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Fort Foote on the Potomac
Excerpts from the "FootePrints Newsletter
Volume 10, Issue 2, Fall 2010"]

Drawing of Fort Foote

During the Civil War our Government built 68 forts Around the Nation's Capital. These earth and log Structures were designed To be temporary field fortifications And only resist The attack of ground forces Such as infantry, cavalry, and Artillery.

In March 1862, the battle between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia created panic in Washington. As the war progressed, many European countries seemed eager to join the fight on the side of the Confederacy. Fort Washington on the Potomac River 16 miles below Washington was considered too far away to be adequately supported.

Therefore, protection of the capital from naval attack became a major concern and army engineers began building earthworks on Rozier's Bluff to resist naval bombardment. Col. John G. Barnard, who planned, designed, and oversaw the building of Fort Foote, said it was:

". . . in many respects, model works. Fort Foote was constructed for the purpose of defending, in connection with Battery Rogers [two miles up and across the river] the water approach to the city. It was situated six miles below Washington, on a commanding bluff of the Maryland shore, elevated 100 feet above the river.

The fort was essentially completed in the fall of 1863, and was designed as a water battery of eight 200-pounder Parrott rifles and two 15-inch guns."

Clash of the Ironsides
The CSS Virginia was originally named USS Merrimack before being scuttled by the Union and then salvaged by the Confederacy and converted into a casemate ironclad ram. She destroyed two Union vessels in the Elizabeth River on March 8, 1862 and returned the following day with the goal of sinking the Minnesota. However she found the Monitor waiting for her, having arrived the previous night after a perilous voyage from New York.

An historic battle, the first between ironclads, ushered in the era of the industrial Navy. It ended ingloriously that afternoon in a stalemate. The two ships never met again, Verginia was distroyed two months later by her crew after a futile effort to decrease her draft in order to flee up the James River. Near the end of the year, Monitor was sent South. She was caught in a storm off Cape Hatteras and Foundered. Her wrech was found in 1974 and is now a marine sanctuary.

Guns of the Fort
Rodman Cannon, also known as a Columbiad. The enormous smoothbore cannons weighed 25 tons and required 45 pounds of gun powder to send a 440-pound round-shot over 5,000 yards. Rodman Gun
picture of a large cannon


During the Civil War the 15-inch guns cost the government $9,000 each $159,000 in today's value), but they could do major damage to a wooden ship. At close range, even the ironclads were not safe from the massive weapons. The two guns on display at Fort Foote were cast at Cyrus Alger Company in 1863 and 1864.

Duty at Fort Foote was considered unhealthy. A large swamp plagued the post with malaria during the summer and the lack of pure water made typhoid a constant threat. As many as half the garrison would be on the sick list at any time.

On October 22, 1864, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells, who was a good friend of Andrew Foote's, visited the fort for the first firing of its new 200-pounder Parrott rifles. The Civil War was beginning to wind down and Washingtonians were starting to question the post-war usefulness of the numerous forts protecting the capital.
Said Secretary Wells:

. . . a vast amount of labor has been uselessly expended. In going over the works, a melancholy feeling came over me, that there should have been so much waste, for the fort is not wanted and will never fire a hostile gun. No hostile fleet will ever ascend the Potomac.

After the Civil War, the government began dismantling the defenses of Washington. Fort Foote, however, was retained and used as a military prison during 1868 and 1869.

The garrison was removed from the fort in 1878, leaving it an abandoned military post. It was used periodically during World Wars I and II for training purposes. After WWII, it was transferred to the Department of the Interior to become part of the national parks system.

Additional Links

Fort Foote Park in Maryland
Images of Fort Foote Park
Additional Information about Fort Foote


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(Last updated 28 December 2016)