Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., -- As the country’s third oldest Army installation (third only to West Point and Carlisle Barracks), Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s Fort McNair is known for several pivotal moments in our country’s early history, but none more famous than as the site of the military tribunal of those thought responsible for the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
Established in 1791 on what was known as Greenleaf Point, the military reservation named the Washington Arsenal was included in Maj. Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plans for the Federal City of Washington as a major site for the defense of the capital.
A federal penitentiary was built just north of the arsenal with construction completed in 1829. The penitentiary became the center of national attention beginning May 9, 1865, when the trial of those implicated in Lincoln’s assassination began on the third floor of the eastern wing of the building in a newly prepared courtroom.
The eight accused – Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edman Spangler and Mary Surratt – were tried by a military tribunal. After just two months, on June 30, the sentences were handed down and all were found guilty.
Atzerodt, Herold, Powell and Surratt were hanged July 7, 1865, on gallows constructed in the penitentiary courtyard. Arnold, Mudd and O’Laughlen received life sentences, and Spangler was sentenced to six years in prison.
Following the trial and with the decline in activity at the penitentiary after the Civil War, sections of the penitentiary were slowly demolished, with the exception of the western and eastern extensions.
The penitentiary was closed in 1881 and transferred to the Quartermaster Corps, at which time the Washington Arsenal came to be known as the Washington Barracks. Eventually, all sections of the penitentiary were demolished, except for the eastern extension that housed the third-floor, military tribunal courtroom.
From 1901 to 1914, the building was used to house the Army Engineer School. It was later converted into officers’ quarters and then quarters for enlisted service members and their families. The building was eventually named Building 20, and, in the late 1900s, was named for Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of the Union Army during the Civil War and the 18th president of the United States.
The Washington Barracks was renamed in 1948 for Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, commander of the Army Ground Forces during World War II.
Grant Hall ceased to be quarters for military personnel in 1996 and was turned over to the National Defense University for their use. NDU refurbished the rooms from quarters into offices and began using the building to office NDU personnel in 2000.
In the early 2000s, however, due to a failing infrastructure and lack of funding for repairs, Grant Hall was slated to be torn down. Alarmed at the thought, an NDU professor who worked in the building petitioned his congressman to halt plans for demolition, citing the historical significance of the building. Congress was able to secure historical preservation funds to save and restore the building with the condition that the courtroom be restored to the third floor during the building’s renovation.
The restoration took three years – from 2009 to 2012. The third floor was restored to depict the courtroom as it appeared during the 1865 trial. Courtroom features were recreated based on artistic renderings and written descriptions of court proceedings.
During the renovation, representatives from the production company of the 2010 movie "The Conspirator," a movie about the trial, traveled to Fort McNair to visit the sites of the tribunal and the hanging.
The movie could not be filmed at Grant Hall, since the building was completely torn apart because of the renovation, so the movie was filmed at another location. Once filming was completed, however, the production company arranged to loan some furnishings, clothing items and props from the movie for display in the courtroom. Visitors will get to see Mary Surratt's dress and bonnet, John Wilkes Booth's hat and pocket watch, and a potbelly stove – just some of the items from the movie on display.
Other artifacts and documentation found in the courtroom and adjoining rooms are from the NDU Special Collections Library.
Once the Grant Hall restoration was completed, a ribbon cutting was held April 3, 2013, to officially unveil the courtroom. With the completion of the restoration, coupled with the concept that the courtroom had finally returned to the building well after a hundred years, members of the public clamored to see the courtroom.
Since the courtroom is not an official Army museum, there is no dedicated staff to facilitate guest visits. In order to not disrupt the workday for personnel on the first two floors of the building, it was determined that opening the courtroom on a weekend would be best.
Quarterly public open houses of the courtroom were scheduled on the first Saturday of the second month of each quarter. During a calendar year, the open house months are February, May, August and November. During the open houses, the courtroom is manned by volunteer historians, docents and re-enactors who provide information about the tribunal and point out areas of interest inside and outside of Grant Hall. One example is the site of the hanging – where the gallows were constructed in the penitentiary courtyard – that is now the northeast corner of tennis courts located next to Grant Hall.
The first courtroom open house was held in May of 2014, and open houses have been held quarterly ever since up through February 2020, just prior to the start of the pandemic. The pandemic forced the cancellation of the open houses for the remainder of 2020, 2021 and February and May 2022. The courtroom and two adjoining rooms are small in size and the stairwell leading from the second to the third floor is extremely narrow, making social distancing difficult.
As COVID-19 case levels continue to drop and as Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall moves closer to returning to Health Protection Condition Alpha, it is hoped that the Grant Hall courtroom open houses may start once again, with the possibility of restarting in August or November of 2022.
The Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Public Affairs Office will send out notification when plans are to restart the courtroom open houses. Open house hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call the JBM-HH Public Affairs Office at 703-696-3283.