By Doug Coleman
Most Alexandrians are familiar with Fort Ward, but fewer are aware that Alexandria was protected by nine other forts and many smaller batteries. The first was Fort Ellsworth, constructed on Shuter’s Hill after the occupation of Alexandria in May of 1861 and named after the first Union combat death, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth. Following the Yankee defeat at Manassas in July, they were hemmed in by Confederates, who were as close as Bailey’s Crossroads. In September of 1861, the invaders began throwing up a defensive perimeter in earnest. Soon a number of forts sprung up on the heights surrounding Alexandria. To the south across Hunting Creek were Fort Lyon, where the Huntington Metro is today, and a then a number of supporting redoubts stretching to the hills overlooking Belle Haven, including Forts Farnsworth, Weed, O’Rourke and Willard.
Between Forts Ellsworth and Ward was Fort Worth. This one of the most important forts of the 68 surrounding the capital because of its commanding position on Seminary Ridge. Look out (preferably at night) from the crest of the hill where Saint Stephens and Saint Agnes upper school is today and one will immediately appreciate the vast amount of real estate commanded by the heavy guns of the fort.
Construction began in September 1861 on land owned by Arthur Herbert, one of the founders of Burke & Herbert Bank. Herbert was absent at Manassas with the 17th Virginia; he would serve through the war and eventually rose to become the regiment’s colonel. His house and outbuildings were torn down and the bricks and boards used for construction of the fort. Nearby Vaucluse, located where the ER for Alexandria Hospital is today, suffered the same fate.
What went up on Herbert’s property was a self-flanking four bastioned redoubt with a perimeter of 463 yards, or about half the size of Fort Ward. It was constructed of the heavy clay and cobbles found on that hill, surrounded by a deep wide ditch backed by a thick earthen parapet. Inside were two brick powder magazines and a long bombproof differing in construction from the standard in that it was entirely underground and lacked the characteristic mounded face. It was set up to mount about 25 guns, including a 100 pounder Parrott and several 30 pounders and 4.5 inch rifles. These guns could accurately throw their shells 7000 yards – four miles. Additionally, the fort contained emplacements for heavy mortars and standard field artillery. In the bastions, fast-firing 6 pounders could blast canister rounds across the abattis of interwoven tree branches surrounding the perimeter.
Down the hill lay the “road to Fairfax” – the Little River Turnpike – and the Orange & Alexandria Railroad; the fort’s main batteries were focused in that direction, though the 100 pounder in the south bastion could sweep the 180 degree arc from Alexandria to Edsall’s Hill (Landmark Shopping Center). This suggests the real purpose of these forts – essentially they were fire bases as in Viet Nam, set up to dominate the surrounding countryside to prevent enemy concentration and movement. Nor could Lee’s army expect to get its own artillery within range of Alexandria, its camps or even of the forts themselves. The heavy guns in the forts substantially outranged and outclassed the type of light field artillery travelling with the Confederate army. On the hills, even Federal field artillery would outrange similar guns below – and the Federal artillery would enjoy the protection of earthworks and pre-surveyed ranges to prominent landmarks. To give one some idea of the destructive power of a big Parrott, a 200 pounder fired into a Confederate camp at Yorktown took out 17 soldiers with a single shell. Forts Ellsworth, Worth and Ward each had a 100 pounder pointed into the Valley of Hunting Creek, while Fort Lyon had several 100 and 200 pounders pointed in that direction.
In actual experience, the Yankees found that the fort was too high above the Little River Turnpike to cover it by night, as the commander discovered following the disaster at Second Manassas in 1863. They fixed this problem by constructing Fort Williams on Cooper’s (Traitor’s) Hill at the top of Quaker Lane, tearing down Cooper’s house now for bricks to construct a powder magazine. Fort Williams and its supporting batteries and trench lines flanked Fort Worth and Little River Turnpike quite well. The construction of batteries on the hill where Bishop Ireton School is today and then block houses below effectively sealed the road.
The gap between Fort Worth and Fort Ward was connected by a line of trenches with battery emplacements for field guns at intervals; these batteries were left empty, but could be quickly filled with field artillery if the need arose. Several hundred yards of this trench line is well-preserved on the grounds of Episcopal High School, including several battery emplacements. A tiny portion of the hockey stick shaped battery just north of Fort Worth is still standing at the edge of the soccer field at Saint Stephens and Saint Agnes School. On the other side, there is still a sunken battery emplacement at the crest of the hill in Fort Williams Park, while the magnificent powder magazine at Fort Williams is almost completely intact.
Following the war, Colonel Herbert returned to his hill and constructed his beautiful mansion “Muckross” in the south bastion of the fort. His cousin Constance Cary Harrison noted that he at least got two solid masonry cellars out of the deal, leading to speculation that the south magazine is the basement of the house. I have been in that house; the basement is a dark stone and seems too large for a magazine, leading one to wonder what did become of the south magazine. Delevan Miller, revisiting Fort Worth 25 years after the war, says it was the bombproof being used as an outside cellar. The north magazine, on the other hand, was obvious when I was a kid. It had a mound about seven or eight feet high, with brick stairs descending into the earth and turning right at the bottom. At the turn, it was blocked by large concrete blocks, probably from the 100 pounder emplacement Colonel Herbert had to uproot when he constructed his new house. Circa 1977, we learned why he had blocked the magazine – a bulldozer rediscovered it, turning up a lot of 4.5 inch Schenkl shells and other assorted ordnance abandoned by the Yankees. A Google Earth peek at the site today demonstrates the clear outline of the interior of the magazine along Harris Place, leading one to wonder if a good portion of the structure isn’t still down there, perhaps with additional ordnance.
The fort is gone now. In 1969 there was a plan to put in townhouses and largely preserve the area, which represented one of the densest areas of Civil War archaeology imaginable with its adjacent camps, trenches and supporting batteries. Except for the south bastion occupied by Muckross, the fort was almost completely intact – more so than Fort Ward, but the townhouses lost and the area became Pulte tract homes. Today there is a sign marking the site and not much more. I sketched the fort and house from the next hill in 1970, but that is long lost. If anyone has photos, relics or other information, I would love to hear from you.
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at email@example.com.