But, Sherman noted, they were not trained soldiers and had no discipline. Their stay in the Capitol — complete with staining the walls with bacon grease, swinging from ropes hanging from the dome and debating if they should ask for more booze — generated enormous anxiety for the people who worked in its halls.
This chapter of the Capitol’s history was recalled by journalists and lawmakers 160 years later.
They are not staying in the Capitol when they are off duty and have hotel accommodations, the National Guard told The Washington Post. Troops slept in the Capitol building during World War II and after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ABC News reported.
The scene Wednesday was markedly different from those previous occasions. A bust of Lincoln and plaque commemorating the quartered regiments loomed above napping guard members. A group of Black guardsmen took photos with a statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Most wore face masks, and many observed social distancing amid the raging coronavirus pandemic.
But talks of a divided nation and concerns about the security of Washington echo conversations in the Civil War’s early years.
The rough-and-ready soldiers of 1861 bivouacked in the U.S. Capitol building while Congress was adjourned were regiments from New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and the District.
Emotions ran high. At one point, they boiled over when soldiers discovered the desk of Jefferson Davis, the former Mississippi senator and newly elected president of the Confederacy.
The men took their bayonets to the wooden workspace of the Southerner, but were stopped by Senate doorkeeper Isaac Bassett, he recalled in his memoir.
“I ran in among them and told them it was not his desk, that it belonged to the government,” he wrote.
“You were put here to protect, and not to destroy!” he shouted at the troops. “They stopped immediately and said I was right, they thought it belonged to Jefferson Davis.”
Some of the men had already experienced battle before arriving at the Capitol. En route to Washington, the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment encountered an angry mob of Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore, according to historical records, and a deadly riot ensued.
When the surviving phalanx of Massachusetts volunteers arrived at the Capitol building, “they were a tired, dusty, and bedraggled lot of men, showing every evidence of the struggle which they had so recently passed through,” a doorkeeper recalled.
“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.”
Pennsylvania volunteers stayed in the House Chamber, and the Massachusetts group settled in the Senate Chamber.
As 4,000 troops occupied the building, the raucous scene was a far cry from the civility of lawmaking. Soldiers defecated in hallways, rigged ropes to swing from the unfinished dome and unwittingly spread lice among each other.
The odor of cooking and pipe smoke penetrated the air, and soot from baking bread in the basement damaged books in the Library of Congress, a librarian noted.
“The smell is awful,” Architect of the Capitol Thomas U. Walter wrote in a letter to his wife. “The building is like one grand water closet — every hole and corner is defiled.”
Troops also used senators’ desks and stationery to write to loved ones and conducted mock debate sessions in their spare time.
“Our life in the Capitol was most dramatic and sensational,” Theodore Winthrop of the Seventh New York Regiment wrote in the Atlantic Monthly. “We joked, we shouted, we sang, we mounted the Speaker’s desk and made speeches.”
In one faux Senate session, the troops debated asking the president to send booze, a Washington correspondent for the Providence Journal witnessed.
“The presiding officer was just putting the question on a resolution directing the sergeant-at-arms to proceed immediately to the White House and to request the President, if, in his opinion not incompatible with the public interest, to send down a gallon of his best brandy,” the reporter wrote.
“A motion to strike out the word ‘Brandy’ and substitute ‘Old Rye’ was voted down, on constitutional grounds, and because the ‘Hon. Senator from South Carolina’ who offered it had both his legs on the desk, while the rules only permitted one,” he continued.
When the Senate convened for an emergency session in July 1861 and returned to the regular session in December, the soldiers quartered in the Capitol moved out.
In 1964, the plaque commemorating their stay was placed on the wall by Lincoln’s bust, recalling the early instance when troops were quartered there.