Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’

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Wilkes Street Tunnel

During all of my lunchtime bike rides over the past several years I have been able to enjoy hundreds of aspects of the city and surrounding area.  From monuments and memorials to churches and cemeteries, there is always something interesting to discover and learn about.  But on this ride I happened upon something that up until this point I had not seen before.  As I was riding in Old Town Alexandria I happened upon an old underground tunnel.

Located near the eastern end of Wilkes Street (MAP), with an entrance to the west of Windmill Hill and Shipyard Parks, it turns out that it is the Wilkes Street Tunnel, which originally was a railroad tunnel used by Union troops during the Civil War to ship supplies from Alexandria to Richmond and points south.  And I didn’t even have to wait until after my ride to learn about it because there is a plaque on the wall at the western end of the tunnel that provides its history.

The plaque reads, ” The Wilkes Street Tunnel was part of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, founded in 1848 to promote trade with western Virginia. The Orange and Alexandria inaugurated its track in Alexandria on May 7, 1851 with a run to the north end of Union Street to the Wilkes Street Tunnel. Thus, the tunnel linked the railroad to warehouses and wharves along the waterfront. Located nearby, the Smith and Perkins foundry manufactured locomotives for the Orange and Alexandria and other railroads.

Wilkes Street Tunnel is typical of cut-and-cover tunnel construction. Presumably, the tunnel was cut through the bluff overlooking the Potomac River and covered to continue the streets above. After the sides were built up with stone, the arch probably was constructed over wood falsework from both sides using a centering technique to form the brick barrel vault. The tunnel was deepened after World War I to accommodate higher boxcars.

The Orange and Alexandria line was one of the many Alexandria railroads taken over by Union forces at the onset of the Civil War. While this northerly section of the railroad was incorporated into the U.S. Military Railroads, the length of track south of the Rappahannock River remained in Confederate hands.

Both sections played an major role in the strategies of North and South, as well as a decisive element in the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Manassas or Bull Run. The Wilkes Street Tunnel gave Union Army access to the wharves for shipping military supplies on car ferries south of Aquia Creek, terminus of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad.

Shortly after the Civil War, the old Orange & Alexandria line was incorporated into the Washington City, Virginia Midland & Great Southern Railway controlled by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Wilkes Street Tunnel played a part in the rivalry between the Baltimore & Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroads for supremacy in the north-south trade across the Potomac River. The Pennsylvania Railroad acquired Congressional authorization for exclusive use of Long Bridge (14th Street). To maintain a competitive position, Baltimore & Ohio offered trans-Potomac service by way of carfloats linking Wilkes Street with Shepherd’s Ferry on the Maryland shore until about 1906.

The Wilkes Street track continued in operation until 1975 when declining industrial activity along the waterfront no longer warranted rail service. The tunnel is significant today as Alexandria’s only 19th century transportation site surviving intact.”

The interior of the tunnel consists of dry-laid grey sandstone vaulted walls.  Its dimensions are approximately 170 feet long with exterior stone and brick surfaces, and an interior consisting of grey sandstone masonry, with a 15-foot deck and an arch with a vertical clearance of 17 feet.  The city completed a structural refurbishment of the tunnel in March of 2008, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on March 11th.  Today the tunnel is open to pedestrians and bike riders like me.

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The Historic Town of Occoquan

With traffic and transit changes anticipated in D.C. because of the long Columbus Day holiday weekend, for this bike ride I chose to go outside of the city.  For this excursion I chose the historic town of Occoquan, located approximately 23 miles south of D.C. in Prince William County, Virginia (MAP).  It is situated on the south bank at the fall line of the Occoquan River, and directly across the river from the Occoquan Regional Park and the Lorton Correctional Facility Beehive Brick Kiln.  With access available via road, river and the East Coast Greenway, it is accessible by car, boat, foot traffic, and by bike.

