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The Old Capitol Prison and the United States Supreme Court

Carol Highsmith. U.S. Supreme Court building, Washington, D.C. [between 1980 and 2006]. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Carol Highsmith. U.S. Supreme Court building, Washington, D.C. [between 1980 and 2006]. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011631106/

If you walked by this building across from the United States Capitol, you would instantly recognize it as the United States Supreme Court building that was constructed to house the Court in 1935. Visitors to Washington often climb its steps and look up at the words printed on its west portico, “Equal Justice Under Law.” However, if you were looking at this spot during the Civil War, you would see something very different: the Old Capitol Prison.
The old Capitol prison, Washington, D.C.. Photograph by William Redish. (Created between 1861 and 1865). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.34791

The Old Capitol prison, Washington, D.C.. Photograph by William Redish. (Photographed between 1861 and 1865). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013651882/

The Old Capitol (or “old brick Capitol“) was constructed in 1815 as a temporary meeting space for Congress after the British burned the U.S. Capitol in 1814. During the Civil War, the Old Capitol was repurposed as a prison for Confederate prisoners of war, spies, blockade runners, and Union army officials convicted of insubordination. Sometimes derided as the American Bastille by its occupants, it held many notable prisoners, including the father of John Wilkes Booth, Junius Brutus Booth; the proprietor of Ford Theater, John T. Ford; members of Mosby’s Rangers; and some of the conspirators involved in the Lincoln assassination. The warden of the prison was William P. Wood, and during the prison’s service, Wood commented that 30,000 prisoners passed through its gates. Following his service as warden, Wood became the first chief of the Secret Service.
Greenhow, Mrs. & daughter (imprisoned in old Capitol Prison in Wash. D.C.) Confederate spy. Photograph by Brady-Handy. Photographed between 1861 and 1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.04849

Greenhow, Mrs. & daughter (imprisoned in old Capitol Prison in Wash. D.C.) Confederate spy. Photograph by Brady-Handy. Photographed between 1861 and 1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017895090/

This prison is also remarkable for another reason. The Old Capitol Prison’s yard is where Captain Heinrich (Henry) Wirz was executed on November 10, 1865, for his role in the operation of Camp Sumter, the Confederate stockade that is better known today as the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Wirz was one of a few Confederate officials to be executed by the United States at the conclusion of the Civil War. An image of his hanging, with the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building clearly visible in the background, is housed in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.

 

Source consulted:
Davis, Curtis. The “Old Capitol” and Its Keeper: How William P. Wood Ran a Civil War Prison. Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. Vol. 52. (1989), pp. 206-234.

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