Civil War Defenses of Washington
Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo


Post Civil War Washington

The Washington, D.C. area experienced many changes during the Civil War. Because it was the capital of the Union, much of the fighting occurred nearby, and the military stored a great deal of its munitions and equipment in and around the capital. Thousands of soldiers and sailors lived in the area. Freedmen, former slaves, flocked to the Union capital by the thousands. The war effort required a hefty increase in Government employment. From 1861 to 1865 the population of Washington, D.C. grew from 75,000 to 120,000. [1]

All of these people needed a place to live, causing a wartime real estate boom that continued for some time afterwards, as many residents in the post-war period speculated in land and property. The new landowners varied from the rich to the poor unskilled workman. A number of blacks were among the new landowners. During and immediately after the war, about 30,000 blacks migrated to the City, but few were able to own property. The U.S. Government had abolished slavery in Washington, DC in April 1862, compensating the former owners for over 3,000 slaves, none of whom owned property. Approximately 3,250 black men from the city served in the Union Army during the war, most of whom also had no property. Thus, by the end of the war, the majority of blacks living in Washington were without property or income. By 1867, though, blacks comprised about ore-fifth of the city's property owners. [2]

Realizing that many problems pertaining to freedmen and other refugees would likely accelerate after the war, on March 3, 1865, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, incorporating several former Government organizations. General Oliver Otis Howard served as chief of the Bureau. Administered by the Army, the Bureau attempted to oversee the rehabilitation of freedmen and other refugees by helping them obtain food, clothing, housing and education. It had a daunting task. [3]

In 1863, the Army had established a "Freedman's Village" on the Arlington estate, in Virginia, owned before the war by the Custis-Lee families. There the freedmen could live and farm. As the war progressed, more and more freedmen came to the village, and even more arrived after the war. Administered by the Army and by Treasury special agents during most of the war, the village came under the jurisdiction of the new Bureau of Refugees Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in 1865. Although conditions were not the best in the village, they were much better than what the freedmen faced, on their own, in the city. The Bureau provided them with rooms in barracks constructed to house soldiers and in former hospitals. It also established hospitals in the City to minister to the sick freedmen. Still, the Bureau was unable to help everyone, and many freedmen had to make their own way and find their own shelter. [4]

In some instances, these freedmen and other refugees lived in and around the recently vacated forts that were formerly in the Defenses of Washington. In many instances, the Army returned these forts to their former owners, who may or may not have had an immediate use for the land in spite of the real estate boom. Thus, some of the forts and their buildings sat unattended. They were prime targets for squatters, mostly poor freedmen who could find shelter and other items such as abatis, which made good firewood. Some observers commented on these squatters, but almost no one mentioned particular forts or individuals, making it difficult to document this habitation. [5] Following are some of these general accounts:

  • "But around the slopes of the fort, among the bush and in the laurel clearing free negroes had built their cabins out of the wrecks of battery wagon and sentry-box, and down the paths that the cannoniers had made in the moist hill sides, negro men and women, with pails and bundles on their heads, went jogging steadily, as in the first listless experience of self-ownership." [6]

  • "All the forts around or overlooking the city are dismantled, the guns taken out of them, the land resigned to its owners. Needy negro squatters, living around the forts, have built themselves shanties of the officers' quarters, pulled out the abatis for firewood, made cord wood or joists out of the log platforms for the guns, and sawed up the great flag-staffs into quilting poles or bedstead posts.

    "The strolls out to these old forts are seedily picturesque. Freedmen, who exist by selling old horse-shoes and iron spikes, live with their squatter families where, of old, the army sutler kept the canteen; but the grass is drawing its parallels nearer and nearer the magazines. Some old clothes, a good deal of dirt, and forgotten graves, make now the local features of war." [7]

  • "The fifty-six forts (sic!) built in the early days of the conflict to defend the capital were still standing in the suburbs. Plundered of their lumber by nearby farmers, they now served as shelter for the many freedmen who had poured into the District from the nearby plantations of Maryland and Virginia; from the wrecks of battery wagons and sentry boxes, they had improvised the flimsiest constructions." [8]

A large number of freedmen settled in the area of Fort Reno in northwest Washington. Historian Judith Beck Helm noted: "Fort Reno was retained by the Army as late as January 1866, and many freed blacks continued to live there." In 1869, the heirs of the owner, Giles Dyer, sold the fort and surrounding area to Newall Onion and Alexander Butts, real estate developers. They subdivided the land into sections of a couple acres each, then divided the sections into building lots. This land was soon made available for rent or sale at reasonable prices. Some black squatters bought land. One descendent of an African American buyer said that his grandfather bought a lot for $25. [9]

