Civil War to Civil Rights
— Downtown Heritage Trail —
This imposing, Greek Revival style structure was designed by George Hadfield as Washington's first City Hall/Courthouse. Throughout its history, the building has housed the local and federal courts for DC, presided over by judges appointed by the U.S. president with the consent of the U.S. Senate.
In 1874 Congress took over city operations, ending home rule. DC lost the right to elect a mayor and city council. The courts and municipal offices remained in the mayor-less City Hall. For nearly a century, until limited home rule was restored, three commissioners appointed by the U.S. president ran the city.
As part of steps to return home rule to the city in 1970, Congress reorganized DC's judicial system. It removed local cases from federal jurisdiction and created the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to hear everything from traffic violations to criminal matters. The Superior Court's Family Division moved into the Old City Hall/Courthouse. An expanded DC Court of Appeals became the District's court of last resort.
In 1999 the worn-out courthouse closed to await rehabilitation. Ten years later, after extensive renovation, the building re-opened as the DC Court of Appeals.
Some of the most noteworthy trials in our city's history have taken place here. In 1867 John Surratt faced trial for conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to kill President Lincoln. Surratt was acquitted after testifying that, when the assassination occurred, he was in New York on a Confederate spying mission.
Charles Guiteau fared worse. In 1882, despite evidence of insanity, Guiteau was convicted of mortally wounding President James Garfield. He received the death penalty.
The Civil War (1861 - 1865) transformed Washington, DC from a muddy backwater to a center of national power. Ever since, the city has been at the heart of the continuing struggle to realize fully the ideas for which the war was fought. The 25 signs that mark this trail follow the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, and others, famous and humble, who shaped a nation and its capital city while living and working in historic downtown DC.
Civil War to Civil Rights Downtown Heritage Trail
is an Official Washington, DC Walking Trail. The self-guided tour consists of three distinct loops: West, Center, and East. Each one-mile loop offers about an hour of gentle exercise.
A free booklet capturing the trail's highlights is available at local businesses and institutions along the way. To download the free Civil War to Civil Rights Audio Tour, and learn about other DC neighborhoods, please visit www.CuturalTourismDC.org.