Sunday, October 15, 2017

Aviation Comes to Washington (1926-1941)

National Airport

     In the early days of aviation, Washington had the reputation of having, “the poorest aviation ground facilities of any important city in the United States or Europe.”  Wiley Post, the first pilot to make a solo flight around the world, said, “there were better landing grounds in the wilds of Siberia than at Washington."

     Thomas Mitten, the owner of the Pennsylvania Rapid Transit Company in Philadelphia, opened the first airfield in the Washington area in 1926, hoping to reap huge profits by flying Washingtonians to Philadelphia for the 150th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence.  Mitten’s “Hoover Field” was located on a thirty six acre tract in Arlington where the Pentagon now stands.  Mitten sold the airfield after only six months to a group of investors who incorporated as the Potomac Flying Service, which took over 25,000 passengers for sightseeing flights over the nation's capital between 1926-28.  A competing airfield, “Washington Airport”, opened across the road to the south on ninety seven acres.  Seaboard Airlines was established here, flying one daily round-trip flight to New York, starting in 1928.

     In 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, the owners of both Hoover Field and Washington Airport sold out to the National Aviation Corporation, which merged the two airfields into a new facility called Washington-Hoover Airport.  The new owners built a modern terminal building and a new hangar.  The new terminal boasted a passenger waiting room on the lower floor.  The airport also offered a large outdoor swimming pool for the enjoyment of the sightseers who converged on the airport.  The pool served as an important source of revenue.

     Despite improvements, Washington-Hoover could not overcome it structural defects.  The airport's single runway was intersected by a busy street, Military Road, which had guards posted to stop oncoming traffic during takeoffs & landings.  Additionally, due to its low-lying location next to the Potomac River, and its poor drainage, the airport was prone to flooding.  Bordered on the east by Route 1, with its high-tension electrical wires, obstructed by a high smokestack on one approach and a dump nearby, the field was increasingly unable to handle increased air traffic and newer planes.  Hoover Field closed in 1941, replaced by the much larger Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport), two miles to the southeast.

Read about the Rebel blockade of the Potomac River, the imprisonment of German POWs at super-secret Fort Hunt during World War II and the building of the Pentagon on the same site and in the same configuration as Civil War, era Fort Runyon. Meet Annandale's "bunny man," who inspired one of the country's wildest and scariest urban legends; learn about the slaves in Alexandria's notorious slave pens; and witness suffragists being dragged from the White House lawn and imprisoned in the Occoquan workhouse. 

Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright in Northern Virginia

In the 1930s architect Frank Lloyd Wright grappled with the problem of creating a moderately priced house that was both aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly.  Wright, who had been primarily employed to design houses for millionaires, began designing so called “Usonian” houses for the common man, houses that were simple, functional and beautiful.  Wright believed that the Usonian house would represent a new form of truly American architecture.
The Pope-Leighey House, now on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation in Fairfax County, is a classic example of this type of architecture.  The house was commissioned by journalist Loren Pope in 1939 and was originally located in Falls Church.  The 1,200 square foot house features native materials, a flat roof and large cantilevered overhangs for passive solar heating and natural cooling.  A strong visual connection between the interior and exterior spaces is emphasized.  Wright’s innovative use of four native materials (wood, brick, glass and concrete) created a sense of spaciousness.  The interior of the house is set up to be an efficient living space.  The interior features many types of versatile built in furniture. Wright designed the house, along with his other works, to bring nature inside.
Despite its beauty the house has certain drawbacks.  There is very little room for storage. Wright believed that you should only keep things that you used often.  As a result, closets are small and there is no room for clutter.  Owning a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (recognized by the American Institute of Architects in 1991 as “the greatest American architect of all time”) was not just a purchase, but a commitment to a way of life.  Although Wright always created works of art, some of the practical details of daily living sometimes suffered. 

In 1946, Loren Pope sold the house to Robert and Marjorie Leighey. In 1961, the state of Virginia condemned the house to make way for Interstate 66.  Robert Leighey died in 1963 shortly before the state issued an order to vacate the premises.  Marjorie Leighey donated the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation which moved the house to the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation (9000 Richmond Highway).

