Friday, April 11, 2014

A Surprise Visit to Battery Parrott

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a reception at the residence of the Belgian Ambassador to the United States. Located along Foxhall Rd., N.W. in Washington, this ornate home sits atop the heights dominating the Potomac River near Chain Bridge. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that that the property was the site of Battery Parrott, part of the defenses of Washington during the Civil War. In fact, the Belgian Embassy website even discusses the history associated with the location.

The Union Army erected Battery Parrott in 1862 on land belonging to local widow Ellen King. The battery was named after Robert P. Parrott, a former captain of ordinance and inventor of the Parrott gun.  Battery Parrott was equipped with two 100-pounder Parrott rifles. Gen. John G. Barnard, Chief Engineer for the Department of Washington, later called Battery Parrott one of the "most perfect and complete" batteries in the defenses of the nation's capital. (Barnard 72-73.) Along with Batteries Cameron and Kemble, Battery Parrott swept the Virginia side of the Potomac from Chain Bridge and Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen to Fort DeKalb (Fort Strong).

The remaining earthworks of Battery Parrott are plainly visible in the backyard of the Belgian Ambassador's Residence. The massive Parrott guns were mounted en barbette behind the parapet.
Battery Parrott was garrisoned at various times by companies from the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, the 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery, and the 9th New York Heavy Artillery. Company K of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery served the longest at the battery, from August 1862 until being sent to the front during the Overland Campaign in May 1864. Writing to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck about the state of Washington's defenses in spring 1864, Gen. A.P. Howe, Inspector of Artillery, observed:
Battery Parrott, Capt. Frederic E. Shaw commanding.–Garrison, one company First Maine Heavy Artillery–1 commissioned officer, 1 ordnance-sergeant, 46 men. Armament, two 100-pounder Parrots. Magazines, one; dry and in good order. Ammunition, full supply and serviceable. Implements, complete and serviceable. Drill in artillery, fair. Drill in infantry, fair. Garrison is sufficient. (in NPS at Vol. I, Appendix E.)
As with nearly all of the forts and batteries around the nations capital, Battery Parrott saw no action during the Civil War.
Photo of a 100-pounder Parrott, this one taken at Ft. Totten outside Washington (courtesy Library of Congress)

At the end of hostilities in 1865, the Union military offered King wood and other materials from the battery as compensation for the occupation of her land. The widow refused at first, but relented in October 1865, accepted the in-kind compensation, and signed a release discharging any future claims against the U.S. Government. King nevertheless filed a claim for rent and the taking of timber in May 1874. Despite the earlier release, King prevailed and was awarded compensation by the U.S. Treasury Department in 1875 and 1876.

Detail from 1865 War Department map of the defenses of Washington showing the position of Battery Parrott (center), as well as other features, including Batteries Cameron and Kemble, Chain Bridge, Ft. Marcy, Ft. Ethan Allen, and Ft. Strong (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

The position of Battery Parrott (blue pin) indicated on a modern map of Washington, DC and Virginia. (See here for a larger map.)

Sipping on a Belgian beer and looking out at the earthworks behind the ambassador's house, I couldn't help but chuckle. Things are sometimes ironic like that in Washington. One hundred and fifty years ago, boys from Maine tramped across this very land, while 100-pounder guns stood guard against the possibility of Rebel incursions, however remote. Now internationally-minded professionals were mingling and eating hors d'oeuvres, most oblivious to the importance of the site during our nation's most trying ordeal.


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.); Historic Preservation Review Board, Government of the District of Columbia, Application for Historic Landmark or Historic District Designation for the Scheele-Brown Farmhouse (2013); National Park Service, A Historic Resources Study: The Civil War Defenses of Washington, Parts I & II (2004); Official Records, Series 1, Vol. XXV, Pt. 2, at 187 (1889).


Ben Simon said...

Nice - thanks for sharing!

That's what I love about the DC area - there's almost always something new to discover.

Ron Baumgarten said...

You are welcome. And I couldn't agree more!

John Banks said...

Love this stuff!

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, John! I hear ya!