The area, sometimes called "Reno City," contained about sixty houses in 1894. Around the turn of the century, the population of Tenleytown, where Reno City was located, included a population of 758 whites and 369 blacks. So even though some people have considered Reno City as a wholly black community, it was not. Helm wrote: "It would not be accurate to describe the Fort Reno area as a ghetto or even as an enclave." Also, although the National Park Service pamphlet "Fort Circle Parks: Civil War Defenses of Washington, Washington, D.C.," (1993) declares that "Fort Reno was designated a freedmen's village," the Federal government never officially designated or recognized Reno City as a freedmens' Village. [10]

Maintaining and Disposing of the Forts

Because the Army returned most of the forts in the Civil War Defenses of Washington to their owners, Government agencies were precluded from using them after the war. That is why it was difficult for the Government to reacquire many of the forts for public parks in the Twentieth Century. The owners cleared many of the fort features and built upon them, so nothing remains of a number of the original fortifications. The military used only a few of these fort sites during later wars— e.g., the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II.

Not all of the forts were immediately abandoned, making them inaccessible to squatters. It was not until March 1866 that the Army announced the closing of Forts Carroll, Stanton, Baker, Mahan, Lincoln, Totten, Slocum, Reno, and Sumner. Fort Strong, VA, on Arlington Heights, was not abandoned until March 20, 1869. The time-consuming removal of Government property at the forts and their temporary use for other purposes delayed their abandonment. [11]

In abandoning the forts, the Army had to consider the value of property at each site. Various branches of the Army — including engineer, quartermaster, ordnance, and signal — had property at the forts. Each branch was responsible for retrieving its property, but a great deal of the work devolved on the Engineer Department, which owned a large percentage of the property. The Army Engineers collected the property, returned what they needed to the depots, and sold what was of no use to them. The remainder was sold at auctions and general sales. The Engineers had to be mindful, however, of other Army branches' property at the forts and possible hazards, such as from ammunition, as they implemented their salvage operations. [12]

The Quartermaster Department also played a significant role in the dismantling and abandoning of the forts. Some of the property at the forts — encompassing a variety of items, from buildings, wagons, animals, and door hinges — were Quartermaster Department property, which it collected and returned to its depots. In some instances, the Quartermaster Department sold property at auctions or in general sales. In addition, the Army often ordered the Quartermaster Department to furnish transportation for the movement of troops and property. The Quartermaster Department also furnished horses, equipment, forage and other items to troops stationed at the forts. [13]

In August 1867, the commander of the Department of Washington wrote to the Chief of Ordnance, asking how much longer he needed Fort Greble as an ordnance depot. The Ordnance Department had received permission to store ordnance and ordnance stores at Fort Greble as well as at one or two of the Virginia forts. When it could do so, the Ordnance Department removed its property to the Washington Arsenal, now Fort McNair, or transferred it to a garrisoned fort. The hazards of moving ammunition and the difficulties of transporting heavy and siege artillery prevented the quick disposition of these items. [14]

The infant Army Signal Corps, which played a valuable part in the Civil War, had some continuing requirements in the post-war period. In 1866, the Army allowed the Chief Signal Officer of the Army, Brigadier General Albert J. Myer, to use Forts Greble and Carroll, and Battery Greble. Then, in 1868, Myer requested and received control over Fort Greble as a signal communications school for instruction, the first of its kind, in electric telegraphy and visual signaling, based on his manual. Field practice was an important aspect of the school. In January 1869, however, Myer moved the school from Fort Greble and soon established it at Fort Whipple, VA. [15]

Of course, the Army did not abandon all of the forts at once, so it had to make special arrangements for disposition of property at various times. Thus, when the Army finally decided to abandon Battery Rodgers, VA, it could not fully vacate the fortification until the Ordnance Department transferred the 15-inch gun mounted on centre pintle carriage to Fort Washington, MD, reportedly to save money. Likewise, various officers informed the Engineer Department that a great deal of engineer property was also at Battery Rodgers. In October 1866, an officer directed the Ordnance Sergeant at Fort Corcoran, VA, to compile a complete list of all property at that place by morning to assist in readily deciding on disposition. When Fort Ellsworth was dismantled, authorities transported all of the guns to the Washington Arsenal. Thus, the Army had to coordinate the transfer of military and civilian personnel, as well as the property of the various departments, before abandoning the fort. [16]

