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Bringing History to Life

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Capitol Rises During the Civil War

Walk through the U.S. Capitol in the winter when a fireplace is working, and the smoky smell of burning wood might transport you to the 1800s, when during the Civil War, the building housed its own bakery to help feed the troops who were temporarily garrisoned for about a month at the Capitol.

The fourth Architect of the Capitol, Thomas U. Walter, provided a vivid description of the scene at the Capitol at that time. In May 1861, he wrote to his wife: “There are 4,000 in the Capitol, with all their provisions, ammunition and baggage, and the smell is awful. The building is like one grand water closet – every hole and corner is defiled . . . the stench is so terrible I have refused to take my office into the building. It is sad to see the defacement of the building everywhere.”

Overrun with soldiers and supplies, there was inevitable damage to the building. Smoke from the ovens caused damage to the books and works of art in the Library of Congress, which at the time was housed in the Capitol. According to Walter, “the Senate chamber [was] alive with lice.”

After the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, the Capitol was again requisitioned for alternative use — this time for six weeks as a hospital. Beds were set up in the Rotunda, the House Chamber and the corridors in between.

On May 15, 1861, Montgomery C. Meigs, quartermaster general of the Army, issued an order stopping construction on the Capitol, and the contractors working on the Dome – Janes, Fowler, Kirtland and Company – were advised two days later by the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, not to expect payment for their work until the country’s financial outlook improved. Nevertheless, the contractors decided that with more than one million pounds of iron stockpiled on the site, it was in their best interests to continue working.

“The sound of the hammer [was never] stopped on the national Capitol a single moment during all our civil troubles,” according to the 1862 Annual Report of the Architect of the Capitol Extension.

Spotlighting Civil War History at the Capitol

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, AOC staff in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Exhibits and Education Division is providing the public with a glimpse of what was happening at the Capitol and in Congress during that historic conflict.

Capitol Visitor Center Exhibits and Education Division team members Carol Beebe, Karin Johnston, Andrea Lewis, Maria Marable-Bunch and Kathi Vestal have been integrally involved in putting together an intriguing selection of Civil War-related documents and artifacts on loan from the Library of Congress and the National Archives for display in the Visitor Center’s Exhibition Hall.

They have also prepared activities for the public and teachers that complement the display to help explain how Congress ran the country, funded battles and struggled to survive in the face of the extraordinary politics associated with a devastating civil war.

Planning the Civil War Display

Beebe, Johnston, Lewis and Marable-Bunch have worked together since before the Visitor Center opened in December 2008, so they are accustomed to coordinating efforts.

“This is the first time that all of the display cases in the front of Exhibition Hall have related to a central theme, so we’ve had to look at the Civil War through the lenses of the six aspirational themes from the Constitution that provide an outline for each of our rotating exhibits,” says Carol Beebe, exhibits coordinator. Beebe has worked for the AOC since 2002, the first six years as a member of the CVC Project Office, which existed before the CVC was even built. As the exhibits coordinator, it is her job to corral the content and develop the themes for each new display.

Planning for this exhibit began a year and a half ago when Beebe brought together a large content working group made up of the Exhibits and Education Division team, House and Senate historians, and representatives from the Library of Congress and the National Archives for a general discussion of the display.

A smaller working group made up of Library of Congress and National Archives staff  then searched their collections for the specific documents, photographs and other artifacts that would be visually interesting and best exemplify the Civil War themes of the exhibit.

Transporting and Installing Priceless Artifacts

Once the items to be displayed were chosen and approved, Karin Johnston, exhibits registrar, handled all of the loan agreements with the four institutions whose items would be featured in the display. As registrar, she is responsible for the care and handling of the valuable documents and artifacts.

Johnston also handled the sometimes complicated arrangements for the transportation of these items. “Moving items from the Library of Congress was relatively easy,” says Johnston, “as the Library is connected to the Visitor Center by tunnel so the items could be transferred by cart.”

Transporting objects from the National Archives was more complex, according to Johnston, as it involved the United States Capitol Police, who brought a canine unit to the Archives to inspect the CVC’s aluminum packing crates that were then loaded into an Archives van and escorted by the police to the Capitol.

Johnston received the documents and artifacts in the Visitor Center’s environmental storage room, which is kept at a constant 70 degrees (plus or minus 3 degrees), where they acclimated in the crates for about 24 hours before they were readied for display.

With the assistance of contracted exhibit fabricators, Beebe and Johnston spent an entire weekend installing the display. Using the following week to correct any glitches in the display process, the CVC officially opened the exhibit on Monday, September 19.

Included in the display are hand-typed personal stories and photographs of former slaves. Visitors will also see a hand-colored lithograph on loan from the Library of Congress that depicts the first-ever battle between ironclad warships.

Decoding History

Exhibits and Education Division Public Program Coordinators Andrea Lewis and Maria Marable-Bunch are responsible for helping the public understand and interpret the exhibit.

Lewis helped train CVC volunteers who provide family programs in Exhibition Hall for visitors with children, and she also worked to set up roving “artifact carts” staffed by CVC volunteers who help visitors understand what is in the display by allowing them to touch replicas of documents and objects.

“Let’s face it – documents by themselves can be intimidating,” says Lewis. “So you’ve got to explain that these documents were written by people who were really upset about something – people who wanted others to pay attention to what they were saying. You’ve got to show visitors how the authors put ‘bling’ into what they wrote.”

Marable-Bunch provides resources for a different audience. Through the CVC website, Marable-Bunch created teaching tools to help educators prepare students for visiting the Capitol or studying about it. According to Marable-Bunch, an online version of the current exhibit as well as a special Civil War microsite offer teachers resources they can’t get anywhere else and allow them to use primary documents for their research.

Vestal, the team’s administrative support assistant, who has been with the AOC since February 2010, worked with Jason Hendricks, the CVC’s webmaster, to upload images and text and create Web pages for artifacts and documents for the microsite and the online exhibition.

The five Exhibits and Education Division team members hope that showcasing original documents and artifacts will enrich and expand a visitor’s experience at the Capitol. “With all the work that Karin and I do to get the documents in the cases, these documents are often impenetrable, and it’s through the programming and activities and resources that Andrea and Maria provide that they come to life,” says Beebe.

“Ultimately,” says Marable-Bunch, “we want to provide visitors with a window into the bigger story about what was happening in Congress and at the Capitol during this critical period in our nation’s history, and we want them to ask themselves, ‘what does this have to do with me?’”   

Sharon Gang, Foundations & Perspectives, Fall 2011 issue