A “Dexteritous” Climb to the Top of the Capitol’s Unfinished Dome

Lincoln’s First Inauguration (Library of Congress)

It towered over Abraham Lincoln during his inauguration on March 4, 1861 as a fitting symbol for the task ahead of the new president and the state of the country. Unfinished but a work in progress, the construction of the Capitol’s new dome had been underway since 1856. Despite the growing cost of the war, President Lincoln refused to halt the project. “If people see the Capitol going on,” he said, “it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”

As thousands of citizen soldiers flooded into the Washington City throughout the war, they saw “the Capitol going on.” For many, they wanted to visit the symbol of the United States. Private Thomas Walter of the 91st Pennsylvania Infantry was one of those men. In his recollections of the war, he mentioned his visit to the building and his risky climb to the top of the unfinished dome for a better view of the nation’s capital.

We being located close to the new capitol building, myself and others frequently went over and wandered about in it, visiting the senate and representative chambers, and admiring the beautiful art work that so plentifully abounded in most every part of the structure. The dome and rotunda received there [sic] share of attention, and the grand paintings there were scanned again and again. At that time the extreme top of the dome was not finished, and no work was being done on it. Visitors could only go as high as an outside gallery that is around it; that, I suppose, is sixty or seventy feet below where the goddess of liberty now stands. There was a scaffold up to the extreme height, the upper part of which was very frail looking, and a fifteen foot ladder loosely tied in a perpendicular manner, led to the top. One day I concluded that I would like to take in the splendid view that might be had from that very elevated position. By a little dexteritous [sic] climbing, I got from the upper gallery through a window aperature [sic] that was above my head, and quickly mounted the swinging ladder. Only a strong will and steady nerves enabled me to keep on and stand on the little platform that formed the summit.

A bird’s eye view of 1861 Washington, DC (Library of Congress)

I cannot do justice to the beautiful, interesting and suggestive prospect that was spread out, around and beneath me. The bright waters of the Potomac could be seen for several miles above and below the city. The teams and pedestrians that thronged Pennsylvania avenue were mere pygmies in size. Georgetown and Alexandria were distinct in the near
distance. The President’s house, the patent office, post office, treasure buildings, the navy yard, Smithsonian Institute, Long Bridge, Arlington, the unfortunate Washington Monument and camps and forts on every side, and much more that was in plain sight, formed a panorama that was never to be forgotten.

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3 Responses to A “Dexteritous” Climb to the Top of the Capitol’s Unfinished Dome

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    The 11th NY Fire Zouaves climbed this scaffolding many times during their short stay in Washington. Lots of folks complained, but Fire Laddies will be Fire Laddies!! Great article–thanks.

  2. Chris Mackowski says:

    What a neat piece!

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