Friday, July 01, 2022

Old Capital Prison

   In November 1861, Secretary of State William H. Seward told Lord Richard Lyons, British Ambassador to the United States, “My Lord, I can touch a bell on my right hand, and order the arrest of a citizen of Ohio; I can touch the bell again, and order the imprisonment of a citizen of New York; no power on earth, except that of the President, can release them.” Of course, this type of tyranny is one of the things the South most feared. The lowest estimate of the number of people arrested by the Lincoln Administration during the war was 14,401 civilians, or, one out of every 1,563 Northern citizens. Anyone was liable to be arrested by the Lincoln Administration. This included sitting judges, U.S. Senators, U.S. Congressmen, farmers, businessmen, and even foreign citizens. Of course, the U.S. Constitution forbade just this type of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. That topic is one that bears further explanation in a different post.[1]  

Old capital Prison (LOC) 

   Many of these political prisoners were incarcerated at the Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C., awaiting trial and a chance to face their accusers (which seldom took place). The Old Capital Prison in itself has an interesting history. Sitting directly behind the US Capitol building, where the US Supreme Court building now sits, the structure was constructed in 1800 as a boarding house and tavern. Following the burning of the capitol building by the British in August 1814, the government purchased the building, renovated it, and used it as the meeting place for the US House and Senate while renovations were taking place across the street. Hence the name, Old Capital Building. In 1861, the city’s provost marshal commandeered the Old Capitol building. One historian consider the prison complex “a depressing jumble of structures strewn along today’ Capitol Hill.”[2]  

   Speer, in his history of military prisons during the war, writes that the “first inmates to be moved into this facility were mostly political prisoners.” Following the battle of First Manassas, the first Confederate prisoners of War arrived. The building was divided into different rooms. Room No. 19 was the Superintendent’s office. It was here that those incarcerated where interrogated by the Superintendent or a detective. Rooms No. 14, 15, and 18 were for citizens from Virginia. Those confined in Room No. 17 were Federal officers. Room No. 16 contained both “Western prisoners” and honorable representatives of the learned professions, merchants of the highest character and standing…”Another building in the complex housed blockade runners, bounty jumpers, and people that Commandant Wood deemed “tough citizens generally.” Another building in the rear held those accused of defrauding the government, spies, or otherwise dangerous.[3]

   Prison Commandant William P. Wood, a cabinet maker from Alexandria, Virginia, estimated that over 30,000 women and men passed through the Old Capitol Prison. Colonel Levi C. Turner believed the number closed to 150,000. Many of them were Confederate soldiers, usually officers, whose stay was short as they were quickly funneled to other prison camps. But what of those prisoners of state? That list is rather long.[4]

Bell Boyd, Virginia Lomax, and Rose Greenhow, with Greenhow’s eight-year old daughter, were three of the most famous women incarcerated at the Old Capital Prison. Three other women, one from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, were imprison there for disguising their identity and enlisting in the Federal army as soldiers.[5]

Among Northern citizens incarcerated were farmer Joseph Kugler, of New Jersey, who told several that “Lincoln had no right to call out seventy-five thousand troops, without first convening Congress; and that if the South had her just dues there would never have been a rebellion…”. Doctor Israel Blanchard, of Illinois, arrested for speaking disrespectfully of President Lincoln, discouraging enlistments, and attempting to raise a company to burn in bridge in Illinois. John W. Smith was known as the “Wandering Jew.” He was old, homeless, and partially blind. Smith had lost his store to John Brown’s extremists in the 1850s. When the war began, he designed a bomb that would disable a locomotive, but not damage the train itself. Smith tried to get the Federal government interested in his invention, and his letters to a friend in St. Louis were intercepted, and thinking he had “some diabolical design against the Federal government,” was arrested and sent to the prison. The reason Dr. A. B. Hewitt was arrested, of Chatham, Illinois, is still unknown. George W. Wilson, a Maryland newspaper editor, was arrested for an editorial criticizing “the unjustness of the apportionment of the population of his State, which included white and black, freeman and slaves, in the basis for a draft.” Thomas W. Berry, of Virginia, was arrested for being a Confederate officer who had killed Union men. Every one of these above were later discharged from the Old Capital Prisoner without a trail.[6]

Among the Confederate officer imprisoned there were famed cavalry leader John Mosby, captured in July 1862, spent just ten days at Old Capital Prison before he was sent south for exchange. Confederate General Rufus Barringer, captured on April 3, 1865, was also incarcerated in the Old Capital Prison, after meeting Lincoln. Captain Henry Wirz was kept there, and executed in the prison yard.[7]

Several with ties, or thought to have ties to the Lincoln conspirators were held at the Old Capital Prison, including Dr. Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt, were held there while they tried. Others with supposed connection held were Actor Junius Brutus Booth and theater owner John T. Ford, along with two of his brothers.[8]

Southern governors John Brown of Georgia, Zebulon Baird Vance of North Carolina, and John Letcher of Virginia occupied a cell together in the summer of 1865.[9]

Secretary of War Stanton ordered the prison closed towards the end November 1865, and the adjacent Carroll Prison Annex was also torn down.[10]

It is surprising that there is no current book on the history of the Old Capital Prison. The closest we have is David L. Keller’s Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study, released in 2021. The book looks at both the Old Capital Prison and Castle Thunder in Richmond.

[1] Miles, “To All Whom it May Concern.” The Conspiracy of Leading Men of the Republican Party to Destroy the American Union, 5; Neely, “The Lincoln Administration and Arbitrary Arrests,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 5, Is. 1, 1983.

[2] Speer, Portals to Hell, 41; Davis, “The ‘Old Capitol’ and Its Keeper,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 52, 207.

[3] Speer, Portals to Hell, 41; Marshall, American Bastile, 322, 324.

[4] Davis, “The ‘Old Capitol’ and Its Keeper,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 52, 208.

[5] Davis, “The ‘Old Capitol’ and Its Keeper,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 52, 214.

[6] Marshall, American Bastile, 127, 176, 243, 266, 463, 485.

[7] Mosby, The Memoirs of Col. John S. Mosby, 128; Davis, The Confederate General, 1:62; Williamson, Prison Life in the Old Capitol, 143.


[9] Davis, “The ‘Old Capitol’ and Its Keeper,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 52, 2214.

[10] Speer, Portals to Hell, 310.

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