Thursday, January 18, 2018

Alexandria’s Military Prisons in the Civil War

The Cotton Factory

The Union Army operated five prisons in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War.  The Mount Vernon Cotton Factory, now transformed into luxury condominiums, housed some 1,500 Confederate POWs. Prisoners housed at this Washington Street prison were generally in route to prison camps in the North.  Spies and enemy sympathizers were housed in Odd Fellows Hall. 

The Duke Street slave pen

The Duke Street slave pen was used to house drunken and disorderly Union soldiers. Union deserters were imprisoned in the Prince Street prison (formerly Green’s Furniture Factory which had been requisitioned by the Army).  The old Alexandria Jail, in use since 1826 was also used.  Captain Rufus D. Pettit served as superintendent of U.S. Military Prisons in Alexandria (1864-65).    In November, 1865, Pettit was court-martialed for his brutal treatment of prisoners he believed to be deserters from the Union army, found guilty and dishonorably discharged.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

St. Mary’s Church, Fairfax Station, and the Founding of the American Red Cross

In 1838, two Catholic families donated a tract of land near what is now Fairfax Station, Virginia in hopes of having a church built and a Catholic cemetery consecrated. A cemetery was created immediately. Irish immigrants became the nucleus of the new parish. Their names are inscribed on the cemetery’s tombstones. St. Mary’s church (seen below) was dedicated in 1860.

St. Mary's Church 

After the Second Battle of Manassas in August, 1862, Clara Barton, a clerk at the Government Patent Office, who had gathered a group of volunteers, nursed the wounded for three days at St. Mary’s Church. Many soldiers died and were buried in the churchyard. There was no official system for identifying the dead. The lucky could rely on friends to write to the family.  In the spring of 1865, Clara Barton established the Missing Soldiers Office in Washington City.  This organization helped provide information about 22,000 soldiers to anxious families.

Clara Barton

As a result of her experiences in the Civil War, Clara Barton went on to establish the American Red Cross.  She began this project in 1873, but was initially told that since the United States would never again face a crisis like the Civil War such an organization was unnecessary. Barton finally succeeded in convincing critics by using the argument that the American Red Cross could respond to crises other than war such as earthquakes, forest fires, and hurricanes. Clara Barton became President of the American Red Cross in May 1881.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 1921

On March 4, 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American serviceman from World War I at Arlington National Cemetery. A highly decorated soldier, Sgt. Edward F. Younger, selected from four identical caskets. The World War I Unknown lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda prior to burial at Arlington National Cemetery.  On Armistice Day, November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over the interment ceremonies. 

Even in 1921 the intention had been to place a superstructure atop the Tomb, but it was not until 1926 that Congress authorized the necessary funds for completion of the Tomb.  Architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones won a design competition for a tomb that would consist of seven pieces of marble in four levels (cap, die, base and sub-base.)  The “die” is the large central block with sculpting on all four sides. By September, 1931 all seven blocks of marble were at the Tomb site. By the end of December 1931, the assembly was completed.  Carvings on the central block under the direction of the sculptor Thomas Jones started thereafter. The Tomb was completed in April, 1932.

Installation of the sarcophagus for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Tomb sarcophagus was dedicated on April 9, 1932.  The marble sarcophagus weighs seventy nine tons and is inscribed, “Here Lies in Honored Glory – An American Soldier – Known But to God”.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Golden Era of Potomac River Bridge Building

Construction of Memorial Bridge ( view from the Lincoln Memorial)

     The 1930s saw the construction of two new bridges across the Potomac.  The Arlington Memorial Bridge, widely regarded as Washington’s most beautiful bridge, was opened on January 16, 1932.  Memorial Bridge was designed to symbolically link North and South in its alignment between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial.  The functional Point of Rocks Bridge connecting Loudoun County with Maryland was completed in 1937.

Memorial Bridge from the air

     The late 1950s and early 1960s were the hey-day of bridge building in Northern Virginia.  As part of the Interstate Highway System created by Congress in 1956, the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge was opened in 1961.  The American Legion Memorial Bridge, originally known as the Cabin John Bridge, was built in 1963.  The Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, connecting Rosslyn to Washington was opened June 23, 1964.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Long Bridge Across the Potomac River

The Long Bridge

The Long Bridge, the ancestor of the five bridges which are now collectively known as the 14th Street Bridge, was a wooden toll bridge opened in 1809 by a private firm called the Washington Bridge Company.  When the British burned Washington in 1814, President Madison and other government officials escaped into Virginia across the Long Bridge.  The Americans then destroyed the Virginia end to prevent pursuit by the British.  The British destroyed the Washington end to prevent a counterattack by the Americans.  It took four years to reopen the bridge.

