04 Dec 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: Mollie McDonough

That the Civil War pitted brother against brother is hardly a new insight. Stories of tragic reunions occurring on the battlefield are legion. However, some of the coincidences are more far-reaching. One of these stories begins at the Washington Navy Yard, and ends in Congressional Cemetery– but not in the direct route one would expect.

At the beginning of the Civil War, while some locals took up arms to defend the Union, others chose to head south and throw their lot with the secessionists. One of these was none other than the head of the Navy Yard, Franklin Buchanan. Buchanan was born in Maryland. Under the assumption that that state would secede as well, Buchanan tendered his resignation. When Maryland did not budge, Buchanan begged to be reinstated, but was denied the right under the assumption that a half-hearted patriot was not what the Union needed at that time.

Meanwhile, his nephew Evan M. Buchanan enlisted in the Union army and was assigned to the Third Division of the Sixth Corps, as a “commissary of subsistence,” which meant that he was responsible for the supplies of his unit.

On September 25, 1864, young Buchanan started off from Winchester VA with a supply train bound for Harper’s Ferry. Three days later, he was captured by guerrillas and taken to Brooks’s Furnace (now part of Charlestown WV), where he was murdered. His money – well over $1,400 (over 21,000 in today’s money)– was taken from him. His body, but not his money, were recovered, and he was buried at home in Pennsylvania.

Within a month, his murderers were known to be Charles McDonough and Wirt Ashby. In order to compel McDonough to surrender, his sister, Mollie McDonough, was arrested. She was taken to the Old Capitol Prison where she contracted typhoid fever. The infamous spy Belle Boyd (pic), who insisted that Buchanan had been killed resisting capture rather than being murdered after being caught, recounted her fate:

During my sojourn in the Carroll Prison [Boyd’s name for the Old Capitol] I one evening called upon Mrs. —, a lady prisoner from Galveston, Texas, who tended Miss McDonough with motherly care during her illness. Poor Mollie was then in a state of semi-insensibility, and was barely conscious of what was going on about here, when Colonel Wood, the superintendent of the prison, burst into the room shouting out at the top of his voice, “Hooray! Jem [sic] McDonough’s caught, and will swing, by—! Before the week is out.”

Miss McDonough slowly raised herself in the bed until nearly upright, stared wildly about her for an instant, and, uttering a piercing shrink, fell insensible upon the floor.

The Old Capitol shortly after the Civil War. (LOC)

The Evening Star of January 16 finishes the story, somewhat less dramatically:

Miss Mollie McDonough, of Charlestown, Va, […] died in the Old Capitol Prison yesterday, of typhoid fever. John [sic] A. McDonough, who was arrested as the principal of the murder, is still in the Old Capitol.

In spite of the claim about her brother, it appears that he actually avoided capture throughout the war, and avoided being arrested several months after the end of the war by shooting himself as US soldiers closed in. He is buried in Middleburg, Virginia. Who the “Jem” or “John A” mentioned above are, is uncertain; Confederate Veteran Magazine mentions that Charles McDonough’s entire family, including his brother and father, were arrested along the way, and thus these may be who are referred to here.

Mollie McDonough was interred on the day of her death in Congressional Cemetery, near so many of Franklin Buchanan’s coworkers from his time at the Washington Navy Yard.


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