The town derives its name from an Algonquian Doeg Indian word, meaning “at the end of the water”.  And throughout its existence the river has been its lifeblood.  It was its location on the water which attracted and then sustained its original occupants, indigenous people who relied upon the river for fish and sustenance.  Similarly, for the British and subsequently American colonists who came after them, the river provided an ideal site to for transportation and trade.   A tobacco warehouse was built as early as 1736, and an industrial complex began in 1750.  Within the next several decades Occoquan had iron-manufacturing, a timber trade, quarrying, river-ice, shipbuilding, a bake house, saw mills, warehouses, and Merchant’s Mill, the first automated grist mill in the country.  It operated for 175 years until destroyed by fire.  Later, during the Civil War, the Occoquan Post Office passed letters and packages between North and South.  But eventually river silting and the shift in traffic to railroads reduced ship traffic to Occoquan and ended its days as a port.

Reflecting the rich history of Occoquan, a number of structures in town, including a number in the downtown commercial area, are part of the Occoquan Historic District which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  One of the more prominent examples of these structures is Rockledge, the former house of the town’s founder, which sits on an overlook above the town.

But the town has not only survived.  It has thrived.  Today, it is a restored artists’ community, with an eclectic collection of over one hundred specialty shops offering everything from antiques, arts, crafts, fashions, to unique gifts.  The town also offers a public park complete with a gazebo, a town boat dock, a museum, guided ghost walks, and a full array of dining choices, from ice cream and snack stands to a five star restaurant.  And everything is within walking distance, with much of it adjacent to the river.

It was still dark when I arrived this morning, but I found a place named Mom’s Apple Pie Bakery that was already open.  So I indulged in a piece of Shenandoah Peach Pie, which I took down to the waterfront and enjoyed for breakfast as the sun was coming up.  I also purchased a jar of locally-made fresh pumpkin butter to take home.   The bakery, the riverfront, and the entire town were all fun to explore, and a great way to begin Columbus Day, named after a great explorer.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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Lake Accotink Park

Long holiday weekends are always a great opportunity to venture outside of the city and go for a bike ride in one of the many nearby state, regional, or county parks and recreation areas.  And on this early-morning, holiday weekend ride I rode the bike trail that goes around the lake at Lake Accotink Park, which is a multi-purpose park located at 7500 Accotink Park Road (MAP), just outside of D.C. in North Springfield, Virginia.  

Lake Accotink is a reservoir in eastern Fairfax County, Virginia, which is formed by the damming of Accotink Creek. The 55-acre park surrounding the lake is maintained by the Fairfax County Park Authority.  But the park was severely damaged not too long ago by flooding in the area.  And although evidence of the damage can still be seen, the trails are usable again.

Running through the park is a trestle bridge for the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, which was an intrastate railroad in Virginia.  The railroad extended from Alexandria to Gordonsville, with another section from Charlottesville to Lynchburg.  The railroad played a crucial role in the Civil War, and eventually became an important part of the modern-day Norfolk Southern rail system.

A sign near the bridge reads, “The original bridge crossing the Accotink Creek was built in 1851 as part of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. During the Civil War the wooden trestly was an attractive target for Confederate soldiers. In his 28 Dec 1862 raid on Burke’s Station, Confederate Major General J.E.B. Stuart sent twelve men to burn the trestle. Although termed an “inconsiderate structure” by the Union press, the raid was alarming to many because of its close proximity to Alexandria. The trestle was quickly rebuilt, allowing the Union to continue transporting vital supplies along the line for the remainder of the war.” 

The park also has canoes, paddleboats, and rowboats available for rent.  Visitors can also take a tour by boat.  The park’s trail loop around the lake is a multi-use trail that accommodates bikes, as well as walkers and runners.  And there are other trails that stretch beyond the park and connect to the Cross-County Trail, with its running trails and mountain biking trails.  There is also a miniature golf course and an antique carousel near the south entrance to the park.

Accotink Park was one that I had not been to before, and I very much enjoyed the parts of the park that I saw.  However, it is so big that there are still more parts to explore.  So I guess I’ll just have to go back again soon.

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[Click on the photos above to view the full size versions]

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President Lincoln’s Cottage

On this lunchtime bike ride I visited what’s now known as President Lincoln’s “cottage”, which is a national monument located on the grounds of the “Old Soldiers’ Home,” known today as the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home.  Located in northwest D.C. near the Petworth and Park View neighborhoods (MAP), the Gothic Revival-style residence, a style considered particularly appropriate at that time for country cottages, has a very interesting history.

