Holding The Line

Arlington saw no battles during the Civil War. But the thousands of Union soldiers who guarded its forts were ready.
M Wesley Clark

Lt. John W. Bates. Photo courtesy of M. Wesley Clark.

John W. Bates was 26 when he joined the Army. He signed on for one year of military duty and received a $100 bonus—one-third of which was paid immediately. At the time, that amounted to about six months’ salary.

The year was 1864 and Bates, a young shoe-stitcher from East Weymouth, Mass., was assigned to the 23rd U.S. Army Massachusetts Volunteers, one of 14 heavy artillery companies raised throughout Massachusetts that August.

In September his regiment was ordered to Washington, D.C., for garrison duty in the forts surrounding the capital city. Bates spent the next year at Fort Reynolds, an earthen redoubt (located in what is now Fairlington) that had been built to secure the passage to Alexandria by way of Four Mile Run. He was a good soldier, earned a promotion to lieutenant, and was nominated by his commander to be quartermaster in charge of distributing and keeping track of supplies—a position he was reluctant to accept because he felt he lacked the proper experience.

It was only by chance that Bates never “saw the elephant” (i.e., combat). But he did experience the tribulations of homesickness, disease and back-breaking labor.

He wasn’t alone. From 1861 until 1865, thousands of Union soldiers were stationed outside of Washington, building and guarding a ring of fortifications to protect the federal city. By the end of the war, 68 enclosed earthen forts, 93 supporting batteries and more than 35,000 yards of rifle trenches surrounded the District. That included 33 forts and 25 batteries south of the Potomac River.

As many as 10,000 men or more served in the forts at any given time, while nearby training camps prepared Union soldiers—including the Army of the Potomac—for battle. Arlington County (then called Alexandria County) was, in some respects, the largest military base in the world.

On May 23, 1861, Virginia held a referendum to vote on secession from the Union. Although Arlington’s small, rural population of approximately 1,400 voted, by a 2-1 margin, to remain a part of the Union, it was the only precinct to do so. Most of the state, including the City of Alexandria, voted overwhelmingly in favor of secession.

Virginia subsequently joined the Confederacy, although for Alexandria and Arlington, this alliance was short-lived. Within 12 hours, federal troops occupied the area with an influx of Union soldiers—many of them from New York, New England and the Midwest. Guards were posted on both ends of the Long Bridge (now the site of the 14th Street Bridge), the Aqueduct Bridge (a precursor to Key Bridge) and the Chain Bridge.

Long Bridge

Long Bridge. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Union troops would remain in control of the area for the rest of the war, with a capital defense plan that called for 25,000 men. In reality, those numbers were probably never fully realized (and they declined as Union troops were moved south toward Richmond) although the fort presence was bolstered after Confederate Gen. Jubal Early’s raid on Fort Stevens in the District in July 1864. This breach frightened the capital enough that more men were sent to the forts, including John Bates.

By then, much of the local civilian population had fled. Those who remained quickly discovered that it did not matter which side of the war they supported. Union and Confederate soldiers alike were inclined to take whatever they needed from area homesteads, be it food, livestock, timber, clothing, horses or other provisions. Many abandoned homes and barns were commandeered as quarters for officers, hospitals and stables. Others were torn down for lumber. Some were put to the torch for no reason other than to deny them to the enemy.

Almost every large tree in the county was felled—for fuel, lumber or visibility (so as to provide a clear line of fire). As a result, few trees older than 1865 exist in Arlington today.

Ft Corcoran

Fort Corcoran. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Life for the soldiers in the forts and camps could be tedious, as Oliver Norton of the 83rd Pennsylvania, who was stationed in a camp near Falls Church, described in a letter to his sister in October of 1861: “The first thing in the morning is drill, then drill, then drill again. Then drill, drill, a little more drill. Then drill, and lastly drill. Between drills, we drill, and sometimes stop to eat a little and have roll-call.”

For troops like Norton, the day started with a 5 a.m. reveille, followed by roll call and breakfast. Those chosen for guard duty would report to their posts at 8 a.m., where they stood guard for two hours out of every six for the day. The noon meal was followed by another roll call, and then a dress parade, after which that day’s messages and orders were read. Afternoons were filled with more drills, and then an evening meal with another roll call occurred.

Privates had some time off in the evenings, but officers often attended training in warfare tactics and strategy—to prepare for teaching those never-ending drills.

Ironically, the physical exertion required of soldiers on a campaign—that is, in battle—was often less grueling than it was for men like Bates and Norton who were stationed away from the action. (Although those in the field did face the threat of imminent death or dismemberment.) In the camps, drilling was expected, and some officers pushed harder than others. Pity the poor infantryman in his wool uniform during a hot Virginia summer whose commander required hours upon hours of marching, practicing maneuvers and firing weapons.