At times, the Army chose to withdraw troops from forts before all property was removed. It, therefore often assigned an Ordnance Sergeant to the fort to guard all Army property until removed and to look after the installation. The Army had resorted to this practice for sometime, especially at the seacoast fortifications, many of which had no garrsions before the war. Stationing an Ordnance Sergeant at a fort sometimes created its own peculiar problems. In one instance, to prevent starvation of dependents, the Army had to officially designate the wife of the Ordnance Sergeant at Fort Greble a laundress so that she could receive rations. In a few instances, the Army hired civilian caretakers to look after military installations. [17]

The Army used some of the forts as prisons. Even before the war was over, Division headquarters ordered the bombproofs cleared at the forts in the Defenses of Washington to house prisoners; as a result, Fort Strong, VA, received 150 prisoners. The Army and Navy Journal of March 10, 1866, reported that Fort Whipple, VA, would be a prison for all "colored" prisoners sentenced by the military to more than 60 days incarceration. A later article in the same periodical, mentioned that the prisoners from the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., had also been transferred to Fort Whipple. [18]

Relationships between the garrisons at the forts and the citizens in the neighborhood was strained at times. The officers and men, like any other armies throughout history, did things that irritated the nearby residents. In some instances, the problem escalated from irritation to confrontation. In August 1865, Mr. Thomas Murphy, who lived near Fort Totten, complained of"depredations" upon his crops by troops at the fort. Edward N. Lucas, on March 7, 1866, complained that "he was assaulted and badly beaten by colored soldiers from Fort Corcoran at the Aqueduct Bridge yesterday." Any such accusation required a thorough investigation and, possibly, a court martial or trial. The Army wished to maintain a good relationship with the local citizens, and therefore usually went to great extremes to accommodate them. [19]

Maintaining Maritime Defenses

Although the Army abandoned the capital's land defenses after the Civil War, it continued to defend the maritime approaches to the city in expectation of foreign incursions or invasions. The Board of Engineers for Fortifications spent some time studying the defensive requirements to prevent such waterborne attacks. In the immediate post-war period, it contemplated the use of Forts Washington and Foote, in Maryland, and Battery Rodgers, at Alexandria, VA, to defend the Potomac River approaches to the capital. Battery Rodgers, erected during the Civil War as part of the Defenses of Washington, was a water battery that some thought could continue to defend the Potomac River. In April 1870, William P. Craighill, Baltimore District Engineer chief, reported to the Chief of Engineers that the Board of Engineers for Fortifications was considering Battery Rodgers as a seacoast defense installation and that he would soon visit the site and conduct an examination; Craighill, therefore, requested that the Chief of Engineers' office send him some maps and plans of the battery. On May 4, Craighill reported that he had visited the battery and the Board was considering it for emplacement of large guns "should an interior line of defense thereabout become necessary." On June 9th, Craighill informed the Chief of Engineers that the Board had decided against "further occupation" of Battery Rodgers. The Board still needed fortifications on the Potomac River and decided to hold on to Forts Washington and Foote, with some changes.

Much later, the Army erected concrete gun batteries for guns mounted on disappearing carriages at Fort Washington and the new Fort Hunt, directly across the river. As the caliber and range of coast defense guns increased, preventing enemy ships from entering Chesapeake Bay, the defenses on the Potomac River became obsolete. Forts Washington and Hunt were later used for non-coast defense purposes through World War II. [20]

Of all the fortifications in the Civil War Defenses of Washington, Fort Foote was the only one that continued to serve as a fortification. The fort was deemed important because this "work forms the inner line of defense of the channel of approach by water to Alexandria and the cities of Washington and Georgetown." On October 15, 1865, Acting Assistant Inspector General, J.B. Campbell, wrote that he had visited Fort Foote "since the late heavy rains, and find that considerable damage, has resulted to the work from them. . . bomb-proofs leak, slides of earth, recommend that the debris be removed." The Board of Engineers for Fortifications had studied the coast defense needs of the capital and the Potomac River and decided to retain Fort Foote, suggesting the "modification of this work and erection of an additional battery of the heaviest guns" north of the fort on Rozier's Bluff. After securing a title to the land on which Fort Foote was located in 1872-73, Congress appropriated $25,000 for it in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1874. The Engineers accomplished some of the necessary work then but due to the lack of further appropriations, they never completed it. When possible, the Fort Foote garrison undertook some cleanup, maintenance and construction. [21]

