Fort Kearny (Washington, D.C.)
|Part of the Civil War defenses of Washington, D.C.|
|Tenleytown, District of Columbia|
An ammunition magazine similar to those built at Fort Kearny.
|Built by||U.S. Army Corps of Engineers|
|Battles/wars||American Civil War|
|Garrison||Two companies, 7th New York Heavy Artillery regiment|
Fort Kearny was a fort constructed during the American Civil War as part of the defenses of Washington, D.C. Located near Tenleytown, in the District of Columbia, it filled the gap between Fort Reno and Fort DeRussy north of the city of Washington. The fort was named in honor of Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny of the Union Army, who was killed at the Battle of Chantilly on September 1, 1862. Three batteries of guns (Battery Rossell, Battery Terrill, and Battery Smead) supported the fort, and are considered part of the fort's defenses.
Construction and operation
Construction of the fort began in the summer of 1862, as a result of the discovery that the guns of Fort Pennsylvania (better-known as Fort Reno) and Fort DeRussy could not adequately cover the hilly terrain between Rock Creek and the Rockville Turnpike. To fix the situation, an intermediate fort was built to cover the dead ground. This fort would become known as Fort Kearny.
Construction proceeded slowly, hampered by a lack of workers. In December, the 113th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment was ordered to assist in the construction of the fort. Reports indicated that "of the 150 men that reported only 50 did any work." Despite setbacks like these, by Christmas 1862, reports discussed the disposition of newly built Fort Kearny and several supporting field batteries that were constructed in order to cover blind approaches to the fort. That report described Fort Kearny as "occupying an excellent position, [and] a necessary connecting link between Forts Pennsylvania and De Russy. It sees well the upper valley of Broad Branch, and crosses its fires with those of Forts Pennsylvania and De Russy and intermediate batteries upon the dangerous heights in front. It has a powerful armament, and is provided with ample magazines and bomb-proofs, and is well adapted to its location. A field battery, just across Broad Branch, has been built to sweep part of the ravine immediately in front of Fort Kearny; otherwise unseen."
The battery, later known as Battery Rossell, provided space for eight field guns and a strong powder magazine. The battery was named in honor of Major Nathan B. Rossell of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, who was killed on June 27, 1862, at the Battle of Gaines' Mill.
In 1864, the fort was garrisoned by two companies of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery regiment, commanded by Major E.A. Springsteed. A May 1864 report on the defenses of Washington counted 298 soldiers in the fort's complement and stated that the garrison was of full strength. Despite this fact, deficiencies were found in the capability of those soldiers, whose drill was recorded as "indifferent," and that "improvement [was] needed."
In contrast, the physical properties of the fort were found to be fully capable. The same inspection found three 24-pounder siege guns, three 32-pounder barbette guns, one 5-inch siege howitzer, and three 4-inch rifled guns. In addition, the powder magazine was found to be "dry and in good order" and the ammunition as a whole, "[in]full supply and serviceable."
Battle of Fort Stevens
In July 1864, Confederate forces under the command of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early mounted a diversionary attack on the ring of forts defending Washington, D.C. in an attempt to relieve the pressure on Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose army was engaged with Union forces in central Virginia. Though Fort Kearny itself did not come under direct fire from Confederate forces, at the time it was not certain that the Southern soldiers would not attempt to slip through the American lines in the hilly terrain near Tenleytown.
On July 11, the 22nd regiment of the Veteran Reserve Corps, commanded by Lt. Col. A. Rutherford, began taking up positions in the rifle pits and trenches in front of the fort. At 7:30 p.m., the Confederate forces of Early's force were seen entrenching north of the Fort Reno-Fort Kearny-Fort DeRussy line.
Accordingly, six companies of the 22nd Regiment were released from their entrenchments and ordered to reinforce the line of Union skirmishers that lay to the north of the fortifications. At 6 a.m. on the morning of July 12, these companies were ordered to advance northward. Doing so, they cleared out a pocket of Confederate sharpshooters that had established themselves on a nearby hilltop and who had been harassing the Union forces overnight. By 7:00 a.m., the 24th regiment of the Veteran Reserve Corps arrived at Fort Kearny to relieve the remaining companies of the 22nd, which were dispatched northward as reserves for the first six companies, which had already advanced two miles north of Fort Kearny.
Those few Confederate sharpshooters would mark the closest advance of any recognized Confederate force to the guns of Fort Kearny. The majority of the fighting would take place to the north and east, near forts Stevens and DeRussy.
In the wake of the Confederate assault on the Washington defenses, a new report was released containing recommendations on improvements to the forts defending the city. In regards to Fort Kearny, the only suggestion involved the addition of four field guns to Battery Terrill, one of the subsidiary batteries that protected enfiladed approaches to the fort.
After the surrender of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, the primary reason for manned defenses protecting Washington ceased to exist. Initial recommendations by Col. Alexander, chief engineer of the Washington defenses, were to divide the defenses into three classes: those that should be kept active (first-class), those that should be mothballed and kept in a reserve state (second-class), and those that should be abandoned entirely (third-class). Fort Kearny fell into the second-class category. As budget cuts mounted, however, Fort Kearny, which had been scheduled to be mothballed, was abandoned and the land sold. Today, no trace of the fort remains in what is the primarily residential neighborhood of Forest Hills, between Rock Creek Park and Fort Reno Park.
- U.S., War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 Volumes (Washington, DC: The Government Printing Office, 1880-1901) I, 25, Part 2 (serial 40), 140-41
- Record Group 393, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Preliminary Inventory 172, Part 2, 3d Division, 3d Army Corps, Entry 6770, Letters Received, September–October 1862, W.C. Gunnell, per James A. Brown, Clerk, Headdquarters, Engineer Department, Defenses Of Washington, to Col. Haskin, Dec. 16, 1862
- Official Records, I, 21 (serial. 31), 902-16
- Official Records I, 25, Part 2 (Serial 40), 186
- General Orders, No. 83. War Department, Adjutant General's office, April 1, 1863.
- Official Records I, 26, Part 2 (Serial 68), 883-97.
- Official Records I, 37, Part 1 (serial 70), 343-45
- Official Records I, 37, Part 1 (serial 70), 343-45
- Official Records I, 37, Part 2 (serial 71), 492-95
- Official Records (Serial 97) Series I, Volume XLVI, Part 3, 1130
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Fort Kearny (Washington D.C.).|
- Letters of Sgt. James Bosworth, who was stationed near Fort Kearny during 1862. 
- National Park Service map displaying the location of Fort Kearny north of Washington.