Guy Gugliotta: The U.S. Capitol at War

Roundup: Talking About History

Guy Gugliotta, former national reporter for The Washington Post, is the author of “Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War,” to be published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in March, 2012.

When Thomas U. Walter returned to Washington at the beginning of July 1861, he found an appalling mess. For 10 years he had served as the architect in charge of building the new Senate and House wings of the United States Capitol and the cast iron dome that would crown the rotunda. When war broke out, Congress was not in session and the building was empty. The Union Army took it over.

What followed had not been pretty. Virtually overnight the Capitol became a barracks. Before long, the troops were baking bread in the basement, dumping greasy sides of bacon in the committee rooms, busting up furniture and turning the dark hallways into latrines. “The smell is awful,” Walter wrote in a letter to his wife, Amanda. “The building is like one grand water closet — every hole and corner is defiled.”

By July 4, 1861, when Congress arrived in town for a 33-day extraordinary session, the building had taken a terrible beating. Walter wanted desperately to resume construction, suspended since May 15, but “things do not look very promising,” he wrote a friend in Philadelphia. Congress was financing the war and expanding President Lincoln’s war powers. There was no time to talk about the Capitol.

This would all change in the coming months, but in July, the Capitol, like the nation it served, was still a work in progress. The old order was gone. Congress was finished trying to hold the several states together and was getting ready to build a nation, but in the meantime there was chaos.

The expanded Capitol, conceived in 1850, was designed to provide space for lawmakers from states to be carved from the vast territories won in the Mexican War. At first the project was not particularly popular — seen as pretentious and unnecessary for provincial folk who prided themselves on homespun virtue and simplicity....

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