Prisons, Paroles & POWs

    Old Capitol Prison  "The American Bastille"

After the British burned the U.S. Capitol during the War of 1812, Congress built a brick building on 1st St. in Washington to serve as a temporary capitol. The building became known as the Old Capitol after Congress moved back to its permanent home, and it began a new life as a fashionable boardinghouse. Sen. John C. Calhoun was one of the many congressmen who lived there while in Washington, and in his old age, he became a close companion of the teenage niece of the proprietor of the boardinghouse. The young lady, Rose O'Neal, who also lived in the boardinghouse, became thoroughly indoctrinated by Calhoun in his theories on states' rights and secession and was forever loyal to Southern interests.

When the Civil War began, the Old Capitol was abandoned and dilapidated. The government removed the high board fence surrounding the building, replaced the wooden slats nailed over the windows with iron bars, and turned it into a prison. Security was provided mainly by guards who constantly paced around the outside. Many prominent prisoners were confined in the Old Capitol prison, including Confederate generals, Northern political prisoners, blockade runners, and spies. Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison, and the Lincoln assassination conspirators were hanged on the gallows in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison.

Some of the most noted prisoners were the women spies. Belle Boyd, while confined here, yelled taunts at the guards and sang patriotic Confederate songs out her window. Rose O'Neal returned to the boardinghouse of her youth as the widow Rose Greenhow, the beautiful and seductive Washington socialite whose spying activities were important to the Confederate success at 1st Bull Run. During the five months Rose, along with her young daughter, was  imprisoned there, she managed to continue her spying activities for the Confederacy.

Fascinating Fact:  In 1850, John C. Calhoun died in the boardinghouse that became the Old Capitol Prison. His last utterance wa an anguished, :The South, the poor South."


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