Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ft. Whipple/Ft. Myers

Last Sunday night, my sister, my wife, and I watched Washington's 4th of July fireworks from a hill on Ft. Myers that affords a sweeping view of the city.   This commanding view of Washington and  its Potomac River approaches did not escape the attention of U.S. military engineers as they designed the Virginia side of the Defenses of Washington. Ft. Whipple would be a key component of the Arlington Line.

In 1862, Union officers charged with strengthening the Defenses of Washington recommended construction of "a work on the spur behind Forts Cass and Tilinghast ... to 'see' into the gordes of these works and give important fire upon the high ground in front of the line."  To meet this need, Fort Whipple was constructed the following year and was described as one of the finest of the 68 fortifications that comprised the Defenses of Washington.
Ft. Whipple was located on a ridge along Arlington Heights rising 290 feet above the Potomac River.  
It had a commanding of the rolling Virginia countryside to the west from which an enemy might approach Washington.  :In an era in before environmental impact studies, Union efforts to establish clear fields fire resulted in extensive deforestation along Arlington Heights.  The fort's water needs were provided by an onsite spring.

Robert E. Lee, the absent owner of the 1100 acre Arlington estate and a former army engineer, probably did not appreciate the irony that his land was now being torn apart by Union spades in order to thwart any attacks on Washington by the Army of Northern Virginia. The government had confiscated the land from the Lees by requiring that the property taxes on all land in occupied territory be paid in person by the owner and declaring the Lees to be in default when they attempted to send a proxy to Washington to pay the tax.

1865 U.S. Army plans  of Ft. Whipple, a large detached "bastioned quadrelateral work."   (National Archives)

(US Army Corps of Engineers)
Ft. Whipple (highlighted in yellow) and several other forts of the Arlington Line superimposed on a modern road map.  Ft. Whipple was a "bastioned quadrelateral work" designed to support the line of lunettes lining Arlington Heights.  Ft. Whipple was also intended to provide additional firepower in support of Fort Corcoran, rendering practicable the temporary holding of it even should the two works in its front fall, and thus further protecting the Aqueduct Bridge, located near where the Key Bridge is today and one of three bridges into Washington from Virginia.  

Ft. Whipple was named after Brigadier General Amiel Weeks Whipple, a Union topographical engineer who had helped oversee some of Washington's defenses and was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville, VA in May 1863.  Ft. Whipple in Arizona is also named for him.
A wartime photograph of artillerymen drilling at Ft. Whipple.  Artillery pieces fielded at the fort included four 12-pounder howitzers, six 12 pounder Napoleons, eleven 4.5-inch Rodmans, and eight 12-pounders. (Library of Congress)

After the Civil War

Although most of Washington's fortifications were immediately decommissioned and returned to private landowners shortly after the war ended, as part of the confiscated Arlington Estate, Ft. Whipple remained in government hands.  Although the land remained in military use, the actual entrenchments were covered over in the late 1860s to make way for the Army's Signal Corps. In an 1869 report, the Army's Chief Signal Officer noted the post "is well located for the purpose for which it is occupied, on the heights overlooking the valley of the Potomac, whence ranges for near and distant [semaphore] practice may be had from five to thirty miles"  The Signal Corps also hosted the military's first formal Morse Code and telegraphy training at the post.
Brigadier General Albert J. Myer (above), pioneer of the U.S. Army's Signal Corps, medical surgeon, amateur meteorologist, and name sake for Ft. Myer.  Myer had developed signal corps techniques in the Army before the Civil War and was made the Army's Chief Signal Officer in 1866. (Library of Congress)

In 1881, to avoid continuing confusion with a Ft. Whipple in Arizona Territory, the post was renamed Fort Myer after Brigadier General Albert J. Myer.  In addition to pioneering Army Signal Corps work, early meteorological experiments were conducted at Ft. Myers starting in 1870 when Congress directed the Signal Corps to establish the nations' first weather bureau.  Myer had previously promoted the ability to use the telegraph to gather weather observations on a wide scale in order to better understand weather systems.  By 1878, the Signal Corps' Weather Bureau received via telegraph "eight reports a day from each of 224 weather stations" across the country including the Aleutian Islands.  This effort was the forerunner of the modern National Weather Service.

My own personal link to Fort Myer, besides occasionally jogging on its grounds, is that my great-grandfather, an Eastern European immigrant, served on the post in 1910 as a Private in the 15th Army Cavalry Band.  His son-in-law, my great-grandfather, enlisted in the Army during World War Two at Ft. Myer.


  1. I came across your blog while working on Civil War Court Martial Indexes for the online Lincoln Project. I was interested in Ft. Whipple's location. I enjoyed your blog and found it very informative. Thank you from a history major at Pittsburg State University (Pittsburg, KS)

  2. Good blog post.

    You may want to change the title from Myers to MYER ...

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