Archive for the ‘Robert E. Lee’ Category

Arlington Ridge Sees War’s Beginning, End

September 21, 2008

By John E. Carey

When did the Civil War begin and end? Most would say it began at Fort Sumter and ended at Appomattox. A less conventional view could be that the war began and ended on Arlington Ridge, in Virginia.

For the Union, the conflict existed so long as its enemy’s armies occupied national territory. The first piece of Rebel-occupied territory taken back by the Union Army was Arlington Ridge. The last encampment of the Union Army, four long years later, was on Arlington Ridge.

Although it is generally accepted that the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, it is difficult to exactly fix the start of the conflict. The insurrection didn’t happen all at once. In 1859, John Brown and a small band of followers raided and captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. This was a crime of individuals, not an act of statewide insurrection, and he was hanged by the state of Virginia.

On Jan. 9, 1861, Rebel gunners fired artillery rounds at the Union steamer Star of the West as she attempted to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C. The ship was forced to withdraw. A state had defied the federal government. Yet no war existed.

Despite these early acts of defiance, efforts to avert war continued. In February 1861, former President Tyler played host to a peace commission to iron out the differences between the states. Twenty-one states sent representatives to the gathering, which was held in Washington’s Willard Hotel. The commission failed to find a compromise, and disbanded. War seemed imminent, but did not yet exist.

On April 12, 1861, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of Rebel forces in Charleston, ordered Fort Sumter shelled. The fort’s commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, surrendered the garrison a few hours later.

Yet efforts were still made to keep the union, and the peace, intact.
Although most people would say war existed from April 12, 1861, the Union leadership still remained fairly calm. As tensions mounted between the federal government and the Southern states, it became apparent that Washington needed defenses against a turbulent Virginia, just across the Potomac River.

On May 23, 1861, Virginians voted to secede. Alexandria, within sight of Washington, was a hotbed of insurrection, though the farmers of the adjoining county, which included Arlington Ridge, largely favored staying in the Union.

Now, suddenly, the land just across the river was Rebel territory. When President Lincoln and his generals looked across the river, what did they see? Arlington Ridge. Cannons could easily be placed there to shell the Union capital.

Union troops crossed the river to seize Arlington Heights at dawn, May 24, 1861. A special detail commanded by Col. Ephraim Ellsworth of New York crossed on steamers to seize Alexandria. Once ashore, Ellsworth hurried to remove a Rebel flag flying from the Marshall House, an Alexandria inn owned and operated by James W. Jackson. Both men were killed in the fracas.

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth

Ellsworth was the first Union officer killed in the war. Jackson was probably the first Confederate civilian slain.

On Arlington Ridge, Union Army pioneers immediately began clearing the land of trees. Union generals wanted this ground reinforced and held as the first line of Washington’s defenses. Fort construction began almost as soon as the trees were felled.

A low rise perhaps 800 feet above the adjoining terrain, Arlington Ridge ran from just above Alexandria to a position northward directly across the Potomac from Georgetown. The ridge included land later leveled for construction of the Pentagon and Shirley Highway. Geologists believe the ridge may have been the shoreline of the Potomac during flood stage thousands of years ago.

Now the ridge became the first line of defense for Washington. Calm in the capital was giving way to rumors, fear and uncertainty. The low-lying city had no natural defense except for the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. The city had no regular troops assigned to protect it.

Col. Charles P. Stone, the D.C. inspector general, summarized the state of military readiness of Washington: “The only regular troops near the capital of the country were 300 or 400 marines at the Barracks [at 8th & Eye streets], and three officers and fifty-three” Army ordnancemen at the Washington Arsenal. The old militia system had been abandoned (without being legally abolished), and Congress had passed no law establishing a new one.”

The Union leadership worked feverishly to change this. The Evening Star reported on May 24, 1861, that “a full corps of [Union] carpenters and workmen” accompanied the soldiers who crossed into Virginia. “The United States forces are now throwing up fortifications on the heights on the Virginia shore.”

A series of mutually supporting forts began to go up along Arlington Ridge. At the southern end, the fort closest to Alexandria became known as Fort Scott. At the northern end, Fort Marcy stood across the Potomac River from Georgetown.

Each fort was really a detached earthwork, which mounted heavy guns, accompanied by a small garrison and as few as 100 rounds of ammunition.

During the seven weeks following May 24, the goal was to get as many forts properly situated as practical. Each fort was only about one-half mile from its supporting position.

On July 21, 1861, the Union was again shocked when its forces suffered the humiliating defeat at Manassas, or Bull Run, as the Federals called it. Fort construction around Washington was immediately intensified. A second line of forts west of the Arlington Ridge defenses began to go up, and, for the first time, forts were planned and started to the north of the city.

In “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts,” authors Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II report, “By 1865, the defenses [of Washington] were impressive, containing 33 named fortifications, 25 batteries, and 7 blockhouses. Field works were established at intervals of 800 or 1,000 yards, with intersecting fields of fire commanding every important approach to the city.” The fortifications included 256 smoothbore cannon, 170 rifled cannon and 60 mortars.

The construction of the forts and the accompanying military roads and constant traffic devastated the once fertile fields of Arlington. Although most of the farmers in the rural sections of what is now Arlington County had voted to stay in the Union, they paid a terrible price for their state’s secession. Buildings, livestock and supplies were often seized for military use. By 1865, the area was impoverished.

At war’s end, the armies of the Union marched north to participate in the grandest military parade in the nation’s history. On May 18, a two-day spectacle, reviewed by President Andrew Johnson, flowed through the city. Every famous Union army marched or rode down Pennsylvania Avenue. Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George Gordon Meade, George Armstrong Custer, all rode at the head of their troops. Philip Sheridan led the cavalry. Joshua Chamberlain led his men from Maine. The victorious armies were returning home.

Joshua Chamberlain
Joshua Chamberlain

Where did this mighty force bivouac while near Washington? On Arlington Ridge. The Army of the Potomac – the designation of which would be discontinued five days after the great review, as would other regionally designated armies through the summer – mingled alongside the cruder “Westerners” of Sherman’s army. The men who had sacked Atlanta and marched to the sea camped by Grant’s more spit-and-polished troops who had chased Robert E. Lee to his end at Appomattox.

The men in blue camped on Arlington Ridge.

The last official campsite for many Union men of arms was on that ridge. Mustering-out commenced almost as soon as the parade ended.

Thus, arguably, one could say the Civil War started and ended on Arlington Ridge, within sight of the still unfinished U.S. Capitol dome and the uncompleted Washington Monument.

* John E. Carey is a writer who lives at the foot of Arlington Ridge.

Civil War History: Blair Family Was “Magnificent”

August 30, 2008

One family participated in many historic and breathtaking moments of the Civil War. Its members helped Abraham Lincoln get elected twice to the presidency. On behalf of Lincoln, the elder statesman of the family apparently offered command of the Union Army to Robert E. Lee in 1861.

In 1865, that same Washington elder statesman tried to negotiate a peace settlement with his longtime friend Jefferson Davis.

One son served in Lincoln’s Cabinet, had his house burned to the ground by Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederate forces and resigned his high government post in a sort of political trade.
Another son served in Congress, became a general in the Union Army and then a senator after the war and led a life of brawling adventure.

Jubal Early

The family name still causes tourists to stop in awe and respect just one block from the White House, inside the nation’s Capitol and in front of a handsome bust in Vicksburg, Miss.

The Blairs of Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and the District of Columbia played a uniquely influential role in American politics from the time Francis P. Blair Sr. became involved in the financial Panic of 1819 until the end of son Frank Blair’s Senate term in 1873.
Francis P. Blair Sr.
Francis Preston Blair Sr. (1791-1876) began a long and distinguished career of semigovernment service and influence during the 1819 crisis. He led the Relief Party and became an influential writer of newspaper opinion pieces on politics.
Montgomery Blair

His articles and support for Andrew Jackson so impressed the new president that Jackson urged Blair to move from Kentucky to Washington to become a full-time newspaperman.

In 1830, Blair established the Washington Globe, a party organ, and also published the Congressional Globe. He gained national importance as a political journalist and ran the printing business for Congress. However, he is remembered best as the leader of Andrew Jackson’s “kitchen cabinet.

Blair’s business partner, John Rives, described Blair as 85 pounds of bones and 22 pounds of “gristle, nerve and brain.”

Blair continued to run and edit his newspaper throughout the presidencies of Jackson and Martin Van Buren. When James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, Blair excused himself from the newspaper business but not from his role as an influencer of government policy. He traveled all the way to Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, in Tennessee to visit the former president.

Blair supported John C. Fremont’s 1856 Republican presidential nomination even after he “retired” to his 20-room mansion, Silver Spring, in Maryland.
John C. Frémont 
John C Fremont

He aided Lincoln from the first days of the crisis between the states, offering a prestigious Union Army position to Robert E. Lee, apparently on the president’s behalf. (Controversy continues.)

He also crossed Union lines into the Confederacy more than once on peace missions, using a note Lincoln had written that read: “Allow the bearer; F.P. Blair, Sr., to pass our lines, go South, and return.”

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

President Lincoln was a frequent guest at Blair’s Maryland home, where Blair and his family entertained and persuaded the president.

Montgomery Blair

Montgomery Blair (1813-1883) graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1835. He saw action in the Seminole War, established himself as a lawyer and served as mayor of St. Louis (1842-1843).

He moved to the nation’s capital in 1852. His family established residence at the town home (now called Blair House) owned by his father on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House.

He was U.S. solicitor in the Court of Claims from 1855 to 1858. He and associate George T. Curtis served as counsel for the plaintiff in the Dred Scott case of 1857. Scott and his wife sued in federal court for their freedom after their master moved them to Missouri, a free territory.

Blair and his partner represented Scott before the Supreme Court but lost the case when Justice Roger Taney ruled that a slave’s status did not change when he moved from territory to territory. Taney held that Dred Scott, a slave, was property. Thus, Scott was not a man and had no standing in federal court.

A fervent opponent of slavery, Montgomery Blair joined the new Republican Party. He became an ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln for president.

In 1861, Lincoln appointed him postmaster general, but Blair’s influence far exceeded the standard definition of that office.

Modern observers would find it difficult to understand the importance of the postmaster in 1860. One line in Lincoln’s first inaugural address indicated the importance of the mail in those days. Faced with secession, Lincoln asserted: “The mails, unless repelled, will continue to be furnished in all parts of the Union.”

Described as the most learned man in Lincoln’s Cabinet, Blair is credited by most with founding the Universal Postal Union, an international agreement that standardized postal rates and services. He also originated prepaid postage, free mail delivery in cities, money orders, and postal railroad cars.

House burned

Montgomery Blair became a key Lincoln confidant and leader of Lincoln’s kitchen cabinet. In 1861, he was the only Cabinet member who urged Lincoln to reinforce Fort Sumter, a subject far afield of his duties as postmaster. During the war, Montgomery Blair and his father frequently had the president’s ear.

When Gen. Jubal Early and his Confederate army invaded the North to pressure Washington in 1864, his troops sacked and burned Falkland, Montgomery Blair’s rural retreat in what is now Silver Spring.

Early recalled the day this way: “[W]hen in front of Washington some of my troops were very determined to destroy the house of Mr. Francis P. Blair and had actually removed some furniture, probably supposing it to belong to his son, a member of the Federal Cabinet. As soon as I came up, I immediately stopped the proceeding and compelled the men to return every article so far as I knew, and placed a guard to protect it. The house of his son, Montgomery Blair, a member of the Cabinet, was subjected to a different rule for obvious reasons.”

Letter from Lincoln

In May 1864, a convention of Radical Republicans selected John C. “Pathfinder” Fremont as their candidate for president. Fremont accepted the nomination and told the audience: “Today we have in this country the abuses of a military dictation without its unity of action and vigor of execution.” Lincoln wanted Fremont out of the race.

Fremont demanded the resignation of the man who had urged Lincoln to make Fremont a general earlier in the war, Montgomery Blair, who was disliked by Radical Republicans.

On Sept. 22, 1864, Fremont withdrew from the contest. On Sept. 23, 1864, President Lincoln sent the following letter to Montgomery Blair:

“My Dear Sir: You have generously said to me more than once, that whenever your resignation could be a relief to me, it was at my disposal. The time has come. You very well know that this proceeds from no dissatisfaction of mine with you personally or officially. Your uniform kindness has been unsurpassed by that of any friend; and, while it is true that the war does not so greatly add to the difficulties of your Department, as to those of some others, it is yet much to say, as I most truly can, that in the three years and a half during which you have administered the General Post-Office, I remember no single complaint against you in connection therewith.”

After the Civil War, Montgomery Blair rebuilt Falkland, which Early’s raiders had burned. He became active in Maryland politics and practiced law with his son, Woodbury. After Montgomery Blair died, Woodbury continued the law practice with his brothers Gist and Montgomery Jr.

Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring is named for him.

Frank Blair

Francis P. Blair Jr. (1821-1875), the younger of Francis P. Blair Sr.’s two sons, was commonly known as Frank.

A lawyer, Civil War general, attorney general of the Territory of New Mexico, member of the Missouri Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, he spent his final time in public life in the U.S. Senate.
Francis Preston Blair, Jr. 

He probably drank too much alcohol, used too much tobacco and too quickly let his anger get the best of him. Yet he was a Lincoln man, a dedicated Union man and perhaps the best of Lincoln’s politically appointed generals.

Frank Blair certainly earned the right to be called the most colorful of the amazing Blairs. He exhibited his rambunctious nature at college. A professor at Yale said Frank gave him more trouble than all the other scholars combined. Frank also attended the University of North Carolina before ending up at Princeton.


Although Frank, like the other Blairs, supported Lincoln and decried slavery, he was a bigot and owned slaves himself. When his brother Montgomery moved to Washington, taking Frank’s favorite slave, Nancy, Frank griped, “It is indispensable comfort to have a neat servant, particularly in this region of dirt and coal dust.”

As a member of the House of Representatives, Frank Blair generally defended Lincoln’s policies. Nevertheless, the Blairs and the president were not in complete agreement on the question of slavery. Every man in the Blair family, it seemed, favored separation of the races through the colonization of American blacks abroad.

On April 12, 1862, the day after slavery was abolished in Washington, Frank Blair said on the House floor that Liberia had “failed to attract the freed negro population in any considerable numbers” but stated his support for Negro colonization in Central America. “There is a vast difference,” he said, “between the idea of being colonized on our own continent, under our own flag, and being buried in Africa.”

Blair hoped colonization would serve to avoid present and future racial disharmony.

He also believed colonization might disrupt the political power of slaveholders in the South. Blair said, “We can make emancipation acceptable to the whole mass of non-slave-holders at the South by coupling it with the policy of colonization. The very prejudice of race which now makes the non-slaveholders give their aid to hold the slave in bondage will induce them to unite in a policy which will rid them of the presence of negroes.”

Blair pushed a bill through the House that authorized the president to spend $100,000 for colonizing the freedmen of the District.

A warrior

The Blair family made several efforts to persuade Lincoln to make Frank a general, but at first the president put them off. Finally, in the autumn of 1862, after Frank had raised five regiments of troops and said he hoped to raise two or three more, the president made Blair a general in the Union Army.

Despite much newspaper criticism, Frank Blair proved himself one of the better political generals. A very capable and fearless leader at Vicksburg, he gained Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s notice and praise. “There was no man braver than he,” Grant wrote of Blair. “No man obeyed all orders of his superiors in rank with more unquestioning alacrity.”

Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant

After a shaky start, Blair also established a lifelong mutual respect with Gen. William T. Sherman. The men served together during the campaigns for Vicksburg and Atlanta, and Blair commanded the 17th Corps during the March to the Sea. When newspapers criticized Blair as a political general, Sherman said Blair was “brave, cool and of ability.”

Franc B. Wilkie, a reporter for the New York Times, described Frank Blair this way: “He was a most interesting man in every respect. … He was versatile, doing everything well, from leading a charge to uncorking a bottle, and in all instances characterized by a calm, dispassionate manner. … Beneath all his outward calmness he had a tremendous force — a fact demonstrated by the momentum with which he threw his columns against the bristling, deadly heights of Chickasaw Bayou.”

A bust of Frank Blair causes visitors to marvel at Vicksburg. A statue of him campaigning in St. Louis entertains tourists in Missouri. Both were created with family money. In Statuary Hall within the U.S. Capitol, Frank Blair’s larger-than-life statue represents his state of Missouri along with a statue of Thomas Hart Benton.

The term “larger than life” perfectly describes the Blair family.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.