Civil War Defenses of Washington
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The District of Columbia Before the Civil War

When the Civil War began in April 1861, Washington, the District of Columbia, was quite different than the metropolis today. Originally a ten-mile square district, it lost its southeastern section when Congress returned Alexandria County to Virginia in 1846; Antoinette Lee wrote that this action was a "lack of foresight" because "during the Civil War, a circle of forts located on high ground was constructed to provide protection for the federal city and included major vantage points in Virginia." The actual Washington City, planned by L'Enfant in 1791 and bounded by Florida Avenue, officially Boundary Avenue, to the north; the Eastern Branch on the east; and Georgetown on the West lay in "the flat, basin lands before the first major steep rise to higher ground." Composing the rest of the District of Columbia was the city of Georgetown and Washington County, north of Georgetown's R Street and Washington City's Florida Avenue and east of the Eastern Branch or the Anacostia River. [1]

In 1840, before Congress returned Alexandria to Virginia, the population of the District of Columbia was 43,712 comprising 23,364 in Washington City, 7,312 in Georgetown, 8,241 in Alexandria, and 3,069 in Washington County. Between 1840 and 1850, the District averaged 1600 new residents a year. By 1850, therefore, the Districts population was 51,687 including 40,001 in Washington City, 8,366 in Georgetown, and 3,320 in Washington County; Alexandria had retroceded to Virginia during the decade. The year1860 saw a great increase in population with a total of 75,080 in the District of Columbia: 61,122 in Washington City, 8,733 in Georgetown; and 5,225 in Washington County. [2]

District of Columbia Government

Since its beginning, Washington City changed governments numerous times. Originally there was a mayor appointed by the president, and a city council, elected by the landed citizens. In 1812, the city council began electing the mayor and in 1820, the landed citizens received the right to elect the mayor, to a two-year term. At one time only property owners could vote but adult white manhood suffrage became the law in the 1840s and 1850s. Congress granted the city a charter in 1848, making it easier to govern itself. [3]

Different and separate governments administered Georgetown and Washington County and Alexandria, while it was part of the District. There wasn't any general code of laws; Maryland laws were in effect in some areas and Virginia laws in others. Throughout the District's history, many, including President James Monroe, had championed a territorial form of government for the District. In 1871, the District received a territorial government when Congress provided for a governor, board of public works, and a legislative body, consisting of an eleven member council and a twenty-two member house of delegates. But, this government lasted for only three years. [4]

Improvements in the District of Columbia

In spite of its lack of a central government and changing land areas and governments, the District steadily improved during the years. The central part of the city saw the greatest growth in the second quarter of the century; house and church building flourished. By the 1840s, the city reached out; K Street which had been delineated the northern boundary of the city much earlier had given way and far out P street was under development. Before the city received a charter in 1848, real estate taxes accounted for about nine-tenths of the tax income, limiting improvements. New taxes eased the burden on property owners some but, due to new and greater expenses, until 1860, they paid about 75 cents per $100. [5]

The U.S. Government macadamized Pennsylvania Avenue but it rapidly fell into disrepair and in the years after 1845, it provided cobble stones for the street. In 1845, the city financed the paving of Seventh Street, the main business route and in later years before the Civil War, some streets received cobblestones at municipal expense. The city provided some sidewalks but only through special taxes on the landowners who would benefit. [6]

Until the early 1840s, none of the city had no streetlights but in 1842, Congress financed lights on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. The Washington Gas Light Company received a charter in 1848 and slowly began lighting up the city. By the time the Civil War began the city's streets generally were lighted. At first the city only lit the lamps on moonless nights and even then, turned them off at midnight. [7]

Sanitation was sparse but the slow pace of development reduced possible problems allowing for a generally uncontaminated water supply. In spite of swampy marshy areas, few epidemics occurred. Floods and fires, however, often caused problems. [8]

In the 1850s, Congress decided that the "national capital must be made more presentable—for the public convenience, and the self-respect of the republic." The U.S. Government financed the paving of additional streets. It improved the Mall, including the placement of flowers therein and the erection of a building for the Smithsonian Institution. The Botanic Garden beautified the Congress end of the Mall and numerous monuments, including those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, appeared around the city. Yearly, new trees were planted. [9]

In 1862, the distinguished Englishman, Anthony Trollope, wrote of the city, "Desirous of praising it to some degree, I can say that the design is grand. The thing done, however, falls so indefinitely short of the design that nothing but disappointment is felt. And I fear that there is no look-out into the future which can justify the hope that the design will be fulfilled." Further, he wrote: "Even in winter, when Congress is sitting, Washington is melancholy; but Washington in summer must surely be the saddest spot on earth." [10] In spite of some visitor's comments, Washington City had come a long way.

