Monday, December 12, 2011

The Defenses of Washington

In which we begin taking a closer look at how the war changed the city

This is the first in an occasional series on the Defenses of Washington. Future posts in the series will focus on the neighborhood of the fort or forts covered and how they have changed since their founding. This one just covers the state of the defense of Washington in December 1861. Think of it like a pilot for a spin-off series that takes place in the old series, like that time Edith Bunker had to say goodbye to Louise. That's right, this post is spawning The Jeffersons. Alright, back to moving on up.

In early December George McClellan's wife and newborn daughter had arrived in Washington, ending the steady supply of incriminating letters from Little Mac for the winter. It almost gives the impression that he had given up on internal feuding. But on December 4, something he read in the New York Times prompted a letter to the Secretary of War that still suggests his wife's arrival had done nothing to ease his squabbling nature.

As we have seen, cavalry patrols were almost constant in December, despite the common myth that all was quiet. But both armies were also hard at work trying to get their command structure, defenses, and logistics in order -- a daunting task considering that prior to July 1861, the largest American military force ever assembled had been Winfield Scott's 30,000 man army that marched on Mexico City. Both armies were larger than that by themselves, McClellan's over twice as large.

An American experiencing the war real-time, would have followed each of these story lines in the newspaper as often as possible, hoping that attention would be rewarded when one of those threads led to something of significance. Though the New York Times of 1861 was only a minor newspaper, the Grey Lady's importance today allows the 2011 reader to browse its full archives of the war. So we can read the paper on any given day just as a reader 150 years ago would have.

In this case, on December 4, a reader of the Times interested in the war around Washington would have found these articles: a small item that the loyalist Virginians meeting in Wheeling to plan the separation of their counties from their mother state had changed their preferred name from "Kanawha" to "Western Virginia"; an account of the second day of Congress in the new session and the reception Lincoln's State of the Union message received; a report by the Secretary of the Navy, including information on the Potomac Flotilla; a report on movements of New York regiments, including a (as it turned out erroneous) report on the departure of the Irish Brigade from Washington; an analysis piece on the importance of new types of pontoon bridges to the army; and a piece trying to read in to the departure of Charles P. Stone from his division across from Leesburg for several days (the paper failed to guess that McClellan was assigning him the responsibility of reopening the Canal as far as Harper's Ferry).

But it was none of these that upset McClellan. In a furiously written letter of December 9 to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, he explained:
I have the honor to enclose herewith a copy of the N.Y. Times of Dec. 4, 1861, containing as you will see a map of our works on the other side of the Potomac, & a statement of the composition of the Divisions in that same locality.

Sure enough, the Times had run a surprisingly accurate assessment of the Army of the Potomac's disposition on the front page, with an illustration (which your blogger regrets being unable to find). They identified the size and location of all eight of McClellan's divisions on the Virginia side of the Potomac, including the brand-new division formed only a few days earlier when Brig. General Edwin Sumner arrived in Washington from the West Coast.

McClellan fumed:
This is clearly giving aid, comfort & information to the enemy, & is evidently a case of treasonable action as clear [as] any that can be found. You will remember that this same paper did its best to aid the rebels by publishing full details as to Genl [Thomas] Sherman's expedition before it sailed. I have therefore to represent that the interests of our arms require the suppression of this treasonable sheet, & urgently recommend that the necessary steps to suppress the paper may be taken at once.
The Times would be spared McClellan's fury, when its editor, Henry Raymond, an important New York Republican, wrote Cameron on December 13 explaining that he had taken the map and the divisional listings from information released by McClellan's headquarters.


By sheer coincidence, December 10 was the day that Brig. General Joseph Totten submitted a report on the defenses of Washington to Congress, written for him by his protege, John G. Barnard. The chain of 65 forts was estimated to have had the final cost of $1.4 million ($19.7 million today), which didn't include labor (since soldiers were forced to construct them without additional pay). Then, as now, Congress wasn't going to appropriate funds for such a high-profile expense without putting in some sort of requirement to report back.

Totten was the head of the Engineer Department for the U.S. Army, and had been for over two decades. He had gotten his start as an engineer in the War of 1812, when he had become fast friends with Winfield Scott (they were captured together on Queenstown Heights--Scott surrendered by using Totten's scarf or handkerchief, depending on the story, since all other white fabric was covered in blood or mud). In 1838 Totten became Chief Engineer for the U.S. Army and supervised projects around the nation (especially lighthouses), and personally handled engineering for Scott's Mexico City campaign.

Totten's cousin was Brig. Gen. Joseph Mansfield, at the time commanding the armies defending the capital city. Even before Virginia formally seceded (but after its secession convention voted to do so), Mansfield moved across the Long Bridge [14th Street Bridge] into Alexandria and seized the city, and shortly thereafter Arlington Heights, stretching back to the Aqueduct Bridge [Key Bridge]. Neither of the small bridgeheads could be held with the small number of troops he had without some sort of defenses, so Totten sent Mansfield his star protege, Barnard, to begin construction of what would become a string of 65 forts and make Washington the most fortified capital in the world, while also leaving an indelible mark on the city (the Fort Totten Metro stop is just one tiny example).

