As a Washington, D.C. landmark, the U.S. Capitol presides over my daily routine from atop the hill at the end of the Mall. Even after two decades in the city, catching sight of its white marble dome shimmering in the afternoon sunlight can stop me in my tracks. That’s exactly how Jefferson Davis wanted it. As a senator from Mississippi and then as secretary of war, Davis took a keen interest in the refurbishment and expansion of the Capitol, believing it should be a grand building worthy of the government it represented. In the years following the Civil War, Davis discounted his role in the Capitol’s makeover — it didn’t square with his embodiment as the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.
Davis’s story is one of many told in Guy Gugliotta’s Freedom’s Cap: The United States and the Coming of the Civil War. By 1850, the seat of democracy had become a dark, dank building, notorious for its bad acoustics. The House and Senate chambers were short on space, American expansion having increased Congress’s head count. Davis convinced President Millard Fillmore to back the overhaul, setting in motion a construction project that served as a dusty backdrop to heated debates over states’ rights and, finally, the collapse of the Union. During the first year of the Civil War, the army turned the Capitol into a barracks: soldiers baked bread in the basement and peed in the hallways. In 1863 — thirteen years, two new wings, and countless mosaic floor tiles later — the statue Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace was hoisted atop the newly finished dome.
Gugliotta, a former Washington Post reporter, has an eye for facts and details, but he doesn’t quite make the jump to historical storyteller. Fortunately, the colorful personalities, feuds, and controversies drive the narrative. The book also benefits from the inclusion of sixty-five illustrations — allowing the reader to play armchair architect.