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Soldiers Occupy the Senate Chamber


1851-1877

April 19, 1861
Soldiers Occupy the Senate Chamber

Union Soldiers at Capitol

On April 15, 1861, the day after Fort Sumter fell, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 troops. Within three days, Washington swarmed with arriving volunteers to await a feared Confederate onslaught.

On April 19, 1861, the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment took up residence in the Senate Chamber following a bloody encounter in Baltimore with secessionist sympathizers. With the Senate in adjournment, a doorkeeper witnessed the soldiers' arrival. "They were a tired, dusty, and bedraggled lot of men, showing every evidence of the struggle which they had so recently passed through . . . Immediately upon entering the Capitol, they rushed into the Senate chamber, the galleries, committee rooms, marble room, and wherever they could find accommodations." The doorkeeper continued, "Everything that was possible was done to make them comfortable as the circumstances permitted. But it almost broke my heart to see the soldiers bring armfuls of bacon and hams and throw them down upon the floor of the marble room. Almost with tears in my eyes, I begged them not to grease up the walls and the furniture."

Upwards of 4,000 troops eventually occupied the building. This overwhelming human influx proved costly. The Senate Chamber—in use for just two years—was described as filthy and "alive with lice." There a marauding soldier took his bayonet to the desk that Confederate president Jefferson Davis had occupied as a senator just three months earlier. Other soldiers wrote letters home on Senate stationery and conducted raucous mock sessions.

In the basement, bread ovens belched sooty smoke that damaged books in the Library of Congress' adjacent quarters. Without adequate sanitation facilities, the Capitol had quickly become "like one grand water closet (with a) stench so terrible" that only the most strongly motivated would enter the building. Ten weeks later, as members returned for an emergency session in hastily cleansed chambers, the sounds and smells of nearby troops reminded all of the extraordinary challenges that lay ahead.

Reference Items:

U.S. Architect of the Capitol, Office of the Curator, "Quartering Troops in the Capitol During the Civil War" (November 1995).