Originally known as the “Corn Rigs” cottage, it was built in 1842 by wealthy D.C. banker George Washington Riggs, at his 250-acre summer retreat.  The word “cottage”, however, is somewhat of a misnomer inasmuch as it is actually a 34-room country home.  Almost a decade later, Riggs offered to sell his property to the Federal government, which was looking for a place to create a home for retired and disabled Army veterans.  An army committee purchased the estate in 1851 and utilized the house to create the Old Soldiers’ Home later the same year.  Six years later, in 1857, the retired soldier residents moved into a newly-built large stone Gothic building near the cottage. 

With the cottage now vacant, the Old Soldiers’ Home invited President James Buchanan to make his summer residence there.  Accepting the offer, President Buchanan spent a few weeks out of at least two summers at the cottage during the remainder of his presidency.

Presumably on the recommendation of President Buchanan, the next president, Abraham Lincoln, first visited the Old Soldiers’ Home just three days after his first inauguration.  Later, President Lincoln and his family would escape to the cottage between June and November in 1862, 1863, and 1864.   The family would almost certainly have returned in 1865 if President Lincoln had not been assassinated in April of that year.  In all, President Lincoln and his family spent over a quarter of his Presidency there. Each summer the White House staff transported some 19 cartloads of the Lincoln family’s belongings to the cottage. Unfortunately, there is no record of exactly what they brought.

With the Civil War officially commencing just a month after he was inaugurated, Lincoln could not escape the Civil War and his burden of leadership, even at the cottage. Every morning the President rode by horseback to the White House to carry out official business, returning to the cottage every evening.  Today, the drive down Georgia Avenue takes just a few minutes, but in the 1860s the commute through what was then a mostly wilderness area was a little slower and more dangerous.  The cavalry units that were to eventually accompanied him on his commute, as well as the encampments, hospitals, and cemeteries he passed on his was to work served, as constant reminders of the war.

It was while staying at the cottage, in fact, that President Lincoln came his closest to the war.  On July 12, 1864, when Confederate General Jubal Early attacked Fort Stevens, the President brashly went to observe the nearby battle, even though his family had been evacuated to the White House for the four days of the battle.  It was during this time that President Lincoln became the only president ever to come under hostile fire while in office.  During the second day of the battle, as he stood on atop the parapet of the fort to witness the battle, the President came under direct fire of Confederate sharpshooters.  Perhaps saving his life, a young officer named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would eventually go on to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, shouted to the President, “Get down, you damn fool!”

Other interesting events for which President Lincoln’s cottage served as the backdrop include the fact that the President was staying at the cottage when he wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862.  And in August of 1864, a sniper attempted to assassinate the President as he traveled back to the cottage alone late at night.  The lone rifle shot missed Lincoln’s head by inches, but during the attempt the President lost the hat he was wearing.  The following day, two soldiers went looking for the hat.  They discovered it on the path, with a bullet hole through the side.  Also, in the summer of 1864, John Wilkes Booth, who would later in April of 1865 successfully assassinate President Lincoln, formulated his original plot, which was to kidnap the President during his commute from the cottage to the White House.

President Lincoln reportedly made his last visit to the cottage on April 13, 1865, the day before his assassination.  But he was not the last president to take advantage of the healthy breezes at the cottage.  Rutherford B. Hayes spent the summers of 1877 to 1880 there.  And Chester A. Arthur stayed at the cottage during renovations at the White House in the winter of 1882, and spent summers there as well.

In more recent years, the cottage has been recognized for its historical significance. The Secretary of the Interior designated the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, which includes the pre-Civil War cottage, as a National Historic Landmark in November of 1973.  President Bill Clinton declared the cottage and 2.3 surrounding acres a National Monument in July of 2000.  To this day it holds the distinction of being the only national monument in the country that operates with no Federal funding.  The following year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began a thorough restoration of the cottage, restoring it to the period of Lincoln’s occupancy according to standards established by the National Park Service. The restoration was completed in 2007.  President Lincoln’s Cottage was then opened to the public for the first time in history on President’s Day in 2008. It remains open today, and is managed through a cooperative agreement between the Armed Forces Retirement Home and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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Click on this photo to take a virtual tour of the inside of The Lincoln Cottage.