Another Wright masterpiece (still in private hands) was built in McLean in 1959.  Luis Marden was a photographer for the National Geographic who led a colorful and eclectic life.  He and his wife Ethel were the perfect couple to live in a Wright house.  Although the floors cracked and the furnace was never properly installed, Mrs. Marden wrote to Wright in 1959, “Our beautiful house.. stands proudly just under the brow of the hill, looking down always on the rushing water which constantly sings to it, day and night, winter and summer. It will … represent for us, as you put it when you were here, ‘a way of life’”.

     Read about the Rebel blockade of the Potomac River, the imprisonment of German POWs at super-secret Fort Hunt during World War II and the building of the Pentagon on the same site and in the same configuration as Civil War, era Fort Runyon. Meet Annandale's "bunny man," who inspired one of the country's wildest and scariest urban legends; learn about the slaves in Alexandria's notorious slave pens; and witness suffragists being dragged from the White House lawn and imprisoned in the Occoquan workhouse. 

Treasure Legends of Virginia

     The history of Virginia told through treasure tales about pirates, Indians, Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War raiders. The full text of the famous Beale Treasure cipher is included along with some sixty other legends. 

Depression Era Art in Northern Virginia

     During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government set up a number of public works programs to provide work for all Americans.  One of these programs involved artists.  Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt's relief administrator said in response to criticism of federal support for the arts, “[artists] have got to eat just like other people.”  “The Section of Fine Arts” was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. The Section's main function was to select high quality art to decorate public buildings.  One percent of the funds allocated for the construction of public buildings were set aside for “embellishments”.  Artists were paid from these funds.  By providing decoration in public buildings, art was made accessible to all people.

     Post offices were considered a prime building objective of the Roosevelt New Deal, and a prime place for the display of public art.  Large murals, depicting enduring images of the “American scene” were the artistic vehicle of choice.  Artists were chosen in open competitions to paint scenes reflecting America's history and way of life on post office walls large and small. Mural artists were provided with guidelines and themes. Scenes of local interest and events were deemed to be the most suitable.  Americans shown at work or at leisure, grace the walls of the New Deal post offices. Social realism painting, though popular at the time, was discouraged.  You will not see bread lines or labor strikes depicted in New Deal public art.  The heroic was to be celebrated and embraced. Historical events depicting courageous acts were popular themes for post office murals.

     Seven of these New Deal artistic gems still exist in Northern Virginia.  In 1940 Auriel Bessemer completed seven murals for Arlington County’s first public building, the Joseph L. Fisher Post Office in Clarendon.  Bessemer was paid $800 to paint the seven murals depicting familiar local scenes such as Great Falls and Roosevelt Island.

Read about the Rebel blockade of the Potomac River, the imprisonment of German POWs at super-secret Fort Hunt during World War II and the building of the Pentagon on the same site and in the same configuration as Civil War, era Fort Runyon. Meet Annandale's "bunny man," who inspired one of the country's wildest and scariest urban legends; learn about the slaves in Alexandria's notorious slave pens; and witness suffragists being dragged from the White House lawn and imprisoned in the Occoquan workhouse. 

The history of Virginia told through treasure tales about pirates, Indians, Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War raiders. The full text of the famous Beale Treasure cipher is included along with some sixty other legends. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Slavery in Northern Virginia

Interior of Slave Pen in Alexandria, Virginia

The vast majority of male slaves worked as farmhands.  Others worked as laborers, waiters, blacksmiths, drivers and servants at inns.  Although the free labor of the slave was the most obvious economic benefit to the owner, slaves were also a liquid asset.  The selling or hiring out of excess slaves to the labor hungry cotton plantations of the Deep South was a source of revenue for many slaveholders in Virginia.  A slave woman was commonly esteemed less for her laboring qualities, and most for those qualities which gave her value as a broodmare.  In 1857, a Richmond newspaper price list quoted the price of a “number one man…extra (fine)” at $1,450 - $1,550.  “Good” at $1,200 - $1,250.  Women sold for twenty percent less.