Various companies from the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth U.S. Artillery Regiments, Maine Coast Guard, Fourteenth Pennsylvania Reserves Light Artillery, and 14th New York Artillery garrisoned the fort until the Army ordered Company I, Second U.S. Artillery Regiment, withdraw from Fort Foote on November 10, 1878. From that point on, an Ordnance Sergeant or caretaker looked after the fort. In 1885, one officer reported: "At the present time the condition of the work [Fort Foote] may be described as one of utter dilapidation." Another officer wrote, "In their present conditions these two works [Forts Foote and Washington] would give but a feeble protection to the capital of the nation and its naval establishment." The Army held title to Fort Foote until after World War I. Some authors reported that the Corps of Engineers used Fort Foote as a training ground for recruits at times between 1902 and 1918. Unfortunately, official records have not been found to document this use. [22]

When designing Fort Foote and Battery Rodgers, the Army Engineers also urged the building of obstructions that could be moored in the Potomac River, near Fort Foote, to help impede the movement of enemy ships. In 1863, Brevet Major General John G. Barnard, the principle designer of the Civil War Defenses of Washington, requested $300,000. to build these obstructions. On July 2, 1864, Congress appropriated $300,000. for "obstructions to be moored in the Potomac River to render the shore batteries more efficient for the protection of Washington against maritime attack." Barton S. Alexander designed the obstructions, which some termed the "Alexandrine Chain," described as "a series of floats holding up a 400-foot-long chain with 23 anchors." Unused during the war, the Army stored the obstructions in a shed at Fort Foote, "in charge of a watchman." In September 1868, the Chief of Engineers suggested to the Secretary of War that the Navy might test the obstructions. But when the Secretary of War brought up the subject in a cabinet meeting, the Secretary of the Navy declared the obstructions worthless and a waste, influencing all present to drop the proposal. Thus, no one ever tested or used the obstructions, and they slowly decayed in their shed at Fort Foote. [23]

Of the various fortifications in the Civil War Defenses of Washington, Fort Whipple, on Arlington Heights, VA, is the only one that the Army has occupied continuously to the present day. The suggested abandonment of Fort Whipple at various times in the immediate post-war period, never occurred. Fourth U.S. Artillery Regiment detachments were at Fort Whipple, from 1865 to 1867, and Company I, Twelfth U.S. Infantry Regiment, was there in 1868. By March 1866, Fort Whipple was a military prison, for those prisoners from the Old Capitol prison and "a place of confinement for all colored prisoners sentenced by military authority for a longer period than sixty days." In March of 1869, the Chief Signal Officer of the Army, Brigadier General Albert J. Myer, occupied the fort as the new location of the Signal School for Instruction of Army and Navy officers. By 1872, new construction, mostly for the Signal School, had removed most of the vestiges of the Civil War period fortifications. The school remained at Fort Whipple until 1886. Myer died in 1880 and the Army renamed the fort in his honor in February 1881. Fort Myer became a cavalry post in 1887. In the period before World War I, important airplane flight demonstrations occurred at Fort Whipple, 1908-09. [24]

Post War Changes in the Military

Numerous post-war organizational changes in the military affected the Washington, D.C. area and the Defenses of Washington. During the Civil War, the United States Armed Forces greatly expanded in a number of ways to prosecute the war. Then, in the post-war period, it had to cut back. The Army abandoned hundreds of forts, posts, camps, and stations throughout the country. They sent most of the volunteer units home and reduced the number of Regular Army troops.

These reductions required organizational changes, especially in the Washington, D.C. area. In April 1865, the Department of Washington changed the boundaries and names of the districts within it: the District of Alexandria comprised all troops south of the Potomac River, except the Northern Neck, south of the railroad from Fredericksburg and Aquia Creek Landing, with headquarters at Alexandria. The District of Washington embraced the area north of the Potomac River, except the City of Washington and the area between the Potomac and the Patuxent rivers, south of the Piscataway, with headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In June 1865, the War Department announced that the Department of Washington would encompass the District of Columbia, the counties of Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Calvert, Charles, and Saint Mary's, in Maryland, and Fairfax County, in Virginia, with its headquarters at Washington. The Department of Virginia, with headquarters at Richmond, embraced the entire State of Virginia, except Fairfax County and the line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Department of Washington then discontinued the districts of Alexandria and Washington in the Summer of 1865.

