Civil War Defenses of Washington
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Historical Defense of Cities

Almost from the beginning of time, man sought advantage in conflict with enemies. Missiles, from stones to spears, were the first weapons. Besides weapons, defense, or the use of fortifications, became a valuable recourse. In 1972, Horst De La Croix, in his Military Considerations in City Planning: Fortifications, remarked: "Man's desire and need for protection are as old as his aggressive impulses, and few of his occupations have absorbed as much of his attention, time, effort, and capital as the design and construction of defenses against the transgressions of his human enemies. Since neolithic times he has endeavored to render his settlements safe from aggression by surrounding them with massive defensive structures that have become enduring records of his material progress on the one hand, and impressive monuments to his bellicose inclinations on the other." [1]

A U.S. Army Engineers pamphlet, on the evolution of the art of fortification, elaborated: "As the country became more thickly settled and the tendency to gather into communities became more marked, man began to surround his communities or cities with defensive works for protection against marauding bands and against enemies." As time passed, urban fortifications evolved: "The earliest attempt at strengthening defensive positions probably consisted of the construction of timber stockades or fences, which would give considerable shelter to the defenders and act as obstruction to an assaulting party. However, it must have been soon learned that timber structures might be burned or possibly torn down and recourse was then had to a more permanent form of construction. Walls were built of earth or stone, sometimes surmounted by timber stockades. The earth for raising the walls, of course, had to be dug somewhere, and it was soon found that by taking this earth from immediately in front of the walls, the ditch thus dug would form a serious obstacle to the advance of the enemy. Considerably later, probably, it was found that turning in water so as to transform the ditch into a moat was still more effective." [2] Still later, cities were protected by defensive systems, including forts, batteries, barriers, obstacles, pillboxes, trenches, etc. Often, the city developed beyond one defensive system, requiring the construction of a new one. One Royal military engineer later remarked, "The promiscuous fortification of towns, which was common in the Middle Ages, and extended to the time of [Sebastian le Prestre de] Vauban, is no longer in vogue. It arose in days before great States became consolidated under a central Government, and when armies were not mobile in the modern sense. A town, once fortified, easily came to be regarded as a place which it was necessary to defend, and this habit of thought has not wholly disappeared."[3]

Historical Defense of Capitals

The proliferation of cities brought an end to the fortification of all communities. The strategic points, usually including the capital city, would now be defended. Baron Henri Jomini, the military theorist most studied by Civil War officers, wrote that "All capitals are strategic points, for the double reason that they are not only centers of communications, but also the seats of power and government." [4] Later, George Sydenham Clarke (Sydenham) offered the following comments on the defense of capitals: "The strategic importance of a capital must depend upon its relation to the political and economic life of a nation, and will, therefore, vary according to circumstances. There will, however, generally be a popular demand for the fortification of a centre of national activity, and if the machinery of governments continues to grow more and more unwieldy, the strategic importance of capitals as decisive objectives will increase. At the same time, the huge area which the modern capital occupies must add greatly to the expense and difficulty of Fortification, while the supply of a population of several millions during an investment or a siege may prove an insoluble problem." [5]

Jomini also theorized that "Invasions of a country whose strength lies mainly in the capital are particularly advantageous. Under the government of a powerful prince, and in ordinary wars, the most important point is the headquarters of the army; but under a weak prince, in a republic, and still more in wars of opinion, the capital is generally the center of national power." [6] In exile at St. Helena, Napoleon stated: "Had Vienna, Berlin and Madrid been fortified, the countries of which they were the capitals would have been preserved from my campaigns of 1806 and 1808, and had Paris been fortified in 1814, my own empire would have been saved from overthrow." [7] No surprise then, that in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and into the 20th, the enemy's capital was often considered the number one priority and its fall usually meant the end of the war. Often, an enemy had to lay siege to a city before it would capitulate. In the 1600s, Marshal Vauban, a French military engineer, developed a method of siege, still used today, that would, no doubt, lead to the capture of a city, unless it was relieved by additional enemy forces. However accomplished, the capture of an enemy's city was considered a special prize because it yielded weapons, supplies, food, money and hostages. Most often, though, the greatest prize, was the capture of the enemy's capital, where the national government was located, including military headquarters. [8]

Urban Defense in the New World

The "New World" generally mirrored what was going on in Europe. New York, New York and St. Augustine, Florida, United States; Vera Cruz, Mexico; Quebec and Louisbourg, Canada; Cartegena, Colombia; and Havana, Cuba, among others, were heavily fortified cities in colonial times. Famous lengthy sieges occurred at the last four cities listed above. But even colonial settlements like Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts erected forts to protect themselves. Fortification technology, although similar to methods in Europe, was adapted to the needs and resources in the New World. As the colonial period came to an end and countries established themselves, they had their own capitals, and most erected fortifications to protect them. [9]