     To appreciate the hold that slavery had on the sense of economic well-being of both the slave owning and the general populations, it is important to recognize the economic pervasiveness of slavery in Virginia.  In 1860 Virginia had the largest number of slaves of any state in the Union. One out of every three white families in what is modern day Virginia owned slaves, making it similar to such Deep South states as Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia.     A slave worth $1,800 in 1860 would have a current value of some $49,000, the price of a new luxury car.   So, even a modest slave owner would have a large economic stake in perpetuating the institution.

       Even a cursory examination of the writings of the time suggests that slavery led many slave owners not to empathize with the humanity of slaves.   The Alexandria Gazette of January 2, 1850, for example, put reward notices for a runaway slave named Wallace aged twenty one and a missing black horse aged seven years side by side, as though these notices belonged in the same category.

     Non-slave owners, without the motive of economic self-interest blinding them, could recognize the inherent problem of slavery in Virginia.  The Benevolent Society of Alexandria for Ameliorating and Improving the Condition of the People of Color, for example, published a statement stating,

     “These enormous cruelties cannot be practiced among us, without producing a sensible effect upon the morale of the community: for the temptation to participate in so lucrative a traffic, though stained with human blood, is too great to be withstood by all; and even many of those who do not directly participate in it, become so accustomed to its repulsive features, that they cease to discourage it in others.”

A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Free Blacks in Prince William County Virginia in 1860

 The Robinson Farm

Although only about one tenth the size of the slave population, Virginia had the largest free black population in the Union (some 30,000 plus).  Freedom was the greatest gift a master could bestow upon a slave, but the situation of the free black was only a little better than that of the slave.

Free blacks could not vote in Virginia, they were required to register every three years, and to pay for certificates of freedom.  It was unlawful for free blacks to organize their own schools.  Free blacks were feared and mistrusted.  They were accused of being unwilling to work, of spreading discontent among the slaves, and of causing a disproportionate amount of crime.  Several Virginia governors advocated that all free blacks be forcibly expelled from the state.  The Assembly did not enact this legislation but did pass laws providing for voluntary re-enslavement.

Despite stifling restrictions, many free blacks managed to improve their lot.  A freed slave named Jim Robinson, the illegitimate son of Landon Carter of Pittsylvania, operated a drover’s tavern along the Alexandria and Warrenton Turnpike, near Manassas Junction.  Eventually he was able to purchase his wife and three of his five children as well as buy several hundred acres of land.  He was unable to purchase his sons Alfred and James, both of whom were talented stonemasons, who had been sold south and eventually ended up in New Orleans.  James’ fate is unknown, but Alfred returned to Northern Virginia in 1888.

The Robinson family continued to work their farm after the Civil War.  The farm was sold to the Department of the Interior in 1934 to become part of the Manassas National Battlefield.  Prior to selling their farm, the Robinson family acted as informal stewards of their part of the battlefield, taking Confederate remains to a small cemetery to join an estimated 500 unknown soldiers. The family philosophy was summed up in the phrase, “Just remember, these remains belonged to someone’s son who did not want to die in this manner.”

White Virginians wanted to believe that their slaves were basically happy, to the point that they would prefer to serve their masters rather than to choose their own freedom.  

Slave flight, “running away,” the most common form of slave resistance, called into question the notion of benevolent paternalism and struck particularly hard at the idea that slaves were basically happy.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

President Taft Gets a Bumpy Ride.

 On July 21, 1911 President William Howard Taft was scheduled to address a group of Union and Confederate veterans in Manassas, Virginia at the Jubilee of Peace, celebrating national reconciliation on the fiftieth anniversary of the First Battle ofManassas.  At the suggestion of his military aide, Major Archibald Butt, the President decided to motor to Manassas rather than take the train.  Numerous Congressmen bent on making political points with the visiting veterans accompanied the President.  The Presidential party, due in Manassas at four o’clock, set out from the White House in four motor cars at half past twelve.  About five miles from the town of Fairfax clouds began to gather, and the caravan made speed to reach the town before the storm broke.  The storm was short and sharp, a regular cloud burst. 

