This Day (Suspended in Mid-War Edition)

Published:February 27, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

Castle Thunder Prison, Richmond

On this day in 1862, on day nine of the First Confederate Congress’s session, lawmakers authorized Jefferson Davis to suspend the writ of habeas corpus “in such cities, town and military districts as shall, in his judgment, be in such danger of attack by the enemy as to require the declaration of martial law for their effective defense.”

The Confederate president promptly took his congress up on the offer and declared martial law from Norfolk all the way to Petersburg and Richmond. While to be sure it was an attack on civil liberties, the declaration anticipated a more-feared attack in the spring by George McClellan‘s Army of the Potomac. As such, protests were few, and the suspension expired a year later. Only when the writ was suspended again in 1864 did states’-rights advocates get their backs up.

Meanwhile, many of those arrested, at least in Richmond, were held at Castle Thunder Prison (shown above). As it happens, also on this day in 1862, John H. Winder, a crusty old Mexican War veteran, was named Richmond’s provost marshal, which put him in charge of Castle Thunder and the city’s other detention facilities: Libby Prison and Belle Isle. By the end of the war, Winder’s esteem was such that he was promoted to command all prisons in Georgia and Alabama, including the notorious Andersonville. Fortunately for Winder, he died of a heart attack before his enemies could hang him.

IMAGE: Colored lithograph of Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond, April 1865 (Virginia Historical Society)