Plate 90. Old Capitol Prison, Washington

Text and photograph from Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War, Vol. II. Negative by William R. Pywell, text and positive by Alexander Gardner.
The Old Capitol Prison, previous to the war, was a dingy, crumbling structure, with rambling passages, and with quaint rooms where one least expected to find them. The staircases ran up about the building with a sort of uncertainty that bewildered the visitor, and dust and cob-webs hung upon its walls so thick, that one walked cautiously along its floors, lest a heavy tread should bring down the accumulated filth of years upon his head. Congress ordered its erection during the war of 1812, for its own use until the Capitol, burned by the British, could be rebuilt; and after the completion of the latter, this establishment was used as a boarding house for members. The lower part of the city becoming the centre of business, the Old Capitol was abandoned by its lodgers, and rapidly sunk to decay; some of the lower class occasionally renting apartments, but never remaining any length of time. At the commencement of the war, its only tenant was an humble German, who managed to subsist himself and family, as a cobbler, and who was not at all displeased at the sudden termination of his lease by the military authorities. Iron bars were placed in the windows, the doors of the several apartments were strengthened, and the building soon became notorious as a prison for military offenders, prisoners of state and captured rebels. Many prominent Confederate Generals have been confined in it, and scores of citizens engaged in disloyal practices, suddenly found their plans frustrated, and themselves on their way to its cells before they could give a word of warning to associates. Captain Wirz, the Andersonville prison-keeper, was imprisoned here, and expiated his crimes upon the gallows in its yard, as had numbers of offenders before him.
When occupied by prisoners, its windows were generally crowded by its inmates, and passers by were not allowed to stop at any time on the opposite side of the street, lest they should attempt to communicate, by signs, with those within the prison. The regulations required that all correspondence and reading matter, as well as food for the prisoners should be closely scrutinized, so as to prevent any improper communication or aid from the outside. Among the plans for conveying money and messages from external sources, was that of secreting in packages of smoking tobacco the object to be transmitted. This, however, was early detected, and afterwards was never attempted with success. Underscoring words in books, at long intervals, so that when taken together they would embody a sentence, was not unusual with the prisoners when about to return to their friends volumes that had been loaned them for perusal. The latter occasioned considerable labor to the officers of the prison, every book going to or from the inmates being carefully examined, not only for messages of this kind, but for communications that might be concealed between leaves pasted together. The prisoners attempted to tunnel out several times, but never with success. A few escaped from the windows, but most of them who undertook it were discovered and recaptured. One young man fixed a spring-board in an upper window, and attempted to jump out into the street, but broke his leg, and by his signal failure discouraged any other efforts to escape in this manner. A strong guard was always kept in the passages of the prison as well as on the streets surrounding it, and during the last two years of the war, none ever succeeded in eluding the vigilance of their keepers.
Currently not on view
Object Name
albumen photograph
Gardner, Alexander
Physical Description
paper (overall material)
overall: 17.5684 cm x 22.86 cm; 6 15/16 in x 9 in
place made
United States: District of Columbia, Washington
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Engineering, Building, and Architecture
Government, Politics, and Reform
Gardner's Sketchbook
Civil War
See more items in
Culture and the Arts: Photographic History
Gardner's Sketchbook
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
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