With all these changes, the Department of Washington, on August 5, 1865, placed Brigadier General J.A. Haskins, whose headquarters was in Washington, in command of all troops serving in the forts North and South of the Potomac River. Also, due to the "dismantling of the forts and reduction of troops in the Department of Washington," the "Defences of Washington" were discontinued on April 30, 1866. From then on, Forts Foote and Whipple, and Battery Rogers would report directly to the department. [25]

Memorializing the Defenses

While the Army was busy dismantling and abandoning the Civil War Defenses of Washington, one man was memorializing them. Brevet Major General John G. Barnard, who designed and oversaw much of their construction, remained with the Corps of Engineers after the war. Although he was occupied with other duties as a member of the Board of Engineers for Fortifications, located in New York, General Barnard found the time to complete his report. In the immediate post-war years, he compiled what became A Report on the Defenses of Washington, to the Chief of Engineers, U S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Corps of Engineers Professional Paper No. 20, published by the Government Printing Office in 1871. [26]

Barnard worked on this report for sometime before its completion and wrote the Office of the Chief of Engineers in Washington, D.C., numerous times, requesting documents and drawings. In January 1869, the Chief of Engineers authorized him to hire someone to help in the preparation of his report and at other times he asked permission to temporarily hire others, including a "draughtsman". He asked the Engineer Department in April 1870 what was intended for his report, stating that the text was finished but the drawings were not. On June 8, 1870, he informed the Engineer Office that a Mr. Farrell would soon deliver, by hand, the text of the report and 30 sheets of drawings. A few weeks later, on June 27, Barnard reported that he had sent a box that day with 153 sheets of drawings, as well as other maps, photographs, letters, telegrams, and record books. Justifying his endeavors, Barnard wrote, "The Works originally commenced after the common type of 'field works,' ultimately became, owing to the necessity of greater permanence and more perfect arrangements for the use and preservation of the armaments and accommodation and protection of the garrison, types of a kind of construction scarcely known before, and of which it seemed to me some record should be preserved." When the Government published the report in 1871, it generally was received well. The one man who had led a raid on the Defenses of Washington, Jubal Early, wrote that it was a "valuable contribution . . . made to the history of an important episode" [meaning Jubal Early's Raid on Washington]. [27]

The report was quite technical and provided good military engineering information for many, but at least one military scholar required more. Captain John Bigelow, 10th U.S. Cavalry, wrote the Chief of Engineers on March 5, 1896 asking for "the details of the construction of the timber revetment used in the defenses of Washington" as mentioned on page 64 in Barnard's report, specifically: 1. The fitting of the horizontal capping pieces and vertical pieces to each other; 2. The fitting of the anchor ties to the horizontal capping pieces and to the anchor logs; 3. The distance between anchor ties; and, 4. The length of an anchor log. Bigelow, as Professor of Military Science And Tactics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, needed the information for his class in military engineering. Along with an explanation, Bigelow received a "traced sketch showing the details of fitting the horizontal and vertical pieces together, and the anchor ties to the horizontal capping pieces and to the anchor logs." He replied that what he had received answered all of his questions except "the manner of attaching the tie piece to horizontal capping piece." Captain George W. Goethals, famous later for his work on the Panama Canal, replied that the "anchor tie should be attached by notching and spiking as shown in the inclosed sketch." Few others appeared to require such specific information. [28]

The Abandoned Forts - Describing What Remained

After the abandonment of the fortifications, few thought much of them except, possibly, when their remains were impediments to development. Little can be found in the newspapers, periodicals or City and Federal Government records about them in the period from about 1867 to the late 1890's. Some descriptions, however, are available in memoirs, guidebooks, and other writings relating to the Washington, D.C. area. In 1869, for example, John B. Ellis observed the following while riding in a train approaching Washington from the northeast, "On either side of the road, we see, crowning these eminences, the grim red lines of the earthworks built for the defence of the Capital; each with its lonely, towering flag-staff from which once flapped in defiant pride the starry banner of the Republic, standing out against the blue sky like so many ghostly sentinels keeping solemn watch over the scenes they once guarded so well." [29]

Another 1869 account reports worse conditions, "About two miles outside of Washington, and completely encircling the city, is a chain of fortifications, completely connected by a military-road, forming a boulevard, which, by the aid of trees and shrubbery, judiciously cared for, would be equal to the famed drives surrounding the city of Paris. All of the fortifications on the north and east sides have long since been dismantled and are now either grass-grown or leveled with the surrounding earth, and completely obliterated by the farmer's ploughshare." [30]

George Alfred Townsend, a journalist, was one of the most widely read newspaper men from the Civil War to the end of the century. He worked for a variety of newspapers around the country, but lived, most of the time, in the Washington, D.C. area and wrote a great deal about what went on there. In 1873, he published a book, Washington, Outside and Inside. A Picture and A Narrative of the Origin, Growth, Excellences, Abuses, Beauties, and Personages of Our Governing City, that includes a number of interesting and poetic comments about the forts as they were in that year.