Defense of U.S. Capitals

From the time that the American Revolution began, in 1775, until the permanent capital was established at Washington, D.C., in 1800, the country had eight capital cities: Philadelphia, PA; Baltimore, MD; Lancaster, PA; York, PA; Princeton, NJ: Annapolis, MD; Trenton, NJ; and New York, NY. None of these cities was the national capital for very long and for that reason did not merit fortifications, except for Philadelphia. Philadelphia was the national capital on and off for many years and was defended by fortifications. The British began construction of Mud Fort, in 1771, on Mud Island in the Delaware River, near the Schuykill River's mouth, just below the city. The Patriots took over the fort which the British then laid siege to from September 27 to November 16, 1777. The Patriots evacuated the fort on November 16 and crossed the river to Fort Mercer, another fortification protecting the city, which later fell to the British. Reduced to rubble by British bombardment, the fortification on Mud Island experienced a rebirth in 1794-95, where the U.S. eventually erected a masonry structure named Fort Mifflin, after Major General Thomas Mifflin. Because Philadelphia was a large and important city, Fort Mifflin remained in military service after the government moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800. [10]

Establishment of A Permanent Capital

The decision to place a new permanent national capital at Washington, D.C. was the result of a compromise between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in July 1790. As a result, the Residence Act of July 16, 1790, that stipulated Congress would move to the new capital in 1800, authorized the President, George Washington, to select the site for the Federal City on the Maryland side of the river between the Eastern Branch and Conococheague Creek, which emptied into the Potomac 75 miles upstream. He also decided where government buildings would be erected and the three commissioners, that he had appointed, would oversee their design and erection. Washington lost little time in announcing his choice for the new city's location. On December 23, 1790, Maryland ceded 10 square miles of land, for the new capital, to Congress. By January 1791, he had hired Pierre L'Enfant, who had written him in 1789 explaining that he had heard that a new capital would be chosen and he hoped to be involved in its creation, to design the city. Washington also chose Andrew Ellicott as the new capital's first surveyor. [11]

In late March 1791, Washington traveled to Georgetown to conduct some of the business involved in establishing the new capital. First, he examined L'Enfant's staggering report outlining a 6,100 acre "grand plan" for the capital and Ellicott's surveys. Washington met with the land owners on March 30 and arranged an agreement whereby they would give up half their land to the government for public use and receive $66.67 per acre for it, except they would receive nothing for any used for streets. L'Enfant met with Washington at Mount Vernon in late June and showed him his drawing of the city and on August 27, he delivered his completed work to the President in Philadelphia. On June 28, Washington visited the new city, met with Ellicott and L'Enfant, decided on sites for the important government buildings, and presented his decisions to the proprietors. [12]

In September, the commissioners, Washington, Jefferson and James Madison met and chose the name for the city and the streets within it and determined to sell lots in auctions to obtain necessary cash. The commissioners favored little public expenditures for the new capital but L'Enfant's plan called for grandiose public spending. Jefferson hired Ellicott to prepare an engraved map of the new capital in November 1791. Soon afterwards, Jefferson, on February 27, 1792, told L'Enfant that his services were no longer needed; he failed to realize that he actually worked for the commissioners, not Washington, and his continued disagreements and refusal to obey them caused his dismissal. Ellicott published the first map of the new city in 1792 and in the fall of the same year had finished his survey and submitted his final plan for the city. Among the plan's provisions was the setting aside of seventeen reservations, or appropriations, for government use; Washington had outlined this idea in a March 31, 1791 letter to Jefferson. [13]

Land for the Military in the New Capital

Naturally, Washington envisioned the use of some of these reservations by the military, including for defenses. In 1791, Washington and L'Enfant chose the site for what is now Fort McNair on Greenleaf Point, or Turkey Buzzard Point, acquired by a deed of trust in 1791 and confirmed in a July 25, 1798 executive order. Apparently, L'Enfant intended for a fortification to be placed there, according to his city plan, setting it aside as military district No. 5, because, as one author wrote, the "peninsula where the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers met was an obvious, natural military site." This site, sported a "one-gun battery mounted behind earth breastworks," possibly as early as 1791 but, for sure, by 1794. By 1803, the "Fort" was first referred to as an arsenal and Congress provided money for the construction of buildings. [14]

