Need heavy guns on the Potomac: Seacoast defenses for Washington

Even after all direct threats to Washington, D.C. abated with the end of the Gettysburg Campaign, at least one man in the capital city saw the need to improve defenses.

On September 1, 1863, Brigadier-General John G. Barnard wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:

The works of Rozier’s Bluff, and near Jones’ Point are nearly ready to receive guns–in fact they could have been mounted some time ago, had the guns and platforms been available. You are well aware that not only are the large seaport towns, like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia making strenuous exertions to increase their armament of improved guns, but even places of a (comparatively) secondary importance, like Portland, &c. If we have war with a maritime power (a possibility which incites all these preparations), the land defenses of Washington will prove unavailing unless also the access by water is prevented.

There is not now a gun mounted for the defense of the Potomac capable of having the slightest effect upon an iron-clad vessel. As it seems to devolve upon me to represent the necessities of Washington, I would recommend that among the guns which actually do become available, a fair proportion should be assigned to Washington.

The Ordnance Department is doing all that can be done to furnish guns. It has no voice, however, in their distribution, and as there are no Governors of States or commissions of citizens to advocate the needs of Washington, I feel called on to make this representation.

A few days later, Barnard would recommend the fortification on Rozier’s Bluff, on the Maryland side of the river, receive the name Fort Foote in honor of Rear-Admiral Andrew H. Foote, who died earlier in the year.  The battery near Jones’ Point was named Battery Rogers after Captain G.W. Roders, killed in action off Morris Island in August.

Not finished petitioning for heavy guns to defend the Potomac, 150 years ago yesterday (September 23), Barnard again called upon the secretary about matter:

By letter of the 1st instant. I represented the importance of speedily arming the two works built for the defense of the Potomac approach to Washington. At your request I mentioned the number or improved sea-coast guns which I thought should be immediately supplied, and I mentioned eight, in consideration of the great demand for guns at the different sea-ports.

This was an off-hand statement, and I have since reflected on the matter, and have come to the conclusion that since there is no armament in Fort Washington of any value whatever, and that these two works will constitute, just now, the real defenses of Washington against maritime attack, the full armament of these works (namely, three 15-inch guns and thirteen 200-pounders) should be furnished very speedily. In case of war with a maritime power, allied with the rebellion, the defense of Washington can hardly be considered second in importance to that of New York.

I have, therefore, to request that in your directions to the Ordnance Department it may be directed to furnish the last-mentioned number of guns as speedily as possible.

Conventional wisdom is that all chances of foreign recognition, and thus intervention of a maritime power in support of the Confederacy, faded with the repulse of Pickett’s Charge.  Yet, here Barnard cites it as if a imminent threat.  Eventually Barnard would get those guns:

Now was the threat of a “maritime power,” allied with the Confederacy, with ironclads on the Potomac much of a real threat in the summer of 1863?  Or was Barnard trying to perfect the defenses while he had leverage?

Consider the quantities of heavy guns received by the Army after Gettysburg:

  • 8-inch Rodman Guns, 123 delivered  from a total of 213 produced.
  • 10-inch Rodman Guns, 1270 of 1301 total produced.
  • 15-inch Rodman Guns, 313 out of 323 produced.
  • 10-inch Parrott Rifles, 40 out of 42 produced.
  • 8-inch Parrott Rifles, 69 out of 91 produced for the Army.
  • 6.4-inch Parrott Rifles, 98 out of 233 produced for the Army.

The tallies don’t count for experimental types or those delivered to the Navy but borrowed by the Army.  But the numbers do include those delivered after the war, on wartime contracts.

Could we make the case that the Army capitalized on the increased wartime spending in order to “get healthy” on what was still considered the primary mission?  That mission being coastal defense, of course.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 29, Part II, Serial 49, pages 149 and 226.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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