To commemorate Lincoln’s birthday this year, let’s take a look at the story of the 16th President’s involvement with the construction of the Capitol dome. This is especially significant in this year that is the 150th anniversary of the Dome, which was crowned with the Statue of Freedom in 1863.
In fact it was in 1863 that an important episode in Lincoln’s involvement with the Dome took place. From a single conversation that year, not reported until four decades later, sprang the story that has gained legendary status that Lincoln ordered the construction of the Dome to continue during the war.
The facts tell a different story, but one that is nonetheless compelling and significant. The 1863 conversation about the Dome was reported in the memoirs of John Eaton, published in 1907 (Grant, Lincoln, and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War with Special Reference to the Work for the Contrabands and Freedom of the Mississippi Valley by John Eaton in collaboration with Ethel Osgood Mason [New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907], p. 89). John Eaton (1829-1906) was chaplain of the 27th Ohio. In November 1862 Gen. U.S. Grant appointed him to supervise the large numbers of African-American refugees in Tennessee and Arkansas. After the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, Grant sent Eaton to Washington with a letter of introduction to Lincoln to make a report on the condition of the refugees. Eaton refers to his meeting with Lincoln in his memoirs and provides the following recollection of Lincoln’s attitude toward the construction of the Dome:
After the President had been questioning me for some time, he quickly turned the conversation one side, as if he realized the severity of his catechism, and asked me what I had seen since my arrival in the city. I reported a visit to the Capitol, then in process of construction, whereupon Mr. Lincoln asked what the workmen were doing. I told him that they were about to raise the body of the statue of Liberty to the dome, and that on the Senate wing they were preparing the pillars for installation. The President remarked that there were some people who thought the work on the Capitol ought to stop on account of the war, people who begrudged the expenditure, and the detention of the workmen from the army. He went on to say that in his judgment the finishing of the Capitol would be a symbol to the Nation of the preservation of the Union. “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.” He expressed his belief in the final triumph of the Union cause. There would be reverses and much bloodshed, but finally the Union army, he felt assured, would be victorious.
Lincoln was not alone in his belief that the Dome was a powerful symbol of Union. The poet Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse in the nation’s capital tending wounded soldiers, recorded similar sentiments. On March 1, 1865, he noted: “To-night I have been wandering awhile in the capitol, which is all lit up. The illuminated rotunda looks fine. I like to stand aside and look a long, long while, up at the dome; it comforts me somehow.” Lincoln had once referred to the United States and its experiment in representative self-government as “the last best hope of earth.” The construction of the Dome was to the people of Lincoln and Whitman’s generation a reassuring symbol of that hope.