'Institutional Memory' Of U.S. Senate To Retire

'Institutional Memory' Of U.S. Senate To Retire

2:52pm Apr 15, 2015
Don Ritchie, historian of the U.S. Senate, speaks at the 53rd annual United States Senate Youth Program on Mar. 9, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin)

On this day in 1861, a day after Fort Sumter fell, President Lincoln ordered up 75,000 troops. Within days, volunteers swarmed to Washington. It was decided that some would stay in the U.S. Senate chamber, which had only been in use for two years. Upwards of 4,000 troops took up residence, and soon the chamber was described as filthy and “alive with lice.”

The doorkeeper wailed about the men bringing in armfuls of bacon and ham, eating it with their hands and greasing up the walls and furniture. One soldier even bayoneted the desk where Confederate President Jefferson Davis had sat only months before – a far cry from today’s Senate chamber!

How do we know all of this? The Senate Historical Office. Its longtime leader is retiring next month. For nearly 40 years, Senate historian Donald Ritchie has kept track of Senate lore, and delivered the weekly Senate historical minute to lawmakers. What’s it like to be the Senate’s institutional memory, and how much do his history lessons influence lawmakers?


  • Donald A. Ritchie, the historian of the United States Senate.
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