The President had lunch in Fairfax and then set out again for Manassas before three.  According to Major Butt, “[we] were bumped and jolted over the worst road I have ever seen” before coming to a motorcar stranded in a stream filled with frantic people.  It was part of the Presidential party, a car filled with Senators.  Major Butt waded into the stream and found the lowest point.  The rest of the cars proceeded to ford the stream, laughing at the stranded Senators as they passed.  The laughter was short lived.  The party soon reached Little Rocky Creek, a stream even more treacherous than the first.  Another car was put out of commission.  The two remaining cars retraced their bumpy route and re-crossed the first stream trying to make a detour that locals said would take the President into Manassas.  As the party re-crossed the first stream yet another car stuck fast in the water.  From here the trip was uneventful, except for twice frightening horses on the road.  Just after passing Centreville the President’s car ran into dust, for between there and Manassas not a drop of rain had fallen.  At the edge of town the President’s car was met by a troop of cavalry and through clouds of dust the President was escorted into town.

 According to Major Butt, once at the Peace Jubilee the President gave, “…a flubdub speech about the Blue and Gray which brought tears to the eyes of the veterans of both sides and smiles to the faces of politicians.  Every politician has a canned speech up his sleeve for these reunions, and while they all smile while someone else makes them, yet they take themselves most seriously when making them themselves.”

While the President gave his speech two members of his staff scurried about trying to see what could be done about getting back to Washington by train.  They succeeded in finding a railroad magnate with a private railway car, which he put at the disposal of the President.  When the President arrived at the little depot at seven, there were gathered most of the party that had set out from Washington, bedraggled, wet and thirsty.  They had arrived in carts, in buggies, and in “any old vehicle which they could hire along the road.”  

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

The First Civil War Peace Jubilee

President Taft addresses the Peace Jubilee

On July 21, 1911, the town of Manassas, Virginia hosted a Peace Jubilee to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil War's first great battle. George Carr Round, a Union veteran who settled in Manassas, is credited with organizing this gesture of reconciliation.

According to a contemporary account, “The Peace Jubilee, when a northern President, William Howard Taft, and a southern Governor, William H. Mann, of Virginia, shook hands during the exercises, like the 1,000 veterans of blue and gray present, symbolized the cementing of the two sections.”  This was the first time in history when survivors of a great battle met fifty years after and exchanged friendly greetings at the place of actual combat.

At noon on July 21, the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Manassas, the veterans moved to the top of Henry Hill. When the signal was given, the veterans marched forward with hands outstretched.  For five minutes they shook hands.  The day was capped off by an address by President Taft. 

According to Major Archibald Butt, President Taft’s military aide, once at the Peace Jubilee the President gave, “…a flub dub speech about the Blue and Gray which brought tears to the eyes of the veterans of both sides and smiles to the faces of politicians.  Every politician has a canned speech up his sleeve for these reunions, and while they all smile while someone else makes them, yet they take themselves most seriously when making them themselves.”


General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Death of Major General Philip Kearny (The Battle of Chantilly)

Major General Philip Kearny

Union Major General Philp Kearny lost an arm in the Mexican War and commanded French troops in the Italian War. Philip Kearny had the most combat experience of any General of either side at the start of the Civil War. Kearny took command of the First New Jersey Brigade, and trained it to be an efficient fighting force.  At the Battle of Williamsburg, Kearny led a charge against Confederate troops with a sword in his one hand, and the reins of his horse in his teeth.  He was beloved and respected by common soldiers.  In August, 1862, General Philip Kearny led his division at the Second Battle of Manassas, which saw the Union Army routed and nearly destroyed.  Kearny retreated toward Washington and fought the pursuing Confederates on September 1, 1862, at the Battle of Chantilly.

