Fort Foote

Finally got around to a belated trip report and marker entries for Fort Foote, Maryland. I visited the fort during the first week of March, and in spite of the near freezing wind, enjoyed the walk.  The advantage to the “off season” in the DC area generally is less traffic.  Since Fort Foote is certifiably “off the beaten path” this isn’t a worry even in July.  The other advantage, for Fort Foote, is without all the summer vegetation, sections of the fort are much easier to visually trace.  The marker set for Fort Foote includes five interpretive waysides.  Several markers on site show signs of wear, weather, and neglect.  The map view is noteworthy, since the satellite image was made during the winter months, details of the fort’s works including the central traverse, are clear to see.  Also visible from space are two large black objects:

15in Rodman in Barbette

For the Civil War artillery enthusiast, one lure to the fort is to examine these two 49,000 pound monsters.   After all you don’t find 15-inch Rodman Guns laying about just anywhere.

Fort Foote was built between 1863 and 1865 primarily to defend the river approaches to Washington, D.C.  This section of the system included nearby Fort Washington, downstream on the Maryland side of the Potomac, and Fort Hunt and Battery Rogers on the Virginia side of the river.   Fort Foote, unlike most other forts defending Washington, continued to be used after the war including active service through 1878, and a brief period of administrative use during World War I.

During the Civil War, the fort’s armament consisted of the two 15-inch Rodmans, between two and four 8-inch Parrott Rifles, and six 30-pounder Parrott Rifles (facing the land side approaches to the fort).  After the war, Fort Foote became somewhat of a demonstration area, with a wider assortment of guns.  When de-activated in 1878, the armament included, in addition to the original guns,  six 12-pounder Napoleons, one 6-pounder field gun,  two 4.5-in rifles, four 3-inch rifled guns, six 10-inch siege mortars, two 8-inch siege mortars, five 24-pounder Coehorn mortars, and two different types of Gatling guns.

Due in part to its proximity to the capital, Fort Foote was often visited by the President and other distinguished guests.  Apparently the favorite activity during these “dog and pony shows” was the firing of the Rodman guns.  During the post war era, at least one of the Rodmans was mounted on a modified carriage, which was an evolutionary step towards the disappearing guns that became an important component for the American seacoast defenses until World War II.  After the fort was discontinued, the big guns remained on site, neglected and forgotten.   Only in the 1980s when the National Park Service took over the site were the guns remounted and restored.

The two guns on site are both products of Cyrus Alger & Co.   The first weapon of this type cast by Alger, from 1863 is the western most of the two.  Stamped with the initials “TJR” and a weight of 49,392 lbs., No 1 was inspected by Thomas Rodman himself.  The other, registry number 30, was inspected by Clifton Comly (C.C.) in 1864, and weighs 49,618 pounds.  Here’s the “business end” of the two showing the markings:

RodmanNo1Rodman 30

These large Rodmans also feature the distinctive “mushroom” knob at the breech end:

Rodman Mushroom

This shape replaced the traditional ball shaped knob.  With such tremendous weights involved, the traditional ball/knob and neck type cascabel was structurally a weak point.  Used mostly as a purchase for ropes associated with lifting tackle, the neck tended to break when stressed.  Rodman’s solution was simply to flatten the neck and knob, forming what we’d probably call today a more streamlined design.  The groove around the “knob” provided a strong and durable anchor point for the lifting ropes.  Also seen from this view are the sockets used for the elevating mechanism, another Rodman innovation. 

Overall a good walk in the woods to see the two iron monsters still faithfully guarding the Potomac. 


References consulted:

 Olmstead, Edwin, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker. The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon. Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997.

Coolin, Benjamin Franklin III and Walton H. Owen II. Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing Co, Inc., 1988.