The "Old Capitol" Prison
by Col. N. T. Colby
That which is commonly known as the Old Capitol Prison, and which figured so
conspicuously in the history of the late war, consisted, really, of two separate and distinct
edifices, locally known by the names of the Old Capitol and the Carroll buildings, and were
situated, the first, on the corner of Pennsylvania avenue and East First street, and the other on the
corner of Maryland avenue and East First--a block apart, and both facing the Capitol building
and East Capitol Park. The "Old Capitol" was so named from having been the temporary
meeting-place of both Houses, I believe, after the destruction of the Capitol buildings by the
English under Ross, in the war of 1812, and the other from its having been the property of the
Carroll family,. descendants of him of Carrollton-- vide the signatures to the Declaration of
Independence. Of course the use to which they were devoted in the late war was far enough from
that for which they were originally constructed, and, in fact, in their earlier and better days, they
earned, historically, a higher reputation than many more pretentious Washington edifices. The
Old Capitol, especially, after its abandonment by Congress, was occupied as a fashionable
boarding-house, and was largely patronized by the "creme de la creme" of the Southern dwellers
in Washington. The great original nullifier, Calhoun, boarded here, and from out its doors went
the gallant, but ill-fated, Commodore Decatur, the morning he met his enemy, Barron, at
Bladensburg, in the duel that cost him his life. No brick walls, old or new, in the capital, have
shut in stranger episodes and vicissitudes of life than these, and, I doubt not, each of its four
stories could many a tale unfold worthy special record of life at our National Capital in those
comparatively primitive days. At the breaking out of our civil war they were not occupied,
having, for lack of care, fallen into that neglected, down at the heel, slipshod condition of many
buildings in Washington then, and there existed in their appearance little evidence either of their
past greatness or future notoriety. Both buildings were of a size to indicate that they were built
either for very large families, with many servants (which is probable, inasmuch as they were
erected in the days when slavery made servants plentiful), or for boarding-houses, and contained
in all forty or fifty rooms each--many of them quite large. Their tenantless condition, added to
their roominess and location, doubtless, recommended them to a government suddenly and
unexpectedly called upon to provide a place of confinement for many prisoners, and little outlay
was needed to fit them for the purpose, as they always depended more upon the vigilance and
care of the guards for the safe keeping of prisoners than upon bolts and bars. To be sure, there
were iron bars at some of the windows; but as they were only inserted in the soft wood of the
window frames it will be seen that they were only an apparent, and not real addition to security.
Locks were attached to each door, and, with some addition to the cooking apparatus, the hotel
was ready for its guests. A guard of about sixty men, under the command of a captain or
lieutenant, was daily detailed from a neighboring infantry regiment, to each prison, doing regular
guard duty, two hours on and four off, day and night.
The character of the prisoners was a matter of wide variation, differing in this particular from any other place of confinement. Especially is this true of the Old Capitol, where were held the prisoners of State particularly, such as parties charged with active disloyalty at the North, bounty frauds, counterfeiters of United States notes and other issues, contractors who had swindled the government, and, I doubt not, men who were arrested by detectives upon trumped-up charges simply to blackmail them, and who were wholly innocent. In fact, it would be quite unfair to assume that because one had been a prisoner here, that he was, therefore, a criminal, for I met many gentlemen there, as prisoners, too, whose claims to regard as gentlemen and men of refinement and social standing is to-day widely honored. Per contra, there were a few, and but a few, who gravitated naturally to a prison. In saying this I refer strictly to the civil prisoners, as among the prisoners of war there was the usual variety of humanity--generally of the better class--as very few privates of the Southern army found their way here, except they were special cases, either awaiting trial by court-martial or Under sentence, and temporarily held there for the convenience of the gov eminent. Thus it was the pleasure of the authorities to regard those captured from Mosby's following (" guerrillas") as special cases, and I had some twenty of them--rough, dirty, ill-looking customers they were--in a large room on the fourth floor of the Old Capitol, fronting on the street. They were a turbulent and unruly set, and often amused themselves by throwing bricks (taken from an old fireplace in their room) at the sentinels on the pavement underneath their window, and, in one or two cases, barely escaped killing them. All other means failing, and provoked at last, I notified them that I had given orders to the guard to fire on any one showing himself at the window, and that they were responsible for it, and for the result. I am happy to say no one was injured, although they tested both the obedience and correct aim of the sentinel by putting one of their old hats on a stick and pushing it up to the window and getting a ball through it--but the brick throwing was ended.
