During the Civil War, Washington was busy with activity in the Capitol, the White House, and directly on the Mall. To defend the city from attack, the Union Army established a headquarters near the White House and Union troops were present on the Mall from 1860 to 1865. The military built temporary facilities on the Mall to house, feed, care for, and supply thousands of troops stationed in Washington and for wounded coming in from Virginia battlefields. American writer Walt Whitman published his experiences of visiting the wounded, bringing stories of the Civil War in Washington and on the Mall to millions of readers.
Why was the Mall important during the Civil War?
During the Civil War, the half-finished Washington Monument became a beef slaughterhouse and storage facility supplying food to the tens of thousands Union soldiers defending the city. Cattle grazing nearby eventually were brought inside monument for slaughtering. After processing, the beef remained indoors for protection from the elements and safekeeping. In 1862, a popular magazine described the grounds of the Monument as "surrounded by offal rotting two or three feet deep."
Thousands of soldiers arrived in Washington at the railroad depot northeast of the US Capitol. Companies of soldiers marched, drilled, and rested near the Capitol, on the lawn of the White House, and in empty spaces of parkland throughout the Mall. Union military headquarters were within walking distance of the White House and the Capitol temporarily served as a military barracks.
Union troops living in the Capitol made a mess and disrupted all who worked in its offices. As many as 4,000 soldiers and dumped food in meeting rooms, broke furniture, infested the Senate chamber with lice, turned hallways into latrines, and swung on ropes suspended from the open dome. Smells and smoke filled the halls from a bakery in the basement where 170 bakers and 20 ovens produced more than 58,000 loaves each month. Infuriated at the mess, Congressmen fought military leaders to remove the Army. By early 1862, troops left the Capitol and bakery closed.
Near the Capitol, military leaders converted a brick building at 1st Street and East Capitol Street, Northwest, into a military prison in 1861. The building housed as many as 2,700 prisoners at its peak. The filthy rooms held political prisoners, Confederate soldiers, local prostitutes, and blockade runners. Captured members of Colonel John S. Mosby's Raiders, a Confederate guerrilla group known for quick hit-and-run attacks, harassed passers-by from their cells. Infamous female Confederate spy, Belle Boyd, spent 1 month in the Old Capitol Prison.
Needing a hospital to care for the War's wounded, the government built the Armory Square Hospital in 1862 on the south side of the Mall. Designed as a model facility, the hospital housed more than 1,000 patients in 12 pavillions. Each ward had a surgeon, a female nurse, and supporting staff who supervised and cared for severly-wounded patients. Many visitors came to the hospital to console the wounded, like American poet Walt Whitman. He visited the hospital regularly, brought gifts, read to patients, and wrote letters for them. Whitman wrote articles and poems about his experiences visiting the Armory Square Hospital.