This was the only site set apart for the city's defense but there was additional land for other military purposes. George Washington had approved a Washington Navy Yard in March 1792. On October 2, 1799 it opened on the former Reservation No. 14, Exchange Square, for which the Navy paid $4,000. On March 31, 1801, President Thomas Jefferson and Lieutenant Colonel William W. Burrows, Commandant of the Marine Corps, during a ride around the city, picked Square #927, at 8th and Eye, S.E., near the Washington Navy Yard, for the Marine Corps Barracks, that eventually cost $6,247.18. [15]

Coastal Defenses for Washington, D.C. at Alexandria, VA

War began in Europe following the French Revolution and even though the new American nation attempted to remain neutral, it affected the United States in a variety of ways. President George Washington, more than once, urged Congress to provide protection for coastal ports and harbors to meet any enemy invasion or incursion attempts. On March 20, 1794, Congress voted to erect coastal fortifications at twenty sites. One of these sites, on the Potomac River, would protect Alexandria, Virginia and Georgetown, Maryland and the new capital of Washington, D.C. The Secretary of War, Henry Knox, originally gave instructions to John Jacob Rivardi to erect the fortifications on the Potomac but due to the amount of other work he had to do, John Vermonet, on May 12, 1794, received instructions to take over those duties. By June 17, Vermonet had chosen a site for the fortifications near Alexandria, on the south side of the Potomac River, remarking: "I have chosen Jones' Point for the seat of a good battery, which will protect the place against the enemy by water..." [16]

From the beginning, Vermonet had problems. Knox informed Vermonet that since Rivardi had originally been assigned this work he, if he wanted to do so, could instruct Vermonet on what to build. John Fitzgerald, a militia colonel and resident of and Collector of Customs at Alexandria who had served on George Washington's staff during the American Revolution, was to procure the equipment and materials and hire laborers for Vermonnet; the materials did not arrive until late in the year and Vermonet felt that, possibly, Fitzgerald had been tardy in making his orders for the materials. While awaiting the materials, Vermonet undertook additional work he thought necessary, "As there is a marsh between this city and Jones' point, I have been obliged to establish a cross-way" or causeway which he reported, on August 3, he had completed. Finally, on September 16, Vermonet could report: "I take the liberty to inform you, that most of the materials are arrived, and are preparing for the battery. The palisade and frieze are also much advanced, the exertion of public has taken place, and I am in hopes to forward the work greatly by the end of October." But, he soon reported that he would need to close down operations for the winter on November 15 and would not resume work until April 15, 1795. Like the other engineers erecting these works, Vermonnet had to consult with the state Governor and submit plans, surveys, soundings, and other materials to him as well as the War Department. Finally, Vermonet was working under money restraints as Knox had informed him that he could not spend more than $3,000. on the fortifications. [17]

Vermonet built a fortification "which presented a circular battery in the front, and two small bastions in the rear, the whole ditched round in the usual way. This fort does not occupy the whole ground, but appeared to the subscriber to be tolerably well designed. The small size of the bastions in the rear, evidently discovered, that only a picket defense by musketry was there contemplated." The fort would mount 12 pieces of artillery en barbette. As war clouds dimmed, interest in these fortifications waned and in 1796, after an unfavorable engineering report, the Army abandoned the fort on Jones Point. The sum total of expenditures on the fort, artillery, and other expenses amounted to $4,936.36. [18]

Fort Warburton, MD

The 1807 Chesapeake affair, which renewed fears of another war with England, influenced Congress to pass a new fortification appropriation bill. The Secretary of War, ordered Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams, Chief Engineer, to Washington to formulate plans for the defense of harbors and ports. Way back in 1794, when Congress passed its first coastal fortification appropriation, George Washington had suggested that a fort be erected at Digges Point, across from Mount Vernon, and again in 1798, he championed the site once again. Williams examined the Digges Point site in 1808 and reported that it commanded the Potomac River but a ridge behind it jeopardized its defenses. Nevertheless, the government purchased the site and on April 11, Williams ordered Captain George Bomford, an Army Engineer, to begin construction of a fort there. [19]

Under Bomford, the work progressed rapidly and on December 1, 1809, he reported that Fort Warburton was finished except for some necessary revetment work on the rampart. One author wrote that the work on the fort was completed so fast that the plans and execution were faulty. The fort, quite similar to Fort Madison constructed at Annapolis, Maryland, was "an enclosed work of masonry, comprehending a semi-elliptical face, with circular flanks enclosed by a perpendicular wall suitable for defense by small arms." The fort's ramparts averaged 14 feet above the bottom of the ditch. To solve the problem of the high ridge behind the fort, Bomford erected, in the rear of the other fortifications, an octagonal, brick, two-story tower, to house one company of men and six artillery pieces. The engineers also constructed a brick magazine and barracks at the site. In late 1809, four 32-pounders, seven 24-pounders, two 50-pounders and two 6-pounder field guns on traveling carriages comprised the fort's armament. [20]