It is proper to say, in this connection, that there was no means of punishing a refractory prisoner--as there were no "dungeons" in either prison--nor did I ever see a prisoner ironed beyond being handcuffed, and that only in very few cases and for a temporary purpose, and not once as a punishment. The food served was a soldiers full ration, cooked, and many purchased at neighboring restaurants (by written order) anything they wished, even wine and cigars; the privilege of so buying, however, being mostly confined to civilians, who often had plenty of money, which officers or soldiers rarely had. Of course, the money and valuables of each prisoner was taken from him on his entrance to the prison, and a receipt given him by the superintendent, but he was at liberty to draw it for legitimate uses as pleased him. Knives were also taken from the prisoners, and upon assuming the command of the prisons I receipted for, to my predecessor, among other valuables, something like a hundred thousand dollars in money and United States bonds and a full bushel, of pocket-knives! I speak thus accurately of the measure as they were contained in two half-bushel measures, fairly level full, being those belonging to prisoners then in confinement, as well as to many hundreds who had been released or sent elsewhere and forgotten to ask for them. A noted English hotel thief, who was held by the authorities as a witness, gave up on his admission to the prison about five thousand dollars worth of jewelry, mostly diamonds, and naively answered my query as to where he got them by saying concisely, "prigged 'em," i. e., stole them. He was a gentlemanly-looking fellow, and seemed actually to believe his profession as matter of fact as any other, and frankly admitted it. A Jew was arrested and brought to prison charged with having come through the army lines from pixie, and upon being searched, previous to assignment to quarters, was found to be wrapped in a long piece of muslin in which several hundred dollars in gold pieces were carefully sewed, and his misery in seeing them ripped ruthlessly from their hiding place was extreme, equaled only by the scorn which he regarded my receipt for the much loved hoard. After a trial which restored him to freedom, however, he presented his scorned acknowledgment, and thought better of it when it returned to his possession his treasure. The war had made money plenty, and it often fell temporarily into strange and unaccustomed hands, and from prisoners charged with bounty frauds I received as high as twenty or thirty thousand dollars in notes and bonds--the results, doubtless, of their rascality. The jealousy of the authorities regarding the safe-keeping of this large amount of money is illustrated by the following incident: Standing in the prison yard upon one occasion while a detachment of prisoners were taking their daily airing, I was approached by one who begged a few minutes conversation, the substance of which, after a slight preface, was the offer of five hundred dollars (which he held my receipt for, having given it up on his admission) if I would allow him to write a letter and forward it to its destination unread. Telling him I would communicate with him in regard to the matter later, he went to his room, from which I summoned him within an hour by the corporal of the guard and confined him alone in a small room on the ground floor, without windows, save in the door, and kept him there a week on strict bread and water diet, and a few days after he was released from prison upon an order from the War Department. Nor did I learn till long after that he was a Secret Service Agent and imprisoned specially to make me the offer he did, and that his report of his success was received with roars of laughter from his superior officers.
The fidelity with which the prisons were guarded is attested by the few escapes that occurred, only two that were successful taking place during my command of over a year. One from Carroll Prison of a Virginia colonel, who lowered himself from a third-story window with a rope made from his blanket; which rope, by the way, proved too short, and came near proving fatal to both life and escape. The night selected for the attempt was dark and rainy, and he carefully descended hand over hand till he felt the end of the rope; to reascend was impossible, and there was nothing for it but to drop, which he did, coming down on the pavement with a crash within six feet of the sentinel with his loaded musket. Probably no sweeter Sound ever fell on the ear of that colonel than the dull, unmeaning click of the gun, which (doubtless owing to the rain) missed fire when leveled at his breast, the muzzle scarce a yard away; and ere aid could come, lie bounded off into the darkness and disappeared. The attempt was gallant enough to have proved a permanent success, but he was returned to me by General Lew Wallace, within a month, having been retaken in Baltimore.