View Defenses of Washington (larger).  Light blue were completed pre-Bull Run, dark blue by the time of Barnard's report on Dec. 9. Purple were completed later in the winter of 1861-1862.

The Bridgeheads

Not surprisingly, first to be constructed were works that defended the approaches to the two bridges, as well as the Chain Bridge, ensuring that the only way into Washington from Virginia was by fording or ferrying the Potomac (at least until the bridges at Harper's Ferry, beyond a single-day's march).

At Long Bridge, the construction started on Fort Runyon before even Arlington Heights was seized, which meant that the fort was exposed to fire from cannon posted at the site of the present-day Navy Annex. Fort Albany was quickly added, when the ground was taken, and a smaller outpost, ambitiously called "Fort" Jackson, but too small to hold more than a company of men, set up closer to the bridge to control traffic in and out of the city.

The Aqueduct Bridge of the C&O Canal was drained to allow foot and wagon traffic, and Fort Corcoran was constructed on the heights of the Ross farm [Rosslyn], so it could block any would-be bridge crossers. The problem with its location (as anyone who has walked in Rosslyn knows) is that there are steep hills on every side. To a civil war artillery officer, this meant that the cannon could not depress their elevation enough to hit an attacker coming up the hill at the fort itself (because big cannon cannot aim down). So Barnard built two smaller forts, called Haggerty and Bennett, to protect Corcoran.

Chain Bridge was too far from Arlington Heights for Mansfield to devote soldiers, since he needed every available reinforcement just to hold his current position, so instead Barnard built a sliding barricade for the end of the bridge, and a battery in the heights off present-day Foxhall Road above Georgetown to fire on anyone trying to cross.
Previous to the movement of the army, defensive measures had been taken at the Chain Bridge, consisting of a barricade, bullet proof and so arranged as to be thrown down at will across the bridge, immediately over the first pier from the Virginia side, with a movable staircase to the flats below, by which the defenders could retreat, leaving the bridge open to the fire of a battery of two field guns immediately at its Maryland end, and a battery on the bluff above (Battery Martin Scott of one 6-inch sea-coast howitzer and two 32-pounders).

Finally, Barnard built Fort Ellsworth on Shooter's Hill in Alexandria [today, the George Washington Masonic Temple] to preside over Alexandria, its location being equally helpful for defending it or bombarding it, depending on the cooperation of the locals.

The Outer Line

Barnard had already completed those works by the time Congress got around to the measure that authorized them and moved on to other things. As he explained in the report forwarded by Totten:

At the time when the resolution was referred to me, I was attached to the headquarters of Brigadier General McDowell as chief engineer, and a few days thereafter, I was in the field engaged in the campaign of Bull Run. Previous to this movement, the army of Washington, yet weak in numbers and imperfectly organized under General Mansfield, had crossed the Potomac and occupied the south bank from opposite Georgetown to Alexandria.
What happened at Bull Run had repercussions for the strategy of defending Washington.
Upon an inferior and demoralized force, in presence of a victorious and superior enemy [not true, but Barnard shared McClellan's paranoia], was imposed the duty of holding this line and defending the city of Washington against attacks from columns of the enemy, who might cross the Potomac, as was then deemed probable, above or below. Undecided before as to the necessity or at least the policy of surrounding Washington by a chain of fortifications, the situation left no longer room to doubt. With our army too demoralized and too weak in numbers to act effectually in the open field against the invading enemy, nothing but the protection of defensive works could give any degree of security. Indeed it is probable that we owe our exemption from the real disaster which might have flowed from the defeat of Bull Run--the loss to the enemy of the real fruits of his victory--to the works previously built, already mentioned, and an exaggerated idea on his part of their efficiency as a defensive line.
So Barnard decided to start with what he assessed as the army's pitifully small strength, and build a line of fortifications along the ridge that ran from the Aqueduct Bridge back to Alexandria. To save time, he constructed "lunettes", or half-moon shaped forts that have walls on only one side and who are expected to avoid being flanked by covering each other. Any attacker between the fort would encounter a fierce cross-fire, such that if they managed to make it through they would be too disorganized and torn up to actually carry out an attack.

There were four of these, Forts Woodbury, Cass, Tillinghast, and Craig running along the ridge that today holds the limited-access part of Washington Boulevard and a small portion of Arlington Boulevard. For good measure, he added a fifth lunette along the Potomac, Fort DeKalb, to help further cover the defensively troublesome Fort Corcoran.