The fact that live ammunition was used for target practice explains why so many Arlingtonians today continue to find the cone-shaped lead bullets known as Minié Balls—named after their French inventor, Capt. Claude-Étienne Minié—in their gardens. Some have even found cannon balls or shell shrapnel from artillery exercises hidden in the soil underneath their rosebushes and tomato plants.

Curious civilians would often come and watch the drills to pass the time. During one mock battle at the end of 1861, a private noted that, “Quite a number of carriages were up from the city and I saw ladies watching the sport with a great deal of interest. They would start at the report of the cannons and give a nice little city scream, as ladies will.” A few local girls even found sweethearts and future husbands among the young men in blue.

During their downtime, soldiers found creative ways to amuse themselves. German singing clubs, known as Sängerbund, were popular, not just with German-Americans, but with soldiers in general. Drinking songs, sad songs, love songs and religious hymns all could be heard belted out around the county—either a cappella, or with musical accompaniment. The most talented vocalists staged concerts.

The 107th U.S. Colored Infantry Band outside at barracks at Fort Corcoran, near what is now Rosslyn.

Newspapers from places north would arrive in camp and circulate from one hand to the next. Many soldiers produced their own papers as well (although some never made it past the first issue, if a commander took offense). Generally, these novice publishers filled their pages with poems, jokes, humorous stories and news from home.

The mail system was as critical to morale as food and shelter were to survival. The cry of “Mail Call” would send soldiers rushing to see what awaited them, after which letters would be read and reread, treasured and passed around. They responded, in turn, with a flood of correspondence back to their loved ones. According to one 1861 estimate, a regiment of 1,000 men might produce 600 letters home in a single day. The majority of Northern soldiers were literate, although some of their spelling and grammar would give a modern English teacher apoplexy.

Newspaper Merchants

Civilian merchants peddling newspapers and other goods. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Patriotic stationary was stylish, and could be purchased from one of the many sutlers—civilian merchants who built booming businesses peddling wares such as tobacco, playing cards, newspapers and other non-military supplies in the camps.

Sports such as foot races, wrestling and boxing also filled the time. Baseball was growing in popularity, although its rules were not yet formalized into the game we know today. The earliest known photograph of a baseball game was captured in an 1862 image of a Union fort in Savannah Harbor, Ga. The photographer was, in fact, focusing his lens on a group of solders standing at attention in—you guessed it—a drill. But another group of men can be seen in the background playing the game that would become America’s pastime.

For Servicemen on leave, Washington, D.C., and Alexandria offered a host of diversions, from innocent shopping and sightseeing, to saloons and the types of entertainment that the men rarely wrote home about. “Hooker’s Division,” located in what is now D.C.’s Federal Triangle, housed an estimated 100 brothels. Arlington also had its own red-light district in Jackson City, an enclave located at the foot of Long Bridge on the Virginia side (now Crystal City and Pentagon City), famous for its gambling houses.

Alexandria was tamer—or more respectable, depending on your perspective—but thirsty soldiers could still find a refreshing glass of beer there, often made by local brewer Robert Portner.

Drinking was prevalent in both armies, although the Union Army often had easier access to alcohol (a reflection of its superior supply chain). Drunken soldiers were subject to various forms of discipline, from whipping—which was officially outlawed early in the war—to extra guard duty. Of course, drinking to excess also came with its own built-in form of punishment, which one soldier described as “severe bee hives in my head.”

Whiskey and gin counted among the drinks of choice, along with various hard ciders that were easy to make.

Alcohol consumption, as a whole, was higher in the early- and mid-19th century than it is now, prompting various temperance societies to stage interventions in the camps. But their job wasn’t easy, considering that nonalcoholic beverage options were limited. Water quality was often dubious, and water was considered unsafe unless boiled first (although a full beard and mustache could act as a convenient filter when drinking from a pond). Sometimes alcohol was presumed to be the safest choice for a thirsty soldier.

Pay came at irregular intervals. It was often late, and was not especially generous. A private made $13 per month until May 1864, when the wage was raised to $16. (Until June 1864, African-American soldiers, who, by the end of the war accounted for 10 percent of Union soldiers, made even less than white soldiers.) Some managed to save money to send home, while others squandered their earnings on drinking and gambling.

Card games were a popular pastime that often led to regrets. As one soldier wrote home, “…only paid a week ago and have not a cent now. …I don’t think I will play poker anymore.”