Attempted escapes were more numerous, however, some of them of such a nature as, II think, to much interest the reader. One, especially, borders on the marvelous, and yet I vouch for its entire accuracy, and can substantiate it fully from documents now in my possession. It is as follows: A citizen of Maryland, whom, for the purpose of this narrative we will name Brown, was arrested and sent to the Old Capitol, charged with having killed a Union soldier in an affray during a drinking spree; and, as he was well known to be an ardent sympathizer with the Southern cause, it was inferred that lie was influenced by that motive in the killing--but with this our story has nothing to do. He was an uneducated, ignorant, superstitious man--probably a sample of "poor white trash" of the South--and, as the result shows, easily imposed upon. He was assigned to a room on the fourth floor, in which there was already an occupant, who seemed ill-pleased to share his bed and board with a new corner, whose appearance he evidently did not admire. However, nolens volens, Brown was and must be his room-mate, as the crowded condition of the building made other disposition impossible, and thus was developed a plan to be rid of him, purely devilish, as follows:
For a few days he manifested a friendly disposition toward Brown until he succeeded in winning his confidence. Then, one day, upon returning to the room after a visit to the prison yard, he informed Brown that he had overheard the colonel commanding the prisons giving orders preparatory to his (Browns) execution by shooting, to take place the next morning. Believing this absurd tale, the effect on Brown was terrible, and so thoroughly was he frightened that be dashed about the room with wild cries of anguish and despair, and it was with much difficulty his companion could quiet him sufficiently to reveal a plan which he pretended he had safely arranged for his escape from the impending doom. Escape! it was heaven, and Brown listened with an eager ear to anything that promised half a chance, and with credulity marvelous, as the doom to him was frightful. Brown was then told that his room-mate had long followed the profession of an acrobat in a circus, and, consequently, could explain how it was possible to jump from any place, however far the distance, without injury, and it consisted, simply, in always starting from a spring board. All that was necessary was to get the board, jump into the yard beneath, scale the fence surrounding it, and he was free. And the half-crazed Brown agreed. Taking up one of the floor-planks, about two o'clock that morning, they ran it noiselessly out of the window, securing one end firmly to the window-sill. The night was dark, but the gas-lights in the yard below flickered on the paved surface of the ground, which echoed to the measured tread of the sentinels as they paced their midnight rounds. Bidding his mate "good-bye," Brown slowly emerged from the window on his hands and knees, crawling toward the extreme end of the narrow plank-- bending more and more with his weight over the dizzy height. Reaching, at length, the end, he carefully arose into a standing position, and, following his instructors orders, he began to spring the board more and more rapidly, finally bounding upward as high as the impetus thus acquired would carry him, and then down, down through the yielding air to the stones beneath. With terrible swiftness, just missing the point of a sentinels bayonet as he passed, he struck the pavement. The guard, amazed and frightened, fled the length of the yard, and Brown, unhurt, sprang to his feet and dashed in headlong flight toward a pair of steps leading to the top of a shed, upon which, however, was located another sentinel, who successfully stopped his further efforts. Not a bone was broken, and he sustained no visible injury worthy of mention. Yet the leap could not have been less than forty or fifty feet, and the landing place a stone paved yard. His brain, however, was affected by the shock, and not long after he was shot and killed by one of the guards while attempting another escape--an attempt like the one above narrated, which no sane person would have dared, and the poor fellow met the very fate he so madly strove to escape.
Of the secret agents or spies in the service of the rebel government, there were some who achieved notoriety at least, and they were well represented at the Old Capitol, both male and female. Among the latter was Belle Boyd, who left the impression with those with whom she came in contact of a woman governed more by romance and love of notoriety than actual regard for the Southern cause. Undeniably good-looking, with a fine figure, and merry disposition, she could have been dangerous had she possessed equal good sense and. good judgment. I believe the extent of the damage she inflicted on the Northern cause was in tempting from his loyalty a subordinate officer of the navy, whom it was affirmed she married. lie also found his way to the prison, from which he dictated a challenge to the editor of the Washington Star, for some rather scornful allusions to himself and wife. They were both "light weights" in the profession.
Mrs. Baxley was a woman of far different character--educated, remarkably intelligent and cultivated, and with a steady courage any man might envy. She was a shrewd plotter of mischief to the North, and utterly fearless in its execution. Her intense hatred of a Yankee, with her whole-souled devotion to the Southern cause, often impelled her beyond the line of propriety and discretion, even to the verge of the ridiculous--never, however, to the peril of the cause she loved. The first time my attention was called to her case was by a note handed me by one of the guards, directed to the colonel commanding the prisoners, asking me to bring her an armful of wood! Of course, it meant defiance and insult, but provoked only a smile; and tile next "break out" of her irrepressible hatred to Yankeedom had a tinge of tragedy rather than comedy. It was thus: Going once to the window of her room (which was located on the second-story of the building), she began a scathing and contemptuous criticism of the sentinel underneath, until, goaded by her tongue, he threatened to fire at her if she did not desist and leave the window. "Fire, then, you Yankee scoundrel! You were hired to murder women, and here is an opportunity to exercise your trade," was the reply. Stung by the words, and thinking to frighten her, he raised his piece, but aimed above her head, and fired, the ball crashing through the window over her. Not a muscle stirred as she still coolly faced the window as before, saying, contemptuously: "A shot worthy a Yankee; load and try another." She was arrested while within our army lines searching for her son, who had been wounded and captured in one of the great battles. He was sent to the prison where his mother was, and she had the privilege of seeing him often and of standing by his bedside when he died. He was buried from the prison and lies in the Congressional Cemetery, his mother being allowed to accompany his remains to their last resting place. She was accompanied to the cemetery in the same carriage by Mrs. Surratt (who was afterward hanged for complicity with President Lincolns assassination), and a couple of guards detailed for the purpose. Mrs. Surratt was a large fleshy woman, and when first sent to the prison was not supposed to be guilty of anything very serious, or that could involve a risk to her life. her daughter was her frequent visitor, and always was permitted to see her. At her trial she was removed from the Old Capitol, to which she never returned, having been tried, condemned, and executed at the Old Armory.