Responding to warnings about his safety, he said, “The Rebel bullet that can kill me has not yet been molded.” Encountering Confederate troops, Kearny refused a demand to surrender and was shot while trying to retreat. He died instantly. Confederate Maj. General A.P. Hill said, “…he deserved a better fate than to die in the mud.” Kearny’s body was sent to the Union line by Robert E. Lee under a flag of truce, and his death was mourned by officers on both sides. Kearny’s body was embalmed and sent north for burial.  Embalming methods advanced rapidly during the war.  Dr. Thomas Holmes received a commission from the Army Medical Corps to embalm the corpses of dead Union officers to return to their families. Military authorities also permitted private embalmers to work in military-controlled areas.

Kearny was buried in New York. In 1912, his remains were exhumed and re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. The re-interment drive was spearheaded by Charles F. Hopkins, who had served under Kearny. There is a statue in Kearny’s honor at Arlington National Cemetery, one of only two equestrian statues at Arlington.  The statue was dedicated by President Woodrow Wilson in November, 1914.  The statue was refurbished in 1996 by the non-profit New Jersey, General Philip Kearny Memorial Committee. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Grand Army of the Republic 1866 -1956

Established in 1866, The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a fraternal organization of Union veterans.  This photograph shows Union veterans marching at the 36th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) in Washington, D.C. on October, 1902. The organization disbanded in 1956 with the death of the last Union veteran.

The last Union veteran, Willard Woolson died in 1956 at the age of 106. Woolson was a drummer boy.  The last Union combat soldier, James Hard, died in 1953 at the age of 109. 

Claims and counter-claims swirl around the age and status of the last veterans, both Union and Confederate. The last verifiable Confederate veteran is thought to have been Pleasant Riggs Crump (1847-1951), although several men subsequently claimed to be the “oldest” Confederate soldier.  Crump was from Alabama and served at the siege of Petersburg.  

The last American slave is thought to have been Sylvester Magee who died in 1971 at the purported age of 130. There is no birth certificate to verify his birth date.

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Civil War

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.

Monday, August 07, 2017

George Washington’s Church During the Civil War

Christ Church

While many churches were turned into hospitals and stables during the occupation of Alexandria, Virginia, Christ Church’s reputation as George Washington’s place of worship preserved it as a church. 

Union Army Lt. Charles Haydon found Alexandria, “A quaint, old looking place….There is not a half hour in the day that I do not have his (George Washington’s) presence associated with the surrounding scenery.”  Lt Haydon mused, “It would do us all good to spend an hour at the grave of Washington in tears over the fate of our country.” Union army chaplains conducted services in the church, where a Union army congregation grew up.  Most of the original parishioners worshipped with other Southern sympathizers elsewhere.  

Union soldiers vandalized the grave of Eleanor Wren at Christ Church, changing her age at death from “32” to “132”.  According to contemporary reports, “The streets were crowded with intoxicated soldiery; murder was of almost hourly occurrence, and disturbances, robbery, and rioting were constant.  The sidewalks and docks were covered with drunken men, women, and children, and quiet citizens were afraid to venture (out)”.

By the summer of 1863 the Alexandria Gazette reported, old residents of Alexandria had mostly departed.  When the war ended, Christ Church was returned to its parishioners with its interior intact.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Remeum: The Remey Mausoleum

Remains of the Remeum

The “Remeum” was a huge family mausoleum erected, on land belonging to Pohick Church in Lorton Virginia, by controversial Baha’i faith leader, Charles Mason Remey. The Remeum was constructed over a twenty year period (1937-1958) until a disagreement between the Pohick Church and Remey resulted in legal action.  The mausoleum was designed by Charles Remey as a memorial to his family’s contributions to America.  According to the Washington Evening Star and Daily News of April 9, 1973, the mausoleum was planned as a magnificent complex of walled courtyards, underground chambers with soaring vaulted ceilings, marble reliefs and statues, carved pillars, chapels and burial vaults.” Remey devoted most of his fortune to building this burial complex.  Some two million bricks were used in its construction.  Remey planned to build a huge three story structure above the underground mausoleum which would have dwarfed Pohick Church.