"I climbed the high hills one day on the other side, and pushing up by-paths through bramble and laurel, gained the ramparts of old Fort Stanton. How old already seem those fortresses, drawing their amphitheatre around the Capital City! Here the scarf had fallen off in places; the abatis had been wrenched out for firewood; even the solid log platforms, where late the great guns stood on tiptoe, had yielded to the farmer's lever, and made, perhaps, joists for his barn, and piles for his bridge. The solid stone portals opening into bomb-proof and magazine, still remained strong and mortised, but down in the battery and dark subterranean quarters the smell was rank, the floor was full of mushrooms; a dog had littered in the innermost powder magazine, and showed her fangs as I held a lighted match before me advancing. Still the old names and numbers were painted upon the huge doorways beneath the inner parapet: 'Officers quarters, 21,' 'Mess, 12,' 'Cartridge Box, 7.'" [31]

Following are a few other descriptions written at the time.

  • "What a picturesque and stirring crime is war! Suggestively useless are the monuments it leaves, but touching the imagination far more than the lordliest architecture of peace. Now do we feel among these shriveled moats and salients that the Capital city of our country has some surroundings to make it an inspiration. These wrecks of its defences will be some day the picnic haunts of curious patriotism, when Washington has grown to be a great city. Greater than its founders ever wished!" [32]

  • "To comprehend this city further, climb to the dome of the Capitol. It is enveloped by a range of fort-capped hills, half in Maryland, half in Virginia." [33]

  • "All the forts around or overlooking the city are dismantled, the guns taken out of them, the land resigned to its owners. . . . Still the huge parapets of the forts stand upright, and the paths left by the soldiers creep under the invisible gun muzzles. Old boots, blankets, and canteens rot and rust around the glacis; the woods, cut down to give the guns sight, are overgrown with shrubs and bushes. Nature is unrestingly making war upon War. The strolls out to these old forts are seedily picturesque. . . . Some old clothes, a good deal of dirt, and forgotten graves, make now the local features of war." [34]

  • "Relics of the war are observed [from the steamboat Arrow], for many a mile, in broken wharves, erected at great expense, and now broken up for fuel; in the forests cut off to the stumps to give artillery space for play, and in pounds for horses; fields trampled bare by camps and always the high, naked hills upholding their airy ramparts two hundred feet above the water." [35]

  • "We leave behind the grassy battery of Alexandria, where cows eat the moss from broken gun-carriages, the lighthouse spire, and the Cameron Cove, and, crossing to Maryland again, stop at Fort Foote, the only earthwork of the war still kept in order and garrisoned. It is a strong position, flanked by a bay and swamp, and steep as the heights of Abraham at Quebec. Four miles below, on the same side, is Fort Washington, a stone work, blown up in 1814, but now restored and bristling with guns, and as picturesque a spot as one can see." [36]

In 1873, Mary Clemmer Ames, who lived in the city, observed that, "Flowers blossom on the ramparts of the old forts, so alert with warlike life ten years ago. The army roads, so deeply grooved then, are grass-grown now. . . . Peace, prosperity and luxury have taken the place of war, of knightly days and of heroic men." [37] Randolph Keim, who published a number of editions of a guidebook on Washington, DC, reported in the 1874 edition that, "The ruins of the now dismantled and deserted Defenses of Washington may yet be seen on almost every eminence in the vicinity of the city." [38]

In 1887, a "National Drill Encampment" occurred in Washington, D.C. A Souvenir of the Federal Capital and of the National Drill and Encampment, published for the event, included the following description, "These fortifications and batteries, with their green sod walls and yawning embrasures, from which the black muzzles of huge guns peered out menacingly upon every exposed height, were the most prominent and suggestive features of the landscape as one approached Washington from any direction during the latter years of the war. Today, of all these defenses, only a few mounds of earth remain." [39]

One Civil War cavalryman returned to Washington many years after the war, and, after visiting many of the old forts in Northern Virginia, left this account:

In 1898 the writer was entertained for several days by Comrade Besley and his pleasant family, at Ashgrove, near Falls Church. The two rode around the wide semicircle of the outer fortifications, from Fort Buffalo on the north to Fort Lyon on the south. Some of the works had remained unchanged except by rain and frost. Some were covered with bushes and young trees. Camp Kearney was a goat pasture. The old headquarters house was going to ruin. The walls were standing, but the windows were gone and the doors were broken down. The basement where the officers' mess had feasted, was now the stable of the four-footed creatures of the pasture field. [40]

Perhaps, though, the most useful description of the forts formerly in the Defenses of Washington, is "The Present Condition of the Defenses of Washington, Built during the Civil War, 1861 - 1865," in Frank L. Averill's Guide to the National Capital and Maps of Vicinity including the Fortifications, published in 1892, because it provides detailed specific information on each of the forts. This account, therefore, is reproduced in its entirety as a status report on the fortifications at that particular time as Appendix A.