During the Civil War, Washington became a major military supply depot.  Railroads were a relatively new invention which the military was using for the first time.  How to get supplies from Washington City, across the river to the battle front in Virginia became a central concern of war planners.  Rails were placed on Long Bridge, but fearing that the structure might collapse under the strain of too much weight, the generals had horses pull railroad cars and engines across the river into Virginia.  A new stronger bridge dedicated solely to rail traffic was built one hundred feet downstream, but this bridge was not operational until the war was almost over.  The Long Bridge was frequently damaged by floods over the following decades, but served until 1906 when it was replaced by the “Highway Bridge”.  The traffic in 1906 seems light compared to the 250,000 automobiles that now pour across the 14th Street Bridge daily.  At the turn of the century the average daily traffic over the Highway Bridge was fifty two single electric trolley cars, two hundred two-car trains, some one hundred automobiles, eight hundred double-animal teams, four hundred single-animal teams, five hundred pedestrians and eight horsemen.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

James Bond, Dr. No, and the Duke of Wellington

Portrait of the The Duke of Wellington

In the James Bond movie thriller, Dr. No, when Bond is taken to Dr. No’s palatial lair, he is amazed to see Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington. The painting had been stolen from the National Gallery in London in 1961 just before filming began. Ken Adam, a production designer, contacted the National Gallery in London and obtained a slide of the picture, painting the copy over the course of the weekend, prior to filming commencing on Monday.

So what is the rest of the story? The Portrait of the Duke of Wellington was painted by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya of the British general Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington in 1812 after the general’s triumphant entry into Madrid during the Peninsular War against Napoleon.  The painting remained in aristocratic hands until 1961, when it was auctioned off by the 11th Duke of Leeds.  An American collector, Charles Wrightsman, was about to take possession of the painting when the Wolfson Foundation with the help of a special British Treasury grant, obtained the painting for the National Gallery.

At this point all should have been well, but one Kempton Bunton, a disabled pensioner living on a modest fixed income and bitter with having to pay government imposed television licensing fees, saw red.  The government was handing out grants for la-di-da paintings while he struggled to come up with money to pay for television.  Bunton took direct action.

From conversations with guards at the National Gallery, Bunton learned that the elaborate electronic security system was deactivated in the early morning to allow for cleaning. In the early morning hours of 21 August 1961, Bunton entered the museum through a window he had previously loosened in a toilet. Bunton then made off with the painting undetected and escaped through the window.

The police initially thought the theft was the work of an expert professional art thief.  Subsequently, a letter was received requesting a donation of £140,000 to charity to pay for TV licenses for poorer people and demanding an amnesty for the thief.  The ransom demands were ignored by authorities.

In 1965, four years after the theft, Bunton returned the painting and surrendered to police. A jury convicted Bunton only of the theft of the frame, which had not been returned. Bunton was sentenced to three months in prison.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Civil War Graffiti at Mount Vernon

The tomb of George Washington

The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association took over operation of George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon in 1860 in an effort to stabilize and restore the mansion. As restoration efforts progressed, the American Civil War broke out. Throughout the war, the estate was managed by two staff members a Northerner and a Southerner.

Washington’s tomb was a place of veneration for both Union and Confederate soldiers.  Soldiers visiting the estate were requested to be neither armed nor dressed in military uniform. Such actions ensured that Mount Vernon remained neutral, hallowed ground. Mount Vernon remained safe and open throughout the war.

During the war, some soldiers left their names or initials etched on the brick wall surrounding the tomb of George Washington.  Most of this graffiti was left by soldiers whose identity has been lost to history, but there is one notable exception, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. 

Chamberlain is thought by some to have prevented the Confederate army from winning the Battle of Gettysburg.  Chamberlain was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1862. He became commander of the regiment in June 1863. On July 2, during the Battle of Gettysburg, Chamberlain's regiment occupied the extreme left of the Union lines at Little Round Top. Chamberlain's men withstood repeated assaults and finally drove the Confederates away with a bayonet charge. Had the Confederates taken Little Round Top they would have rolled up the Union line, won the Battle of Gettysburg, and changed the course of history.

Chamberlain’s name is carved into the brick wall of the tomb near the American flag.