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The McClellan Gate

“On fame’s eternal camping ground their silent tents are spread, And glory guards with solemn round, the bivouac of the dead.” These words, taken from the first verse of Theodore O’Hara’s poem entitled “Bivouac of the Dead”, are inscribed in gold atop the front of The McClellan Gate, which was the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

Contained within the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, located across the Potomac River in Arlington County, Virginia (MAP), The McClellan Gate was constructed in approximately 1871 on Arlington Ridge Road, which formed the eastern boundary of the cemetery at that time. The cemetery was enclosed by a wall with four additional gates, which included Fort Myer Gate, Treasury Gate, Ord-Weitzel Gate and Sheridan Gate,  These gates provided pedestrian and vehicular access to the cemetery, with the McClellan Gate serving as the main entrance.  It served as the cemetery’s main entrance until 1922, when it was rendered obsolete by Congress’s authorization of construction of the Arlington Memorial Bridge.  As part of the bridge project, Congress also approved a wide avenue known as Memorial Drive to link the bridge to the cemetery, and a new entrance to the cemetery, known as the “Hemicycle”, to replace the old entrance gates.

The McClellan Gate is the only gate constructed on the cemetery’s eastern boundary in the 1800’s that remains.  Subsequent expansion of the cemetery eastward in 1971 left The McClellan Gate deep inside what is now designated as Section 33 of the cemetery.

The 30-foot high McClellan Gate is a triumphal arch constructed of red sandstone taken from Seneca Quarry in Maryland. The interior of the structure is in the form of an arch, while the exterior is rectangular with a rusticated facade. On both sides of the arch, a sandstone column with Doric capitals support an entablature. The structure has been described as Victorian in architectural style, although the entablature is Neoclassical. In addition to the verse from the Theodore O’Hara poem, the upper portion of the cornice of the arch is inscribed with the name “McClellan” in gilt capital letters. The lower portion of the cornice is inscribed: “Here Rest 15,585 of the 315,555 Citizens Who Died in the Defense of Our Country From 1861 to 1865”.  Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, who was Quartermaster General of the United States Army and founded Arlington National Cemetery, also had his last name inscribed on the east side of the gate’s south column.

Also sometimes referred to as The McClellan Arch, The McClellan Gate was the first memorial in the D.C. area to honor Major General George B. McClellan. An equestrian statue, known as The Major General George B. McClellan Memorial, was later built in 1907 to honor the former General-in-Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War.

Both sides of the McClellan Gate are inscribed with lines from O’Hara’s poem. Atop the back, or the west face of the gate’s arch, is inscribed, “Rest on embalmed and sainted dead, dear as the blood ye gave, no impious footsteps here shall tread on the herbage of your grave.”

Bivouac of the Dead is believed to have been a favorite poem of General Meigs. In fact, Meigs was so impressed with the poem that in addition to ordering the inscriptions on the McClellan Gate, he also had lines from the poem inscribed on wooden plaques and placed throughout Arlington National Cemetery. The wooden plaques were replaced with either bronze or iron ones in 1881. Further, in his position as superintendent over all Army cemeteries, he also had similar plaques placed in Antietam National Cemetery, Fredericksburg National Cemetery, Gettysburg National Cemetery, and Vicksburg National Cemetery, among others.

Interestingly, O’Hara originally write the poem in 1847 in memory of the Kentucky troops killed in the Mexican War, did not give his permission for his poem’s use to commemorate Civil War dead at Arlington National Cemetery. His family learned of the inscriptions only after the gate became nationally famous in the years after its construction.

Ford's Theatre

Ford’s Theatre

This bike ride took me to Ford’s Theatre, a building with a rich history, located at 511 10th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Downtown Neighborhood. The site was originally a house of worship, constructed in 1833 as the second meeting house of the First Baptist Church of Washington. In 1861, after the congregation moved, John T. Ford bought the former church and renovated it into a theatre. It was destroyed by fire in 1862, but was rebuilt the following year. The new Ford’s Theatre opened in August of 1863, hosting various plays and stages performances. But its initial run as a theatre would not last long.

