A remnant of the most turbulent period in Arlington’s history was unearthed during the recent renovation of the Arlington Food Assistance Center’s warehouse space in the Four Mile Run corridor.
A 24-pound spherical shell was found during the construction period. The good news? It didn’t have a fuse attached, and probably had never been armed.
The shell, which was on display during the March 13 community celebration of the renovated AFAC space, almost assuredly comes from the Civil War period, said Charlie Meng, the organization’s executive director (and himself a cannonball collector).
“There were 24-pound cannon at several of the nearby Civil War forts,” Meng told the Sun Gazette, referring to the ring forts constructed around the District of Columbia by the federal government to prevent a Confederate raid on the nation’s capital.
The 24-pound cannon “were not field weapons – they were too heavy to be easily moved, so they were used on ships, in fortifications and during long sieges,” Meng said.
And the cannonball, which has spent some or all of the last 150 years waterlogged, most likely originated with the Union, since the Confederacy had few 24-pounders (most of their field weapons were 12-pounders).
Was the cannonball fired in combat? Meng surmises the answer is negative.
“Since the railroad was nearby during the war, and Quaker Lane would have crossed Four Mile Run, I suspect it was a ranging shot, meant to calibrate the cannons so they would be ready when the occasion called,” he said.
While there were 68 enclosed forts ringing Washington during the war, only one – Fort Stevens in the far northern part of the District of Columbia – attracted a significant Confederate attack, according to the National Park Service. It occurred on July 11-12, 1864, in the presence of Abraham Lincoln, who became the second (after James Madison) and so far last president to face hostile fire in wartime.
Though often makeshift and rudimentary, the ring forts and associated facilities constituted what may have been the strongest system of protection existing for any city in the world in the middle of the 19th century, the National Park Service suggests. Combined, there were emplacements for 1,500 guns, of which more than 900 were operational for the duration of the war.
After the conflict, most of the forts were allowed to deteriorate, and many were overgrown with vegetation. In Arlington, a number today form the nucleus of parks, and one – known during the Civil War as Fort Whipple – served as the genesis of Fort Myer, now part of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
Arlington, which until 1920 was known as Alexandria County, spent the Civil War in Union hands. In May 1861, after Virginia voters opted to secede, federal troops marched into the county from the District of Columbia and remained for the duration of the four-year conflict.
What will become of the 24-pounder found during the renovation? For now, it will stay in the hands of AFAC, unless and until “a better option is presented,” Meng said.