Sunday, June 6, 2010

Chain Bridge: Commuting Through History, Part I

Like many DC area commuters, I breathed a sigh of relief to learn a little over a week ago that all lanes of Chain Bridge were finally re-opened.  While I welcomed the potential for a much shorter commute, I also knew that I would occasionally miss those times stuck in traffic while crossing the bridge.  During such delays I often had time to study the still-wooded hills overlooking the river, to marvel at the Potomac rolling turbulently over large boulders, and to glance down at the site of the old Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal at the DC end of the bridge.  I imagine that the view was not much different during the Civil War, with the exception of a few multi-million dollar homes peeking through the trees on cliffs above the river.

Chain Bridge today, looking toward the Virginia side (courtesy Craig Swain, Historical Marker Database)

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Chain Bridge was one of the key Potomac River crossings into Washington from Virginia.  (The other two were Aqueduct Bridge, near the current Key Bridge, and Long Bridge, around the site of the 14th Street Bridge today.)  The bridge was originally constructed in 1797 by Georgetown merchants who wanted to compete with the port of Alexandria.  The bridge enabled them to transport goods directly from Virginia into Georgetown.   In 1808, a chain suspension bridge was built at the site -- this bridge became known as the "Chain Bridge," but the name stuck and carried over to subsequent bridges.  The original Chain Bridge collapsed and in 1852 was replaced by the crossbeam structure that existed at the time of the Civil War. 

Chain Bridge during the Civil War, C&O Canal visible below (Library of Congress)

Chain Bridge and the Defenses of Washington

Virginia officially seceded from the Union on May 23, 1861.  Now, just across the Potomac, lie enemy territory of the Confederate States of America.  Federal troops did not waste much time in reacting to the threat.  On May 24, 1861, they marched into Northern Virginia and seized key areas, including Alexandria.  Chain Bridge played a role in this occupation. According to the May 25, 1861 edition of the New York Herald

The troops quartered at Georgetown, the Sixty-ninth, Fifth, Eighth and Twenty-eighth New York regiments, proceeded across what is known as the chain bridge, above the mouth of the Potomac Aqueduct, under the command of General [Irvin] McDowell. They took possession of the heights in that direction.
Major General George B. McClellan (National Archives)

During the early days of the war, Washington lacked a major system of defensive fortifications. The disastrous Federal defeat at First Bull Run in July 1861 would provide the necessary impetus to improve the protection of the Federal capital.  Following Bull Run, Major General George B. McClellan assumed command of the disorganized Union troops around Washington, soon to be known as the Army of the Potomac.  One of his first tasks was to survey the state of Washington's defenses, including those at Chain Bridge:

In no quarter were the dispositions for defense such as to offer a vigorous resistance to a respectable body of the enemy, either in the position and numbers of the troops or the number and character of the defensive works. Earthworks . . . looked upon the approaches to the Georgetown Aqueduct and Ferry, the Long Bridge, and Alexandria, by the Little River turnpike, and some simple defensive arrangements were made at the Chain Bridge. With the latter exception not a single defensive work had been commenced on the Maryland side. There was nothing to prevent the enemy shelling the city from heights within easy range, which could be occupied by a hostile column almost without resistance.
George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, New York: Sheldon & Company (1864) (personal collection)
McClellan immediately set to work building the defenses around Washington.  Needless to say, the Union commander recognized the strategic importance of the approaches to Washington by way of Chain Bridge. On the night of September 24, 1861, the soldiers of Brigadier General W.F. "Baldy" Smith's division crossed Chain Bridge and began construction in Virginia of what would become Fort Marcy and Fort Ethan Allen.  When completed, these imposing forts dominated the region around Chain Bridge and the Leesburg & Georgetown Turnpike.  Fort Marcy had a perimeter of 338 feet, with emplacements for 18 guns, while Fort Ethan Allen had a perimeter of 736 yards with emplacements for 36 guns.

Gun emplacement at Fort Marcy (Library of Congress)

On the DC/Maryland side, Chain Bridge was protected in the immediate vicinity by an unfortified field gun battery at the northern end and Battery Scott, on the heights above the bridge.  Four major batteries also covered the Chain Bridge approaches from emplacements around present-day Foxhall and Chain Bridge Roads, N.W. and Sibley Memorial Hospital.

Battery Martin Scott, Harper's Weekly, August 24, 1861 (Chain Bridge is visible in the background)

Lower battery at Chain Bridge, Harper's Weekly, August 24, 1861

A strong garrison was posted at the bridge throughout the remainder of the war.  Two large iron gates were placed at the center of the bridge, with slits for skirmishers and pickets to fire through.  The troops in and around Chain Bridge never saw any real action aside from shots allegedly fired by Confederate pickets.

Knowing the Civil War history of Chain Bridge, I am reminded that at one point in time, it wasn't so easy to cross the Potomac and enter Washington from Virginia.  Lucky for me things have changed, or I would be late to work on a daily basis!

Note on Sources:

For more detailed information on the forts and batteries around Chain Bridge, an excellent source is Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II.

Another view of Chain Bridge, complete with contingent of Union soldiers (Library of Congress)

Addendum, April 13, 2011

Further research has indicated that the article cited above from the New York Herald likely mistook the Aqueduct Bridge for the Chain Bridge.  According to Ethan Rafuse's A Single Grand Victory, nearly all the New York regiments cited by the Herald crossed into Virginia via the Aqueduct Bridge.  The other Federal routes of advance on May 24, 1861 consisted of a thrust over the Long Bridge and a river invasion at Alexandria. 

