Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A "Mystery" Solved: The Blockhouse at the Chain Bridge

A few weeks ago I wrote about a wartime photograph of a blockhouse at the Chain Bridge over the Potomac that was published in Miller's Photographic History.  Something about the picture just didn't add up, and the documentary evidence failed to confirm with any certainty that the photograph was what the caption in Miller's said it was.  As I wrote, "the complete story behind the 'blockhouse at the Chain Bridge' remains a mystery."  Thanks to a few knowledgeable readers, it didn't remain a mystery for very long.

Within days of posting the story about the blockhouse at Chain Bridge, Chuck Siegel, Debbie Robison, and Keith Yoder contacted me.  All of them wrote to say that the photograph in Miller's actually depicts the Orange & Alexandria Railroad (O & A R.R.) bridge over Bull Run.  Their comments and emails referred me to numerous pieces of photographic evidence to prove that Miller's Photographic History had gotten it all wrong.  (Incidentally, Chuck Siegel maintains a website dedicated to O & A R.R.; Debbie Robison is a Fairfax County History Commissioner who writes a blog on Northern Virginia history.)

Debbie sent me a reference to a National Archives copy of the photograph in Miller's, entitled "Bridge and blockhouse built by U.S. engineers, ca. 1860-ca. 1865."  I was struck by what I saw on the high resolution digital copy of the image.  Such magnification was not possible with the versions of the photograph that I had previously examined.  An enlargement of the photograph clearly shows railcar wheels and axles scattered at the bottom of the bridge near the water's edge.  Railroad tracks are also visible running across the bridge.  Chain Bridge was not a railroad bridge, and sat nowhere near a railroad!  The topography in the photograph also matches that seen in other images of the railroad crossing at Bull Run.  (See here and here, for example.)   Likewise, the distinctive stone abutment that appears here looks like the one seen in other photographs of the Bull Run Bridge.  After searching the Library of Congress collection of Civil War photographs, I located a copy of the same photograph entitled, "U.S. Military Railroad Bridge, Bull Run, Va. Orange and Alexandria R.R."  This find confirmed the actual identity of the bridge published in Miller's.

"Bridge and blockhouse built by U.S.engineers, ca. 1860-ca. 1865" (courtesy National Archives, ARC Identifier #524695). The railroad bridge over Bull Run, located near Union Mills, was rebuilt at least seven times during the course of the Civil War.
Detail of the above photograph showing railcar debris around the bridge abutment.  Note also the railroad tracks crossing the bridge.
Another photograph of the same location, seen below, looks across the railroad bridge from the side where the blockhouse was situated.  The people gathered there, including women and children, appear to match the individuals shown in the photograph from Miller's.  It is likely that these two photographs were taken on the same day.

"Bridge, ca. 1860-ca. 1865" (courtesy of National Archives, ARC Identifier #529324).  Compare the group of persons in this photograph with the close-up from the photograph above.
This photograph depicts the construction of the truss bridge over Bull Run in April 1863 and provides yet another view of the topography at the crossing:

"Part of construction corps building new military truss bridge across Bull Run, April 1863" (courtesy of Library of Congress).
Other photographs show the blockhouse that was constructed on a bluff to the northeast of the O & A R.R. bridge on the Fairfax County side of Bull Run.  Such structures were designed to guard railroad bridges and other critical locations against attack by Confederate partisans operating in the area. 

"Bridge and block house on Orange and Alexandria R.R. near Bull Run, Va."  (courtesy of Library of Congress).  This photograph looks east across Bull Run.  The truss bridge is visible above and to the left of the cabins.  Another blockhouse was apparently built to the southwest of the bridge in Prince William County.
"R. R. (i.e. Railroad) bridge across Bull Run. O. & A. R.R." (courtesy of Library of Congress). Another view of the railroad bridge and blockhouse, taken farther downstream.
A current view of the bridge abutment on the Fairfax County side of Bull Run (courtesy of Historical Marker Database).  A Norfolk Southern bridge now crosses the stream to the left of the original location.  According to Chuck Siegel, the imprint of the blockhouse also remains, but is now overgrown with underbrush.
The skeptic in me couldn't take that picture in Miller's Photographic History at face value given what I know about Chain Bridge and the defenses of Washington.  I'm glad that readers responded to my original post and helped to set the record straight.  Now if we can just get that caption in Miller's classic work corrected! 


George B. Abdill, Civil War Railroads: A Pictorial Story of the War Between the States, 1861-1865 (1961); National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Orange and Alexandria Railroad Bridge Piers (1989).


Greg Taylor said...

Good job. I suspect that one could make a career out of verifying and correcting the captions in "The Photographic History of the Civil War." It is a vast and amazing collection of photographs. I, for one though, will henseforth read the captions with a questioning eye!

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Greg. Of course, it really was one big collaborative effort. That is the beauty of the internet--there is always someone out there who knows something about the smallest, most local aspects of the war. I agree that we all need to look at Miller's with a sharp eye. But errors and all, I still want to own a first edition someday!

Bernie said...

Very interesting. The LoC will change captions if a good case such as this came be made.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Bernie. Glad you found the post interesting. It is nice to know that the LOC will consider such a change. I wonder if the National Archives has a similar policy.