The murder of the President brought many unexpected guests to the prison, among whom I remember Junius Brutus Booth, a brother of Wilkes Booth; John S. Clarke, the renowned comedian; Mr. Ford, of Baltimore, owner of Fords Theatre, in Washington, where Lincoln was shot; Dr. Mudd, who set the broken limb of the flying assassin, and who repented therefor in time Dry Tortugas; Spangler, the stage carpenter, who held a ready saddled horse at the back door of the theatre for Booths escape, and many others supposed to have possible connection with, or knowledge of, the assassination. I gave to Junius Brutus Booth the knowledge of the death of his brother Wilkes, and the circumstances attending it, to which he sadly and sorrowfully answered, "Poor, misguided boy."
On the night of the murder of Lincoln there were eight hundred rebel officers in Carroll Prison, and I need hardly say it was crowded to its utmost capacity. Every grade of rank, from a second lieutenant to a major general, had its representative, and, as a rule, they were an intelligent, gentlemanly set of men, and, as I thought, worthy a better cause. I announced to them myself the news that fell so like a thunderbolt on the country of the cowardly murder of the President; and to their honor, I record it, that with two exceptions they united in condemning the act, and regretting its occurrence most heartily.
While Carroll Prison was thus crowded, it was attacked by a mob, and came near furnishing a bloody sequel to the death of Lincoln. It was when daily expectation of the announcement of the capture of his murderer was awaited with intense interest, that a sergeant and two privates were sent in charge of two prisoners, civilians, from the headquarters of the Provost Marshal, Colonel Ingraham, to deliver them at Carroll Prison, and it was surmised and believed that the prisoners were Booth and an accomplice. Instantly, they were followed by a crowd that rapidly increased in numbers and fierceness, till it seemed that the death of the entire party was inevitable. A mounted orderly, by another street, brought notice of their coming, and a warning to be prepared. But thirty men were to he spared, and they were at once drawn up before the entrance, and the orderly dispatched for more troops. Presently, the mob came in sight--a dense mass, numbering thousands--while just before them, driven like chaff before a gale, was the sergeant and his men, running, but bravely keeping their trust, always surrounding and defending the prisoners--now struck down by some missile, but instantly up again, making straight to the shelter of the prison, which at last they reached, bloody and bruised -- all of them, especially the prisoners, half dead with blows and fright. Then the mob, cheated of its prey, crowded the street with fierce yells, and began hurling stones at the windows, and, finally, at the little force still guarding the front doors, till the ominous clicking of the gun-locks began to intimate that, with or without the orders of their officers, they would fire in self-defense. Anxiously they looked for the coming of assistance; but, compelled at last to either give up their trust or to attack, they suddenly deployed as skirmishers, and, with leveled bayonets, sprang forward at the word of command upon the rioters, who, dismayed and surprised, fled down the streets and alleys--not one being killed, and but few wounded with the bayonet. The prisoners, I need not add, were not Booth, or connected in any way with his crime, but they barely escaped with life.
The number of prisoners in "Carroll," as I said before, at this time, was the most serious test of its capacity, and was the result of some difficulty in obtaining speedy transportation for them to the prison depots further North and West. Many friends of the Southern officers confined here came to see them, and, in all cases, so far as my knowledge goes, were permitted to see them, and provide them with much-needed comforts; and, more than that, I allowed, in one case at least, a young major, who met here for the first time in four years his lady love and intended wife, to accompany her home to tea, only asking his word of honor that he would return at a given hour, which he punctually did. his name has escaped my memory; but if the few hours of pleasure he enjoyed upon that occasion be not yet gratefully remembered, then is he an ungrateful man. I recall, also, with pleasure now, that I, in testifying before a House committee, appointed to consider the propriety of retaliating the treatment our poor fellows received at Andersonville and other Southern prisons, condemned it as unworthy the name of any Christian people. When at last the order came to send away nearly all the eight hundred, I stood near the door as they marched out, and, with hardly one exception, they shook me by the hand, in saying their "good-bye," and expressed their sense of the kind treatment they had received.
