24 Jul 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: Pipetown Sandy

We have spent the last few weeks looking at the Pipetown neighborhood, its birth and demise. Pipetown had one final moment in the sun in 1905, when the name of the neighborhood was used in a book written by none other than local hero John Philip Sousa (pic). While Sousa is best-known for writing marches, he also wrote operettas – and three novels.

The first, The Fifth String, is the story of a violinist who is given a violin with a fifth string by the devil, with the caveat that playing it will bring death. The last, The Transit of Venus, is a romantic comedy set on a ship sailing to view the titular astronomical event. It is the middle novel, published in 1905, that is of interest here.

Titled Pipetown Sandy, it is the story of Alexander “Sandy” Coggles, a 14 year-old who is not very strong in academics, although “[i]n truth, there was no one in Pipetown to approach Sandy as an all-around athlete.” He is the son of a Union veteran, Dan Coggles. Sandy lives in Pipetown, though the location thereof is not well defined. It is most certainly in Washington, and east of the Capitol, but the only street mentioned as being in it is G Street, which most certainly is not part of Pipetown as it is usually understood.

The novel is not exactly a roman a clef, for while Sousa was indeed 14 years old in 1868, when the novel is set, his father was not a Union veteran, but rather a member of the Marine Band. Furthermore, by the time Sousa was 14, he was a member of the same ensemble. However, it is clear that Sousa knows and loves the area he describes, and must have been present at some of the events depicted.

For instance, at one point, Sandy describes the great two-day parade that marked the end of the Civil War. Sandy describes how he and his father went past Capitol to White House to greet them both days.

The first day was described by the New York Times on May 24, 1865, as follows:

Custer rode a powerful horse, restive, and at times ungovernable. When near the Treasury Department, the animal madly dashed forward to the head of the line. The General vainly attempted to check his course, and at the same time endeavoring to retain the weight of flowers which had previously been placed upon him. In the flight, the General lost his hat. He finally conquered his horse, and rejoined his column. Passing the President’s stand he made a low bow, and was applauded by the multitude.

Members of the Second Corps, under Maj.-Gen. Humphreys, march up Pennsylvania Avenue on May 23, 1865, the first day of the review, in this Mathew Brady picture. (LOC)

Sandy remembers it slightly differently:

“It’s Custer!” bellers er officer, jumpin’ on a chair, mos’ dead from excitement.

“That’s all right!” yells my daddy, as loud as he knows how. “Set down, an’ enj’y yerself.”

Jest then the horse rears up, an’ when he come down I tho’t he wuz goin’ heels over head.

“Oh!” cries all the people at onct, a-shudderin’.

“Set down!” yells my dad ag’in. “Set down; it’s Custer, an’ it’s all right. He don’t ride a horse ‘cause he has to; he rides ‘cause he kin.”

For a minute yer could hear a pin drop. An’ lo an’ behold, we sees the Gen’ral comin back, an his horse was steppin’ soft and actin’ as gentle as a parson’s nag on Sunday. Custer was a-bowin’ to Andy an’ Grant an’ the ladies as he passes, an’ he wuz jest as ca’m an’ smilin’ as if he wus in a parlor.

The following day, when Sherman’s army marches, they return, and meet veterans that Dan knew. He calls them “Bummers” though the article quoted above seems to prefer the term “Greasers” for the members of that army.

Next week: Sandy Coggles and the Anacostia.

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