Early Efforts to Preserve the Forts

By the 1890s, some individuals and organizations began to advocate the preservation of, at least, some of the forts in the Defenses of Washington. Fort Stevens, which bore the brunt of Jubal Early's 1864 attack, suffered the same neglect as the other forts in the Civil War Defenses of Washington. One man, William Van Zandt Cox, whose father lost his life in the war, bought a great deal of the fort and in May 1899 offered to donate the fort, provided he could "erect half a dozen neat, two-story, six-room frame houses on the part that does not in any way encroach upon the fortifications..." In 1897, Cox, along with General Horatio G. Wright, commander of the Sixth Corps at the time of Jubal Early's Raid on Washington, in 1864, and another Union General, David S. Stanley, examined the deteriorated condition of Fort Stevens. Various individuals founded the Fort Stevens Lincoln Military Park Association to seek a park encompassing the former battlefield around Fort Stevens. The Associated Survivors of the Sixth Army Corps of Washington, D.C. also wrote in favor of a Fort Stevens battlefield park. The Brightwood Avenue Citizen's Association of the District of Columbia proposed that in addition to the Fort Stevens site, the United States should "purchase enough land to establish a battle-field park in connection with Forts DeRussy and Reno." [41]

Various patriotic organizations, both Union and Confederate, adopted resolutions favoring the establishment of an "Early's Raid on Washington" battlefield park. The Union Veterans Union, representing 100,000 veterans, voted to petition Congress to appropriate enough money "to purchase Fort Stevens and mark the only battlefield in the District of Columbia." Patriotic organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic, the Loyal Legion of the United States, and the Women's Relief Corps, took part in ceremonies at Fort Stevens on Memorial Day, Flag Day, and on July 11, the day commemorating the battle. The Sixth Corps held a reunion in Washington in 1915 and had memorial and other activities at the fort. On November 7, 1911, about 4,500 attended a ceremony at Fort Stevens unveiling a rough stone marking the site where President Abraham Lincoln stood when viewing enemy troops during his visit to the fort during the battle. [42]

Congress considered numerous bills to establish a Fort Stevens—Lincoln National Military Park in the period between the turn of the century and the beginning of World War I, but to no avail. Perhaps the Secretary of War's 1902 comments had a great deal to do with the early fate of a Fort Stevens park as he wrote, "I think that if Congress considers it prudent to devote any more money for establishing battlefield parks, the places recommended in my Annual Report for 1899, which would include the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Salem Church, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spottsylvania Court House should be selected rather than Fort Stevens." [43]

Thus, a March 27, 1911 Evening Star article reported that "The ramparts of Fort Stevens have been leveled, with the exception of a section at the west end of the works. Washington's suburbs have grown around the fort and invade it. A small street crosses the parade ground of the fort and a row of small frame houses has been built there. Part of the north face of the fortification which fronted the southern forces remains, though the breastworks have been considerably worn down and the fronting ditch half filled by the wear of the seasons." A March 22, 1911 Evening Star headline stated, "Old Fort Stevens Sold, Purchased by Syndicate of Virginia and Maryland Capitalists," including "the old rifle pits and a large part of the Fort Stevens fortifications." Many thought that Fort Stevens could not be saved. [44]

In 1906, 34 residents and businesses of Northeast Washington championed a bill to make old Fort Thayer, near Langdon, a public park to preserve the fort. The Washington Park Commission also recommended it for a park, stipulating that it could be purchased for 10 cents per square foot and that it must be done immediately or it would be developed. The Commission noted that the northeast part of Washington had no park of any description and, therefore, submitted photographs of the fort demonstrating its good preservation status. The owners, Henry Vieth and Glenn E. Husted, wrote a letter stating that they were glad to sell the land with the fort on it to the City at a reasonable price if done soon, but if not they would need to grade it and sell it for building lots. Congress did not act, however, so the Commission resubmitted a bill in 1908, with a slight increase in price of 12 cents per square foot. The Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds returned an adverse report. A short time later, someone reported that Fort Thayer was completely gone. [45]

