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Historical Spots Reveal City’s Role in Civil War

Courtesy Architect of the Capitol
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln insisted construction on the Capitol Dome continue, despite desperate circumstances, as a hopeful symbol for the country.

The Crypt and basement galleries stored barrels of pork and beef, with grains stacked high to stock the bakeries, also within the Capitol, producing more than 11,000 loaves of bread each day. Nurses and doctors walked the hallways and chambers of the Capitol’s makeshift hospital, using the grounds for triage. The Capitol was at war.

For a look back at this extraordinary time, the Capitol Visitor Center offers a special tour for Civil War buffs — and anyone who works on the Hill with a half-hour to spare. The tour’s wealth of fun facts and captivating stories gives even the most jaded staffer a fresh look at the Capitol.

Visitors explore the Old Supreme Court Chamber and the Old Senate Chamber, as well as the Crypt and Statuary Hall. Some are familiar sites, of course, but everything is seen through 19th-century eyes. After the tour ends, check out the collection of Civil War treasures on display in the CVC’s Exhibition Hall.

Lincoln fans can see the table that he stood over during his second inaugural address, when he sought to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” as well as the Lincoln catafalque built to hold his casket as his body lay in state in the Rotunda. It’s now out of hiding — from 1865 to 2008, the public could not easily visit the catafalque — and it’s well worth a stop for any sesquicentennial tourist.

In addition to the ongoing tour, the CVC will play host to a special event Saturday honoring the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s first inauguration. The ceremony kicks off at 10 a.m. and will feature remarks by Holzer, while actor Sam Waterston will read the inaugural address. The celebration ends with a re-enactment of Lincoln’s swearing-in. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) will serve as the Congressional host of the event, which is free and open to the public.

Holzer said holding the event in the CVC allows visitors a chance to come close to the fascinating history of the Capitol during the Civil War. Lincoln, he noted, insisted the workers continue to build the unfinished Dome as the war raged on.

“It’s a great story,” Holzer said. “A lot of people said to him, ‘You can’t continue construction because we need the iron,’ and Lincoln said, ‘It has to go on because it’s a sign the Union will go on.’”

And with the 150th anniversary thrusting the Civil War back in the spotlight, there’s no better way to spend a spring weekend.

The Capitol Visitor Center is open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Passes for the “Capitol and the Congress During the Civil War” tour, at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., are available at the information desks on the lower level of the CVC.

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