More than any of the plays or performances hosted there, the theatre is perhaps best known as the site where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865. Just five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House signaling the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, attended a performance of a play entitled “Our American Cousin” at the theatre. During the performance, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth stepped into the Presidential Box and shot Lincoln. Booth then jumped onto the stage, and cried out “Sic semper tyrannis” before escaping through the back of the theatre. The mortally wounded President was taken across the street to The Petersen House, where he died the following day.

Strangely enough, on November 9, 1863 (151 years ago last night), two years before the assassination, Lincoln had been seated in the very same seat at Ford’s Theatre, where he watched Booth perform in the popular play, “The Marble Heart.” An avid theatre-goer, Lincoln was known to have attended at least a dozen performances at the theatre. At this performance, Lincoln was impressed with the young actor’s energy and passed along a message backstage asking if he could meet the actor. Booth, an outspoken supporter of the South, declined the request.

Then on the night on which he would be assassinated, President Lincoln told William Crook, his bodyguard, about a dream. “Crook, do you know I believe there are men who want to take my life? And I have no doubt they will do it. I know no one could do it and escape alive. But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it.” Crook beseeched him not to go to Ford’s theater that night, but Lincoln demurred saying he had promised his wife they would go. Perhaps he knew he would be killed that night for when they departed for the theatre, Lincoln said “goodbye” to Crook instead of “goodnight.” He would be dead the following day.

Following the assassination, the U.S. Government appropriated the theatre, with Congress paying Ford $100,000 in compensation. And less than three years after opening as a theatre, an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement.

After that, the building was used as an office building, and served as a facility for the War Department. Then in 1893, part of the building collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 22 clerks and injuring another 68. The building was repaired, but was used as a government warehouse after that.

Decades later, and more than 100 years after President Lincoln’s death, it was again renovated, and then re-opened as a theatre in 1968. During the 2000’s it was renovated yet again, opening on February 12, 2009, in commemoration of the bicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today Ford’s Theatre is administered by the National Park Service as one of two buildings which comprise the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, the other being the Petersen House. It remains a working theatre, producing plays, musicals and other works that entertain while often examining political and social issues related to Lincoln’s legacy. And in addition to being an active theatre, it also houses world-class museum, and a learning center named the Center for Education and Leadership.

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Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

On this day in 1862, United States National Cemeteries were authorized by the Federal government. “United States national cemetery” is a designation for 146 nationally important cemeteries, which are generally military cemeteries containing the graves of U.S. military personnel, veterans and their spouses, but not exclusively so. Some national cemeteries, especially Arlington National Cemetery, contain the graves of important civilian leaders, to include U.S. Presidents, as well as other important national figures. Some national cemeteries, including Arlington, also contain sections for Confederate soldiers. More than 3,800 former slaves, called “Contrabands” during the Civil War, are also buried at Arlington National, with the designation “Civilian” or “Citizen” on their headstones. In addition to national cemeteries there are also state veteran cemeteries.

In observance of this, on this bike ride I went to Arlington National Cemetery, which is located in Arlington County, Virginia (MAP), directly across the Potomac River from The Lincoln Memorial . Arlington National is a U.S. military cemetery beneath whose 624 acres have been laid more than 400,000 casualties, and deceased veterans, of the nation’s conflicts beginning with the American Civil War. Arlington National also contains the reinterred dead from earlier wars, making it the only national cemetery to hold servicemen from every war in U.S. history.

The cemetery was established during the Civil War on the grounds of Arlington House, also known as Custis-Lee Mansion, which had been the estate of the family of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Anna Custis Lee, who was also a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington.  The Lees had lived there for over thirty years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.  The government seized the property in 1864 as part of a dispute over a $92.07 tax bill, and began to use the property as a cemetery.  In 1882, almost twenty years later and more than a decade after Lee’s death, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. government had seized his estate without due process and ordered it returned to his family in the same condition as when it was illegally confiscated. If followed, the ruling could have required the exhumation of all of Arlington’s dead, which at that time was approximately 17,000.  Instead, the Lee family officially sold the property to Congress for $150,000 the following year.