In January 1904, the Senate considered a bill to establish a national military park at Fort Reno. Referred to the Committee on Military Affairs, it provided that the fortifications there would be restored to their "original condition so far as practicable," although the construction of a reservoir and water tower on the site had removed the last vestiges of the fortifications, and that the commissioners would investigate and report to the Secretary of War the "condition of the other fortifications which surrounded Washington during the civil war, with their suggestions as to what action is necessary for their preservation." The Secretary of War effectively killed the bill by reiterating that the required expenses for the already authorized battlefields was too great already and that, "The National Government can not own and take care of all the spots of historic interest in the United States." Similar bills were introduced in the House of Representatives about the same time but they also failed. [46]

In 1912, the preservationists for the Civil War Defenses of Washington finally won a victory. In January 1912, the East Washington Heights Citizens' Association submitted a resolution to Congress "for purchase of Forts Davis and Dupont for park purposes." On June 24, a law went into effect that, among other things, provided for the condemnation of land to "preserve the sites of Fort Davis and Fort Dupont for park purposes, and to provide a connecting highway between" them. It also appropriated money to pay for the land. "These parks were to become a part of the District of Columbia public park system and would be under the control of the Chief of Engineers of the U.S. Army. The District Commissioners acquired 16.55 acres of what would become the Fort Dupont Park and transferred it to the Park Office in 1916. No further actions pertaining to this law occurred before or during World War I but, both forts did become parks later. [47]

In spite of some early preservation defeats, there seemed to be growing public interest in saving some of the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Also, a related project offered assistance in preserving some of the fortifications. In 1872, Francis P. Blair, who testified on "Affairs in the District of Columbia" before the House of Representatives Committee for the District of Columbia, on April 10, replied to the question, "You believe in the policy of getting uniform grades?":

"I do; and carrying them through the city and into the District beyond Boundary Street. . . . . The next grade brings us to the circuit of forts that protected the city during the late war. The roads made to unite theses defenses by the soldiers formed an outer circle to Boundary Street, two miles beyond. They are located on eminences that command the country on both sides of the circuit, while the city is invisible and sheltered by the first elevation that surrounds it. . .

But the improvement of greatest value, as most comprehensive, is that which proposes to finish the military road which unites the forts around the city. It is to become a grand avenue from the Soldiers' Home westward to the first bridge on the road between Fort Stevens and Fort De Russey, and thence carried along the stream of Rock Creek and the road on Broad Branch they blend into one main avenue, sloping with easy grade the 500 feet at the District line, along the current of Rock Creek to its junction with the Potomac, making the most romantic, picturesque drive to be found anywhere." [48]

Before the end of the century, City Engineer Commissioner William H. Powell championed the establishment of "a new drive-way through the suburbs of Washington to be called 'Fort Drive,' and include in its winding ways some of the most important of the fortifications which served as the Defenses of Washington during the rebellion . . ." An Act of March 2, 1893 provided that the City Commissioners establish a permanent highway plan and in the planning and discussion sessions, 1893-98, "serious consideration was given . . . to the construction of a Fort to Fort Drive." No surprise then, that the Fort Drive appeared on the 1898 District of Columbia highway map. [49]

1900 was the hundredth anniversary of the capital of the United States in Washington, D.C. The Senate, therefore, chose to authorize the Committee on the District of Columbia to prepare a proper celebration and "map out a comprehensive plan for the future development of Washington extending the L'Enfant Plan to cover the entire District of Columbia." The District Committee created a "Park Commission" that became known as the McMillan Commission. Composed of Daniel H. Burnham, Charles F. McKim, Augustus Saint Gaudens and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the Commission submitted a park plan. [50]

The McMillan Commission's 1901 report, The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia, discussed and recommended the Fort Drive; "While for the reasons already discussed no systematic series of minor reservations has been selected for the outlying districts, it is necessary to mention the chain of forts which occupied the higher summits in the northern part of the central section, extending from Fort Stevens, near Rock Creek Park, to Fort Thayer, near the Reform School." Further, to connect the "the series advantage is taken of the street laid out for the purpose in the highway plans, but it should be increased to a more liberal width than now provided, which is only 90 feet between houses, the same as H Street in the city." East of the Anacostia, "a similar chain of hilltop forts marks the point of most commanding view" and they "can be linked together readily by means of the permanent system of highways." But, nothing of any consequence pertaining to the "Fort Drive" occurred until after World War I. [51]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 29-Oct-2004