Inside the Ford’s Theatre Museum, two television screens display close-up images of Abraham Lincoln’s face. The screens are embedded in a display that is a large-scale photograph of the partially constructed U.S. Capitol dome taken during the Civil War. In front of the display are three white columns, designed to evoke the Capitol. Behind the display is a model of the partially constructed dome.
The unfinished capitol dome on display in the Ford’s Theatre Museum. Photo © Maxwell MacKenzie.

Civil War 150: Statue of Freedom Placed Atop the Capitol

3 min read

While war waged between the Union and the Confederacy, the Union government continued an extensive project to expand the Capitol building and remodel its dome. It would take more than 11 years, but on December 2, 1863—in the midst of the Civil War—the Statue of Freedom was finally secured to the top of the new Capitol dome.

Black and white photo of statue of Freedom model, for dome of the U.S. Capitol, T. Crawford, sculptor, Rome, 1856.
Sculptor Thomas Crawford created this model of the statue of Freedom that would appear on the Capitol dome. Library of Congress image: LC-DIG-ppmsca-31063.

Because of Congress’s growth in the early 1800s, the House and the Senate required a larger Capitol building. After the Capitol chambers expanded, many began to see the old wooden dome as aesthetically displeasing. (It was also a fire hazard.) In 1855, Congress appropriated funds to replace the dome with a new cast-iron Capitol dome designed by Thomas U. Walter. In the original design, Walter called for a large statue to be placed atop the Capitol. American sculptor Thomas Crawford received the commission to design the statue; Crawford had studied in Rome and had created other statues for the Capitol, Richmond, Virginia, and elsewhere.

Aerial view of Washington D.C. in 1860s showing large church in foreground and the unfinished Capitol dome in the far left.
Photograph, circa 1860-1861, shows Trinity Episcopal Church, at Third and Indiana Avenue with the unfinished U.S. Capitol in background. Library of Congress image via: House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine

Crawford drafted multiple designs for the Statue of Freedom, and a 19-foot, six-inch bronze figure of a woman in a classical gown was ultimately selected. As we see today, atop Freedom’s head is a Romanesque helmet with an eagle and its feather. She holds a sword in one hand, representing her readiness to defend our nation, and in the other a shield with 13 stripes, representing the original 13 colonies. She stands on a globe-like sphere inscribed with the words “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “Out of many, One.”

Crawford created a clay model of the statue while in Rome and cast it into multiple pieces. His sudden death in 1867 delayed the shipping of the pieces to America until the following year, and it wasn’t until March of 1859 when the last pieces finally arrived in Washington. When all the dome’s pieces were in place, architect and sculptor Clark Mills began work on casting the statue of Freedom. The start of the Civil War again delayed completion of the statue, which was finally finished in 1862, with the assistance of Philip Reid, a slave.

Reid was among the hundreds of slaves involved in the building of the Capitol between 1790 and 1863. Reid’s skills in the art of sculpture were well known at Mills’s Foundry in Maryland, and after Mills’s original foreman went on strike, Mills hired Reid to supervise the casting of the remaining pieces. When the casting was completed, Reid and other slaves assembled the statue on the grounds of the Capitol before it was finally hoisted to its place on the Capitol dome. When President Lincoln enacted the Compensated Emancipation Act, Reid gained his freedom on April 16, 1862.

Ford's Theatre Museum display showing a large model of the unfinished Capitol dome as it appeared during Lincoln's presidency.
Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.

On December 2, 1863, Abraham Lincoln was ill and unable to attend the installation of the 15,000-pound Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome but, from the White House, he most assuredly heard the 35-gun salute being fired from local forts around the city. While the extensive renovations to the Capitol building would not be completed until 1868, Lincoln saw the significance in raising the Statue of Freedom stating, “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.” Posted on November 29, 2013, by Connie Golding.

Connie Golding earned a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in Fine Arts from The George Washington University. She is former Groups Sales Manager at Ford’s Theatre.

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Carrie Golding is former Groups Sales Manager at Ford’s Theatre.


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