Thursday, December 5, 2013

Washington City when the Old Capitol Prison Opened (1861)

When the Old Capitol Prison was opened by the Lincoln Administration, in 1861, Washington City had a greatly different look than it does today. While that Capitol building had long been restored, after the burning by the British, it lacked the dome as we know it today. The Washington Monument, at the other end of the mall, had the appearance of being frozen in time, only being built to one third of its eventual height. The red sandstone Smithsonian “Castle” stood as a lone edifice, with its turrets reaching to the sky, high enough to serve to see the troops across the river at Arlington House, from the top of the tallest turret.

Down the middle of what we know now as the National Mall were two features that the modern visitor would find a complete surprise. A railroad line ran down the mall, not far from the canal that also ran down the mall. While no remnants of the railroad exist today, Constitution Ave. runs down what was the canal, in places; old buildings, associated with the canal, can be seen to this day, beside Constitution Ave.

If you had approached the federal city from Virginia, it’s a good chance that you would have traveled, on foot or by horse across Long Bridge, a wooden structure that spanned the Potomac River from the base of Arlington to Washington. The bridge of 1861 was not the first one, but just one of many, due, in large part, to the fact that the base of the bridge was a mere inches above the river. During the late winter or early spring, it was not all that unusual to have ice flows; large chunks of ice jamming up against the bridge, not unlike a log jam, and taking out parts of the bridge, making the bridge uncrossable until it was fixed or replaced.

You may have also arrived at Washington by steamer. Steamboats and other watercraft arrived at the Sixth Street Wharf. The steamboats and the Sixth Street Wharf will play important roles, over the years, in the story of the Old Capitol Prison.

Land around the United States Capitol lacked the intense development of today, but there were areas were nice and not so nice boardinghouses stood, as well as saloons, houses of “entertainment,” and Federal offices. Certain individuals from each of these establishments, including the Federal offices, were destined to spend time, not of their choice, in the prison, as “guests” of the Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of State Seward, through their minions, Capt. Baker, Head of the U.S. Secret Service, and Superintendent Wood, Old Capitol Prison.

Immediately surrounding both the Old Capitol Prison (and its sister and annex prison, Carroll Prison), were large blocks of limestone and marble. These blocks were of various shapes and sizes, some taller than an average man, were materials for the completion of the nearby Capitol. These blocks are to play a part in some of the stories of the prison that we will tell in future blogs.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Years Following the Brick Capitol

In 1819, the United States Congress moved back over to the original U.S. Capitol, after its renovation, following the burning by the British in 1814.

So what was to become of the Brick Capitol after Congress moved “back home?”

Immediately following the move back to the original Capitol building, the Brick Capitol was used by the Circuit Court of DC until the City Hall was completed. In 1842, the business men, that were leasing the building to the Federal Government, did considerable interior remodeling and converted the building to a high-class Washington boardinghouse. Washington was long known for its boardinghouses, but this one was well known as one of the best. A number of individuals that worked across the street, in the Capitol, lived in the former Brick Capitol. Congressman Lincoln, from Illinois, lived there and Senator John C. Calhoun, from South Carolina, died in his apartment in the Brick Capitol building on March 31, 1850.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The origins of the “Old Capitol Prison” - The Brick Capitol

1814 – The British burn Washington City, leaving few buildings unaffected. One of those buildings burnt was the United States Capitol. On August 24, 1814, the British burn the Capitol Building, Washington, DC.

1815 – United States Congress begins meeting at the “new” Brick Capitol, across the street and in the shadows of the still smoldering United States Capitol. At this time, Congress met for one session in Blodgett's Hotel, at Seventh and E Streets, N.W. On December 13, 1815, the U.S. Congress begins meeting at the Brick Capitol, at 1st and A Streets, N.E.

Meanwhile, a new brick capitol was built, designed by Benjamin Latrobe, in an adjacent vacant lot, occupied by a garden and a tavern at the corner of 1st and A Streets, N.E., paid for by public subscription, the largest contributors were Daniel Carroll and John Law, local Washington businessmen. President Monroe was concerned that northern politicians might get what they were agitating for, to move the Federal government to a more secure, northern location. Built at a cost of $30,000, the owners also asked the Federal government to contribute $5,000, a one-time expense, and an annual rental of $1,650.
Meeting in a large room that took up nearly all of the second floor and received light from a single large palladium window, the United States Senate approved a number of new States into the Union – Indiana (1816), Mississippi (1817), Illinois (1818), Florida (1819), and Alabama (1819). The Senate ratified the Rush-Bagot Treaty, which limited armaments on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain.

In 1817, the first outdoor Presidential inauguration, that of President James Monroe, was held, immediately outside of the front door of the Brick Capitol.

Congress met in the Brick Capitol from 1815 until 1819, when the considerable repairs had been completed in the original capitol.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Welcome to The Old Capitol Prison blog.

Over the coming days, weeks, and months, I hope to explore, with you, the Old Capitol Prison, one of America's little known prisons for political prisoners or "prisoners of state" that existed during the American Civil War.

Originally built in 1815, the Old Capitol Prison initially served as a meeting place for the United States Senate and House of Representatives and was known as the "Brick Capitol." It was built by local businessmen, following the burning of the U.S. Capitol, in 1814, as a part of the War of 1812 between the United States and England, America's Second War of Independence. The gentlemen feared that the Federal government would choose this opportunity to move the nation's capital to another location and they would loose important governmental business.

This blog, while touching on sensitive issues regarding the United States Constitution, the powers of the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches of the Federal Government, and the military vs. civil courts, is not intended to be a site to discuss current such issues. It is intended to focus on those issues as they existed, up to, during, and immediately following the American Civil War.