Sunday, July 31, 2011

Alexandria Confederate Veteran Invented Modern Railroad Coupler

Eli Hamilton Janney, the inventor of the modern railroad coupler, was born in Loudoun County, Virginia on November 12, 1831.  He was descended from a prominent Quaker family that had moved to Virginia from Bucks County Pennsylvania, however he was not a practicing Quaker.  Prior to the Civil War, Janney was a small-time farmer, ran a small shop in Loudoun County and also served as the local postmaster.  When war broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate Army.  He rose to the rank of major and served as an Issuing Quartermaster on General Robert E. Lee's staff.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Day After Bull Run: A Dewey Defeats Truman Moment for Washington Newspapers

150 years ago today, Washingtonians woke up to a dismal scene of a battered Union army straggling back into town after suffering a rout near Manassas Junction the previous day.  A rule of thumb when it comes to reporting during wartime is that first reports are generally flawed.  This certainly was the case with morning coverage in Washington newspapers.  Undoubtedly, when the type had been set for the July 22, 1861 edition of Washington's The National Republican newspaper, first reports (and the actual tactical situation on the battlefield) from Bull Run had in fact been promising.  A 5:20 PM telegraphic dispatch from the 21rst was amongst the latest reports included in the paper:  "Another dispatch says the Federals have won the day.  The loss on both sides is heavy.  But the rout of the rebels is complete."   It was noted that from Georgetown, artillery fire from the battlefield, some 30 miles away, could be heard.

Headlines from the July 22, 1861 edition of The Washington National Republican, a day after the Union Army had suffered a rout at Manassas.(Library of Congress)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Did a Southern Spy on 16th Street Win Bull Run for the Confederates?

My wife and I spent Saturday morning hiking around Manassas National Battlefield and had lunch in Old Towne Manassas.  In downtown Manassas, I noted that a Civil War Trails sign credits Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard's July 21, 1861 victory in the Civil War's first major land engagement to Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow of Washington for providing him information  concerning an imminent Union attack.  While there are numerous stories of daring southern belles providing intelligence to grateful Confederate generals, many of these stories seem to be just that, stories that cannot be supported by historical facts.  Can we separate fact from fiction with the story of Rose Greenhow and did the fledgling Confederacy really owe its first victory to this widower in her late 40s?

A social gadfly, Greenhow was a pillar of antebellum Washington befriending both northern and southern movers and shakers including Senator John C. Calhoun, President Buchanan, and even William Seward.   Despite her strong Southern sympathies, she continued to entertain Union officers and Republican politicians at her small home  on the west side of 16th Street across from St. John's Church in an effort to discern any information that she could provide the South  (The approximate site of her home, just across Lafayette Square from the White House, is now occupied by the Hay-Adams Hotel.  Ironically the hotel is partially named after Lincoln's private secretary John Hay who lived on the premises when he later served as Secretary of State.)

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.