Transportation and Communications

Transportation and communications in the capital city area improved considerably before the Civil War. For many years the city looked forward to the completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and other smaller ones for transportation of people and goods. Then, in 1835, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began running four trains each day between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.; fights ensued between the railroads, Congress and the city that precluded the B & O from actually coming into the capital city until 1852. Other railroads, such as the Orange and Alexandria also sought connections with Washington, D.C. The first "public passenger vehicle service," was by stage coach and began in May of 1800. In the Spring of 1830, the omnibus, a four-wheeled passenger vehicle pulled by horses, appeared in the capital city and remained the only public mass transportation until 1862. Samuel F.B. Morse stretched telegraph wires between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. along the B & O tracks and in 1844 demonstrated that the system would work; before the 1840s were over, Washington, D.C. was linked with the country by telegraph. [11]

The First Suburbs of the District of Columbia

Better transportation spurred the District's first suburban growth. In 1845, William Holmead, a farmer whose land was between 13th and 16th Street, N.W., with its center at Columbia Road, subdivided his farm into lots "to those wanting country residences." Transportation assisted the development of other suburban tracts such as Homestead, near North Capitol north of Florida Avenue (1851), and Kendall Green, near 7th and M streets, N.E.(1854). The Union Land Association divided a farm on the south side of the Eastern Branch, in 1854, and called it Anacostia. [12]

The Rural Areas Where Most of the Forts Were Built

Even though Washington City was experiencing a major development, improvement and beautification, Washington County, in the far reaches of the District, was, for the most part, still country and relatively undeveloped. Kathryn Schneider Smith wrote: "This rural part of the District, known as Washington County, was occupied by farms of various sizes and the grand estates of the well-to-do." Likewise, most of the area surrounding the District, in Virginia and Maryland, except for a few developed communities, was also rural. Washington County and the Virginia and Maryland areas surrounding the District, however, became the locations for most of the Civil War Defenses of Washington, D.C. [13]

The Union Army built the first fortifications, that would become a part of the Civil War Defenses of Washington, across the Potomac in Northern Virginia; most of these fortifications were built on the heights. In the District and in Maryland, most of the fortifications, of the Civil War Defenses of Washington, were erected on the heights in the northern part of the city beyond Florida Avenue. There is no question why the Union Army fortified the heights — to provide it with observation points to pinpoint and track invaders and strongpoints, where they could protect important transportation routes and repel the Confederates without any damage to the city, and to preclude the enemy from using them to shell the city. But, who owned this land before the Civil War and what did they use it for? [14]

The Land and the Owners in Virginia

In Virginia, a variety of individuals owned the land on which the Union Army built fortifications, in the Civil War Defenses of Washington, D.C. Gilbert Vanderwerken owned the land on which the Union built Fort Marcy and much of the nearby batteries, trenches and cleared fields of fire. After many years as a manufacturer of stagecoaches, omnibuses and steam railroad cars and owner of various stage coach and omnibus transportation companies in New York, New Jersey and Mexico, poor health brought him to Washington, D.C., in 1850. Not completely disabled, Vanderwerken organized an omnibus transportation company running from the Navy Yard to Georgetown and from the wharves up Seventh and Fourteenth Street. To pull the omnibuses, he required numerous thoroughbred horses; he purchased over 13,000 acres of land in Arlington and Fairfax counties on which to graze and feed the horses. Vanderwerken cleared some of the land and planted corn, wheat and hay. He also built a house on a knoll and a large barn, naming the estate "Falls Grove." [15]

Columbus Alexander, on whose property the Union erected Fort Tillinghast, was a printer whose real estate was valued at $100,000. He lived in the District of Columbia with his wife Rebecca and six sons, aged 7-18. The property taken over for Fort Tillinghast and accessory buildings comprised about 70 acres which included a two-story frame dwelling, large barn, water well, corn crib, large fowl house, smoke house, two fields of oats, one field of corn, and 200 fruit trees. In addition, the Army later cut down 50 acres of wood. [16]

Fort C.F. Smith, erected on the William Jewell estate in Arlington, displaced the barn and the dwelling which J.G. Barnard referred to as the "red house" in an 1863 report. The Union erected both Battery Garesche and a blockhouse on widow lady Margaret B. Dangerfield's "Hampton" farm, near Alexandria, Virginia. [17]

Owen and Mary Murray owned the land on which Fort Hagerty was erected. Before the war they had a farm of over fifty acres in the area. While constructing Fort Hagerty the Army destroyed the cultivated lands including orchards plus the fencing and the partially brick farmhouse. [18]

Both forts Whipple, later Fort Myer, and Cass were erected on Arlington Plantation, owned by Mary Randolph Lee, wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The government confiscated the plantation for non-payment of taxes. On January 11, 1864, the U.S. Government purchased the plantation at public auction for $26,800.00 and began burying Union soldiers there. [19]

Part of the land on which Fort Williams was built in Virginia was originally owned by the U.S. War Department's Adjutant General, Colonel Samuel Cooper. Cooper went south and became the Confederate Adjutant General. His house, Cameron, stood atop Cooper's Hill; the Union tore down the house to build the fort and renamed the site "Traitor's Hill." The U.S. Government confiscated Cooper's land and sold it, in July 1864, to William Silvey. [20]

