Thursday, June 6, 2013

June 6, 1863: Barton S. Alexander describes the defenses of Washington, DC

Barton S. Alexander
There was a growing worry along the Union lines around Washington, DC that the Confederate cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart might make a raid against the lightly held defenses. On this day 150 years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Barton S. Alexander, ADC to the chief engineer officer of Washington, DC's defenses, toured the lines and made the following report--Alexander had found some weaknesses.
HEADQUARTERS, Chief Engineer of Defenses, Washington,
June 6, 1863.

Brigadier General J. G. BARNARD,

Chief Engineer, Defenses of Washington:

SIR: I have during the last few days inspected our line of defense from Fort Corcoran to Fort Lyon, and examined all the works on the right bank of the river, excepting those at Chain Bridge. I find that there is an apprehension prevailing along the line that the enemy's cavalry may possibly make a raid, get inside of our lines, and do us damage, and that steps have been taken at some points to close up the roads and paths by which cavalry might cross our lines. These obstructions consists in most cases either of additional abattis, rifle-pits, or stockades. With then present insufficient garrison of the city, I am not disposed to question the possibility of such a raid, nor to underrate the damage that might be done in a single night by a few thousand cavalry. I do not, therefore, wish to do or say anything that will have a tendency to throw the garrison of our forts off their guard, or prevent them from making all proper obstructions to guard against surprise; but I will nevertheless venture to express the opinion that the efforts of these garrison of the forts in some cases have not been directed by the best intelligence, and that the obstructions they have made are consequently not always judiciously places, or of as formidable a character as they ought to have been. To be particular, I will say that many of the debouches that were purposely left near the forts, to enable us to follow a retreating enemy, or go out and attack him, have been closed, either by abattis or stockade, so that if the enemy were to attack us, and be defeated, we could not follow him without first removing them, or opening a road through some other point of our line. The necessity of closing up these debouches particularly just at the right and left of the forts, may well be questioned. Doubtless we could make a fort so secure that no cavalry could approach it, but in this case would destroy the vigilance of the garrison, and, if attacked, we could only repulse the enemy, as the very means we had taken to perfect our security would prevent us from going outside of our obstructions to complete his destruction. Again, the obstructions that have been made are of a trifling character. The abattis is of dry timber, easily burned or removed. If it is made at all, it ought to be fastened to the ground, like that around the forts, but, as it is, there is no place where a dozen men could not remove it in one minute's time. In one case I noticed the men taking away the abattis from the rear of the fort, to close up the gap between the fort and rifle-pit, which had been intentionally left open as a debouches. This was at Fort Craig. In another case, the stockade was of such small timber and so insecurely placed in the ground that I was enabled with my own hand to pull it up stick by stick. How long would such a stockade detain a regiment of enterprising cavalry? But it is at Alexandria that this species of folly seems to have reached its culmination. Doubtless this arises from the fact that it is here we have our quartermaster's and commissary depots, and it is here where we are liable, in case if a successful raid, to suffer the greatest destruction of property. Grant that these depots ought to be made as secure as possible, and that they may require special works for their defense, yet I will not grant that the works that have been made are judiciously located or properly made. The street leading to the depots are being stockaded. Of this work, or of its necessity, I do not propose to speak at the present time, because I did not examine it carefully, but there are some 2 miles of rifle-pits constructed around the city, making, as it were, a second line of defense, to which I beg leave, as far as I am concerned, respectfully to enter my protest, because-

First. It is not properly made to prevent a cavalry raid, and is not properly located for a defensible line against a formidable attack. In my ride yesterday, I encountered this rifle-pit in four places, and in every case I either rode my horse over it, or jumped it without difficulty. Now, I am a heavy man and ride a heavy horse; how long, therefore, would such a rifle-pit detain a squadron of light cavalry? The rifle-pit is almost without cross-fires; you may, therefore, line it with infantry will only keep their places in the rifle-pit, the squadron of cavalry can gallop along and either kill or capture the whole of them. A new formation in the open ground would be the only thing that would save them. Secondly. Such interior works are calculated to weaken our line of defense in front of Alexandria. In case we are ever attacked here, the mere fact that there is such an interior line will weaken us. The troops would be formed on this line as the one indicated for defense. All skulkers and cowards would fall back to it, as being more secure than the front. All troops without orders might march to it, instead of marching, toward the enemy, unless their officers happened to know that this line was only intended to prevent a cavalry raid, and that it had been improperly located, even for that purpose; and, besides, the troops defending the first line would not be willing to spend all their energies in defending it, if they supposed, as many of them might do, that they had an interior line, to which they could retreat in safety. In conclusion, I will say that I noticed that some one is driving piles at the angle of the bridge over Hunting Creek, on the Accotink road. The men at work there informed me that they were going to build a block-house. All I wish to remark on this particular point is, the fact that such a block-house could have been built at the north end of the bridge, without the expense of a pile foundation; that it would have effectually guarded the bridge against cavalry crossing it in either direction, and that, if it had been placed on the mainland, it could more readily have been re-enforced in case of necessity. I make this communication because I think it is my duty to make it, and because I conceive my self-respect demands it. I think these additional obstructions are insufficient to accomplish the object proposed, an I think they are improperly located. I have had nothing to do either with their location or construction, and yet I find that I am very generally credited with being their author, and, of course, with being responsible both for their location ad construction. Independently of both these considerations, we have a line of defense inclosing both Washington and Alexandria. This line has been carefully studied during the last two years; upon it we have expended a great amount of study and labor, but, notwithstanding all this, it is still incomplete. Now, if the energies and labor of those persons who are putting up these auxiliary works could be directed by the engineers to completing the line we have chosen, and upon which we propose to fight, we can greatly strengthen it, and render it more secure against a cavalry raid than any interior line is likely to be made without proper direction. I do not know who is the author of the defenses to which I call your attention, and have purposely refrained from asking, in order that any remarks I may conceive it my duty to make in relation to them could not be supposed, to be prompted by improper motives.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Lieutenant-Colonel, Aide-de-Camp.

Fort Lyon

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