The Abandoned Rodman Guns of Fort Foote

So, we were supposed to be publishing posts from our Edinburgh trip this weekend (as well as a bunch of other backlogged posts), but it’s too much work right now.

However, after a ride today over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Prince Georges County, we thought this may be interesting to share instead. All of the quoted information below is from this helpful National Park Service site.

Fort Foote was one of 68 ring forts constructed during the Civil War to protect the capital city from Confederate attack. It’s still around, but is well and truly hidden. Seriously. We grew up in the area, are well aware of Fort Hunt on our side of the Potomac and the massive Fort Washington on the opposite shore, and had never heard of Fort Foote. It took the 2008 opening of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement – with outstanding pedestrian and bike infrastructure to reach Prince Georges County – to make us aware of its existence. Even with this revelation, it’s still jarring to wander through the overgrown site, turn a corner, and stumble upon the massive abandoned Rodman guns.

Some background on Fort Foote from the Park Service:

“In 1862 the battle between the Monitor and Merrimac, at Hampton Roads, created panic in Washington. As the war progressed, many European countries seemed eager to join the fight on the side of the Confederacy. Fort Washington, on the Potomac River 16 miles below Washington was considered too far away to be adequately supported. Therefore the protection of the city from naval attack became a major concern and army engineers began building earthworks to resist naval bombardment.”

“In the words of General Barnard they were “in many respects, model works. Fort Foote was constructed for the purpose of defending, in connection with Battery Rogers, the water approach to the city.”

Battery Rodgers, as it happens, is just a few blocks away from us in Old Town – there’s a historical marker on the 800 block of South Lee Street, just a little west of where the battery stood during the Civil War.

“Fort Foote was situated six miles below Washington,on a commanding bluff of the Maryland shore, elevated 100 feet above the river. The fort was essentially completed in the fall of 1863, and was designed as a water battery of eight 200-pounder Parrott rifles and two 15-inch guns.”

Location of Fort Foote (and Battery Rodgers):

Location Satellite

The Saturday in May 2008 that the new bridge and bike lane opened, one of us headed across to explore, with Fort Washington as the destination for the ride. On the way, right on the curve of Fort Foote Road, was an unassuming sign in a field by an empty gravel parking lot.

There only signage in the park is a hundred yards into the woods, where there’s barely a trail to follow:

Even from this location, there was no fort or guns to be seen. Only a long berm, overgrown with bushes and saplings. This turned out to be the remains of one of the earthworks.

Beyond, lay one of the guns:

Some background on Fort Foote’s firepower during the Civil War from the Park Service site: “The first 15-inch gun arrived in the fall of 1863 and by April 1865 the fort boasted of two 15-inch Rodman Cannons, four 200 pounder Parrott Rifles and six 30 pounder Parrott Rifles. The work was declared complete on June 6, 1865. A large crowd of civilian and military observers gathered to watch the guns fire on February 27 and again on April 1, 1864. The 8-inch Parrott Rifles weighed over 8 tons and used 16 pounds of powder to fire its 200-pound projectile 2,000 yards down the river. But the fort’s main attraction was the 15-inch [Rodmans]. They weighed in at 25 tons and required 300 to 400 soldiers to move them up the bluff from the river. Forty pounds of powder could send a 440-pound round-shot over 5,000 yards.”

It’s difficult to convey how truly huge these mothers are without some perspective, even from a shot this close:

So, some perspective:

The guns are massive, and they’re basically just abandoned in the woods. “During the Civil War the 15-inch guns cost the government $9,000 each but they could do major damage to a wood sailing ship-of-war. At close range, even the iron clads were not safe from the massive weapons.”

“During our Civil War most European navies armed their vessels with 9-inch rifled guns. Other technologies such as the screw propeller, steam engine, rotating gun turret and iron-sided ships with watertight compartments were making our seacoast defenses obsolete. Our government could not afford an arms races so it was decided to wait and see how the gun versus ship race progressed before investing in changes. In 1870, the army started an extensive program to modify existing defenses. Inexpensive earthwork batteries were armed with existing smoothbore guns, primarily the 15-inch Rodman. A few guns were mounted but funds were withdrawn in 1875. The Chief of Engineers stated in his 1877 annual report, “Our largest guns, of which we have any number, is a 15-inch smooth-bore, and weighs over 25 ton. We have about 325 of them for our entire coast of 12,600 miles.”

The 15-inch gun was finally tested at Sandy Hook, NJ in 1883. It was found that 130 pounds of black-powder created 25,000 pounds of pressure in the chamber and at 20 degrees elevation the gun could send a 440-pound shell over 3 1/2 miles. At 1,000 yards the round-ball projectile could pierce 10 inches of iron. No warship, regardless of how well armored, could afford to trade shots with a 15-inch Rodman at close range.”

I’ve brought riding partners to the site when they join me for the ride east from Alexandria into PG County, and some have found more creative ways to provide the size context:

If you have 15 minutes to blow after a visit to National Harbor, Fort Foote is worth checking out. Unassuming, overgrown, and with two big ass Rodman guns sitting in a sylvan setting as incongruous reminders of the site’s power for a few years in the 1860s. The now-homely site even hosted some notables during the war:

“The first unit to garrison Fort Foote was four companies of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery that arrived on August 12, 1863. The post was commanded by lieutenant Colonel William H. Seward, Jr., the son of the Secretary of State. The secretary visited the post often while his son was in command and President Lincoln visited the fort on August 20, 1863 with the Secretary of War and number of high-ranking army officers.”

Categories: Alexandria History, Maps and Miscellany, WolfeStreetProject | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Abandoned Rodman Guns of Fort Foote

  1. WHS

    Where is Lisa’s upside down shot?


  2. Gerry Connell

    Dennis Rodman would be interested in this story about his guns. He could share it with his pal Kim Jong Un.


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