Parks and Pennsylvania Avenue: The Ellipse and Treasury Park
The area south of the White House, now known as the Ellipse, frequently was the site of Union Army encampments. The area even further south around the unfinished Washington Monument was used to graze cattle for Union soldiers. A slaughterhouse was also built here. Nearby was a canal through which flowed much of the city's sewage and debris. Historical writer Geoffrey Peret described the area as a “weedy, neglected ground surrounded by a low fence” which “was sometimes used for horse races and infantry drills.”sup>1
Treasury Park was a grassy area southeast of the White House where weapons were sometimes by the President. Mr. Lincoln had never been a hunter but he was a fair marksman and he took a keen interest in the equipment used by Union soldiers. According the William O. Stoddard, "The Mall is that great slope of grass and weeds and rubbish between the White House grounds and the Potomac. Away out in the middle of it there is a pile of old lumber as large as small house. It is just the thing to set up a target against." Stoddard went on to describe the scene of one weapons test in which Mr. Lincoln came face-to-face with his own troops.
One's nerves are all the better for rifle practice after a good night's sleep, and this is a clear, still, beautiful morning.
Only a day after his son Willie's funeral in February 1862, President Lincoln went down to Treasury Park with Interior Secretary Caleb Smith and inventor W. B. Chace to test a new smoothbore musket that he thought could help Union soldiers. "Chace claimed to have a bullet that would make such smoothbores as good as rifles, and he probably spared Lincoln none of the details as the trio made their way toward the water. Once there, Chace began firing specimens of his bullet in alternation with regulation bullets. A chill wind blew acrid white smoke out of the Potomac," according to historian Robert V. Bruce. "Standing near by, President Lincoln scanned the leaden river and calculated distances as bullets struck spurts of white from its cold, gray surface; it seemed plain enough to him that the new bullets outdid the old."2
On August 17, 1863 presidential secretary John Hay attended the testing of a repeating rifle designed by Christopher Spencer. The President was accompanied by his son Robert, Hay, and the inventor. The Secretary of War was invited to participate but he declined--to which the President responded that 'they do pretty much as they have a mind to over there." Mr. Lincoln hit the bull-eyes on his second try. As John Hay described the events of August 18 and 19, 1863: "This evening and yesterday evening an hour was spent by the President in shooting with Spencer's new repeating rifle. A wonderful gun, loading with absolutely contemptible simplicity and ease with seven balls & firing the whole readily & deliberately in less than half a minute. The President made some pretty good shots. Spencer the inventor a quiet little Yankee who sold himself in relentless slavery to his idea for six weary years before it was perfect, did some splendid shooting." Hay then scratched out: "My shooting was the most lamentably bad. My eyes are gradually failing. I can scarcely see the target two inches wide at thirty yards."3