The completed sections of the Remeum complex included outer courtyards, an atrium, and the underground mausoleum. Costing millions of dollars, the complex featured bas reliefs and sculptures by the famous American sculptor Felix de Weldon, who created the iconic flag-raising Iwo Jima U.S. Marine Corps memorial located in Rossyln, Virginia. There were also sculptures by other artists decorating the various tombs, alcoves, and hallways of the gargantuan structure. Historic events in which the Remey family participated, from the landing of the Pilgrims to Pearl Harbor, were depicted.  Two massive sleeping lions sculpted by Felix de Weldon guarded the entrance to the mausoleum.  Inside the memorial chapel were life size statues depicting “Faith”, and “Charity.”   Another series of carved reliefs illustrated the lives of saints. The complex was lit by electric chandeliers, had an extensive ventilation system, and plumbing.

Unguarded in what was then rural Virginia, the Remeum was frequently vandalized.  Hundreds of vandals defaced the complex over the years.  Fragments of smashed marble reliefs and statues littered the floors.  Discarded beer cans and whiskey bottles were mixed with broken funeral urns and the ashes of the dead.  Statues too large to steal were chipped or painted.  With construction halted, Remey relinquished all rights to the Pohick Church in 1968. Remey was given five years to remove anything of value from the mausoleum.  Remey’s brother-in-law, a navy Admiral,  transferred the remains of fifteen family members to Pompey, New York.  Remey’s wife Gertrude was reinterred in the Pohick Church Cemetery.  The marker over her grave appears to be a marble plaque from the Remeum.  The complex was dismantled over a period of ten years, being finally bulldozed over in 1983.

Northern Virginia’s cemeteries are time capsules reflecting the region’s 350 years of history. They offer a glimpse into the lives and fortunes of the famous, the infamous, and those who are remembered for loving their families, tending to their business, and quietly supporting their communities. There are some 1,000 cemeteries in Northern Virginia, ranging from small family plots to huge national cemeteries covering hundreds of acres. This book presents the history of the region through the medium of cemeteries. Every gravestone has a story to tell. Confederate raiders, freedmen, eccentrics, and nation builders lived and died in Northern Virginia. Sometimes, tombstones are all that remain of their stories. Often, finding their tombstones is the first step in rediscovering the stories of these figures.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Creation of Fort Belvoir, Virginia (1918)

     The federal government acquired the Belvoir Peninsula in 1910 with plans to develop the area into a reformatory.  Local citizens banded together with patriotic organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in opposing the establishment of a reformatory so close to Mount Vernon.  The reformatory idea was scrapped and Congress transferred the property to the War Department in 1912, following a request by the U.S. Army's Engineer School to use the area as a training site.  The Army’s Engineer School, located in Washington, needed field training areas and rifle ranges.  The Belvoir Peninsula provided challenging terrain where soldiers could build pontoon bridges and conduct rifle practice.

     America entered World War I in April, 1917.  In January 1918, camp A.A. Humphreys, named after Union Civil War General and former Chief of Engineer Corps Andrew A. Humphreys, was established on the Belvoir Peninsula.  Within only four months of the start of construction, Camp A.A. Humphreys was in operation. Over the course of eleven months, extensive camp facilities were constructed, with most of the heavy labor being done by segregated African-American service battalions.  To accommodate the twenty thousand troops who were to use the camp, seven hundred and ninety temporary wood-frame buildings were constructed. A newly constructed dam across Accotink Creek and a water filtration plant assured a steady flow of fresh water.  Transportation systems and utilities were also improved.  The unpaved Washington-Richmond Highway was surfaced in concrete within six months and a plank road was built linking the camp to the Highway. Standard gauge and narrow gauge railways followed.  Building these transportation systems facilitated deliveries to the camp, and provided engineer training experience for troops being sent to Europe. During 1918, some sixty thousand troops received training in engineering, trench warfare, and gas warfare.  After the war Camp A.A. Humphreys became a permanent installation and was renamed Fort Belvoir in the 1930s.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Creation of Quantico Marine Base (World War I)