The photograph of Ft. Marcy from the Library of Congress was identified as such by the National Park Service. (See here).  However, the Library of Congress online Civil War collection identifies the subject as Ft. Lincoln, another of the defenses of Washington. (See here.) Mr. Lincoln's Forts also indicates that this photograph was taken at Ft. Lincoln.

Addendum, September 2, 2011

Further research has revealed that Smith's men crossed the Potomac on September 3-4, 1861.  The September 24 date noted above is likely erroneous, although often cited in many secondary sources. See my post from September 2, 2011, which describes in more detail Smith's movement into Virginia.


Anonymous said...

Thank you-I was researching for an essay for school I have to write; you really helped!! :)

Ron Baumgarten said...

Glad you found the blog useful for your essay. What were you writing about?

One of my goals in having this blog is to provide information to people who are researching various aspects of the Civil War, particularly the more obscure, local ones that not everyone knows about and for which sources are more limited. At some point I'd like to list my sources, but time doesn't permit right now. Suffice it to say, I use primary materials, like the Offical Records, as well as reputable secondary sources, such as well-known books and trustworthy historical websites, such as those for historical societies and preservation groups.


Unknown said...

Hey there, I've been a fan of your blog for a while, but this is my first time commenting. Anyways, I recently came across two photographs that are said to be of the lower battery at Chain Bridge on the Library of Congress (which I think was recently added) and the New York Military Museum websites. The LoC photograph looks like it was used as a reference for the Harper's Weekly drawing. I had to play with the brightness and contrast on both of them because they are so faded:

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment, and for reading. In an amazing coincidence, I just finished a post last night on the first photograph that I will be posting tomorrow! I saw this pic several years ago on Facebook and am just now getting around to interpreting it. I have never seen the second photograph, which really intrigues me. Mott's battery was attached to Baldy Smith's division in the fall of 1861 and was involved with the engagement at Lewinsville on Sept. 11 among other things. I suppose at some point that they were garrisoning the lower Chain Bridge battery.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Interesting observation on the Harper's Weekly engraving. However, that illustration appeared in the August 24, 1861 edition, and the picture, according to the LoC, was taken in 1862. So either the date is wrong, or the photographer and the sketch artist were capturing a very similar scene a year or so apart!

chubachus said...

I think that there are way too many similarities between the photograph and drawing for the photograph to be coincidence (the man standing near the same position on the earthworks for instance). I've found that LoC has quite a few unreliable dates for their Civil War era photographs especially when a photographer is not attributed.

That is some interesting information about Mott's Artillery. There are also two other photographs of them that might have been taken in the same area but aren't identified as Chain Bridge:

Ron Baumgarten said...

You may very well be right--the engraving and the picture look too similar, and I too have seen LoC make dating mistakes more than a few times. They actually like the public's help in narrowing the dates down.

As to Mott's Battery (3rd NY Indpt. Battery), it was part of Smith's brigade after First Bull Run. Smith primarily had responsibility for Chain Bridge defenses. Mott crossed with Smith into VA on September 3-4, 1861, and encamped at Camp Advance. The battery, along with the rest of Smith's forces, then headed a few miles farther and set up Camp Griffin. Smith by then had been promoted to a division commander. Mott's Battery was attached to W.S. Hancock's brigade, Smith's division--I lived on and around land that his brigade lived on from Oct. 1861-March 1862. The photographer George Houghton may have taken photos of Mott's men, but I'd have to go back and check it out.

If you are interested, here is a battery short history:

chubachus said...

I contacted Library of Congress about the date and the cataloger confirmed that he would amend the date. He also said that Library of Congress also has another photograph of the upper battery at Chain Bridge which sounds like it served as the basis for the other engraving in Harper's Weekly, but it unfortunately hasn't been digitized yet. It is dated July 10, 1861, which probably means that the other one was taken that same day. Here is the link to its entry at LoC he gave me which will hopefully have the image available someday:

I was able to find two photographs of Mott's Artillery in the George Houghton book but not the three from New York State Military Museum. I would love to be able to contact the author about the Mott photographs at NYSMM as well as the LoC Chain Bridge photographs and ask him about the possibility that they were also taken by Houghton. I actually bought the book a while a while back partly based on your recommendation and would like to thank you because it is an excellent book.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for writing. Great that you contacted the LoC. I assume they took the engraving as proof of an 1861 date? (I may need to amend my earlier post or do an update noting how you pointed this out based on the Harper's Weekly illustration.) What fascinates me even more is the Battery Martin Scott picture. I've never seen a photograph of that emplacement before! Glad you like the Houghton book. It is wonderful. In fact, the VHS was using my review to advertise the book! I'd try to contact the VHS and tell them that you'd like to speak with the author. I am sure they'd be willing to help out. They are very interested in the Houghton photos.

Cow said...

Hello there! About a quarter mile north of chain bridge, upstream on the east bank of the Potomac there is, what appears to be, some sort of viewing area made of cement. It is connected to the C&O towpath by a cement road/path which cuts through significant rock structures and must have been quite a job to complete. The positioning of the "viewing area" is not quite right to view kayakers upstream, and doesn't make sense for a bridge or other crossing.

Does anyone have any idea what it might have been? Google Earth imagery only seems to go back to 1988 and it appears to be in the same state it is, today.

Cow said...

In case anyone else was interested, i am told the area was part of the bluestone quarries from the Civil War era until the early-mid 1900's.