by Ann Kessler
There’s only one sign in Forest Hills that gives any indication of the neighborhood’s past role in Civil War history, and that’s at the Peruvian ambassador’s residence at 3001 Garrison Street NW.
The left stone pillar of the entrance gates reads “Battery Terrill.”
Inside the Peruvian compound are the remains of Battery Terrill, a Civil War defense, as preserved by the builders of the mansion in 1928, Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Tompkins. On September 5, 1938, Washington Post reporter Elizabeth Henney reported that the Tompkins chose to include the remains of the battery in a circular drive with their stately home at the center and a terraced garden nearby covering the rifle pits. Knowing the past history of their property, they also kept the name.
Locations are approximate.
Battery Terrill was named for General W.R. Terrill, who was killed at Perryville, Kentucky in 1862. It is just one of the Civil War army sites in Forest Hills. There’s also Battery Rossell (at Fessenden and 36th Streets NW) and Fort Kearny (down the street from Battery Terrill in the 4900 block of 30th Place NW). They were part of the extensive Civil War defenses of Washington, built very quickly after the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861 and then mostly deserted as soon as the war ended.
In all there were 68 enclosed forts and batteries built across the city to protect it from a Confederate invasion. Between the forts and batteries in our area were “rifle-trenches almost continuous from Fort Reno to Fort Kearny, and thence, interrupted by the valley of Broad Branch, to Fort DeRussy.”
The other local battery, Battery Rossell, was “very substantially constructed for eight field guns with magazine, but with open gorge.” It was named for Major Nathan B. Rossell, the uncle of one of the Commissioners of the DC government. He was killed at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill.
Battery Rossell served as one of the unmanned batteries surrounding Fort Reno.
The forts protecting nearby Northwest Washington included Fort Reno (formerly Fort Pennsylvania), Fort Kearny, Fort DeRussy and Fort Stevens, all in a row.
What had previously been a green forest of trees became miles of stumps as trees were cut down to allow views of any approaching enemy through the deep and wide Broad Branch valley. It’s hard to imagine the devastation of the landscape.
This is how Alanson A. Haines, chaplain and historian of the 15th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, described the land around Fort Kearny in 1862:
“Our camp was situated in a region naturally beautiful. Yet the endeavor of the military forces seemed to be to convert it into an utterly barren waste. All about us told of war. The trees for miles around were cut down, and the hills were denuded of even small brush, that the oversight might be without obstruction. Acres were covered with abates made of fallen trees, the houses were deserted, and miles of fences burned.”
Fort Kearny, located on what is now the 4900 block of 30th Place NW, was named for Major General Philip Kearny, who was killed at the Battle of Chantilly at the time the fort was being built in September 1862. Colonel Fowler’s 15th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry began the construction of the fort which was described as “a large lunette with stockade gorge” with “one eight inch siege howitzer, three 42-pounder James, three 32-pounder seacoast, three 24-pounder siege and 3 4 ½ inch rifled guns.”
Alanson Haines, in his history of the 15th infantry, said they were surprised to be ordered to build a fort as they assumed they would be moved out in the direction of Darnestown and Rockville like the other troops. Instead they went to work building the fort, “slashing timber, working on the new military roads, and throwing up embankments.”
He remembered the days as “long and wearisome …even though we were enjoying luxuries of which we were soon to be altogether deprived.” This would include ample rations, new clothing, and packages from home.
Fort Kearny played a supporting role during the Battle of Fort Stevens on July 11 and 12, 1864. Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early led his men down from the north via the 7th Street Road and fought the capital’s defenders at the Battle of Fort Stevens. That battle, famous for President Lincoln’s presence, was the only Civil War battle within the city’s limits. On July 11, 1864, Brigadier General Martin D. Hardin, the Union General in charge of the Northwest line, the area west of Fort DeRussy to Fort Sumner, ordered the rifle trenches be manned from Fort Kearny to Fort Simmons. Colonel John M. C. Marble of the 151st Ohio Infantry was given command of Fort Kearny along with Fort DeRussy and Battery Smead on July 11.
Stationed at Fort Kearny were Company K 151st Regiment Ohio National Guard under Captain G.M. Webb, and the 9th New York Heavy Artillery company under Lieutenant Hough. The rifle pits were manned and a skirmish line was created to protect both Fort Kearny and Battery Smead. On July 11th, the 22nd Regiment Veteran Reserve Corps protected the rifle pits.
Alanson Haines’ 15th Regiment passed by Fort Kearny on July 13, 1864 on its way out of Washington after having participated in the Battle of Fort Stevens.
“Fort Kearney [sic] looked much as it did when we left it, with only a fuller complement of guns, bomb-proofs, and connections with other works,” he wrote. “Very comfortable barracks had been built for the occupation of any troops that might garrison it.”
After the South’s surrender at Appomattox, the military had to decide what to do with the forts and batteries built for the defense of Washington. On June 23, 1865 the military leaders decided that several forts like Fort Stevens and Fort Reno would be retained. Still other forts and batteries, like Fort Kearny and Batteries Terrill and Rossell, were abandoned and left to decay and disappear. In 1902, the Evening Star reported that Fort Kearny’s remnants were overrun with scrub pine “and not visible from any direction.” Today, of course, the 4900 block of 30th Place NW shows no sign of having been the site of a Civil War fort.
Thus, Forest Hills’ Fort Kearny and Battery Rossell became just a memory of a war that was fought on the home ground of Washington, DC, and Battery Terrill became a fashionable estate.
Thanks to Anne Rollins for her help and support in preparing this article.