     America entered World War I in April, 1917. Told to expand its training capabilities, the U.S. Marine Corps began inspecting promising sites in the spring of 1917.  Some five thousand acres along Quantico Creek in Prince William County, Virginia, were leased from an ailing development company which had been promoting the area for recreation.  The area was largely uninhabited.  There was an officially incorporated town, a shipyard, and a small hotel that had been built to attract tourists.  The first Marine contingent to arrive consisted of ninety one enlisted men and four officers.  Soon thousands would come pouring in for training.  There were not enough barracks, and the troops did their laundry in the river.  Troops unaccustomed to a Virginia summer complained, “Quantico was hotter than a pistol and muddier than a pigsty”.

   Aviation first arrived at Quantico in July 1918, when two kite balloons were flown to spot artillery fire. Soon four seaplanes were assigned to Quantico. Naval aviation actually began in 1911, only six years after the Wright brothers’ first successful flight, with a Congressional appropriation of $25,000.  This money went for the purchase of three aircraft, one from the Wright brothers themselves.  The first Marine aviator (he was the fifth Naval aviator) was 1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham.  On December 7, 1917, the Marine aviators were ordered overseas to fight in France, and to take part in anti-submarine warfare.  In 1919, a flying field was laid out at Quantico and land leased to accommodate a squadron returning from combat in Europe. The facility was later named Brown Field, in memory of 2nd Lt Walter V. Brown, who lost his life in an early accident at that location. 

     By 1920 Quantico Marine Corps Base had become a permanent fixture in Northern Virginia, as Marine Corps schools were founded and the Corps embarked on the mission to, “make this post and the whole Marine Corps a great university."

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Secrets of Fort Hunt (Alexandria, Virginia)


     John Gunther Dean, a young American soldier whose Jewish family had fled Germany in the late 1930s was summoned to the Pentagon, where an Army officer asked him if he knew how to speak German.
      'Yeah, I speak German like a native,'" said Dean.
     Dean was handed a nickel and a phone number and then mysteriously dropped off in the middle of Alexandria.  Dean went into a drugstore and dialed the number.  A voice on the other end said,  “Dean, you stay outside and we'll pick you up in a staff car.”   Minutes later he was being driven south toward Mount Vernon, ending up at Fort Hunt on the banks of the Potomac
     Fort Hunt, a sprawling military base supporting shore batteries on the river, was built in 1897 just prior to the Spanish American War.  In the 1930s the now defunct fort was turned over to the Park Service.  With the outbreak of World War II, Fort Hunt was transferred back to the military “for the duration”.  The fort was turned into a top secret intelligence facility used for the interrogation of German prisoners of war and captured German scientists.    

    Known only by its’ secret code name  “P.O. Box 1142” throughout the war, Fort Hunt mushroomed into a substantial installation with one hundred and fifty new buildings, surrounded by guard towers and multiple electric fences. The intelligence operations being carried out were so secret that even building plans were labeled "Officers' School" to throw curious workmen off the scent.  Nearby residents watched unmarked, windowless buses roar toward the fort day and night.

     The Military Intelligence Service (MIS) had two special operations units working at Fort Hunt known as MIS-X and MIS-Y, one charged with interrogating high level German prisoners of war, and the other devising ways of communicating with and assisting the escape of American POWs held by the Nazis.

     At first, prisoners were mostly U-boat crew members who had survived the sinking of their submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. As the war progressed, P.O. Box 1142 shifted its attention to some of the most prominent scientists in Germany, many of whom surrendered and gave up information willingly, hoping to be allowed to stay in the United States. Germany had superior technology, particularly in rocketry and submarines, and the information obtained at Fort Hunt was critical to the security of the United States as it moved into the Cold War and the space age.  Nearly 4,000 German POWs spent some time in the camp's 100 barracks.  Among the prisoners were such notables as German scientist Wernher von Braun, who would become one of America's leading space experts; Reinhard Gehlen, a Nazi spymaster who would later work for the CIA during the Cold War; and Heinz Schlicke, inventor of infrared detection.