Ft Cass

Fort Cass (originally Fort Ramsay) was built on the grounds of the Custis-Lee estate. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Soldiers like Lt.  Bates and his comrades mostly lodged in tents, but they certainly slept more comfortably than those in the field. A large tent with a stove in the middle could accommodate a dozen men, laid out like the spokes in a wheel, as they slept with their feet close to the stove. A wedge-shaped “A” tent could sleep four to six men, while the so-called “dog tent” (a name reflective of the soldiers’ disdain for it) could hold two. Permanent areas such as forts were also equipped with barracks. Some camp entrances were marked with large gateways made of woven branches.

The camps also afforded the luxury of sufficient food stores, which was not always the case for those in the field. Soldiers often did their own cooking, relying on mainstays such as beef, crackers, bacon, rice, potatoes, apples, bread and carrots. But the ingredients were seldom top-quality. Vegetables were scarce in winter; the crackers were notoriously hard and worm-ridden; and meat that was billed as “beef” was often suspected of being mule. When given the opportunity, the men shot wild game, such as deer or rabbits, to add variety to the table.

Coffee, “strong enough to float an iron wedge,” was another vital staple in the Union diet. (A rough rule of thumb held that the longer a man served, the stronger he liked his coffee.)

Many soldiers based in Arlington’s forts did eventually see combat, but only after their units were sent into battle farther south. And yet, they weren’t exactly safe during their time away from enemy lines.

Blockhouse Ft Corcoran

A blockhouse near Fort Corcoran at the Aqueduct Bridge. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

For those stationed in the forts, disease—not artillery—was the more likely killer. Malaria, typhoid, cholera, “camp fever,” the flu and other illnesses could run quickly through a camp if the hygienic conditions were right. And in the 1860s, they were more often right for spreading disease than preventing it. Uniforms were seldom (if ever) washed, and underwear was a new concept with which many soldiers were not yet familiar.

Outhouses were available, although the connection between certain diseases and water contaminated by human waste had not yet been established. Soldiers were frequently plagued by diarrhea, which they referred to as “Helen Quickstep” or, in the local vernacular, “the Virginia Quickstep.” Lice, fleas and ticks also made life uncomfortable.

A Union soldier in the Civil War had about a 1 in 14 chance of dying of disease (compared with a 1 in 15 chance of being killed in combat, or dying from battle wounds). In Arlington, however, the death rates were lower. Bates’ regiment, the 4th Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery, lost only two officers and 23 men to illness (and none to combat) out of approximately 1,000 men.

Bates was among the survivors. He was discharged in September 1865 and returned home, where he married his sweetheart, Nancie Harrington; opened a small store; and joined the Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic.

Years later he would continue to complain of the ill effects from malaria and rheumatism, which he blamed on his service time. He was awarded a pension of $12 per month in 1892 and died in 1910.

After the war ended and the troops went home, Arlington was returned to its farmers and small settlements. Trees began to grow again, and civilians who had fled came back. Jackson City maintained its status as a popular red-light district, although it was soon rivaled by a proliferation of brothels, taverns and gambling halls in Rosslyn.

The forts, which were mostly made of earth and wood, fell apart. Some were stripped for building material, while others sunk slowly back into the ground under each year’s rain. Fort Whipple became Fort Myer in 1881 and is still active today, but a tide of 20th-century suburban development subsequently swept in, leaving only a few traces of the other remaining forts in the “Arlington Line.”

Many Arlingtonians today live on a spot where a fort once stood—where soldiers drilled in preparation for a Confederate attack that never came.

Mark E. Benbow, Ph.D., is assistant professor of history at Marymount University, Arlington, and the museum director/curator for the Arlington Historical Society.

Additional Resources

  • Civil War: Northern Virginia 1861, by William S. Connery (History Press, 2011)
  • “Atop an Anvil: The Civilians’ War in Fairfax and Alexandria Counties, April 1861-April 1862,” by Noel G. Harrison for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Spring 1998, pages 133-164)
  • The Life of Billy Yank, by Bell Irvin Wiley (Louisiana State University Press, 1951, 1971)
  • Mr. Lincoln’s Forts, by Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II (Scarecrow Press, 2009)
  • Arlington Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, www.arlcivwar.net

Lt. John Bates was the subject of a recent exhibit at the Arlington Historical Museum: “A Union Soldier in Arlington, 1864-65.”  Some of the information for this article was provided by his great-great-great grandson, M. Wesley Clark (not the retired U.S. general), who lives in Arlington. Thanks, also, to Warren Nelson of the Arlington County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee for his input. Visit www.arlingtonhistoricalsociety.org for information about upcoming programs and exhibits.

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Categories: Local History