|Photograph and caption from p. 75 of Miller's The Photographic History of The Civil War, Volume 5: Forts and Artillery (courtesy of Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University)|
Virginia Side or D.C. Side?
During the Civil War, the D.C. side of the Chain Bridge crossed low over the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal before meeting the shore (see photograph below), while the Virginia side passed high over the Potomac River and ended abruptly at a steep bank. (Barnard 80.) The bridge in Miller's book appears to hit the shore at the river, or Virginia, end. A modern photograph of the same location, which has not changed much since the war, supports this conclusion (see below).
|A wartime view of the Georgetown/D.C. end of the Chain Bridge (courtesy of Library of Congress). Note the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal immediately below the bridge.|
|Contemporary view of the Chain Bridge and the Potomac at the Virginia shoreline, looking south (courtesy of Wikipedia). The curve in the river and the shape of the palisades on the Virginia side appear to match the same features in the photograph from Miller's Photographic History.|
|Ruins of an old manufacturing building on the Virginia side of the Chain Bridge (courtesy of Library of Congress).|
|Another view of ruins near the head of the bridge on the Virginia side (courtesy of Wikipedia).|
|View from heights above the bridge, showing the ruins of a brick chimney (courtesy of Library of Congress). The remnants of the brick industrial building are visible below, to the right of the Chain Bridge.|
During the war, the Chain Bridge was one of three strategic crossings of the Potomac River near Washington. As Gen. John G. Barnard, Chief Engineer for the Department of Washington, recalled, "The possession of the Chain Bridge communication with the opposite shore of the Potomac, incidentally important in a defensive point of view, was essential to our operations in Virginia and to the prestige of our arms." (Barnard 47.) Accordingly, the Union Army constructed several works on both sides of the Potomac to protect this vital link between Washington and Virginia. In the Old Dominion, Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen, along with a system of rifle trenches and batteries, served as the main defensive works. On the D.C. side, a battery of field guns sat at the end of the bridge; Battery Martin Scott occupied the heights above. Batteries Vermont, Kemble, Parrott, and Cameron also swept the land around Chain Bridge in Virginia from their dominant positions on the other side of the river.*
The Union Army constructed several blockhouses around the nation's capital, but commonly-consulted sources on the defenses of Washington do not list a blockhouse as part of the works at the Chain Bridge. Three blockhouses were erected on the Virginia side of the Aqueduct Bridge (near today's Key Bridge). Blockhouses were also built near Alexandria at Hunting Creek and on the Leesburg-Alexandria Turnpike around Ft. Ward. In November 1864, the Union Army began to erect a series of picket posts, including blockhouses, that stretched from Prospect Hill on the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike (a few miles from the Chain Bridge) to Vienna, Fairfax Courthouse, and Fairfax Station.
A wartime report on Washington's defenses offers a clue as to the construction of a blockhouse at the Chain Bridge. On October 25, 1862, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton appointed a Commission to examine the adequacy of Washington's defenses. Barnard served on the Commission along with other military experts, including Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs and the Chief of Engineers, Gen. John G. Totten. In December 1862, the Commission offered its recommendations. After reviewing the state of the defenses around the Chain Bridge, the Commission concluded:
[S]ome defensive arrangements are necessary immediately about the head of the bridge; probably two or three small works, or, perhaps, block-houses would suffice. (OR, 1:21, 909.)Several months later, on May 22, 1863, Barnard complained to the head of the Department of Washington, Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman, that he was running low on funds to hire workers for the improvements recommended by the Commission. As to the Chain Bridge, he explained:
. . . there remains much to be done, and I will continue a force of mechanics, with some laborers, provided I can have the assistance of the troops. (OR, 1:25:2, 513.)However, a few weeks later, on July 7, 1863, Barnard reported to Col. J.C. Kelton, the Assistant Adjutant-General:
The work has been prosecuted with all the vigor the means at my disposal would admit. Although the winter season was most unfavorable for such work, and with the limited amount of money available, as well as with regard to economy, it was not deemed advisable to employ very large gangs of hired laborers, yet, by aid of the troops, working whenever the weather and state of the ground would permit, the most essential works recommended by the commission, such as . . . the additional works at the Chain Bridge. . . were all pressed forward, so as to be in a condition, if not complete, at least of efficiency, for their uses, with the return of the season, when active field operations might throw Washington upon its defenses. (OR, 1:27:3, 596.)Barnard's correspondence indicates that despite resource constraints, the Union Army completed or made substantial progress on the recommended works at the Chain Bridge -- which possibly included one or more blockhouses -- by mid-summer of 1863. However, in his post-war report on the defenses of Washington Barnard elaborated on the fate of the blockhouses at the Chain Bridge:
It has been seen that the Commission recommended that some defensive arrangements should be made immediately about the head of the bridge, suggesting two or three small works or block-houses. This recommendation, though always contemplated, was never complied with. Doubtless, however, this interior and limited inclosure of the bridge-head is a necessary and important part of all extensive "tetes de pont." (Barnard 47.)So, is Barnard wrong about the blockhouse? After all, pictures presumably don't lie. His report was published several years after the close of the war, and his memory may have grown a bit cloudy, particularly if the blockhouse was built following his departure from the Department of Washington in 1864. Alternatively, the U.S. Army may have constructed the blockhouse at some point during the post-war period, and Miller's Photographic History may have erroneously classified the image as a Civil War-era one. If that is the case, then for what defensive purposes was the blockhouse built? After all, an active rebellion no longer threatened the river crossing at the Chain Bridge. Another possibility is that Miller's book misidentified the photograph, and that it actually depicts another bridge and another blockhouse somewhere else that bears an uncanny resemblance to the area around the Chain Bridge. Whatever the theory, one thing is certain -- the complete story behind the "blockhouse at the Chain Bridge" remains a mystery.
*A sub-caption to the photograph in Miller's Photographic History explains that "[the Chain Bridge] approach was defended by Forts Ethan Allen and Marcy on the Virginia side, and by Batteries Martin Scott, Vermont, and Kemble on the Maryland side of the Potomac." (Miller, Vol. 5, 75.)
Aside from the Official Records, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:
John G. Barnard, A Report on the Defenses of Washington (1871); Benjamin Franklin Cooling III & Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (2010 ed.); Historical Marker Database, "Pimmit Run and Chain Bridge"; Francis T. Miller & E.O. Hunt (eds.), The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes, Volume 5: Forts and Artillery (1911); National Park Service, A Historic Resources Study: The Civil War Defenses of Washington, Parts I & II (2004).