Monday, March 7, 2011

Civil War Forts of Arlington Tour, Part III: Fort Marcy

My last stop on the tour of Civil War forts of Arlington was not in Arlington at all.  After visiting Forts Ethan Allen, C.F. Smith, and Bennett, our group drove to Fort Marcy, just across the line in Fairfax County.  Fort Marcy belongs to the National Park Service and is located off the G.W. Parkway North, just before the Rt. 123/McLean exit. I visited Fort Marcy last spring, but had not realized just how well the remains of the fort were preserved due to the foliage and overgrowth.  Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is much more to see.  The Park Service still has a long way to go to interpret the site, but armed with our guide David, and his engineering drawings, we were able to explore the remnants of this important fort.

Fort Marcy

Fort Marcy, like nearby Fort Ethan Allen, was constructed to defend the approaches to the Chain Bridge along the Potomac. The fort was also located next to the critical roadway of the Leesburg & Georgetown Turnpike. Soldiers under Brigadier General "Baldy" Smith, including regiments from Vermont, began construction in September 1861 on land belonging to local businessman Gilbert Vanderwerken. (Readers may recall that Fort Ethan Allen was also built on poor Vanderwerken's property!) The fort was 736 yards in perimeter with emplacements for 18 guns. The fort was originally named after "Baldy" Smith. However, in late September, it was renamed in honor of Brigadier General Randolph Barnes Marcy, chief-of-staff and father-in-law to Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac. 

Brigadier Gen. Randolph B. Marcy, the fort's namesake (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

By 1862, erosion had taken its toll, and the Union Army was forced to renovate the fort. Although the perimeter was reduced to 338 yards, the 18 gun emplacements were retained.  The army also made improvements to the magazines and embrasures. Soldiers from several units garrisoned at Fort Marcy during the war, including the 4th Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, and the 6th Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery.

We entered the fort's interior through a modern cut in the south wall of the fort. The fort has several well-preserved features, including the ramparts, ditch, gun emplacements, and bombproof.

Looking towards the fort's entrance, or sally port, near Chain Bridge Rd. (Leesburg & Georgetown Turnpike during the Civil War).  The rise of the fort's walls is visible to the left and the right of the entrance.

View of the gun emplacements along the south wall of the fort.  A lone 12-pounder howitzer marks one of the emplacements.  Aside from two 12-pounder howitzers, Fort Marcy's armament consisted of three 24-pounder guns, six 30-pounder Parrott rifles, three 20-pounder Parrott rifles, three 10-pounder Parrott rifles, one 10-inch mortar, and two 24-pounder Coehorn mortars.

Looking eastward along the fort's south wall.  The ditch, or dry moat, is clearly visible in front of the wall.

View from the ditch of the exterior slope of the west wall.

View of an auxiliary battery position on the exterior of the fort's west wall.  Such auxiliary batteries, together with rifle trenches, added extra protection.

Gun emplacement at the northwest corner of the fort.  This gun appears to be a 6-pounder, which is not included on the list of armaments for Fort Marcy.

A closer view of the above gun emplacement.  The outline of the embrasure in the fort's wall is visible.

Looking down from the north wall to the ditch.  Current-day Chain Bridge Rd. can be seen in the upper left of the photograph.  The residence of the Saudi Ambassador now sits across the road from this part of the fort on land that was likely occupied by soldiers who manned Fort Marcy.

Remains of the bombproof in the interior of the fort, roughly east of the fort's western side. 

Sketch of the bombproof and sally port as viewed from camp, from Heavy Guns and Light: A History of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery (courtesy of Wikipedia).

As I walked the grounds with our tour group, I was impressed at how much of the fort still remains intact.  That being said, a visitor, without a guide or a good map, would be at a loss to understand many of the features at the park.  The National Park Service has installed a few markers (see here, here, and here); otherwise, there is little to interpret the site. Perhaps most people stop there, and think that it is all just "grass and some cannons."  When I went last year, I was lucky to find a brochure in a wooden box at the entrance.  I understand that the government is short on funds these days, but it would be nice to see a few more signs throughout the park that interpret the fort's remains and history more thoroughly.

