By Doug Coleman
In May of 1861, the Yankees occupied Alexandria. The Confederates were not far off and were gathering in force at Manassas Junction, just 30 miles away. It was imperative that they throw up fortifications to hold their bridgehead into Virginia, the port city of Alexandria, to guard against any onslaught to push them out.
Anyone who lives in Alexandria is familiar with the Masonic Temple, which crowns the high ground just west of the city. These heights, known as Shuter’s Hill, were situated such as to command the two main roads into Alexandria, the Little River Turnpike and the Leesburg Turnpike. Their occupation and fortification would block these routes and additionally deny any Confederate counter-offensive the high ground to force evacuation of the city through the placement of batteries. Keep in mind that Alexandria was open ground back then, with long vistas from the hill and largely unobstructed fields of fire.
Construction of the fort began on the heights on May 25, 1861, just a day after the invasion. It was named after Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, who had stormed into a local hotel to tear down a large Stars and Bars flying on the roof. The proprietor, James Jackson, gave Ellsworth a barrel-full of sic semper tyrannis to the chest as he descended the stairs with his trophy. Jackson was then instantly dispatched by a zouave named Brown, who was later awarded the Medal of Honor for murdering Jackson in his home. Jackson and Ellsworth were the only casualties of the invasion on that day.
The fort was one of the larger and more important of the 68 which would eventually ring Washington and Alexandria. It was listed as having a perimeter of 618 yards, with emplacements for almost thirty guns, including a 100 pounder Parrott which could sweep the valley of Hunting Creek and the heights beyond. A month from the invasion, Col. J. Howard Kitching of the 6th New York Artillery arrived to find the fort substantially completed, with some four hundred sailors putting the finishing touches on the place; Kitching would later die of wounds right as the war ended. He notes that the fort already contained comfortable quarters within the work; later there would be additional barracks built to the east on the opposite slope, meaning that Fort Ellsworth would be an oft-visited campsite mentioned frequently in regimental histories and letters home. The fort also contained the subterranean magazines and bombproofs standard to the forts around Washington.
To give one an idea of this fort as a landmark, when the time came to hang a Yankee who had been convicted of the rape and murder of a free black woman, so as to impress the whole army that this was not okay, the miscreant was hanged on the ramparts of Fort Ellsworth, with a large portion of the Army of Potomac observing from the hillside to the east.
It was not always a comfortable campsite. One commander complained that he had to bury a number of rotting horses before the hill could be inhabited without retching. And the winters were hard – nearby was the convalescent camp, which contained thousands of soldiers too sick for the hospital, but not ready to return to their units. There is one story of a convalescent ranging as far as Fort Worth scavenging stumps of their roots to burn to keep warm. The commander of the fort complained that he could not maintain the fort’s abatis (interwoven tree branches which served as a perimeter barrier like modern barbed-wire) because troops were stealing it for firewood.
A year later, in June of 1862, the New York Times reported that the field works on the hill were nearly complete. These field works included supporting rifle trenches east of the fort (still evident) and Battery Dahlgren northeast of the fort overlooking King Street at the crest of the hill. The article also mentions detached artillery defending the roads and fully thirty 10 pounder rifled guns on the hill, which the Times opined made the fort sufficient to withstand 10,000 Confederates. Maybe (see Fort Pillow massacre). The attached image of Battery Dahlgren’s construction right after First Manassas is instructive in showing Alexandria in the distance and demonstrating just how much the grade of the hill has changed as it was developed for housing.
It was ultimately this development for housing which destroyed Fort Ellsworth and Battery Dahlgren. Battery Dahlgren is simply gone. The rifle trenches on the hill behind the Masonic Temple have had a hard time, but one can still discern their trace. Fort Ellsworth itself has been scraped flat, with half of it under the Fort Ellsworth condominiums now. But in the field to the west of the Temple, if one ascends the observation deck of the Masonic Temple or zooms in on Google Maps, the outline of the other half is still evident. The archaeological record obliterated is a real loss. Nonetheless, the trace which is left is clear enough to guide reconstruction if anyone had a mind to restore the fort along the lines of Fort Ward.
Famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Alexandria and mused on the significance of these forts in our time:
We paid a visit to Fort Ellsworth, and from its ramparts (which have been heaped up out of the muddy soil within the last few months, and will require still a year or two to make them verdant) we had a beautiful view of the Potomac, a truly majestic river, and the surrounding country. The fortifications, so numerous in all this region, and now so unsightly with their bare, precipitous sides will remain as historic monuments, grass-grown and picturesque memorials of an epoch of terror and suffering: they will serve to make our country dearer and more interesting to us, and afford fit soil for poetry to root itself in: for this is a plant which thrives best in spots where blood has been spilt long ago, and grows in abundant clusters in old ditches, such as the moat around Fort Ellsworth will be a century hence. It may seem to be paying dear for what many will reckon but a worthless weed; but the more historical associations we can link with our localities, the richer will be the daily life that feeds upon the past, and the more valuable the things that have been long established: so that our children will be less prodigal than their fathers in sacrificing good institutions to passionate impulses and impracticable theories. This herb of grace, let us hope, may be found in the old footprints of the war.
No one has said it better than Hawthorne: these old moats and mounds are worth preserving because they remind us that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. In this divided time, isn’t this just what we are doing?
Sources: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Atlantic, Chiefly About War Matters; New York Times, June 26, 1862; J. Howard Kitching, More than a Conqueror.
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at email@example.com.