When the Capitol was a Bakery
Civil War bake ovens in the US Capitol basement
When Fort Sumter was attacked in April of 1861, President Lincoln sent out a call for troops. Tens of thousands of volunteers arrived to protect Washington, D.C., and they needed to be fed. Since four thousand soldiers were using the U. S. Capitol building as a barracks, the Army hastily constructed brick ovens in the basement.
The official army ration specified a loaf of bread (or a certain weight of flour, hardtack or cornmeal) daily. At its height, the Army bakeries produced 58,000 loaves of bread a day, operating twenty four hours every day.
The huge amount of flour needed each day, was purchased from local mills or those further north, and stored in “Washington’s Crypt” and in the hallways. When needed, the 195 pound barrels were rolled down planks on the main staircase to the ovens below.
After a few weeks, most of the soldiers were transferred from the Capitol, but the ovens and bakers remained. Within months, complaints were raised about the black smoke and soot, but it would take a year of the Senate trying to convince the House and then the Army, before the ovens were removed. During the four years of the Civil War, the Capitol Bakery and its successor on G Street (behind the Watergate) produced fifty million loaves of bread for the soldiers, patients in area military hospitals, and freedmen.
This interesting and overlooked part of the Civil War, and the history of the US Capitol will be revealed in a heavily illustrated talk.
For information contact Patricia Bixler Reber