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".
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]
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]
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].
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)
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:
- the sentinels on each floor had a standing order that no more than 2 men were allowed to leave their rooms at a time [52-53]
- two orders were announced on 15 February 1863: (1) singing Rebel songs was prohibited. (2) any prisoners signaling passers-by (e.g. by bowing) would be moved to the guard-house
- letters had to go to Provost Marshall (Williamson, p.31)
- no lights were permitted at night (Williamson 55-56)
- no one was permitted past the guardroom without an explicit pass from the provost marshal or the Secretary of War (p.74, 78)
- prisoners were permitted to purchase additional food
- prisoners were not permitted to communicate with each other
- if a fire occurred, prisoners must assemble in the prison yard
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)
EscapesWilliamson records four escapes:
- 9 Feb 1863 Captain Wynne escaped 'by breaking out a panel of his door'
- 13 Feb 1863 Capt Darling and George Adreon escaped by bribing sentinel
- 25 Feb 1863 discussion of escape by rushing gate when delivery wagon entered yard (page 63)
- 6 Mar 1863 two federal soldiers escaped through cellar, one was caught (page 75)
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.
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.
- Devens, Richard Miller. The pictorial book of anecdotes and incidents of the war of the rebellion .... [includes an engraving of the Old Capitol Prison on p.235] (Available in the Making of America)
- Doster, William E. Lincoln and episodes of the civil war. New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1915. Chapter 3: 'Old Capitol and Carrol Prisons' (pages 74-111). (He refers to the Old Capitol Prison on other pages, too.) Hartford Conn: Hartford Publishing Co., 1867.
- Ellis, John B. The sights and secrets of the national capital: a work descriptive of Washington city in all its various phases. New York: United States Publishing Co., 1869. (Pages 59, 438-441) (available in the Making of America).
- Rose Greenhow. My imprisonment and the first year of abolition rule at Washington. London: Richard Bentley, 1863. Pages 223 and 256-257.
- The Washington and Georgetown directory, strangers' guide-book for Washington, and congressional and clerks' register, by Alfred Hunter. Washington: Kirkwood & McGill, 1853. (available in the Making of America)
- Williamson, James J. Prison life in the Old Capitol and reminiscences of the Civil War. Illustrations by B F Williamson. West Orange, NJ: [no publisher], 1911.
- 'The Old Capitol Building and Its Inmates [?]', New York Times 19 April 1862, p.2
- see also 'Prisoners in the old capital prison', New York Times 24 July 1862 page 1
- 'The Contumacious state prisoners in Washington'. Daily Morning News (Savannah, Georgia) Friday 18 April 1862, column B.