30 January 2008 by Published in: General musings 11 comments

Way back in the fall of 1981, the first semester of my junior year in college, I participated in a wonderful program sponsored by American University called the Washington Semester. Students from colleges and universities all over the country send students to AU for this program. When I was there, there were 35 of us from my alma mater, Dickinson College, by far the most participants from any school. I did the foreign policy program, meaning that I did an internship two days per week, we had seminars around Washington two days per week, and Friday was reserved for a large independent study paper due at the end of the semester. At no time in my life did I learn more, study less, have more fun, or get better grades. It was a fabulous experience that I recommend highly.

AU’s campus is in the far northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., at Ward Circle, where Nebraska Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue intersect. It’s one of the nicest parts of the District, at the northern end of Embassy Row, near the new Russian Embassy and the Japanese Embassy, a few blocks down Wisconsin Avenue from Tennally Circle. The University sits on a plateau that rises from the Potomac River from Georgetown.

Tuesday night was a big party night, and the University had its own on-campus pub in the student union building, not far from Ward Circle. We spent a lot of fun Tuesday nights there, drinking cheap, bad beer, and doing the sorts of stupid things that college students do as a consequence of drinking cheap, bad beer.

What does this have to do with the Civil War, you ask? Good question.

In the course of working on the Monocacy project, J.D. and I have decided to focus on Early’s advance on Ft. Stevens and the probes of the defenses of Washington by his army. Brig. Gen. John McCausland commanded a brigade of Virginia cavalry attached to Early’s army. McCausland claimed that he actually penetrated the defenses of the Federal capital, and that he could see the Capitol from the high ground in front of an abandoned fort briefly held by his men. This is one of those intriguing little obscure incidents of the Civil War that catch my attention and which cause me to want to learn more.

McCauslandMcCausland’s account is tantalizing and at the same time frustrating. He does not name the fort that he claimed that he occupied, but claimed it was in or near Tennallytown. Most people who have looked at this incident have indicated that they believe it was Fort Gaines, which was located in the northwest quadrant of the city, and the fort with the highest elevation. However, recent historical detective work suggests that rather than Fort Gaines, the fort was actually Fort Reno, named for Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno, commander of the 9th Corps, and who had been killed during the September 1862 Battle of South Mountain. I’m convinced.

Fort Reno occupied precisely the same ground as the front portion of the American University campus. The dormitory where I stayed for the semester would have been located directly behind the spot occupied by Fort Reno. But for the high-rise apartment buildings that clutter the skyline and block the view of downtown Washington, you would be able to clearly see the Capitol dome from there. Therefore, although there are no historical markers to suggest that the university’s campus had historical significance, and I had no way of knowing it, I spent an entire semester living–and partying–on some very important historic ground that is directly relevant to our Monocacy project.

Just think…I might have been drinking bad beer on the very spot where McCausland stood and visually inspected the defenses of the Federal capital. And I never knew it.

We’ve decided that we definitely need to include this episode in the driving tour portion of the Monocacy study, which will take me back to AU’s campus for the first time in more than 20 years. Won’t that make for an interesting trip down memory lane?

Scridb filter


  1. Mike Peters
    Wed 30th Jan 2008 at 10:32 pm


    But this time, buy the good stuff. 🙂


  2. Wed 30th Jan 2008 at 10:36 pm

    Good idea, Mike. I think we will. 🙂


  3. Thu 31st Jan 2008 at 2:22 am

    Yeah, last time Eric bought me a beer it was something called “Bertha’s Brew.” Bleeech. 35 cents a bottle, as I recall. Was it really supposed to be served warm?


  4. Thu 31st Jan 2008 at 6:37 am

    My understanding is Fort Reno is now under Fort Reno Reservoir. A battery which extended from the fort was destroyed some time ago when houses went up. Or at least that was my impression from a site visit several months back.

  5. Thu 31st Jan 2008 at 11:57 am

    Several people, including John Gordon, claimed to have entered unoccupied forts during the advance. I remain skeptical as most were written well after the war.

    Nevertheless I came across another account the other day. It’s in Confederate Veteran IX, p. 263 if you’re interested.

    The Washington Post did an article on this very subject several years ago that may still be in their archives.

  6. Thu 31st Jan 2008 at 12:08 pm


    That Post article is what my post is based on. I’m convinced about McCausland.


  7. Thu 31st Jan 2008 at 1:20 pm

    As I’m sure you’re aware there is a whole genre of Confederate “lost opportunity” literature (“if only we’d pushed on to Cemetery Hill,” etc. etc.). I think this probably falls into that category, but will be interested to see what else you come up with.

    One logical question is why, if no one was barring the Rockville — DC road, why McCausland would recommend the army move all the way over to the 7th St. Pike.

    Just seems extremely unlikely that the Federals would leave any major work ungarrisoned with an enemy army bearing down on them.

  8. Todd Berkoff
    Thu 31st Jan 2008 at 9:48 pm

    Taken from the NPS website:

    “After the close of the war, the forts (Reno included) were slowly dismantled and abandoned. Most of Fort Reno could be seen as late as 1892, but the fort and battery at the north end were eventually graded down for the construction of a water reservoir. Today the site is bounded by Nebraska Avenue, Fessenden Street, Belt Road, and Chesapeake Street, NW.”

  9. Dave Powell
    Fri 01st Feb 2008 at 7:49 am


    Some years ago, a friend of mine was doing grad work at AU and working in the public affairs office. During a construction job, AU turned up some WWI-era chemical warfare rounds, buried many years ago – you can imagine the flap that turned into, and made my friend’s job MUCH more interesting for a time…

    Perhaps they were CSA chemical rounds instead? A new slant for your book?


  10. Gail Stephens
    Sat 09th Feb 2008 at 9:43 am


    Think you’ll find Early took the Seventh Street Pike because McCausland told him the defenses at Fort Reno were too strong. I, personally, have always doubted the McCausland story about sitting in Reno simply because of that. Another Confederate “look how close we were” story.

    As for Halleck firing Wallace, the story is funny but has a grain of truth. Halleck had wanted to get rid of Wallace, (another political general), since before Shiloh. Wallace managed to get the Middle Department because of his Indiana political connections and Lincoln’s good heart. When Wallace “lost” the battle of Monocacy, Grant send E.O.C. Ord to Baltimore to replace him in command of the 8th Corps. That was Grant’s not Halleck’s idea, but done after Halleck told Grant that Wallace had suffered a “serious defeat.” Wallace had again failed, so was replaced — only for three weeks — until people began to realize what he’d done. So, your letter, which is amusing, also has a grain of truth. And of course, when folks realized what had happened, Halleck came in for a huge amount of criticism.

    If you’re going to add material about the advance on Washington and if even you’re not, suggest you contact Dr. B.F. “Frank” Cooling, if you haven’t already. Frank is the author of lots of books about the campaign, and is part of group trying to get the NPS to do more to save the DC Forts.


  11. Tue 12th Feb 2008 at 3:25 pm


    The B&O Railroad Museum is doing an exhibit you may be interested in:

    Civil War: The Maryland Story – Retreat by Rail
    February 16 – May 4, 2008
    Wednesdays – Sundays, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
    Learn about life in and around Ellicott’s Mills during the Civil War, a defining moment in our nation’s history. See how divided loyalties and the burden of war impacted daily life. Explore the role of the railroad and Ellicott’s Mills after the Federal defeat at Monocacy.

    From: http://www.ecborail.org/exhibitions-public-programs.shtml

    Take Care

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