Fort Warburton, or Fort Washington, [21] had some weaknesses. James Hinds has written that "other than unsuitability to the site," the main weakness was "the narrowness of the gun platforms of its main battery" meaning that as the guns recoiled, after firing, they would be at the edge or, possibly, over the edge of the platform. General James Wilkinson described the fort as "a mere water battery" "useless once a vessel had passed" [the fort] with an "octagonal block-house" that "could be knocked down by a twelve-pounder." Completed in 1809, Fort Warburton only stood for five years due to the second war with England, the War of 1812. [22]

Military Invasion of Washington, D.C.

The threat of a second war with England had surfaced often, beginning in 1794. So, when the War of 1812 began, few were surprised and many in the new nation's capital feared the worst, a visit by British military forces. The War of 1812 revealed the weaknesses of Washington, D.C. and its meager defenses. Surprisingly though, from the beginning, little was done to strengthen the defenses and one author, Taylor Peck in Roundshot to Rockets, wrote that "Washington was left completely unprotected for the first two years of the war. No fortifications or batteries were erected along either the Potomac or the Eastern Branch. Old Fort Washington was scarcely capable of defending the entire city. Resolutions to place the capital in a defensive state were voted down, largely through the influence of the Secretary of War, General [John] Armstrong. No system of alarms and outposts was established to warn the city of impending danger, and no steps were taken to use the natural advantages of an easily defended eastern boundary." [23]

Although the government did not undertake a centrally directed protection plan for the city, some defensive measures were instituted. In October 1812, Alexandria raised a 60-man company to garrison Fort Warburton which remained there until December when it was ordered elsewhere. After British ships had entered Chesapeake Bay in 1813, the Secretary of the Navy, William Jones, visited Fort Warburton and ordered the erection of a nine-gun water battery there that seamen would man. Also, in 1813, Jones ordered the Washington Navy Yard to prepare some defenses for the city which included mounting carronades on three scows and locating them just off Greenleaf Point where they could rake the channel; placing 7 guns on ship's carriages, in commanding positions, behind breastworks at Greenleaf Point; and arming a barge with two 12-pound carronades to be kept in readiness for action. In 1814, Fort Warburton received additional guns, mounted in the fort and tower. Disappointed with Secretary of War Armstrong's lack of defensive preparations, President James Madison, in July 1814, along with the cabinet decided to raise militia from the District and surrounding states. The next day Madison created the Military District of Washington and appointed Brigadier General William Winder to command it. Although Winder set up his headquarters in Washington and spent much time in traveling around to see what was needed, by August 18, he had made no changes. [24]

Major General Robert Ross and Admiral George Cockburns' British forces arrived at the mouth of the Potomac on August 15 and began disembarking troops on the 19th, at Benedict, MD, on the Patuxent River. Some thought that the enemy would march to Baltimore or Annapolis or some other town because, they were sure, there was no good reason to capture Washington. But, Washington was the target as Ross's men marched up the Patuxent and the British naval squadron, commanded by Captain James Alexander Gordon, slowly but surely ascended the Potomac River. [25] To check the British land forces, Winder met them at Bladensburg, northeast of Washington, D.C., on August 24. The British defeated the American forces at Bladensburg forcing them to flee, leaving Washington open to the enemy troops. [26]

Resting for awhile at Bladensburg, the British troops then marched into town. Soon, under orders, the British began setting fire to government buildings. At the same time, after sending off as much ordnance and other military supplies as possible, Americans set fire to the Washington Navy Yard and the fort/arsenal at Greenleaf Point. The conflagration in Washington was observed at great distances from the city. A violent thunderstorm broke out and halted some of the fires. On the 25th, the British continued setting fires. At Greenleaf Point, the British, after destroying the artillery there, unleashed an explosion that killed about thirty of their men. In early afternoon, a tornado hit the area putting out much of the fires but causing much other damage. That evening, the British marched out of town unknown to many of the residents due to an 8:00 p.m. curfew. [27]

