Path to Capitol During the Civil War
As a professional commuter, every day I enter my “bubble” – looking at my phone, listening to music, reading my Kindle – as I travel from my home in Bristow, Virginia, to my office at the U.S. Capitol. It is easy to forget to look-up and appreciate that in a single morning commute on the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), I traverse places forever connected by events that occurred 150 years ago this month.
The battle began less than a mile from my home, when on August 26, 1862, Maj. General Stonewall Jackson, of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, attacked the Orange and Alexandria Railroad at Bristoe Station overrunning the Union defense and destroying trains and railroad tracks. Now known as the Battle of Kettle Run, this field is preserved and can be explored.
The following day, Jackson destroyed the supply depot at Manassas Junction, the same railroad line now operated by Norfolk Southern and upon which VRE operates. Jackson then took his army to rest at an unfinished railroad cut, known as “deep cut,” near the battlefield of the first battle of Manassas.
On August 28, a Union column heading north passed in front of Jackson and he attacked. This fight at Brawner Farm lasted several hours but resulted in a stalemate. The following day, thinking he had Jackson outnumbered, Union General Pope launched an attack on Jackson’s position in the railroad cut. Jackson stopped the assaults that morning with heavy casualties on both sides. At noon, Lt. General James Longstreet, of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, arrived on Jackson’s right flank.
On August 30, Pope renewed his attacks. When Jackson’s lines held, Longstreet’s 28,000 men counterattacked the Union in the largest, simultaneous mass assault of the war. The Union left flank was crushed and the army driven back to Bull Run, Northern troops conducted a rear-guard action at Chinn Ridge and Henry Hill slowing the advance enough for Pope’s army to escape under cover of darkness back to the Washington, D.C.
Life at the Capitol
On August 31, 1862, the Headquarters of the Military District of Washington issued Special Order 177, requisitioning the Capitol for use as a hospital after the battle. The Union had suffered 16,000 causalities and was in desperate need of places to care for the wounded.
Beds were setup in the Rotunda, the Old Hall of the House (now known as National Statuary Hall) and the corridors. The Commissioner of Public Buildings, Benjamin Brown French, estimated between 1,100 and 1,200 sick and wounded soldiers were brought to the Capitol and sentries were placed at every door.
Architect of the Capitol extension, Thomas U. Walter, described the scene to a friend: “The excitement here is very great, and the presence of so many wounded greatly affect the sensibilities of all who had any feeling, poor fellows, what they must suffer.”
By October 1862, Walter’s view of the Capitol as a hospital was different: “I am now writing in the middle of the street, with clouds of dust flying around me...in other words I have been compelled to move by the filth and the stench, and livestock in the Capitol—there are more than 1,000 sick and wounded in the building and it has become intolerable especially in the upper rooms.”
In his annual report, French described the deplorable conditions at the Capitol while it was being used as a hospital, and he requested additional funding to pay for the thorough cleaning of the building and to restore the “wreck of rooms” before Congress reassembled.
He hoped that “the Capitol may hereafter be left to its legitimate uses, and not defaced and disfigured by military occupation.” The Capitol was used as a hospital until October 1862, when the last of its patients were transferred out of the city.
Each of these places is now a part of my morning commute, my daily routine. While it easy to get lost within my bubble – to get frustrated by a delay or slow connection on a phone – it is all the more important to remember why we at the Architect of the Capitol work so hard to preserve these places and serve the institutions of democracy, and to find inspiration in the sacrifices of those who gave their lives 150 years in the creation of a more perfect union.