The Capitol in the Civil War

State Capitol - 1861

State Capitol, 1861. Earliest known exterior view.

The North Carolina State Capitol served the state throughout the Civil War. Until Raleigh's surrender in 1865 and subsequent occupation, the building was where the state's wartime legislatures met. Gov. Zebulon B. Vance maintained his office in the southwest suite on the first floor. In addition, Gen. John A. Logan organized the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, one of the first Union veterans organizations, in the Treasurer's Office (the southeast suite on the first floor) on April 14, 1865.

For North Carolina, the war began at the Capitol. On May 20, 1861, legislators signed the Ordinance of Secession in the House of Commons Chamber. As soon as it was signed, a handkerchief was waved from the window of the office of the Speaker of the House. When that signal was given, a great celebration began on the building's Union Square, including a 100-round artillery salute and music from a military band. Legend has it that the first blood shed for North Carolina during the war occurred that day as a bulldog, startled by a gun salute, severely bit one of the cannoneers of Manly's Battery in the seat of his pants.

For the next four years, the Capitol saw a flurry of activity. The building was used as a supply depot and the ladies of the town met in the rotunda to fashion uniforms, haversacks, and bandages. Confederate troops were brought to the capital city for training and then sent to the front lines. On April 13, 1865, however, Raleigh and the Capitol began to experience the war firsthand as Gen. William T. Sherman's army, led by Judson Kilpatrick's Third Cavalry Division, marched into town, beginning the occupation of the city by the Federal Army.

Area of Lieutenant Round's Signal Station atop the Capitol Dome

Lt. George C. Round revisited his station site in May 1900. Photo courtesy of the Manassas (Va.) Museum.

Second Lt. George Carr Round of the U.S. Army Signal Corps was sent to the Capitol to set up a signal station atop the dome of the building to relay signals from General Sherman's headquarters (in the Governor's Palace at the south end of Fayetteville Street) to troops encamped around the city. Not being familiar with the structure, Round, a Pennsylvanian, carefully made his way to the roof of the Capitol and climbed the lightning rod cable on the dome. While attempting to set up his station, he hopped over its anthemion crown, thinking he would land on a flat roof. To his surprise, he landed on the glass skylight of the rotunda and crashed part of the way through. Supported by a wire mesh over the glass and hanging on to the cast-iron crown, Round was able to save himself from falling over 97 feet to the stone floor of the rotunda below. (He later recalled he could hear the glass shattering on the floor beneath him.) The next day, he was able to make his way back up to the roof to set up a signal station. He also set up an office in the Senate Chamber and bivouaced in its southeast committee room.

From his rooftop vantage point, Round was able to track troop and civilian activities in Raleigh, including the procession of troops down Fayetteville Street—an event that was also observed by Generals Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had arrived in Raleigh on April 24th to inform Sherman that the surrender he had negotiated with Johnston had been rejected by the Federal government. On April 26th, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, after renewing negotiations with Sherman, surrendered approximately 90,000 Confederates at the Bennett farmhouse outside of Durham Station. Round asked for and received permission to fire colored signal rockets to inform Sherman's army of the surrender.

While the signal rockets were being set off, one misfired, sending its fiery blast into Round's face. Fortunately, the lieutenant suffered only minor injuries, including a lame shoulder and a lacerated wrist, so he was able to finish sending his message. It became the last signal message of the Civil War, reading, "Peace on earth, good will to men."

The Capitol itself was spared the total destruction that had befallen the old statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina. Before retreating westward, Governor Vance sent a peace delegation, led by former governors David L. Swain and William A. Graham, to Sherman asking that the Capitol, with its library and museum, be spared. As a result, the Capitol suffered little damage. Upon entering the building, however, Federal soldiers discovered several of the museum cases broken open, strewn documents and maps in the legislative chambers, and an inkwell overturned on a marble bust of John C. Calhoun (now in the N.C. Museum of Art's collection) in the Senate Chamber. Also discovered were lenses and mechanisms from several coastal lighthouses stored in the upper rotunda, as well as captured Union flags suspended from the galleries in the House and Senate Chambers. The state's official copy of the Bill of Rights was stolen by an Ohio soldier.

Each year the Capitol sponsors Civil War living history programs to provide a look at life in Raleigh during the war.


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