Arlington National Cemetery also houses a number of other memorials on its grounds, including the Tomb of the Unknowns, in honor of those who lay unidentified on the battlefields of freedom. Additional memorials at the cemetery include: the USS Maine Mast Memorial; the Spanish-American War Nurses Memorial; Chaplains Hill, which includes monuments to Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic military chaplains; the Confederate Memorial dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy; the Eternal Flame marking President John F. Kennedy’s grave; the Lockerbie Cairn Memorial to the 270 killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; the Space Shuttle Challenger and the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorials, as well as; a section of burial ground for military personnel killed in the Global War on Terror.

It is listed as the Arlington National Cemetery Historic District  on the National Register of Historic Places.  But despite its rich history, it is important to remember that Arlington National Cemetery is still an active cemetery.  It averages about 5,000 funerals each year.  Funerals are normally conducted six days a week, Monday through Saturday. Arlington averages 27 to 30 funerals, including interments and inurnments, each and every weekday.  And six to eight services on Saturdays.  It is for this reason that the flags on the cemetery grounds are flown at half-staff from a half hour before the first funeral until a half hour after the last funeral each day.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

Mathew Brady's Gravesite

Mathew Brady’s Gravesite

On this bike ride I stopped by the final resting place of Matthew Brady.  His gravesite is among those of the many historic and public figures buried in Historic Congressional Cemetery, located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood at 1801 E Street (MAP) in southeast D.C.

Mathew Brady was one of the most celebrated American photographers of the 19th century, and was well known for his portraits, particularly of public figures.  His first portrait studio in New York City was highly publicized, and in it Brady began to photograph as many famous people of his time as he could, which included Daniel Webster, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe.

A few years later he opened a second studio in D.C., where he continued his portraiture of public figures and prominent politicians, such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and 18 of the 19 American Presidents from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley.  The exception was William Henry Harrison, who died in office only a month after his inauguration, and three years before Brady started his photographic collection.  Among his presidential photographs, Brady famously photographed President Abraham Lincoln on several occasions, and it is his portraits of Lincoln that are on the five dollar bill and the Lincoln penny.

As famous as he is for his portrait photography, Brady is even more widely known for innovative use of photography to document the Civil War.  Initially, at the outbreak of the war, Brady’s photography business sold portrait images to transient soldiers.  Brady also marketed to parents, encouraging them to capture images of their soldier sons before going to war and possibly being killed.  He even ran an advertisement in The New York Daily Tribune that read, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”  However, he was soon taken with the idea of documenting the war itself. Eventually it was this photography that earned him the moniker of “The Father of Photojournalism.”

Seeking to create a comprehensive photo-documentation of the war, Brady organized a group of photographers and staff at his own considerable expense to follow the troops as the world’s first embedded field photographers.  Brady even bought photographs and negatives from private photographers in order to make the collection as complete as possible.

Almost as skilled at self-promotion as he was at photography, Brady held an exhibition during the middle of the war in his New York studio entitled “The Dead of Antietam,” in which he graphically displayed the carnage of the war with photographs of the battlefield before the dead had been removed.  A New York Times article in October of 1862 captures the impact of the exhibition, stating, “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Following the war Brady continued to work in D.C., but the Civil War project ruined him financially.  He had spent over $100,000, much of it on credit, with the expectation that the U.S. government would want to buy his photographs when the war ended.  But when the government refused to do so, he was forced to declare bankruptcy and sell his New York City studio.  Unable to even pay the storage bill for his negatives, they were sold at public auction.  Ironically, they were bought by the U.S. War Department for $2,840.  Through lobbying by friends, Brady was eventually granted by Congress an additional payment of $25,000, but it was only a fraction of what he had spent on the project, and he remained financially destitute for the remainder of his life.

In addition to his financial problems, Brady also became depressed over the deterioration of his eyesight, which had begun years earlier.  He also became very lonely after the passing of his wife.  Then in 1895 Brady suffered two broken legs as a result of a traffic accident.  He never fully recovered, and died penniless and alone in the charity ward of Presbyterian Hospital in New York City on January 15, 1896.  Without enough money left to bury him, his funeral, and burial next to his wife at Congressional Cemetery, was financed by the New York 7th Regiment Veteran’s Association.