The Land and the Owners in the District

The greatest amount of the fortifications in the Civil War Defenses of Washington were within the District of Columbia. The Union Army placed Fort Slemmer on 24 acres of land belonging to Henry Douglass, a florist. Flowers, plants, 1,970 fruit trees, numerous vines and bushes, ornamental trees and four acres of grass and sod were destroyed making it difficult for Douglass to ply his trade. [21]

Fort Reno was built on land belonging to Giles and Miles Dyer; Giles had, at one time, owned five slaves. The Union Army used the Dyer farmhouse, just north of the fort, as a headquarters building for various commands encamped in the area. The fortification occupied about 20 acres of Dyer land and an additional 50 acres of Dyer's land sported barracks, camps, and a parade ground. [22]

In 1861, Selby B. Scaggs, of Ward 4 in the District of Columbia, had a farm comprising approximately 400 acres, worth $52,000., and had four laborers living with him. The Army constructed forts Chaplin and Craven on his land. [23]

Bernard S. Swart, a clerk, owned land in the Northern part of the District of Columbia, some of which is now located in Rock Creek Park. In 1860, he, his wife, Sarah, three children, and two farmhands, Christopher Lambert, 30, and William Hamilton, 19, lived on the farm. After the Civil War began, the Union Army erected Fort DeRussy on Swart's land. [24]

Sixty year old Michael Caton, of Ward 4, valued his real estate at $5,000. in 1860. Living with him were his wife, Sarah, five children between the ages of 18 and 30, and one domestic, aged 16. The Union built Fort DuPont on Caton's land. [25]

Fort Slocum was partially erected on the land of John F. Callan, a clerk. His wife, Sarah A. Callan, and eight children, between the ages of 8 and 24, lived with him. One of his children, James, listed his occupation as "Druggist." [26]

Farmer Philip J. Buckey owned the land on which Fort Bayard was later constructed. Buckey valued his real estate at $5,000. His wife May, four children and two servants lived with him. [27]

William A.T. Maddox, age 47, along with his 28-year old wife Sarah E., owned the land on which the Union Army built Battery Kemble and part of the land on which Fort Gaines was erected. In 1860, he valued his real estate at $20,000. Luckily for him, Maddox had his profession to tide him over; he was a career U.S. Marine Corps officer who in 1860 held the rank of captain and, at the beginning of 1863, was stationed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania serving as an assistant quartermaster. [28]

Most of the land on which the original Fort Stephens was constructed belonged to Emory Chapel or Emory Methodist Church. Numerous pulications addressing the original Civil War Defenses of Washington, D.C. and the Battle of Fort Stevens include accounts of a free Black woman named Elizabeth or Betsy or Betty Thomas who also owned part of the land on which the Army constructed Fort Stephens. The accounts report that in 1862, the Army tore down Mrs. Thomas's house, described as a "shanty", for a second Fort Stevens magazine. Reportedly, President Abraham Lincoln personally consoled her, saying "It is hard, but you shall reap a great reward." To date, no records have been discovered that actually document Mrs. Thomas's ownership of the land by 1862. Whether or not she owned the land, Mrs. Thomas apparently lived in the area and has become part of the folklore surrounding Fort Stevens and the battle that occurred there. [29]

Two Families Owned Fort Land in Both the District and Maryland

Lord Baltimore granted land to the Veitch family in 1719 and as late as 1912, descendants were still living on the land. This land, in both the District of Columbia and Maryland, that belonged to John Veitch when the Civil War began, included portions of Scotland Beach and Chillum Castle grounds. During the Civil War, the Union erected forts Lincoln and Thayer and Battery Jameson on the Veitch land. [30]

One family, the Shoemakers, also owned an exceptionally large amount of land on which three of the fortifications in the Civil War Defenses of Washington were erected. In 1810, Samuel Shoemaker bought just over 100 acres of land located in both the District of Columbia and in Maryland. After that first purchase, the family continued to expand its holdings in the area. All or parts of forts Simmons, Mansfield and Battery Bailey were on Shoemaker land. [31]

Besides owning land on which fortifications were located, Issac and Joseph Shoemaker contracted to supply wood for the construction of the fortifications and abatis. Isaiah Shoemaker ran a general store in the area. During the war the family also sold sundry items to the men stationed at Fort Bayard. Some accounts report that family members actually worked on the construction of some of the fortifications in the Defenses of Washington. [32]

In 1860, Jessee Shoemaker's census entry showed that he had nine children living with him. He valued his real estate at $2800. Later, he reported that, when the army took over his land for Fort Mansfield, he lost 23 acres, in all, including seven acres of potatoes, five acres of corn, four acres of clover, a fourth of an acre of asparagus, plus at least 48 apple trees, 51 peach trees, 46 quince trees, 23 cherry trees, and two large persimon trees. [33]

Most of the individuals mentioned above and many others basically lost possession of part or all of their land for the duration of the Civil War and for some, months or years after the conflict ended, preventing them from deriving income from any use of their property. As a result, these people had to find other lodgings and, in some cases, other professions to tide them over during the war because only a few received rent or other compensation before the conflict ended.

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Last Updated: 29-Oct-2004