August 2, 1865
What Are We Here For?
Company I of the Second New York Heavy Artillery pictured here on August 1, 1865, in front of an earthen bunker at Fort C.F. Smith in Alexandria, Virginia, had lots of time to get their picture taken since they are not going home until September when they finish their tour of duty in the "Union" army. Now that the war is over, however, they keep asking themselves, "What are we here for?"
During the war, these soldiers and many others stationed at forts built around Washington. D.C. were on the lookout for any unwelcome Confederate visitors. The guns were polished every day and the soldiers were ready for battle but Washington D.C. was only threatened once during the war in the summer of 1864 when a skirmish, with 14,000 Confederate troops led by Jubal Early, occurred in front of Fort Stevens, in the northern part of Washington. D.C.
For those wanting the thrill of war being stationed at Fort C.F. Smith was not the place to be. Life was pretty plain, simple and almost boring since it was kept away from the bloodshed of the war. In the morning, the soldiers practiced drills, parades and inspections. At night, there was time for shenanigans and many of the men could be found in any one of Washington's taverns.
Fort C.F. Smith was built on the high ground North of Spout Run with a view of the Potomac River. The fort had a 368-yard perimeter and gun emplacements to hold up to twenty-two canons.
Six forts in Alexandria, were built after the Union invaded Virginia on May 21, 1861. Lincoln knew that Arlington heights and Alexandria needed to be captured to help the survival of the Union. Hence, Arlington heights and Alexandria were seized by Federal troops so that forts could be made to protect D.C. After the defeat at Bull Run, Union officials knew that Washington needed more protection than it already had.
Fort C.F. Smith and Fort Whipple were built in 1863 to protect the flank of the Arlington Lines (the string of forts built in Alexandria). By the end of 1863 there were 60 forts, 93 batteries, 837 canons, and 23,000 men in place to protect D.C.
Fort C.F. Smith was named in honor of General Charles Ferguson Smith. He was born in April of 1807 the son of an army surgeon. He was promoted to Major General on March 21, 1862 and was put in charge of the army (only for a short period of time) when Grant was accused of drunkenness.
During this period of time, he led the army to Pittsburgh Landing where, while getting on a boat, slipped and scraped his shin. The wound became septic and he was taken to Grant's Headquarters in Savannah where he died on April 25, 1862.
The land that Fort C.F. Smith was built on was property owned by the Jewell family who was ordered off the land. Union men destroyed his house and dug a ditch in its place.
These soldiers who are asking themselves what are we here for, now know the answer. They're counting the days, hours, minutes and seconds until they can go home to see their families.
Arlington Public Library. Central Branch. Virginia Room. Vertical File. Arlington Civil War Forts-Fort C.F. Smith.
Cheek, Charles D. Historical Archeological Survey of Fort C.F. Smith. Arlington: 1994.