During my visit to the cemetery, as I took photographs of his grave with my cell phone, I couldn’t help but wonder what Brady would have thought of the current technology used in photography, and how widely accessible and relatively affordable that technology has made photography.  I also wondered what he would have thought of the number of photographs that people take these days. It’s estimated only a few million pictures were taken in the 80 years before the first commercial camera was introduced.  Photography then became more widespread when the Kodak Brownie was released in 1900, four years after Brady’s death.  Brady and his staff took approximately 10,000 photos during the Civil War, an enormous number at that time.  Today, we take more than 380 billion photos a year.  I imagine Brady would be absolutely astounded.

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Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail

Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail

The Fort Circle Trail is what’s known as a hiker-biker trail, and follows along part of a route connecting historic sites that are collectively known as The Civil War Defenses of Washington.  The seven-mile trail passes through four of D.C.’s dozens of Civil War era forts which were originally built to defend bridges, naval installations, Capitol Hill and the rest of the city from likely approaches by Confederate rebels through southern Maryland during the Civil War.  Trail end points are at Bruce Place (Fort Stanton) in southeast D.C. (MAP), where I entered the trail on this ride, and at 42nd Street (Fort Mahan) in northeast D.C., where I ended.

The Fort Circle Trail contains surprising expanses of natural open spaces in what is otherwise a highly urban area.  It runs along the traces of old roadways, as well as through forests which are thick with oaks, beech, maples, and pine.  It can also get overgrown with vegetation at times along the route.  There are a few busy road crossings too, and navigating the starts and stops can sometimes get tricky if a rider is not paying attention.  The trail’s surface is mostly natural earth, with some improved sections which are paved with asphalt.  Be aware that the natural surface areas can also get muddy after heavy rains.  But the trail is signed in most places and easy to follow.

The Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail was designated in June of 1971, and was one of the first National Recreation Trails.  It is administered by the National Park Service, and is part of the larger American Discovery Trail as it winds its way from Chesapeake Bay to Georgetown, as well as the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, whose 425 miles of trail stretch between the Chesapeake Bay and the Allegheny Highlands.

The Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail is unique in that it is the only natural-surface trail within the D.C. city limits that allows mountain bikes.  In fact, a good way to see the trail is on mountain bike guided tours that are offered on the last Saturday of the month during warmer weather, and are lead by a Park Service ranger.  And if you don’t have a bike, the National Park Service will even provide one for you with advanced notice.

Whether you happen upon it like I did and explore the trail at your own pace, or plan ahead and take a tour guided by a ranger from the National Park Service, the Fort Circle Trail is unique among D.C.’s many trails, and worth experiencing in whatever way you choose.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

 

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The Tomb of John Alexander Logan

On this Memorial Day, I am writing about my bike ride to the final resting place of the founder of the Memorial Day holiday.

Located within the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery, the forerunner of Arlington National Cemetery and is located on Rock Creek Church Road in northwest D.C. (MAP), is the tomb of John Alexander Logan.

An American soldier and political leader, Logan served in the Mexican-American War and was a General in the Union Army during the Civil War.  He later entered politics and was elected and served as a State Senator in Illinois, and subsequently a U.S. Congressman and Senator.  He also ran but was an unsuccessful candidate for Vice President on the ticket with James G. Blaine in the election of 1884.

More than any of his other achievements, he is probably best known as the founder of Memorial Day.  As the Commander-in-Chief of The Grand Army of the Republic from 1868 to 1871, he is regarded as the most important figure in the movement to create and recognize Memorial Day as an officially recognized national public holiday.

Memorial Day is a Federal holiday wherein the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces are remembered.  Celebrated annually on the final Monday of May, the holiday originated after the Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War, and was called Decoration Day.  Over time, the holiday has been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service and was renamed Memorial Day.  It also typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.

So today as you pause to honor those service members who paid the ultimate price while serving their country, you might also want to remember John Alexander Logan.   He may not be the reason for the holiday, but there might not be a holiday without him.

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