching for the exit they just passed.
Note. Traffic circles are all the rage right now with city planners. There is ample evidence that traffic circles move vehicles through an intersection faster than traffic lights and result in fewer traffic fatalities. What the city planners never say is that, while fatal accidents decrease because colliding cars hit at a slight angle, the frequency of these non-fatal accidents actually increase. And with traffic circles with numerous lanes, that increase is dramatic.
With a few modifications, the city plan was laid out by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, an associate of Lafayette who served on General Washington’s staff during the American Revolution. After the war, President Washington gave L’Enfant the task of drawing up the plans for the new capital which was at that time being called ‘Federal City’. Far exceeding his directive to come up with a city plan, L’Enfant took it upon himself to help fix the location of the city, design the city plan, secure leases at quarries for stone, and even specify the size of the government buildings. His design for the ‘President’s Palace’, for example, was for a residence five times the size of the current building. In today’s world of mega-mansions, that doesn’t sound that impressive, but when the Executive Mansion was finally constructed—it wasn’t called the White House until the 20th century—it was the largest American residence in history.
The Federal District was to be a square rotated 45°, ten miles to a side, straddling the Potomac River and more or less equally located on land ceded by Maryland and Virginia. This location was a compromise between the northern location desired by Alexander Hamilton and a Southern site that Thomas Jefferson wanted. (And yes, the basis of the argument was slavery. If George Washington, a Virginian, had not been president when the Resident Act was finally passed, the site would probably have been farther to the north.)
There is a consistent and stubborn myth that L’Enfant designed the city’s circles as defensive positions due to his experiences during the French Revolution. Supposedly, the circles were positioned so that cannons placed there would have interlocking fields of fire down avenues of approach preventing invading armies or mobs of revolutionaries from reaching the capitol buildings. There are several problems with this urban legend. First, L’Enfant never saw the French Revolution because he remained in New York after the American Revolution, where he established a profitable engineering firm. And while I suppose you could use the circles as a place for artillery batteries, most of the circles are located in the south side of the lopsided square that forms the capital, where the Potomac River south of the city forms a natural defensive line.
A much larger problem for this myth is the fact that L’Enfant did not design circles at the intersections, but large rectangles. And inside each of the rectangles, L’Enfant planned for each state to set up an informal embassy representing their economic interests. The senators and representatives from each state would build their homes around these plazas, developing little communities that promoted the commerce and culture of their states. In the center of the rectangles would be fountains and statues erected by the state honoring their distinguished citizens and historic events.
L’Enfant positioned each of the public squares within sight of at least two other squares, promoting a sense of unity and cooperation between the states. Unfortunately, this plan for a city to emerge from a collection of ‘walking communities’ was never realized, as none of the states expended any money or any tangible effort to establish any kind of presence within their squares. Over the years, most of the land originally inside the squares came to be owned privately.
There is one last, final nail in the coffin of the ‘circles as defensive zones’ theory. In 1861, the capital was actually under threat of attack by the Confederacy. Directly across the Potomac River was Virginia, not only part of the Confederacy but containing the rebel capital of Richmond, only a hundred miles from Washington, DC. (If you are wondering what happened to the Virginia land directly across the Potomac, that originally was part of the federal district, it was ceded back to Virginia in 1847 due to the citizens south of the river complaining about the loss of voting rights in national elections. Originally 100 square miles, with the retrocession, the capital shrank by a third.)
Obviously, the Union had to build fortifications to defend the nation’s capital. Ignoring the various circles, the Union Army built 68 forts, 93 artillery batteries with 807 cannons, 13 miles of rifle trenches, and 32 miles of military roads linking the fortifications. Not a single one of these fortifications involved one of the squares/circles. (The X’s on the map indicate the location of the forts.)
The proof of the effectiveness of the forts came in June 1864 after General Grant moved many of the seasoned troops out of Washington to replace the troops he had lost chasing General Lee. As the forts were now manned by new recruits and men recovering from battle wounds, Lee saw an opportunity to strike the Union capital, and sent General Jubal Early and his army to capture the city. The battle raged for several days and the Confederates penetrated the outer defenses as far as the present site of Walter Reed Medical Center before General Early conceded that the Union defenses were simply too formidable to continue the attack. The fighting never got close to the inner city.
During the battle, President Lincoln came to observe the battle personally. The tall president was easily recognizable—standing on a parapet, wearing his customary stovepipe hat. A Confederate sharpshooter fired a round at Lincoln, striking a surgeon standing next to the president. So far, Lincoln is the only serving US president to have been shot at during a battle.
One last point. When Lincoln was shot at, a Union officer yelled, “Get down, you fool!” I’ve always thought that advice should be given to every president.