The Capitol Has Survived, Even Thrived, During Wartime

Posted April 2, 2003 at 1:28pm

Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns on the Capitol at war.

During times of war the Capitol has been at the center of American life and democracy. It is the place where presidents have come to ask for declarations of war. It has been an armed camp defended against domestic insurrection. It has been occupied and burned by foreign invaders. It has been a hospital and a place of grieving. But above all it has been the symbol of American unity. Brief glimpses of the Capitol during times of war include the following.

War of 1812

Congress declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, after long and bitter debates between “war hawks” and peace proponents over neutral rights and British impressments of American seamen. On Aug. 24, 1814, a British attack force under Rear Adm. Sir George Cockburn captured Washington and set fire to the Capitol, the White House and most of the other public buildings. Cockburn’s men set fire to the House and Senate chambers, gutting much of the building. Destruction would have been total, except for a storm — perhaps a hurricane — that swept the city that evening. Heavy rains doused the fires and wind destroyed houses, blew cannons off their mounts and killed 30 British soldiers.

It took more than four years to rebuild the Capitol. During the fall of 1814, Congress met in the Patent Office Building — the only government office spared by the British. From 1815 through 1819, it convened in a hastily built structure named the “Brick Capitol,” located on the site of the present-day Supreme Court building. Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, followed by Charles Bulfinch in 1817, directed reconstruction. House and Senate wings were completed and a low dome covered the Rotunda. Congress reoccupied the Capitol on Dec. 6, 1819.

Civil War

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Congress approved plans to add wing extensions and a large dome to the Capitol. Architect Thomas Walter oversaw the project, completing the new House chamber in December 1857 and the new Senate chamber in January 1859.

Work on the grand dome began before the war broke out. During the war, President Abraham Lincoln called construction “a sign we intend the Union shall go on.” The cast-iron dome which replaced the wooden structure designed by Bulfinch was a masterpiece of 19th-century engineering skill. It weighed nearly 9 million pounds. On Dec. 2, 1863, the exterior was completed when the final section of the 19-and-a-half-foot-tall Statue of Freedom was hoisted into place.

In the first months of the conflict, the Capitol became a military barrack. The presence of up to 3,000 federal troops with their noisy drilling and unpleasant odors annoyed Capitol staff, including its slave-owning architect Walter. Basement committee rooms on the west side were converted into bakeries that supplied soldiers who garrisoned the city. Smoke from the ovens threatened to harm the valuable collections of the Library of Congress on the floor above, according to its Librarian. Later, after the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Antietam, the Capitol Rotunda was used as a makeshift hospital for the wounded. More than 1,500 infirm soldiers were brought to the building. Among those tending to the wounded were nurse Dorothea Dix, future founder of the Red Cross Clara Barton, and poet Walt Whitman. Years later, Whitman would recall in a poem of remembrance: “The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand. I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young.”

Lincoln’s dramatic second inaugural took place on the Capitol’s East Front. The meaning of Lincoln’s immortal words had hardly had time to resonate in the public mind when, in April 1865, days after his assassination, the president’s body returned to the Capitol to lay in state in the Rotunda as thousands filed through to pay their last respects.

World War I

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appeared before a joint session of Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. He had begun the practice of addressing Congress early in his administration, the first president to do so since John Adams welcomed Congress to its new home on Nov. 22, 1800. On this day, Wilson told the nation, “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. … We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.” With only several dissenters, Congress voted for war.

The Capitol had already felt the impact of World War I. On July 2, 1915, a former Harvard German language instructor set off a bomb outside the Senate Reception Room to protest U.S. aid to Great Britain. Police in New York arrested the bomber the next day after he had tried to kill J.P. Morgan. Only two of the Capitol Police force’s 60-some officers were on duty in the Senate wing the night of the explosion. The Senate sought to increase the force by 50 percent in 1917 for the duration of the war, but the House refused to go along.

World War II

On Dec. 7, 1941, the question of American intervention in World War II was answered once and for all when Japanese forces attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor. The next day Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened a presidential war message at the Capitol with the words, “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Roosevelt exhorted his fellow Americans, “Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.” With the attention of America and the world riveted on the scene in the House chamber, Congress voted to declare war with only one dissenting vote, Montana Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R), who had voted 24 years earlier against U.S. entry into World War I.

Photographs and the newsreel of Roosevelt’s war message show one of the physical impacts World War II had on the Capitol. Prior to the war, both the House and Senate chambers needed repair and roof replacement. Because of the more pressing needs of the Lend-Lease program, Congress had postponed the repairs. The ceilings of both chambers were jacked up and structural steel frameworks inserted to bear the weight of the roofs. Roof replacement and repairs to the chambers had to wait until after the end of the war.

Donald R. Kennon is the historian at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.