Gordon's naval squadron saw Washington burning on the evening of August 24, while anchored off Maryland Point, on the Potomac River. On the evening of August 27, just before sunset, the squadron anchored above Mount Vernon, just out of gunshot from Fort Warburton. In preparation for an attack the next morning, Gordon moved the bomb vessels out to cover the frigates and began "throwing shells" at the fort. Soon, the British observed the American force's evacuation followed by an explosion that destroyed most of the fort. Captain Samuel Dyson, who commanded Fort Warburton, had little faith in the fort's prowess and only enough men to man five of the guns. He had received secret orders that if the enemy attacked the fort from the rear, he should blow it up and retreat across the river. Seeing the arrival of the British naval squadron and having received intelligence that enemy troops were in his rear, Dyson gathered his officers and informed them of the intelligence received, told them of his secret orders and asked them what should he do. The decision was to evacuate and blow up the fort. Thus, soon after the bomb vessels began lobbing in shells, Dyson evacuated and the explosion occurred a little later. For his actions, Dyson soon received an order putting him under house arrest awaiting a court-martial; the court-martial found Dyson guilty of "running away and shamefully abandoning the fort" and the Army dismissed him from the service. [28]

Fort Washington, D.C.

In the days after the invasion of Washington, D.C. and the fall of Fort Warburton, the capital feared further incursions and Alexandria, VA, surrendered to Gordon's squadron. To bolster defenses, Washington Mayor James Blake rounded up men to defend Greenleaf Point and James Monroe, acting Secretary of War, attempted to place batteries near the long bridge and at Greenleaf and Windmill points. On September 8, Monroe requested that L'Enfant "proceed to Fort Washington and examine the state of that work, and report the same as early as possible . . ." Monroe then engaged L'Enfant to rebuild the fort and he began "clearing away debris and demolition of the old fort." After completing that work, L'Enfant oversaw the construction of a new water battery and a wharf. After the immediate threat to the capital and Fort Washington had subsided, Monroe questioned L'Enfant on his plans and work and requested that he submit a progress report and explicit plans. L'Enfant was offended and refused to comply. Thus, Monroe suspended work on the fort on July 8, 1815 and fired L'Enfant on September 6. [29]

With L'Enfant's dismissal, Lieutenant Colonel Walker K. Armistead succeeded him and with the assistance of Captain Theodore W. Maurice, who executed the design, oversaw the construction of the new fort which was basically completed on October 2, 1824, for a total cost of $426,000. The new fort was an enclosed "casemated brick and stone fortification with earthen outerworks" located to provide the greatest firepower along the Potomac River. Sporting a partial ditch crossed by a drawbridge at the sallyport; two demi-bastions, on the northwest and southwest corners, to protect the curtain wall; and outworks including a ravelin and mortar battery, Fort Washington "presented a formidable defense of the Potomac approaches to the city of Washington." [30] Author David Salay described the strengths and weaknesses of Fort Washington's location on the river: "At Digges Point the river channel narrows and swings to the east or Maryland shore, forcing boats to approach the fort bow on and pass upriver "stern on"; only directly opposite the fort could a ship bring its guns to bear." "At the same time, approaching ships were vulnerable to the fort's guns." "An enemy ship coming up the Potomac would have been subjected to a heavy fire before reaching the fort, would have come under a devastating fire directly opposite the fort, and still would have been under fire had it succeeded in getting past Digges Point." "Even so," Salay points out, "Fort Washington was vulnerable from the land side. It was particularly susceptible to attack from an enemy landing below Piscataway Creek and moving inland under protection of the ravine east of the fort to the hills in the northeast. From this point enemy cannon could have dominated the fort." [31]

In 1841, Army Engineer Captain Fred A. Smith arrived at Fort Washington to oversee various repairs and improvements. He stabilized the fort's earthen embankments to preclude washouts that were undermining the walls. Improvements included a second story and gun emplacement additions to the gatehouse, modification of the parapet for the mounting of new 32-pounder guns, paving the terreplein, and construction of two hotshot furnaces. Ever fearful of a land attack, Smith raised the east curtain and erected a capionerre on the south wall. Samuel Cooper replaced Smith and finished the changes, completing the work in 1848. [32]

Fort Washington had little armament between 1828 and 1842, comprising only four 6-pounders on iron carriages.. Soon after his arrival, Smith constructed new heavy artillery gun platforms. Thus, 1850 ordnance returns reported thirty 24-pounder guns at the fort. But, when the Army withdrew the fort's garrison in 1853, it had the guns removed from their emplacements. The fort remained inactive and basically unarmed until 1861. Engineer officer, Lieutenant Miles D. McAlester reported the same in his January 9, 1861 inspection report. The Secretary of the Navy's "first order issued during the Civil War for the protection of Washington" was sent, on January 5, 1861, to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, ordering him to send troops to Fort Washington; Marine Corps Captain A.S. Taylor, therefore, led a 40-man detail to the fort. At the beginning of the Civil War, Fort Washington was the single fortification, built to repel waterborne attacks, defending the national capital. [33]

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Last Updated: 29-Oct-2004