Central Guard House, Washington DC

Central Guard House

[source: 'Central Guard-House: Letter from the Secretary of War', 37th Congress, 2nd session, House Executive Document no. 75, Serial Set 1141]

Resolution of the House of the 13th instant, making inquiry as to the treatment of prisoners in the central guard-house.
MARCH 17, 1862.--Laid on the table and ordered to be printed.

WAR DEPARTMENT, Washington City, D. C., March 14, 1862.

SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of a copy of the resolution offered yesterday by Mr. Potter and passed by the House, and transmit herewith a report upon the subject by R. Biddle Roberts, assistant provost marshal.

Your obedient servant,

EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War.
[TO] Hon. GALUSHA A. GROW, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

HEADQUARTERS CITY GUARD, Provost Marshal's Office, Washington, D. C., March 13, 1862.

SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of an authenticated copy of a resolution of the House of Representatives, adopted yesterday, requesting the Secretary of War "to investigate the condition of the central guard-house," together with a communication signed by C. E. Livingston and others, dated at the central guard- house, March 5, indorsed by you "referred to General Porter, provost marshal general, with instructions to make immediate and full report upon the subject of the within resolution."

In the absence of General Porter, who is in the field, I beg leave to submit the following report, in accordance with your directions.

The central guard-house in this city was originally designed as a place of temporary confinement for soldiers arrested in the streets who were without passes, or who had overstaid [sic] their passes, or who were drunk or disorderly, and [p.2] after a detention of twenty-four or forty-eight hours they were usually returned to their regiments. These arrests were very frequent and sometimes very numerous, ranging on some days as high as one hundred and upwards. These men were brought in from the streets, in many instances very dirty, and the difficulty of keeping the guard-house in a cleanly [sic] condition was very great, still it was done, and the place has been, and is, in a comparatively good condition--in as good condition, at least, as the number confined in it will permit. The guard-house was also used to hold prisoners, citizens, and others, who were charged with military offences and held from military necessity; recently, however, a number of prisoners have been sent in from different divisions of the army and turned over to the provost marshal general, either awaiting sentence or for the purpose of serving out the terms of their sentences, respectively.

This has increased the number of those confined in the guard-house for a greater length of time than the class first referred to; the provost marshal general having no other place of confinement, except the old capitol prison, under his control, (which is already filled with war and State prisoners,) gave directions some days since to fit up some other place of confinement, especially for the use of such prisoners as have signed the communication annexed to the resolution. A building in Georgetown has been procured for this purpose, and is now being fitted up; it will be completed in a few days, and the prisoners will be removed to it and made as comfortable as is compatible with the execution of their respective sentences and the punishment designed.

I beg leave to report further. There are in the guard-house at this time (10 o'clock p. m.) 170 prisoners, and 34 of what may be called temporary commitments; all of the latter number will be discharged in the morning, which, as has already been stated, is entirely too many prisoners for the capacity of the prison. Notwithstanding this fact, the general health of the prisoners is good; but two cases of sickness exist, and one of those came in yesterday.

In reply to the communication referred to, it is perhaps proper to say that all the parties who have signed it, with the exception of two, to wit: William H. Wright and R. C. Ruhl were committed by order of Major General Banks, and are all either sentenced by court-martial or awaiting sentence, as follows:

C. E. Livingston, sentenced February 24, six months imprisonment, and to forfeit five dollars of his pay for each month.

William Grey, tried by court-martial for desertion; awaiting sentence.

George Coates, tried on same charge; awaiting sentence.

James McHenry, (should be McKinna,) tried on same charge, awaiting sentence.

Patrick Dempsey, tried on same charge; awaiting sentence.

William H. Wright was an assistant wagonmaster, and is under charge of stealing government horses.

R. C. Ruhl, forty-fifth New York, charged with desertion.

The paper thus signed contains a number of allegations which it is, perhaps, proper should be answered seriatim.

That the prison is crowded is admitted, and the arrangements to obviate this stated. It is stated that they "are supposed to be allowed soldiers' rations;" this is incorrect in point of fact, no such intention exists. The guard- house is a place of punishment, and full rations are not allowed; hard bread and meat are furnished twice a day and in ample quantity; there has been no stint and no complaint heretofore as to the quantity, and upon inquiry of some of the complainants this evening they admitted that the quantity was quite sufficient. It is true that during one day and a half, some week or ten days since, they were without meat, because it could not be obtained.

The allegation that they are not allowed soap is unfounded, and the further statement that they were compelled to wear their clothes until they were full of vermin is untrue; in two instances men are badly off for clothing, which will be [p.3] furnished to them. The allegation that coffee was purchased from the guard received my most careful attention. It is stated by the complainants that this purchase was made some days since, at a time when the guard- house was under the command of Captain Steel, and guarded by his company--an independent volunteer company called the "Sturgis Rifles," from Chicago. This company was relieved from duty on the 8th instant, and the guard-house is now under the charge and care of company "D," 91st Pennsylvania volunteers, Captain Sinex. If this statement be true, it was a gross outrage. It will be fully investigated, and the perpetrators when discovered will be severely punished. It is due, however, to Captain Steel and his company, now in the field under General Sykes, to say that they discharged their duties with great fidelity, and seemed to be men of intelligence and character. The further complaint that the men are not tried I have shown from the record in each particular case to be incorrect.

In reply to an indorsement which I see upon the resolution, I beg to state that the provost marshal's office is open at all times, and an officer required to be on duty, with the exception of the "pass" department, which is closed at 3 o'clock p.m., which probably led to the erroneous information given to your assistant yesterday.

I have the honor to be, Very Respectfully your obedient servant,

R. BIDDLE ROBERTS, Col. 1st Reg. Pa. R. C., Ass't Pro. Marshall General.
[To] HON EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War

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revised 8 Jun 02
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