“The weakest feature in this line of works… is their liability to be surprised.”: Washington Defenses May 1864

On this day (May 17) in 1864, Brigadier-General Albion P. Howe, inspector of artillery (and former division commander in the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps), submitted a lengthy report examining the defenses of Washington, D.C.  The Secretary of War assigned this task to Howe in late April.  No doubt the justification for this inspection came from Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant’s orders to pull troops out of the Washington defenses for service in the field.

In proper military order, Howe put his bottom line up front:

After a careful examination of the line of works I am of the opinion that they are ample in their engineering and artillery strength for the purpose for which they were intended–the defense of Washington.

But the devil was in the details.  Howe considered the defenses separately for north and south sides of the Potomac.  And even within that split, he separated the sections of the line into groupings, or classes.

For the works south of the Potomac, Howe grouped these as such:

First, those which immediately cover approaches to the city, and are within artillery command of the city; second, those which cover approaches, and are beyond the range of artillery command; third, those which do not cover approaches to the city, and are beyond the range of artillery from the city.

In his assessment of the First Class, Howe offered an observation which might have applied to all the works:

With an artillery strength of men sufficient to develop the fire of the forts, and a proper support of infantry, I am of opinion that the works cannot be carried by an assault.

But he added, in the next paragraph:

The weakest feature in this line of works, and it obtains more or less throughout the whole line of the defenses, is their liability to be surprised. The garrisons of the works, with the exception of small guards, are quartered outside the works. No infantry force has been kept between and near the line of the works. The outpost guards have been very weak. The character of the topography of the country for miles outside of the works, with the numerous roads, all favor and invite a sudden and covered dash upon the works.

So as formidable as the defenses were, Howe worried there was insufficient manpower to maintain and defend the line.  An unmanned fort can only embarrass the enemy’s line of march, if I may.

Looking north of the Potomac, Howe rated the works as such:

The works on the north side of the Potomac are a continuous line of forts from Fort Sumner, on the river above the city, to Fort Greble, on the river below the city. The forts in this line are in artillery support of each other, and connected throughout by earthern epaulements. …. The most important position of this line is that part included between Forts Sumner and Slocum, as it covers the approaches to the city on the river line of roads. The most important works in this portion of the line are Forts Stevens, Reno, Sumner, and Slocum. The portion of the line between Fort Slocum and the Eastern Branch is less liable to be assailed, and that portion of the line east of the Eastern Branch the least liable to attack of any part of the whole defenses….

Four forts in the works deserve special attention here.  Forts Stevens, Reno, Summer, and Slocum.   (And note that Fort Reno included a secondary work known as Battery Reno.)  I chose the map above for this reason.  Notice the notations related to “Battle of July 11th and 12th” north of Washington.  Yes, there’s something we will observe a 150th for in a few months.   Howe’s detailed evaluation of those four forts read:

Fort Sumner, Col. Daniel Chaplin commanding.–Garrison, six companies First Maine Heavy Artillery–1 colonel, 30 commissioned officers, I ordnance-sergeant, 868 men. Armament, six 6-pounder field guns, four 12-pounder field guns, eight 30-pounder barbette, three 8-inch siege howitzers, two Coehorn mortars, one 10-inch mortar, six 4½-inch rifled, two 100-pounder Parrotts. Magazines, two; only one of which is dry and in good condition. Ammunition, not a full supply; serviceable. Implements, full set and serviceable. Drill in artillery, fair. Drill in infantry, fair. Discipline, fair. Garrison is sufficient….

Fort Reno, Col. Lewis O. Morris commanding.–Garrison, four companies Seventh New York Heavy Artillery–21 commissioned officers, 1 ordnance-sergeant, 602 men. Armament, nine 24-pounder barbette, one 24-pounder F. D. howitzer, two 8-inch siege howitzers, two Coehorn mortars, two 10-inch mortars, four 30-pounder Parrotts, one 100-pounder Parrott. Magazines, two; dry and serviceable. Ammunition, full supply and serviceable. Implements, complete and serviceable. Drill in artillery, indifferent; wants improving much. Drill in infantry, very indifferent; wants more energy and attention in the commanding officers. Discipline, too loose for efficiency. Garrison is ample strength.

[Battery] Reno, Capt. S. E. Jones commanding.–Garrison, one company Seventh New York Heavy Artillery–5 commissioned officers, 1 ordnance-sergeant, 149 men. Armament, seven 20-pounder Parrotts. Magazines, one; dry and in good order. Ammunition, full supply and serviceable. Implements, complete and serviceable. Drill in artillery, indifferent; wants improving. Drill in infantry, very indifferent; but little attention seems to have been given to it. Discipline, deficient. Garrison is of sufficient strength….

Fort Stevens, Lieut. Col. R. C. Benton commanding.–Garrison, two companies Eleventh Vermont Volunteers (First Vermont Heavy Artillery), one company New Hampshire Heavy Artillery (unattached)–1 lieutenant-colonel, 14 commissioned officers, 1 ordnance-sergeant, 423 men. Armament, four 24-pounder barbette, six 24-pounder siege, two 8-inch siege howitzers, one Coehorn mortar, one 10-inch mortar, five 30-pounder Parrotts. Magazines, two; dry and in good order. Ammunition, full supply and in good order. Implements, complete and in good order. Drill in artillery, fair. Drill in infantry, fair. Discipline, fair. Garrison of sufficient strength….

Fort Slocum, Lieut. Col. R. C. Benton commanding.–Garrison, two companies First Vermont Artillery–l lieutenant-colonel, 10 commissioned officers, 1 ordnance-sergeant, 280 men. Armament, six 10-pounder Parrotts, three 24-pounder barbette, three 24-pounder siege, four 24-pounder F. D. howitzers, two Coehorn mortars, one 10-inch mortar, seven 4½-inch (rifled). Magazines, three; dry and in good condition. Ammunition, full supply and in good order. Implements, complete and in good order. Drill in artillery, fair. Drill in infantry, fair. Discipline, fair. Garrison not of sufficient strength….

In May 1864, the Washington defenses bristled with guns, ranging from the heavy Parrotts, and along the river even some large Rodman guns, all the way down to field pieces and coehorn mortars.  But, no matter how strong those positions might look…

… the works needed men to make them a proper “fort.”  The 1st Maine, 7th New York, and 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery Regiments, then manning those critical forts listed above, were soon to depart for Virginia among several other “heavies” to reinforce the Army of the Potomac.  A gamble, perhaps not so risky in the spring of 1864, that these troops might be spared from the defenses of Washington.

(Howe’s report appears in OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part II, Serial 68, pages 883-897.)

3 thoughts on ““The weakest feature in this line of works… is their liability to be surprised.”: Washington Defenses May 1864

  1. Do you know what that device is below and to the right of the gun with the #13 on it?

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