Another ridges still threatened Fort Runyon and thus Long Bridge, so he placed Fort Richardson on the site of today's Army-Navy Country Club to take away that threat. And the valley of Four Mile Run offered a blind spot for charging the meager Fort Jackson at the end of the bridge, until Barnard placed Fort Scott in defense.
The wooded ridge which lies north of, and parallel to, the lower course of Four Mile Run offered a position from which the city, the Long Bridge, and the plateau in advance of it, could be overlooked and cannonaded. While our external line was so incomplete, it was important to exclude the enemy from its possession. Access to it was made difficult by felling the forest, which covered it about 200 acres, and the large lunette Fort Scott was commenced as soon as the site could be fixed, about the middle of August.


The Confederate Army of the Potomac, after Bull Run, had moved to the hills around the area known now as Seven Corners, adding extra pressure to complete the lunettes. But the Confederates failed to place pressure on Alexandria, where they might have made progress, and provided Barnard's engineers with a chance to provide a proper defense to the city.
The defense of Alexandria, and its connection with that of Washington, was a subject of anxious study. The exigency demanding immediate measures, the first idea was naturally to make use of Fort Ellsworth as one point of our line and to connect it with Fort Scott by an intermediate work on Mount Ida. An extended study of the topography for several miles in advance showed that such a line would be almost indefensible. Not only would the works themselves be commanded by surrounding heights, but the troops which should support them would be restricted to a narrow space in which they would be overlooked and harassed by the enemy's distant fire. The occupation of the heights a mile in advance of Fort Ellsworth, upon which the Episcopal Seminary is situated seemed absolutely necessary. The topography proved admirably adapted to the formation of such a line and Forts Worth and Ward were commenced about the 1st of September, and the line continued simultaneously by Forts Blenker and Richardson, to connect with Forts Albany and Craig.
Whether out of modesty or the Herculean task of justifying every defensive position, Barnard forgot to include Fort Barnard, overlooking present-day Shirlington, which linked the Alexandria forts into the line of lunettes on Arlington Heights.

The most important defenses completed, Barnard was able to more leisurely move work crews onto the high ground opposite Alexandria above Hunting Creek to build Fort Lyon, close to the site of today's Huntington Metro. Thus he ended the Confederate opportunity to re-take Alexandria and make the most direct route to the Capitol building (over Long Bridge) a possibility for the Southern forces.

The Maryland Side

While the lunettes were being completed, but before the defenses of Alexandria were begun, the paranoia about a Confederate crossing at Leesburg began to spread. Fortunately, the new Military District of the Potomac under George McClellan had had an influx of new labor in the form of fresh three-years troops. So Totten himself got to work picking the sites for forts in the farmland north of Washington City, starting with Forts Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Saratoga. He was able to have Barnard, now McClellan's chief engineer, continue work on the Alexandria defenses.

Before the gaps between the forts guarding the north could be filled in (eventually by Forts Slocum, Slemmer, Totten, DeRussy, Slemmer, Bunker Hill, Thayer, and Lincoln), the possibility of an attack force crossing the Lower Potomac had to be addressed (the one plan the Confederate leadership actually had considered).
Our first ideas as to defensive works beyond the Anacostia contemplated only the fortification of the debouches from the bridges (Navy Yard Bridge and Benning's Bridge and the occupation of the heights overlooking the Navy Yard Bridge). With that object Fort Stanton was commenced early in September. A further examination of the remarkable ridge between the Anacostia and Oxen Hill showed clearly that to protect the navy yard and arsenal from bombardment it was necessary to occupy an extent of 6 miles from Berry's place (Fort Greble) to the intersection of the road from Benning's Bridge (Fort Meigs).
Forts Carroll and Mahan soon joined them, followed by Forts DuPoint, Davis, Baker, Good Hope, Snyder, and Battery Ricketts, but none of these forts were completed by the time of Barnard's report.

Chain Bridge

When it became clear the Confederates were not coming, McClellan finally moved forward the Vermont Brigade of W.F. "Baldy" Smith to better defend Chain Bridge, followed soon by other brigades that became Smith's Division.
The occupation of the Virginia shore at the Chain Bridge was essential to the operations of our army in Virginia. It was only delayed until our force was sufficient to authorize it. General Smith's division crossed the bridge (September), and Forts Ethan Allen and Marcy were immediately commenced and speedily finished

The Outposts

With the beginning of construction on the Chain Bridge works and the rest of the works south of the Anacostia River (most often called the Eastern Branch in 1861, though Barnard uses Anacostia) the conception of the defenses of Washington was realized. But in fall what was now McClellan's Army of the Potomac received a stroke of luck (or so they thought) when the Confederate army withdrew to Centreville, abandoning the high Virginia hills that had limited movement of the Union men.

McClellan quickly occupied  them and the decision was made to add a cluster of fortifications to control the cross-roads that had roads leading to Chain Bridge, Aqueduct Bridge, Long Bridge, and Alexandria.

A few weeks later (September 28) the positions of Upton's and Munson's Hills, and Taylor's Tavern, were occupied and Fort Ramsay commenced on Upton's Hill. The enemy's works on Munson's and the adjacent hill were strengthened and a lunette built near Taylor's Tavern.
It was a monumental achievement, but whether or not it would save the capital remained to be seen.

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