Abraham Lincoln

Bread Kneaded on Capitol Hill

The Capitol's grand Civil War bakery occupied the majority of the building's large basement. (Photo Source: Architect of the Capitol)

As congressmen convened for a special session in July of 1861, they were welcomed into the Capitol by the smell of baking bread. Just months into the Civil War, the building had already seen thousands of troops pass through its doors, and now it was the site of one of the largest bakeries the world had ever known. Twenty ovens, each with the capacity of holding hundreds of loaves of bread, were housed in the basement, and multitudes of men spent hours tending yeast and kneading dough. Having been in recess for less than four months, the congressmen were astounded, and some even annoyed, with this new mammoth bakery occupying their space. But a lot had changed for the country – and for the Capitol – in that short period of time.

Lincoln's Codebreakers

In a previous post, we looked at how Abraham Lincoln utilized the telegraph during the Civil War to supervise his generals in the field and gather intelligence--sometimes by scanning telegrams intended for other Washington recipients. But in addition to working closely with Lincoln, the War Department's team of telegraph operators--who were based at the present-day location of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House--also were pressed into service to perform another critical function in the war effort. They also worked as cryptographers, encoding sensitive communications for the Union side, and as codebreakers, deciphering intercepted letters sent by Confederate officials and spies.

In an age when the federal government and the national security establishment was vastly smaller than it is today, David Homer Bates and three other operators--Thomas T. Eckert, Charles A. Tinker, and Albert B. Chandler--basically functioned as the 19th Century equivalent of the Fort Meade, Md.-based National Security Agency, which has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 employees and an arsenal of supercomputers and other gadgetry at its disposal.

Lincoln's Secret Weapon: The Telegraph

Today, we Washingtonians rely upon Twitter, smart phones, and 24-hour cable news channels to continually fill our craving for information. But a century and a half ago, during the Civil War, the only source of instantaneous news from far away was the telegraph, and in Washington, there was only one place to get it: The Department of War's headquarters building, which stood at the present site of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. 

Before the war, amazingly, the government hadn't even possessed its own telegraph operation, instead relying upon the same commercial telegraph offices that civilians used.

Assassin's Cranium

Lewis Powell, the would-be assassin of Secretary of State William H. Seward, was prone to goof-ups. You might even say he had the tendency to lose his head.

As you know from our previous post, Powell was one of the co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination plot. After his bloody rampage in the Seward home, Powell was tried and hanged along with three other conspirators on July 7, 1865. That should have been the end of the story, but it took over one hundred years for Powell's tale to come to an end.

Colorized photo of Lewis Powell.

Even More Little Known Victims of the Lincoln Assassination Plot

April 14th, 1865 was a pretty bad day for a lot of people. Lincoln was assassinated, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone had their lives torn apart, and Secretary of State William H. Seward was brutally stabbed along with most of his family and a few bystanders.

Oh, you hadn’t heard about that last one?

Booth and his co-conspirators’ plan was larger than just the assassination of Lincoln. Their plot included a number of top officials in the U.S. government whose death they hoped would bring the country to its knees. Lewis Powell, a twenty year old Confederate soldier, was chosen to assassinate the Secretary of State.

Luckily for the Sewards, Powell was probably the worst assassin in American history.

Little Known Victims of the Lincoln Assassination

Currier and Ives, The Assassination of Lincoln at Ford's Theater, April 14, 1865. (Photo Source: Wikipedia)

If you’re up on your Academy Awards news, then you know that people are loco for Lincoln. This historical drama is nominated for twelve out of seventeen applicable awards: Best Picture, Leading Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Writing - Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Directing, Cinematography, Film Editing, Music – Original Score, Production Design, and Sound Mixing. Basically, if you haven’t seen it yet, Hollywood really thinks you should.

But great movies can sometimes leave stuff out, and that’s where we step in. Here’s a story of some of the other folks affected by the conspirators of the Lincoln assassination plot.