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Civil War History of the Winder Building

By Ronald Baumgarten, Director, Agricultural Affairs

The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) occupies the historic Winder Building in downtown Washington, DC. The Winder Building was only thirteen years old when the Civil War erupted in 1861. This year, as the nation begins the commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, USTR would like to share some of the connections our office building has to that tragic conflict.

The Winder Building
The Winder Building, from a photo likely taken about five years after the Civil War

The Winder Building, completed in 1848, stood at 75 feet and had 130 rooms. At the time it was the tallest and largest office building in the nation’s capital. The War and Navy Departments leased office space from owner William H. Winder until 1854, when Secretary of War Jefferson Davis bought the Winder Building at the price of $200,000 for the War Department’s use. Davis would later serve as the first and only president of the Confederate States of America.

During the Civil War, the Winder Building – known at the time as “Winder’s Building” – housed several government offices. Occupants included the Navy Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, and the Second Auditor of the Treasury. The Quartermaster General’s Department, under the capable direction of General Montgomery Meigs, led the massive effort to supply the Union Army from offices in the Winder Building. The Army Ordnance Department was also located there, and President Lincoln sometimes stopped by to learn about new weapons being tested by the Union Army. Later in the war, the Bureau of Military Justice, under Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, moved into the building. When Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Holt led the investigation and prosecution of the conspirators from the Winder Building. The U.S. Signal Corps also constructed a signal station on the roof of the Winder Building in 1865 that was capable of sending messages by flag to troops in the encampments and fortifications around Washington.

Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs
Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs

Washington, D.C. Central Signal Station, Winder Building, April 1865
Washington, D.C. Central Signal Station, Winder Building, April 1865

The war was not kind to the original owner of the Winder Building. At the start of the Civil War, William Winder’s cousin, John H. Winder, resigned as a U.S. Army major, received a commission as a Confederate brigadier general, and was placed in charge of Northern prisoners in Richmond, Virginia. Federal authorities arrested William Winder on suspicion of conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. Government. He was held as a prisoner at Ft. Lafayette in New York and Ft. Warren in Boston, until Winder’s lawyers gained his release in 1862 after fourteen months in jail. Winder was never indicted.

Over the years, various myths have grown up around the Civil War history of the Winder Building. Some of these myths were enshrined on the historical marker that was placed on the building in 1950. According to one legend, Lincoln was fond of visiting the Winder Building to read telegraphs carrying war news from the front. However, historic evidence indicates that the Telegraph Office was located in the old War Department building across the street (site of the present-day Eisenhower Executive Office Building), and that the Winder Building did not have any military telegraph wires connected to it. It is also unlikely that Lincoln reviewed military parades from the building’s wrought-iron balcony.

Another frequent myth is that Confederate prisoners were held in the Winder Building and that Lincoln visited them there. There is no proof that such a basement prison existed, although civilian suspects were sometimes questioned in the basement.

Some accounts indicate that four successive generals-in-chief of the Union Army (Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck, and Ulysses S. Grant) maintained their headquarters in the Winder Building. However, at the time of the Civil War, most generals had offices in a building at the southwest corner of 17th and F Streets, N.W. (present-day location of the FDIC).

The Winder Building occupies a key place in the history of Washington during the Civil War. The clerks and military officers who worked there played an important role in the Union war effort over the course of four long and trying years. USTR is proud to call the Winder Building home.