    One of the reasons for secrecy was the fact that the interrogation operations at Fort Hunt were not strictly in accordance with the Geneva Code Conventions.  The whereabouts of the German POWs were not immediately reported to the International Red Cross as required.   Prisoners from whom military intelligence thought it could obtain valuable information, particularly submarine crews, were transferred to Fort Hunt immediately after their capture. There they were held incommunicado and questioned until they either volunteered what they knew or convinced the Americans that they were not going to talk. Only then were they transferred to a regular POW camp and the International Red Cross notified of their capture.

     Although the mere existence of this unit and its intent violated the Geneva conventions on POW protocol, extracting information was done without torture, intimidation or cruelty.  The average stay for a prisoner at Fort Hunt was three months, during which time he was questioned several times a day.  Interrogating officers soon found that they learned more from bugging the conversations of their prisoners than they did from formal interrogation sessions.  Many prisoners spoke freely with each other, providing American intelligence officers with much valuable information on war crimes, the technical workings of U-boats, and the state of enemy morale.  Even rocks and trees were bugged, and the location of prisoners carefully monitored throughout the day to allow the correlation of taped conversations with particular prisoners.

     Almost all of the American interrogators were Jewish immigrants from Germany; some of whom had lost entire families in the Holocaust. They were recruited to P.O. Box 1142 for their language skills and, in the cases of Fred Michel and H. George Mandel, for  their scientific backgrounds.  Any anger toward their captives had to be suppressed.  Some found it difficult to watch German Generals having a dunk in the camp pool as a reward for cooperation.

      Only one POW was shot trying to escape.  Lieutenant Commander Werner Henke, the highest-ranking German officer to be shot while in American captivity during World War II, was killed while attempting an escape from Fort Hunt in 1944.  Henke, the commander of the German submarine U-515 was captured with forty of his crew on April 9, 1944 when his U-boat was sunk.  The British press had earlier labelled Henke “War Criminal No. 1”, for machine gunning survivors of the passenger ship SS Ceramic that U-515 sank on December 7, 1942.  When interrogators threatened to turn Henke over to the British to face war crime charges unless he cooperated, Henke attempted an escape and was shot.

     The unit also provide support to captured American POWs in German hands.  Packages, purportedly from loved ones, contained baseballs, playing cards, pipes, and cribbage boards.  Crafted at Fort Hunt, these innocous items cleverly hid compasses, saws, escape maps, and other items such as wire cutters.

     After the War, Fort Hunt was returned to the National Park Service which continued to develop the site as a recreational area. All of the buildings connected with the interrogation center were demolished.  Not  a single trace of the Top Secret facility remains except a commemorative plaque near the flagpole which honors the veterans of P.O. Box 1142 and their invaluable service to their country.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis

Artist John Trumbull served in the Revolutionary War as an aide to George Washington.  After the war he pursued a career as an artist.  In 1785 he began sketching out ideas for a series of large scale paintings to commemorate the major events of the American Revolution.  In 1791 he went to Yorktown, Virginia to sketch the site of the British surrender to General George Washington.

Some twenty five years later, Congress commissioned Trumble to paint four large paintings to be hung in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, one of these, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis was completed in 1820, and depicts the surrender of Lt. General Charles, the Earl Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.  Trumbull received $8,000 for the painting (which would be approximately $200,000 in today’s money).

George Washington did not think that Yorktown would be the last battle of the Revolutionary War, and felt that it was his duty to keep the Continental Army together until a final peace treaty was signed.  Despite the devastating loss at Yorktown, loyalist militias continued to fight throughout the back country.

Peace talks began in April 1782.  A preliminary treaty finally came on November 30, 1782, more than a year after Yorktown. The final treaty was signed on September 3, 1783, and ratified by the Continental Congress early in 1784.