Monday, February 28, 2011

Civil War Forts of Arlington Tour, Part I: Fort Ethan Allen

This past Saturday my friend and I joined a small group led by David Farner, Park Manager of Fort C.F. Smith Park, for an excellent tour of some of the Civil War forts of Arlington.  (We also visited Ft. Marcy, which is technically in Fairfax County, right across the county line from Arlington.)  Readers may remember that I have blogged a few times now about the Civil War defenses of Washington, so I won't go over all of the background.  By the end of the Civil War, around 68 forts, 90 batteries, and 20 miles of rifle trenches had been constructed to defend the nation's capital. The line came under a major Confederate attack just once, during the Battle of Ft. Stevens in July 1864.  Following the war, many of the forts, in Arlington and elsewhere, were dismantled and eventually swallowed up by development.  Arlington County has made an effort to preserve at least a few of these forts.

Ft. Ethan Allen

Our first stop was Ft. Ethan Allen Park (3829 N. Stafford St., Arlington, VA 22207).  In September 1861, Federal troops under Brigadier General William "Baldy" Smith began construction of Ft. Ethan Allen on land belonging to Gilbert Vanderwerken, a New York transplant who owned and operated Washington's omnibus line.  This fort, along with Ft. Marcy, protected the approaches to Washington across Chain Bridge.  The fort's perimeter was 736 yards, with 36 gun emplacements.  Many famous units were involved with the construction of Ft. Ethan Allen, including the 19th Indiana that was eventually assigned to what became known as the "Iron Brigade"; the "Cameron Highlanders" of the 79th New York, which had seen action at Bull Run and Lewinsville; and the 2nd and 3rd Vermont that wintered at Camp Griffin as part of the Vermont Brigade.  Throughout the remainder of the war, heavy artillery units from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and other northeastern states garrisoned the fort.

The Vermont soldiers who helped to build the fort named it after Ethan Allen (1738-89), Revolutionary War hero from that state. Here, Allen is seen demanding the surrender of Ft. Ticonderoga in 1775 (courtesy of Wikipedia).

Historical marker at the entrance to the park.  The southern exterior wall of the fort is visible in the background, behind the treeline.

View along the southern wall of the fort (right), with the ditch clearly visible in the middle of the photograph.  The ditch helped to impede access to the fort's walls.

Looking towards the remnant of a gun platform along the southern wall of the fort.  The faint outline of the embrasure, through which the gun was fired, is visible in the center of the photograph. An engineering drawing indicates that a 20-pounder Parrott was placed at this spot.
The mound of earth around tree #9 is the remains of a magazine, where ammunition and powder were stored.  This magazine was located just behind the fort's southern wall.

Remains of another magazine, close to the eastern side of the fort.

Remains of the guardhouse, close to the entrance at the northern end of the fort, are indicated by a mound of dirt in the center of the photograph.
The mound of dirt hidden among the trees is part of the magazine at northern end of the fort, to the left of the guardhouse.

A bombproof in the interior of the fort.  Only one of two bombproofs remains.  A bombproof was a structure where soldiers at the fort could take shelter during an attack.

As seen from the photographs, we had a relatively good view of the historic features because the county had recently cleared debris and overgrowth from around the remains of the fort.  David, equipped with engineering drawings and a vast knowledge of the site, was indispensable to understanding the terrain.  I also learned that Arlington plans to undertake additional work on Fort Ethan Allen; this is welcome news, as the property would benefit from greater interpretive resources and further restoration. After walking the grounds and exploring the remains of the fort, we headed next in a county van to Fort C.F. Smith Park.


Anonymous said...

Just came back from a visit to this fort. One of my ancestors served there. There are a half dozen plaques up and a map of the camp as well.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment. I have seen the new markers and map, but haven't had a chance to post an update on the blog. I covered the dedication ceremonies on my Facebook and Twitter pages back in the spring. They did a fine job of interpreting the site!

In which unit was your ancestor enlisted?

Anonymous said...

i did some research about my great great great grandfather who fought for pennsylvania artillery in 1864.
The adjuntant of the regiment wrote a letter to his wife saying that the unit was camped at fort ethan allen

Ron Baumgarten said...

Interesting. Have you checked various source documents on the Defenses of Washington? I know that Cooling & Owen's study, "Mr. Lincoln's Forts," lists the various units (regt and cos) that manned the various forts.