Following Fort Marcy, the group returned to Fort Ethan Allen Park. Overall, I greatly enjoyed Arlington's tour of Civil War forts.  The four-in-one deal is a welcome opportunity for those with busy lives -- or twins at home like me!  Our guide was knowledgeable and helped us to get a real feel for what remains of some of the forts around Chain Bridge and Key Bridge.  Additional information on future tours can be found on the Arlington County Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources homepage.

Note on Sources:

My background information for this series of posts comes largely from Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II.  This book is the "Bible" of sorts for those interested in the forts around D.C.  I would highly recommend the book if you want a detailed look at this subject.


Greg Taylor said...

I met with Wally Owen a couple of years ago when I was doing research for my blog "The Civil War letters of William Beynon Phillips."
William, my g-g-grandfather was at Fort Lincoln from August 1862-April 1864 as a member of the 2nd. PA Heavy Artillery. If you and your readers are interested in what it was like to serve before the Defenses of Washington North of the Potomac you might take a look at his letters. They can be read at
Greg Taylor

Ron Baumgarten said...


Thanks for commenting. Your site looks really interesting, and it's great that you have taken the time to share your family's treasures via the net. I will be coming back to your site to take a more in-depth look soon.

I've seen Wally speak; he certainly is the resource around here, if not in the entire country, on the defenses of Washington!


Greg Taylor said...


Thank you for your "Forts of Arlington Tour". It is very informative and I particularly like the photographs your have provided.

With respect to "The Defenses of Washington North of the Potomac" you might find this excerpt written from Fort Lincoln by William B.Phillips, my g-g grandfather interesting. It is dated 1 December 1862: "Fort Lincoln is an earth work of about 1 acre, surrounded by a deep ditch of 10 ft. deep & 20 wide [with] a very strong abatis in front of it. It mounts 30 guns & 4 mortars. They are mounting a Swivel 100 lb. rifle gun [at present]. Some 500 yards below is the Maine Battery, a wicket work with earth thrown against it & embrasures for light field pieces. In different places are masked batteries all around. Connecting with the many forts here is a rifle pit some 18 miles long. These forts, viz: Lincoln, Mahan, Thayer, Saratoga, Bunker Hill, Slemmer, Totten, Slocum, Massachusetts [later called Fort Stevens], etc., etc., are the defenses north of the Potomac, all mostly garrisoned by the 112th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers 2nd Heavy Artillery. All these forts are built on hills describing a semicircle, the city as a centre. I can’t say [anything] of the forts on the Virginia side [but] I suppose they are built on the same principle. These forts are from 4 to 6 miles from Washington.

Should an attack be made from the Maryland side, Fort Lincoln is the first to be attacked. At the foot of the hill, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad turns to[ward] Baltimore [as does] the Turnpike thru Bladensburg. We have our pickets on the bridge that enters Bladensburg looking out [for] what goes out to Maryland. The country around Washington is so many independent little hills forming two circles and every one of them crowned with a fort. The spade has done its duty here, I can assure you – every hill a fort, every vale a rifle pit. Should the Rebs attempt the capture of the city, I would think Fort Lincoln itself would beat them off. Think then of it being supported by 58 more of the same sort, more or less."

Ron Baumgarten said...

You are most welcome. I am glad you enjoyed the posts. And thanks for sharing this letter--your g-grandfather provides really interesting insights into Ft. Lincoln and that section of Washington's defenses. It is one thing to read about the forts in a book; another to read an actual letter from someone who was there. Today, nothing remains of Ft. Lincoln proper, although I understand from "Mr. Lincoln's Forts" that there are some surviving outer works.

Greg Taylor said...

On the hilltop site where Fort Lincoln stood there is now a small park. Absolutely nothing remains of Fort Lincoln, however the street that runs alongside the park is named Ft. Lincoln Drive. If one takes the time and effort to find a good vantage point and peer through the trees that cover the park, an excellent view of Bladensburg and the surrounding area can be had. It is quite obvious that this was an excellent location to guard the turnpike and railroad to Baltimore