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Troops are sleeping in the Capitol. It’s been a rare sight since the Civil War

Marble floors of the Capitol become a makeshift bed for the National Guard

Members of the military waking up on the cold marble floors of the Capitol complex Wednesday were likely some of the first to do so in more than 150 years.

“The last time there were troops sleeping in the Capitol itself was during the Civil War,” said Jane L. Campbell, president and CEO of the United States Capitol Historical Society. 

A plaque in the Capitol, located next to a bust of President Abraham Lincoln on the first floor where armed guardsmen stretched out, commemorates a time soldiers were quartered in the building “in response to President Lincoln’s call for volunteers.” 

The date — April 15, 1861. 

National Guardsmen were called to defend the building in the aftermath of last week, when a pro-Trump mob overwhelmed law enforcement and burst in — something that itself has no direct parallel since 1814, historians say. 

The troops have been seen resting in a variety of places in the Capitol complex, including the Capitol Visitor Center, which was built underground in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Resting is not the same as lodging, the Virginia National Guard was careful to stress in a tweeted statement Wednesday. 

“Areas of the Capitol have been designated as rest areas for National Guard personnel when they are on duty but between shifts, and this is not where they are lodging when they are off duty,” the tweet reads. “Our security personnel work in shifts and rest when they can as others stand watch.”

National Guardsmen curl up or stretch out on Wednesday under John Trumbell’s “Surrender of General Burgoyne,” one of four period scenes in the Capitol Rotunda depicting the Revolutionary War. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Since the building was breached on Jan. 6, tall riot fencing has been erected around the Capitol perimeter and the guardsmen were called in to ward off further attacks as the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden approaches. 

If the Guard troops were formally quartered in the Capitol, it would essentially make the complex a military encampment. The country has a long history of resisting the quartering of troops, with the Third Amendment specifically barring the quartering of troops in homes without the owner’s consent. It does not address public places or government buildings, and the Supreme Court has never decided a case based on the Third Amendment.

During the Civil War, the Capitol was used as part of the war effort even as lawmakers continued to carry out legislative business in the complex, said Samuel Holliday, the society’s director of operations and scholarship.

“They built brick ovens in the basement of the Capitol to bake bread to feed the soldiers that were convalescing in the Capitol,” he said. 

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The Capitol’s Rotunda was turned into a field hospital, and the building itself became a staging area for troops fighting nearby battles and somewhat of a barracks for healthy troops. Troops were in the building well into the war, which ended in 1865. 

“We were a nation at war, and the Capitol was a building that was put into use as a resource to support the troops who were defending the nation,” Campbell said.

Campbell said there are stories about Lincoln himself going to the hospital and visiting with the troops, a physical reminder of the awesome responsibility he carried when sending soldiers into battle.

Troops have been sent to defend the building since the Civil War, including after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But this time feels different. 

“It was an attack from a foreign power,” she said. “And this is an attack from a, you know, group of Americans.”

Tour(ism) of duty

On Wednesday, troops were seen sleeping on the floors, some next to their weapons and piles of riot shields. They haven’t been told how long they will be at the Capitol, according to one guardsman who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

They awoke on the cold but clean marble — one guardsman said he’s slept on worse — to military field rations, known as MRE, or meals ready to eat. But a socially distanced line began to form at a market that serves hot food in the House basement when they heard they could pay for something better.

Lawmakers like Speaker Nancy Pelosi paused to greet the troops and stage some photo ops. Rep. Andy Kim delivered a Dunkin’ Box O’ Joe on Tuesday “to make sure they’re caffeinated for the night shift,” he tweeted

Reps. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., and Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., showed up in the Capitol Visitor Center and dropped off boxes of pizza to members of the Delaware National Guard.

Reps. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., and Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., deliver pizza to members of the Delaware National Guard in the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Members of the Capitol Police could be seen handing out patches with the USCP insignia to the guardsmen as a sign of respect.

Some troops who never set foot there before could be seen marveling at the building itself, taking in the sights as if they were tourists. Others stopped to take photos with statues in the Capitol’s collection, including the one of civil rights icon Rosa Parks. 

When the rioters breached the Capitol last Wednesday, waving Trump flags while Congress was in the midst of certifying the election results, they caused a lockdown and panic and left many questions about the safety of lawmakers. Five people have died as a result of the events, including Officer Brian D. Sicknick, who was injured while defending the Capitol, and a woman who was shot by Capitol Police. 

Violent incidents have occurred before, but it’s the first time in more than 200 years that the Capitol was overrun by a group, Holliday said. 

“Truly, the only comparison to what we saw last week was 1814,” he said. 

In August of that year, British troops under the command of Vice Adm. Sir Alexander Cockburn and Maj. Gen. Robert Ross marched into the city and burned multiple landmarks, reducing all but one of the buildings to smoking rubble. 

Resting troops on Wednesday line the hallways of the Capitol Visitor Center, where signs urging social distancing served as a reminder of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The partially constructed Capitol, which sits on a plateau 88 feet above the Potomac River, was badly damaged, but architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s use of fireproof building materials and masonry vaulting and a heavy rainstorm allowed the structure to survive.

By the 1850s, Congress approved construction of a new cast-iron dome to replace a smaller one that sat on the rebuilt Capitol, and construction began soon afterward. 

Despite the raging Civil War, the dome continued to rise above Washington. Lincoln was committed to its construction despite it not being a beloved idea because it took away manpower and resources in the middle of a grueling war. 

But Lincoln saw it as important that the Capitol be not only a functional building to house the legislative branch of our constitutional government, but the temple of democracy. 

“Abraham Lincoln made a policy decision that even in the midst of the Civil War, with all the challenges that the nation had, that he was going to continue building the Capitol Dome,” Campbell said. “Because it would rise as a symbol of the fact that the Union would prevail and democracy would thrive.”

Jim Saksa contributed to this report.

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