On Sunday, March 23rd, a crowd of over 100 people came out to witness the unveiling of several new interpretive markers at Fort Ethan Allen, one of Arlington County’s most significant remaining Civil War sites. County Board Chairman Jay Fisette, local officials, and private citizens all made remarks celebrating the site’s history and the long effort it took to protect and preserve the site, and now to interpret it. They were joined by several reenactors who shared the experiences of a garrisoned soldier during the Civil War.
Built in 1861, Fort Ethan Allen was a crucial link in the chain of forts that defended Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, including 22 in present-day Arlington County, spread out in roughly half-mile intervals from north to south.
Named for the Revolutionary War hero, Fort Ethan Allen was a large bastion-style fort, boasting a perimeter of 768 yards, with 36 cannons, four magazines, two bombproof shelters, and a guardhouse. The fort worked in concert with nearby Fort Marcy to protect Chain Bridge, a key route in and out of the federal city. Another nearby fort was Fort C. F. Smith, located not far away. During the war, the landscape around the forts was largely denuded of vegetation, opening lines of sight toward the other forts as well as Chain Bridge and the capital.
20th Century Changes
The 20th century brought a series of changes that threatened aspects of the fort. In 1901, the two-story Saegmuller School was constructed on the site. The school was named for its major donor, noted scientist and civic activist George N. Saegmuller, who owned a 150-acre estate not far away called Reserve Hill Farm. In 1939, Madison Elementary School replaced the Saegmuller structure. Its expansion in 1958 destroyed the southeast bastion of the fort. The school closed in the 1970s, and the building was converted for use as the Madison Community Center.
In 1986, county officials allowed a dog exercise area to be constructed within the fort’s historic boundaries. The dog run was bounded to the north by traces of the fort’s guardhouse and a magazine and to the south by the fort’s one remaining bombproof. The dog park pitted pet-owners against preservationists, with some community members supporting the dog run and others urging for its removal and the rehabilitation of the fort.
In the past 25 years, several important steps have been taken to protect Fort Ethan Allen. First, Arlington County designated the fort as a local historic district in 1978. And in 1996, the site was placed on the Virginia Civil War Trails network, along with Fort C.F. Smith and Freedmen’s Village.
In 2005, the Arlington Heritage Alliance (Preservation Arlington’s predecessor group) was awarded a grant from the American Battlefields Protection Program of the National Park Service to carry out a cultural landscape inventory of the fort, as the first step toward its long-term interpretation and preservation. Conducted by GAI Consultants, this report was completed in spring 2007 and underscores the fort’s historic significance, its remarkable integrity, and the important role it played in conjunction with the other forts that encircled the nation’s capital during the Civil War.
In 2006, the county finally moved the dog park to a state-of-the-art community canine area not far away.
As part of the county’s recognition of the Civil War sesquicentennial, the new interpretation now in place at the fort includes interpretive markers that talk about the forts’ significance and their role in protecting the capital. The county has also recreated one of the fort’s gun emplacements, complete with a 20-pound Parrott, and installed a helpful 3-D model of the fort.
Preservation Arlington applauds Arlington County and the community for working so hard to defend this park and keep it open and accessible for future generations. It will be an educational resource and point of pride for the county for many years to come.
All photos courtesy of Arlington County Preservation Coordinator Cynthia Liccese-Torres.
This Arlington TV video includes a segment on the event: