• !5-inch Rodman Cannon

    Civil War Defenses of Washington

    District of Columbia

The Marvel of the Big Guns at Fort Foote

Rodman cannons

Today at Fort Foote, the two Rodman cannons stand proud and tall. These are the same cannons that amazed many and attracted visitors to the fort during the Civil War.

NPS Photo

The sheer immensity of the two Rodman guns at Fort Foote made them objects of curiosity. Visitors frequently came to see them. The 15- inch Rodmans weighed about 49,000 pounds and required 300-400 soldiers to move them up the bluff from river to fort. The balls fired by the smooth-bore Rodmans weighed 500 to 600 pounds and took about fifty pounds of powder.

It was an occasion each time the big guns were fired. On February 27, 1864 three shots were fired from the 15-inch Rodman. Crowds of visitors beheld the occasion. Again, on April 1, 1864, a large party from Washington came to witness the workings of the big guns. The Rodman was fired at a 25-degrees elevation and a range of three miles. Because the guns had such a concussion, it was noted that observers would raise their toes and open their mouths to lessen the effects.

The most notable visitor to the fort was President Abraham Lincoln. He was invited by Gen. John G. Barnard along with Secretary of War Edwin M Stanton, Gens. James S. Wadsworth, Montgomery Meigs, John H. Martindale, Samuel P. Heintzelman, Lt. Col. J.A. Haskin, and Barnard’s brother and his wife to visit the fort on August 20, 1863.

It was a warm afternoon on the day of their visit. At 3:30 p.m. they met at the 6th Street Warf in Washington. After waiting an hour for the president to arrive, they boarded a sternwheeler for the eight-mile trip down river. After visiting the fort for about an hour, the guests had a meal consisting of fresh peaches grown nearby, crackers and cheese, and champagne. They then returned to Washington, arriving after dark. Gen. Heintzelman wrote the following description of Fort Foote in his journal:

The fort is on a bluff 100 feet high and commands the channel and is about three and a half miles above Fort Washington. The land slide is a bastioned front. It is well advanced and will be much better finished than any of the forts I have been in. Four companies of the N.Y. 9th Art., under Lt. Colonel Seward are encamped nearby as a garrison.

Secretary of State William H. Seward was a frequent visitor to the fort with his son, Lt. Col. William Seward Jr., who commanded the first unit garrisoned at Fort Foote. They both attended the ceremony at the fort when it was officially designated in honor of Commodore Andrew H. Foote on October 1, 1863. On another visit on March 13, 1864, Secretary Seward brought some foreign guests. On October 22, the Sewards visited with Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells, Gen. John G.Barnard, and some unnamed ladies. On this date they witnessed the first firing of the 200-pounder. Secretary Wells commented on the trip in his diary:

It is a strong position and a vast amount of labor has been expended—uselessly expended. In going over the works a melancholy feeling came over me, that there should have been so much waste, for the fort is not wanted, and will never fire a hostile gun. No hostile fleet will ever ascend the Potomac.

During another one of Seward’s visits a demonstration of the big guns was marred by the mischief of Confederate sympathizers. A target had been placed in mid-river, two miles away, measurement carefully made, and the men had practiced until they were sure of their aim. Just before the firing, this group of mischief-makers moved out from shore, cut the target loose, and towed it away. The gunners were then forced to fire on other targets. Seward’s wife served lunch afterward in one of the bombproofs and gave the ladies a tour of the quarters.

On April 24, 1864, Seward received a presentation award. Afterward Mrs. Seward served sandwiches, raw and stewed oysters, coffee cake, and pickles to the approximately forty visitors.

These well-documented accounts reflect a pleasant milieu at Fort Foote for the famous and not so famous visitors. One can only assume this festive atmosphere brought a welcomed and pleasant diversion for the troops stationed there, as well.

Did You Know?

Fort Stevens

As early as the 1820s, free African Americans settled in a community called Vinegar Hill, an area now known as Brightwood. During the Civil War, Fort Stevens was built within Vinegar Hill boundaries and repulsed the only Confederate attack on the District of Columbia.