While the nation was splintering and rushing into a Civil War, the U. S. Capital building became a symbol of hope and reunification. Despite the Civil War, construction continued on a new dome to rise over Washington D. C., and the nation. Construction of this dome was, at times, fraught with the same infighting and peril as the Civil War.
Plans were made in 1854 to replace the existing copper dome, which had been placed on the capitol building in 1824. That dome was almost universally disliked from its inception.
Architect Thomas Walter, who had also handled the extension of the capitol building, presented a plan to use cast iron, a fireproof material that would allow the dome to be built higher at a lower cost.
In 1855, President Franklin Pierce approved the $100,000 appropriation to begin construction of the new dome. Secretary of War and former Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis was put in charge of overseeing the construction of the dome. The old dome was removed in 1856 and its wood used as fuel for a steam engine in the new construction.
Davis placed Captain Montgomery Meigs of the Army Corps of Engineers to supervise Walter’s plans and construction. Meigs, who would later bury Union dead at Robert E. Lee’s home Arlington, attempted to take credit for Walter’s work, going so far as to forge his name on the architect’s plans.
A statue representing Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace was to be placed at the apex of the new capitol dome. This statue caused some controversy as Davis originally disagreed with the proposed statue by Thomas Crawford.
Crawford’s statue wore a “liberty cap” which was the Roman symbol of the emancipated slave. Davis objected to the cap saying it was inappropriate to “a people who were born free and would not be enslaved.” The cap was eventually replaced with a military helmet topped by an American eagle head and crest of feathers.
By 1857, Davis returned to the U. S. Senate and was still in charge of the dome construction. By 1861, Davis had resigned his seat in the senate and was selected by the Confederate Congress to serve a six year term as President of the Confederate States of America.
With the country tearing apart over the issue of slavery and rushing to Civil War, some wanted work on the capitol dome to stop. If the cast iron which was sitting on the capital grounds wasn’t used, it would rust.
President Abraham Lincoln saw completing the dome as a symbol for reunifying the nation. Work continued on the capitol dome while soldiers from North and South killed each other on battlefields such as Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam and Chancellorsville.
One of the ironies of the capitol dome construction was that the dome and Freedom statue was produced by slaves working in quarries, transporting and cutting stone for the dome.
The statue, which was cast at the Mills Foundry in Bladensburg, Md., also used slave labor. At one point the foreman in charge of the statue’s construction went on strike for more pay. Clark Mills, owner of the foundry, entrusted the remaining work of Freedom statue to Philip Reid, a slave at the foundry.
While Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862, it only freed slaves in the southern Confederacy. Slaves were still in bondage everywhere else in the United States. While southern slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Reid wasn’t freed in Washington D. C. until 1864.
For 31 days in the spring of 1862, Reid and other slaves built the Freedom statue on the capitol grounds. In June 1862, the Freedom statue was finished and displayed on the east grounds of the capitol.
On Dec, 2, 1863, slaves helped lift the Freedom statue to the apex of the completed capitol dome. A thirty-five gun salute was fired representing each state in the Union, including the southern states in the Confederacy.
The year 1863 was a pivotal time in the Civil War. Despite defeats at Second Manassas, Chancellorsville and Chickamauga, the Union army had also won major victories at Vicksburg, Gettysburg and Chattanooga. Looking at the new capitol dome and the Freedom statue, there was hope the end of the war was near.