Mr. Lincoln’s Forts

For many years I my library included a well worn copy of Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (White Mane Publishing Company, 1988) by Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II.   This 256-page work offered the best “field guide” to the fortifications around the District, Fairfax and Alexandria Counties in Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince Georges County in Maryland.   This work filled a void in the body of knowledge by offering a fort by fort description, coupled with a suggested driving route.  The one complaint I had regarding the work was the binding – my copy fell apart four years back, eventually migrating into a three ring binder for safekeeping.  Allow me to skirt around a direct discussion of the publisher but say in my non-expert opinion that the glue was not up to the test.  For a “field guide” binding durability and flexibility is paramount.

I was delighted to hear through the blogs a new edition of the book had rolled off the presses.   This edition is published by Scarecrow Press, and offers about 50 more content pages.  The binding is certainly stouter, as the book can lay open on my desk without creasing the comb.  Time will tell if it is up to the tests of field duty.  The page layout and format reduces white space, so in addition to just fifty more pages, the pages have more content than before.

Like the old edition, the new opens with a forward by historian Edwin C. Bearss.  After acknowledgments, an introduction provides the reader an update on the state of the Washington defenses.  Three other prefaces invite the user to help with further research, explain what visitors will see at the fort sites, and offer an administrative note about maps.  The later promises to offer GPS coordinates for the forts in later editions.  (I would offer up our historical marker series, the Defenses of Washington, for those who’d like to use marker related GPS data.)

The chapters offered in the new edition are the same as that of the old.  Chapter one is a well documented orientation to the defenses.  Chapter two is a reprint from General John G. Barnard’s A Report on the Defenses of Washington to the Corps of Engineers, providing the technical aspects of the fortifications.  Chapters three through six discuss the specific forts, broken out into geographic sections – south of the Potomac, north of the Potomac, east of the Anacostia, and the river forts.  Appendices include a short biography of General Barnard, ordnance statistics, engineer glossary, essay on communications, reprint of regulations for care of earthworks, and (added in this edition) selected engineering drawings.

The heart of the book, what will interest most of the “battlefield stompers” is those last four chapters.  An entry for a fort starts with location information, generally describing the driving route from the previous fort, but often giving street addresses.  The next paragraph describes any visible remains and mentions interpretive markers on site.  The description section relates details of the fort’s history, construction, purpose, and armament.  The notes/anecdotes section provides any background information, collected stories, and often a list of units which garrisoned the fortification.  Included throughout is an outstanding set of photographs, engineering plans, and other illustrations.

The directions are impeccable, and get my whole approval.  I spend many of my work day dodging traffic around some of the same neighborhoods and find the routes logical and easy to follow.  However as each chapter assumes a start to finish tour, visitors isolating a single fort might be confused picking up directions in the middle.  I would advise, even if you are familiar with the area, a map check before you tour.  And during a tour the use of a quality street map and/or GPS.

Surprisingly, I noted very few changes to the visible remains paragraphs.  One case that stands out is Fort Lyon in Alexandria, Virginia.  There, property owners have cut backyard access through the old fort traces.  In 1988 only one such cut existed, but sadly the authors note several such in place today.

While to some degree the lack of significant changes noted about the remains does bode well for preservation, there are threats.  The authors note the pending deactivation of Walter Reed Hospital, important ground for interpreting the attack on Fort Stevens.  Several forts, particularly Forts Totten and DuPont, suffer from bike traffic which damages and erodes the remains.  Some of the changes reflected include administrative changes, as property moved to city or county parks.  But the authors note a threat to Fort Ethan Allen where misguided managers modified a park as part of a multi-use plan (a $400,000 dog park!).   I found the discussion of recent history regarding Fort Marcy rather balanced, adding “the event is an interesting study in what happens to a Civil War site when it becomes a high-profile crime scene.”

My only point of criticism is the identification of some artillery pieces.   The authors of Mr. Lincoln’s Forts tend to mix the proper identification of the 4.5-inch Siege Rifle with the non-standard, and erroneous nomenclature of 4.5-inch Rodman.   The ordnance statistics in the appendix even identifies the weapon as a “Rodman.”  While period reports sometimes used the name “Rodman” for this type of gun, I feel perpetuating the error can confuse readers.   And adding to the confusion, the appendix in question proposes the “Rodman” might actually be a 4.62-inch rifle Model 1862, noting Warren Ripley’s Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War.   In his book, Ripley correctly identifies the 4.5-inch Siege Rifle as a Federal type, without the Rodman name.  However Ripley notes the 4.62-inch Siege Rifle as a limited production Confederate model.  But these are minor points, that only an artillery aficionado such as my self would pick out, which do not detract from the overall work.

Overall I must rate Mr. Lincoln’s Forts as a must have for anyone interested in the eastern theater and Civil War fortifications.  At $34, a softbound copy is within reach of most budgets.  The guide will sit well on the shelf as a reference book.  And at the same time should accompany any who wish to visit the forts in person.  I have already carried my copy out on two excursions.  Doubtless it will see more in the near future.  Just hope the binding holds up this time!

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5 responses to “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts

  1. Hey – thanks for the “review”… I think I shall put this on my wish list…

  2. Sounds like I need to get a copy of this one for the Fort DeRussy (Louisiana) library. But please tell me that they are not still claiming that Washington’s Fort DeRussy was built by the 4th New York Heavy Artillery. (When the fort was built, that unit hadn’t yet been mustered in.)

    • I’m not an expert on the regiment, but I know the Fort was built in the spring of 1862. Secondary sources say the regiment mustered in February 1862. So it seems quite plausible the 4th NY Heavy was involved with that particular Fort’s construction.

      • In OR 5, pages 678-685, there is a letter dated December 10, 1861, from Major J. G. Barnard to General J. G. Totten, Chief of Engineers, and reference is made in that letter (page 681) to Fort DeRussy already being manned and armed. I stand by my original assertion.