“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.)

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.)

Elevating Gear for your 30-pdr Parrott

I’ve used this photo a few times now. It is a 30-pdr Parrott rifle at Lee’s Hill at Fredericksburg.

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30-pdr Parrott, registry #341, on Lee’s Hill at Fredericksburg

The carriage is a metal reproduction, replacing a wooden carriage which had badly deteriorated (and left the 4200 pound gun in an unsafe condition). The carriage is a close copy of a siege carriage. You see the rest or cradle on the stock and the traveling trunnions on the cheeks, which were used to situate the gun to the rear of the carriage while on the move. Notice also the carriage lacks the loop at the base of the trail, seen on the smaller field gun carriages. But there’s another fine point of detail to note about this carriage mounting.

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Side view of the Parrott showing the elevating screw and gear

This Parrott carriage lacks the standard elevating screw and four handled head that is seen on most reproductions. Instead there is a long threaded screw, offset to the left, and a single crank.

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Elevating gear on 30pdr Parrott

Notice how the screw is fixed with a single bolt to an eye on the carriage trail (bottom of this view). The single arm and handle at the top of the screw provides clearance for the gunner. The screw rotates through a brass nut. That nut has a pin fitting directly into a piercing within the knob of the gun.

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Right side of Parrott Breech

Very simple in concept. Turn the elevating screw and the travel of the nut will impart elevation on the gun. The Navy and Army used elevating screws of this type on heavy guns. A good example of such wartime use is this photo from the Washington defenses.

The Parrot rifle on the left has the single handle elevating gear offset to the left.

Just a fine detail point to consider on your next visit to Fredericksburg. My contribution to the “how did it work” file for the day.