Chain Bridge today, looking toward the Virginia side (courtesy Craig Swain, Historical Marker Database)
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Chain Bridge was one of the key Potomac River crossings into Washington from Virginia. (The other two were Aqueduct Bridge, near the current Key Bridge, and Long Bridge, around the site of the 14th Street Bridge today.) The bridge was originally constructed in 1797 by Georgetown merchants who wanted to compete with the port of Alexandria. The bridge enabled them to transport goods directly from Virginia into Georgetown. In 1808, a chain suspension bridge was built at the site -- this bridge became known as the "Chain Bridge," but the name stuck and carried over to subsequent bridges. The original Chain Bridge collapsed and in 1852 was replaced by the crossbeam structure that existed at the time of the Civil War.
Chain Bridge during the Civil War, C&O Canal visible below (Library of Congress)
Chain Bridge and the Defenses of Washington
Virginia officially seceded from the Union on May 23, 1861. Now, just across the Potomac, lie enemy territory of the Confederate States of America. Federal troops did not waste much time in reacting to the threat. On May 24, 1861, they marched into Northern Virginia and seized key areas, including Alexandria. Chain Bridge played a role in this occupation. According to the May 25, 1861 edition of the New York Herald:
The troops quartered at Georgetown, the Sixty-ninth, Fifth, Eighth and Twenty-eighth New York regiments, proceeded across what is known as the chain bridge, above the mouth of the Potomac Aqueduct, under the command of General [Irvin] McDowell. They took possession of the heights in that direction.
Major General George B. McClellan (National Archives)
During the early days of the war, Washington lacked a major system of defensive fortifications. The disastrous Federal defeat at First Bull Run in July 1861 would provide the necessary impetus to improve the protection of the Federal capital. Following Bull Run, Major General George B. McClellan assumed command of the disorganized Union troops around Washington, soon to be known as the Army of the Potomac. One of his first tasks was to survey the state of Washington's defenses, including those at Chain Bridge:
In no quarter were the dispositions for defense such as to offer a vigorous resistance to a respectable body of the enemy, either in the position and numbers of the troops or the number and character of the defensive works. Earthworks . . . looked upon the approaches to the Georgetown Aqueduct and Ferry, the Long Bridge, and Alexandria, by the Little River turnpike, and some simple defensive arrangements were made at the Chain Bridge. With the latter exception not a single defensive work had been commenced on the Maryland side. There was nothing to prevent the enemy shelling the city from heights within easy range, which could be occupied by a hostile column almost without resistance.
George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, New York: Sheldon & Company (1864) (personal collection)McClellan immediately set to work building the defenses around Washington. Needless to say, the Union commander recognized the strategic importance of the approaches to Washington by way of Chain Bridge. On the night of September 24, 1861, the soldiers of Brigadier General W.F. "Baldy" Smith's division crossed Chain Bridge and began construction in Virginia of what would become Fort Marcy and Fort Ethan Allen. When completed, these imposing forts dominated the region around Chain Bridge and the Leesburg & Georgetown Turnpike. Fort Marcy had a perimeter of 338 feet, with emplacements for 18 guns, while Fort Ethan Allen had a perimeter of 736 yards with emplacements for 36 guns.
Gun emplacement at Fort Marcy (Library of Congress)
Battery Martin Scott, Harper's Weekly, August 24, 1861 (Chain Bridge is visible in the background)
Lower battery at Chain Bridge, Harper's Weekly, August 24, 1861
A strong garrison was posted at the bridge throughout the remainder of the war. Two large iron gates were placed at the center of the bridge, with slits for skirmishers and pickets to fire through. The troops in and around Chain Bridge never saw any real action aside from shots allegedly fired by Confederate pickets.
Knowing the Civil War history of Chain Bridge, I am reminded that at one point in time, it wasn't so easy to cross the Potomac and enter Washington from Virginia. Lucky for me things have changed, or I would be late to work on a daily basis!
Note on Sources:
For more detailed information on the forts and batteries around Chain Bridge, an excellent source is Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II.
Another view of Chain Bridge, complete with contingent of Union soldiers (Library of Congress)
Addendum, April 13, 2011
Further research has indicated that the article cited above from the New York Herald likely mistook the Aqueduct Bridge for the Chain Bridge. According to Ethan Rafuse's A Single Grand Victory, nearly all the New York regiments cited by the Herald crossed into Virginia via the Aqueduct Bridge. The other Federal routes of advance on May 24, 1861 consisted of a thrust over the Long Bridge and a river invasion at Alexandria.
The photograph of Ft. Marcy from the Library of Congress was identified as such by the National Park Service. (See here). However, the Library of Congress online Civil War collection identifies the subject as Ft. Lincoln, another of the defenses of Washington. (See here.) Mr. Lincoln's Forts also indicates that this photograph was taken at Ft. Lincoln.
Addendum, September 2, 2011
Further research has revealed that Smith's men crossed the Potomac on September 3-4, 1861. The September 24 date noted above is likely erroneous, although often cited in many secondary sources. See my post from September 2, 2011, which describes in more detail Smith's movement into Virginia.