Governor Vance, of North Carolina, Governor Letcher, of Virginia, and Governor Brown, of Georgia, were, for a few months, recipients of the hospitalities of the Old Capitol, and endured the tedium of prison life with the patient courage of true-hearted men. Before the breaking out of the war, and while the propriety of secession was being discussed in North Carolina, Governor Vance came out strong against it, stumping nearly the whole State in favor of "the Union as it was." Finding it in vain, and called upon to decide between "the devil and the deep sea," or in other words, whether lie would be politically and socially ostracized by his friends, who had always stood staunchly by him in the State where he was horn, reared, and educated, or go in with them in an undertaking which he foresaw would fail, like many another good man in the South he chose to live or fall among friends. Who could blame him? He saw the failure and scorned to evade the result by changing to a Unionist, as many far less worthy did, feeling that lie had deliberately incurred the risk, and willing, deliberately, to expiate it. Possessing a keen perception of the humorous, cheerful, ready witted, with a vigorous intellect, a story-teller par excellence--surpassing even Senator Nye--and, really, the best extempore speaker for any and all occasions, with or without notice, carrying always his audience like a whirlwind--such was Governor Zebulon B. Vance, the pet and pride of the old North State.
I cannot refrain from an anecdote of himself, illustrative of the commencement of his political life and his popularity with all classes in his native State, as he himself related it. It was after his first election to a seat in the house of Representatives in Washington, and at about the age of thirty-eight years. lie had attended the full session, and on his journey home had arrived at the end of railway travel, and was obliged to finish the journey by staging across the country. Full of the pride of being a member of Congress, and to see and be seen, he mounted a seat outside the coach with the driver of the vehicle, and away they rolled behind four sorry-looking steeds. The Jehu was evidently of the earth earthy, of the stable odorous, a ragged, seedy specimen of his order, and in strong contrast to our friend, the Governor, who sat by his side, dressed in the more decorous results of a fashionable Washington tailor--and no doubt happy in so being. Pride, however, was destined to the usual fall, the author of which humiliation being close at hand. A tall, cadaverous, lank, pale specimen of the race known as "clay banks," was sleepily leaning against a fence as they passed. He was shirtless and ragged, and his remnant of broad-brimmed hat sank ungracefully over and about his long hair, the only laudable use for which was to cover his dirty neck and face. Gravely he saluted the driver, with "Good-morning, Mr. Jobson," and then lifting lazily his eyes on Vance, he became suddenly galvanized with an unexpected recognition, to which he gave vent with a "Hells blazes, Zeb Vance, is that yeow?" The Governor avers he did the rest of that journey as an inside passenger.
Governor Letcher was a fine specimen of a Virginian, frank, dignified, courteous, and generous, firm and unchangeable in his deliberate and matured purpose, and of inflexible integrity and honor.
General Edward Johnson occupied the same room with the above-mentioned Governors, and also a gentleman from Savannah named Lamar, and they exhausted thoroughly every means in their power to avert the tedium of confinement. Governor Vance, once looking from his window into the East Capitol Park, said, with a sigh, "How I would like to stretch my limbs with a brisk walk over there." I replied, by saying, "Put on your hat, then," and suiting the action to the word, he did so, and I led him down stairs and past the guard, and away he went and enjoyed his stroll hugely, returning in a few hours safe to his hotel.
One evening there arrived from the War Department an order to prepare for the reception of (as near as I can recollect) one hundred and fifty prisoners, who were coming from Baltimore, nearly all of whom were to be placed in solitary confinement and not allowed to communicate with each other. Now, every room in both prisons was occupied, and to carry out the command was simply impossible, and I did not attempt it. Their arrival was a fresh surprise, for the prisoners were some of the principal business men of Baltimore, with their employees--such gentlemen as Messrs. Johnson, Sutton & Co., Hamilton Easter & Co., Weesenfelt & Co., Charles E. Waters & Co., and many more. They were arrested by a leading detective for alleged selling of goods to be run through the blockade. I believe there was not a guilty man in the number, and that it was a put up job by the astute detectives, who knew that, being gentlemen of wealth, they could extort money from them by sufficient squeezing. Their coming brought a good influence in many ways, and many a poor devil then confined, with neither friends or money, could testify to their liberality and generosity, and benefitted by the ill wind that blew these gentlemen into durance vile.