On April 15th, 1861, a few days after Confederate cannons opened fire on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to be deployed to Washington D.C. to protect the seat of government and suppress the rebellion. Within a few days, volunteer Union troops from Pennsylvania answered the call and were quartered in the House wing of the Capitol. Next, the Sixth Regiment from Massachusetts set up camp in the Senate wing. Before long, thousands of soldiers occupied the Capitol. In a letter to his son, Thomas U. Walter–the Architect of the Capitol–noted that “the Capitol itself is turned into a barracks; there will be 30,000 troops here by tomorrow night.”
One hundred sixty years later, we saw this moment repeated when National Guard troops were deployed to the U.S. Capitol in the wake of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. According to the U.S. Senate Historical Office, between 1861 and today, troops have only occupied the Capitol a handful of times – during World War II, after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to maintain order on at least three separate occasions.
The scenes from 2021 strike a different cord – troops in face masks observing social distancing, protecting the citadel of democracy in the midst of a global pandemic. Unlike in 1861, however, the National Guardsmen in 2021 had hotel accommodations when off-duty and maintained a much lower profile. In the present, selfies were a much more common form of entertainment than they were for troops in 1861 who entertained themselves by swinging from a rope in the Rotunda and sitting at Senators’ desks. Today, Black Guardsmen were seen taking pictures with the statues of iconic civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks while others napped quietly under a bust of Lincoln and a plaque commemorating the troops quartered there in 1861, a reminder of the divisions this nation has faced and still does.
Written by guest contributor Taylorann Vibert, a Senior at the University of Maryland studying both History and Government & Politics.
Burns, Rebecca. Twitter Post. January 13, 2021. 9:16AM.
“Civil War Troops Quartered in the Capitol Plaque.” Architect of the Capitol. https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/art/civil-war-troops-quartered-capitol-plaque (Date revtried: January 21, 2021).
Kornfield, Meryl and Sonmez, Felicia. “Troops lodged in the Capitol in 1861. It was a wreck when they left”. Washington Post. January 13, 2021.
“The Civil War: the Senate’s Story.” United States Senate. (Date accessed: January 20, 2021).