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Old capitol prison



History

The Old Capitol was built in 1800 (1812, according to Ellis, p.438), as a tavern or boarding house. It failed shortly before the war of 1812. After the British burned the capitol, Congress leased this building (8 December 1815), and Congress met in it until the capitol was rebuilt (in 1825, according to Ellis, p.438). It was then a boarding house, a school, etc., until the Civil War, when it was used as a prison. (Williamson pp.20-21) It held prisoners of war (from both sides) and prisoners of state (Doster p.77).

Doster, who was Provost Martial, judges that the Old Capitol Prison was too lenient a punishment for the guilty, and too harsh for the innocent. The latter problem was partly remedied by the appointment of a commission--but only partly, since they could release prisoners, but not acquit them. (pp.105-111)

In 1853, Senator Isaac P Walker (of Wisconsin) (p.a-49), and Representatives Orlando B Ficklin (Illinois), and Representative Sampson W Harris (Alabama) resided in Mrs. Hill's, Old Capitol (p.a-51) (Washington and Georgetown directory, 1853).

Pictures and layout

The National Archives and Records Administration Archival Information Locator (NAIL) has two pictures and a plan of the Old Capitol Prison. Search for "Old Capitol Prison".

Structure

First floor

The entrance from First Street opened to a broad hallway, which was used as a guard room, occupied by the relief. The office was next, used by the superintendent, clerk, captain of the guard, and officer in command of the guard. Interviews with prisoners were held in the office, and prisoners were questioned, searched, admitted, and discharged there. Also on the first floor was 'a long and dirty' mess room. [Williamson, Doster pp.76-77]

Second floor

The second floor had five rooms, numbers 14 through 18, which all opened onto a hallway. Number 16, which was the largest room (with 21 bunks), had a window directly above the entrance, and faced the east front of the capitol. [Williamson]

Third floor

Room 10 was on the third floor, on the north side of the building--the first window from the corner on First Street [Williamson 86].

Yard

The yard was about 100 feet square [sic--this seems too small], partly paved with bricks and cobblestones. On the side, extending to the gate from the wooden building with the sutler's shop, mess-room, and hospital (with steps leading to it from the prison yard), was a one-story stone building with the cook house, guard house, wash house. Behind that stone building were the wide trenches the prisoners used as sinks [which seems to mean latrines]. (Williamson pages 54-55)

Carroll prison

An adjoining row of houses, Duff Green's Row, was also used as a prison. (Williamson)

Rules for prisoners

According to Williamson, the rules were not written and explicit:

There are no printed rules for our guidance placed where they can be seen, and no official instructions as to how we are to act, or to whom we shall make known our necessities. A knowledge can only be gained from conversing with prisoners who have been a long time in the prison or from actual observations, or from seeing punishment inflicted upon some poor wretch for a violation of an unwritten law. One can only do as you see others do, and if you blindly follow a willful or ignorant transgressor, you must take the punishment of a guilty person. [diary entry, 15 Feb 1863, Williamson pp.53-54]

Williamson mentions several rules:

And Doster mentions several rules:

Because the Old Capitol Prison was not separated from the city, and citizens had access to the surrounding streets, which windows in the prison rooms overlooked, messages could conceivably be passed between prisoners and passers-by. The guards, therefore, questioned and sometimes arrested passers-by who acknowledged the prisoners in any way (for example, by bowing or waving), and prisoners were not allowed to react to passers-by:

Room No. 16 faces the east front of the Capitol, and by standing or sitting back a short distance from the window we can look out and see the passers-by. No persons, however, are allowed to show any signs of recognition. If a person is seen loitering in passing the prison, or walking at a pace not considered satisfactory by the guard, he soon receives a peremptory command to "pass on," or, "Hurry up, there," and if this warning is not heeded the offending person, whether male or female, is arrested and detained. [Williamson, pp.26-27]

Williamson describes 8 incidents in which guards reacted to passers-by (2 incidents on p.27, another two on pp.32-33, one each on pages 38, 68, 76, and 78). He also reports that a prisoner was taken to the guard house for singing at a window (page 78), that they were ordered to stay away from the window (p.35), and that all the prisoners in room 15 were confined to their room and put on a bread and water diet because one of them threw a piece of bread out the window (page 69). Another is mentioned in Vanity Fair, page 279, 7 June 1862 (available on The Making of America).

Doster records one amusing incident. One day, he released D M Dietz, who had been arrested for waving her handkerchief to an acquaintance as she passed the Old Capitol. Later that day, he learned that she was a southern courier, whom they had been attempting to arrest when she picked up her mail around 13th Street and New York Avenue! She escaped then, but was arrested in Washington later. (pp.95-97)

Two shootings of prisoners

On 1 April 1862, Jesse B Wharton, who was being held at the Old Capital Prison, dared a guard to shoot him (probably for violating a rule against being by the window). The corporal in charge ordered the guard to shoot him the next time, and he did. The guard and corporal were imprisoned in the Central Guard House for weeks. More information is available.

Harry Stewart bribed a guard (about $70) to let him escape from a window. The sentry ordered 'halt' and shot him in the thigh. The prison surgeon amputated his leg, but he died shortly after. The guard was 'ordered before court-martial', but escaped punishment. (Williamson, pages 36-37; Doster pp.86-87)

Escapes

Williamson records four escapes:

Doster (p.86) claims that Union soldiers who were serving out sentences, held on the lower floor, usually in ball and chain, 'were constantly caught in the act of escape', and caused more trouble than the other prisoners. He also mentions that two Confederate officers had escaped, before the attempt by Harry Stewart.

Rose Greenhow

The most famous prisoner held at the Old Capitol was Rose Greenhow. Her daughter stayed with her; see a query by William C Reiff for a description of one event involving her. She complains in her memoirs about Captain Gilbert. And once, during her daily half-hour exercise period, she took the superintendent's horse and market wagon for a ride around the prison yard, with the other female prisoners! The soldiers' attempts to stop her only caused the horse to increase his speed.

The 91st's role

On 28 February 1862, company A was assigned to the Old Capitol Prison (Bates, p.186). But on 4 May 1862, co E was ordered to report to the Old Capitol Prison with four days cooked rations and all their camp equippage.

See also the discussions above of the shooting of Jesse Wharton, and of Rose Greenhow.

Sources


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revised 27 Sep 07
contact Harry Ide at hide1@unl.edu with comments or questions