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When the Civil War began, the Old Capitol in Washington, was abandoned and dilapidated. The government removed the high board fence surrounding the building, replaced the wooden slats nailed over the windows with iron bars, and turned it into a prison. Security was provided mainly by guards who constantly paced around the outside. Many prominent prisoners were confined in the Old Capitol Prison, including Confederate generals, Northern political prisoners, blockade runners, and spies. Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison, and the Lincoln assassination conspirators were hanged on the gallows in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison.

Some of the most noted prisoners were the women spies Belle Boyd and Rose O'Neal (aka Rose Greenhow).