On The Eve Of War: The U.S. Capitol Building

The unfinished U.S. Capitol Dome on March 4, 1861, the day of Lincoln’s inauguration.

As angry or saddened voices discussed secession in the Federal capitol, unfinished projects towered outside. The unfinished capitol dome rose into the sky, a reminder of the renovation and expansion project of the legislative building that had started years earlier; two new wings were added to the building and the new dome itself had been under construction since 1856.

The Capitol building had a dome in the earlier years of the republic. The first, designed by Charles Bulfinch of Boston, was built of wood and covered with copper had been finished in 1824. However, by the 1850’s the Bulfinch dome needed constant repair and posed a regular fire hazard.

Thomas U. Walter, a Philadelphia architect, had designed the expansion of the legislative chambers. He revealed his plan for a new dome made of cast iron on December 16, 1854, featuring columns, windows, pillars, and a statue at the very top. His creation would make the tallest point of the Capitol 288 feet in the air. The sketch that Walters had hung in his office on that December day attracted attention, and congressmen regularly visited to see it and consider their approval vote.

In an era of Congressional history when mistrust, heated debates, and outright violence plagued the chambers, the House of Representatives skipped committee hearings on the subject and quickly approved $100,000 to create the new dome. The Senate passed the bill shortly after, and President Franklin Pierce added his signature on March 3, 1855. It’s a story where unprecedented speed for authorization and one basic sketch eventually becomes a success story, although it would cost much more than $100,000 in the end.

Back at the drafting boarding and working through the details Walter met with his superintendent of construction, a captain from the Army Corps of Engineers named Montgomery C. Meigs. (Meigs would later serve as Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during the Civil War.)

The first step: remove the old wooden dome. By early 1856, that relic was gone, and temporary roof protected the rotunda. Wood scaffold rose from the rotunda floor through hole in the temporary roof and supported a steam-powered boom and derrick which would be used to lift the iron for building. Resourcefully, the pieces of the old wooden dome were burned to fuel the steam engine.

In 1857, masonry totaling 5,214,000 pounds had been laid on the structure to act as support for the huge dome, and most of the lower columns were set. The following year Walter and Meigs quarreled badly which slowed the progress. Walter refused to give Meigs the architecture design plans because he claimed that Meigs was always changing his ideas without telling him. Upset, Meig refused to pay Walter’s draftsmen. If there was a silver line to the dark cloud of delay, it gave Walter time to rework his design for the upper part of the dome since the statue of Freedom for the pinnacle was much larger than he had anticipated. To accommodate the 19 foot statue, Walter actually lowered the dome’s height by 13 feet and redesigned the interior as a double dome.

By 1859, Meigs was taken off the Capitol dome project, and William B. Franklin took over as engineer in charge. Under Franklin’s leadership, the supply work for the iron went under a single contract with James, Fowler, Kirtland and Co., a foundry in New York. For 7 cent per pound the rest of the doom would be finished. This contract, accepted in February 1860, allowed construction to continue without significant interruption during the Civil War.

As the new Capitol dome took shape on the architect’s pages, the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) had just past in the legislative chambers after long debate. Two years later, in May 1856, Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina battered Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, bludgeoning him with a metal-enforced cane for speaking against the evils of slavery and (in Brooks’s view) insulting Southerners. Bitter, angry words had devolved into outright violence in Congress, perhaps a harbinger of the national path to Civil War in those last years before the first shots at Fort Sumter.

As Southern states declared secession in the winter of 1860-1861, congressmen of those states left the legislative body. Some went quietly, others were willing to make appeals and create dramatic moments. Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi’s formal Congressional farewell and departure along with four other senators made the chamber and the city of Washington anxious. Declaring Mississippi’s secession, Davis appealed for the interpretation of the Constitution that would allow states to leave the union, declaring that interference with that principle would “bring disaster on every portion of the country.” As he and other Senators walked out of the chamber and then the Capitol building that January 21st, the unfinished capitol dome cast a proverbial shadow over their steps.

Weeks later, on March 4, 1861, the unfinished construction project rested in the background as Abraham Lincoln took the presidential oath of office. The nation poised on the eve of war, and many recognized the seriousness of the situation. Perhaps they could not see it at the time, but the unfinished Capitol dome would become a symbol of endurance of the American spirit and a commitment to a united nation.

Armed with Franklin’s negotiated contract, the work on the dome would continue in the coming years of conflict. There would be periods of inactivity as volunteer troops lodged in the Capitol, building materials became barricades, or the halls were used to shelter the wounded briefly in 1862. The exterior of the dome would be celebrated with military salutes as the Statue of Freedom was hoisted and placed at the top on December 2, 1863. However, the interior dome project would be completed in 1866, and the entire project has a price tag of $1,047,291.

But on the chilly days of March and the warming days of April 1861, the Capitol dome was a work in progress and a background to important scenes as the nation hurtled toward divisive conflict. In the shadow of the scaffolds and rising curved walls, newly inaugurated President Lincoln made this appeal at the end of his address:

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well, upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you, in hot haste, to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied, hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

On the eve of war, the half-finished dome of the U.S. Capitol stood witness. Later, it would be recognized as a symbol during the war period, but then it was just another unfinished or in-progress piece of construction in the Federal capital as the nation struggled to define the meaning of historic words and continue the form of government that the Capitol building was supposed to represent.


Architect of the Capitol: https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/buildings-grounds/capitol-building/capitol-dome

U.S. Senate: The Civil War https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/civil_war/CivilWar.htm

Abraham Lincoln Online http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/1inaug.htm

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