Don't let it be forgot: Gunpowder, treason and plot...in Washington, DC

Hidden in plain site

Few visitors to the nation’s capital are aware that the third oldest continuously active army installation in the United States lies within the District's boundaries. Fewer are aware of its most infamous and involuntary residents. Many more are unaware that they had a glimpse of it in Robert Redford’s film, “The Conspirator.”

The Chairman's (Joint Chiefs) University

Originally called the Washington Arsenal, the military post later was known as Washington Barracks. In 1948, it was renamed in honor of LTG Lesley J. McNair, Commander of Army Ground Forces in WWII. LTG McNair, who supervised training for replacement troops here, was killed during the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

Fort McNair has served as an arsenal and hosted an artillery command, America’s first federal penitentiary, an army hospital, a music school, and a war college.

Although it is headquarters for the Military District of Washington, today the post is primarily a university campus, home to the Inter-American Defense College, the National War College, three of the Defense Department’s regional centers (The Africa Center for Strategic Studies and the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies are on campus; the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center is a short walk away at Coast Guard Headquarters.) and National Defense University.

Fort McNair, 1948 Note the War College (right), Model Arsenal (right of center) and Building 20 and tennis courts left of center) on parade ground. Washington Channel is in foregound.
Fort McNair, 1948 Note the War College (right), Model Arsenal (right of center) and Building 20 and tennis courts left of center) on parade ground. Washington Channel is in foregound. | Source

Welcome to Turkey Buzzard Point

In 1791, George Washington and city planner Pierre L’Enfant bought 28 acres on what was called Turkey Buzzard Point at the confluence of the Anacostia (then called the eastern branch of the Potomac) and Potomac rivers. This site was in a strategic location for protecting the area that would be the Federal City. On his plan for the city, L’Enfant marked the tiny peninsula as Military District #5. Although it has been known as Young’s Point and Greenleaf’s Point, depending on who owned it, today it is called simply Buzzard’s Point.

Washington Arsenal

The United States Arsenal

By 1794, The Arsenal boasted a one-gun battery behind earthworks, and additional land had been purchased to increase the size from 28 to more than 89 acres. In 1803, Congress allocated funds for additional buildings.

On March 16, 1861, Harper’s Weekly published an image of the Arsenal.

"Here are foundries, work-shops, magazines, laboratories, and every thing necessary for the manufacture of implements and materials of war…. In front of the Arsenal stand a collection of foreign brass cannon, some of which are trophies taken in battle at Saratoga, Yorktown, Niagara, and Vera Cruz. "

Today, a collection of cannon are arranged around the flagpole at the north end of the parade ground.

Entrance to Lincoln Hall
Entrance to Lincoln Hall

Lincoln Hall

Entering through the 2d Street Gate, visitors first encounter Lincoln Hall, a handsome annex to Marshall Hall, headquarters for the National Defense University (NDU). President Obama dedicated Lincoln Hall, which houses the CAPSTONE course for flag and general officers and a number of NDU elements, including the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, The College of International Security Affairs and the Institute for National Strategic Studies, in 2009.

Marshall Hall
Marshall Hall | Source

Marshall Hall

Turning left on 5th Avenue, the building on the left just south of Lincoln Hall is George C. Marshall Hall. President George W. Bush dedicated the building, headquarters for the National Defense University and the extensive NDU library, in 1991.

Eisenhower Hall

South of Marshall Hall on the right side of 5th Avenue is Eisenhower Hall, home of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF). President Eisenhower, who was in the class of 1933 and later taught at ICAF when it was housed in the Pentagon, dedicated the building in 1960. ICAF offers a masters degree for students studying how to support national security through managing natural resources.

National War College
National War College | Source

Roosevelt Hall

At the southern end of Fort McNair is Roosevelt Hall, which President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated in 1904. I find the Beaux Arts building impressive, magnificent even. Although many boaters or visitors to Hains Point across the channel don’t recognize it, the War College, which is visible from vantage points along the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, seems to watch over the Potomac River. Originally the U.S. Army War College for educating select Army officers in all aspects of war, the building became the National War College, open to the State Department, CIA and all branches of the military, in 1946, when the Army War College, now at Carlisle Barracks (second oldest military installation in the United States) in Pennsylvania.

The interior of the building, with a marble-floored rotunda, balconies and arched brick vaulting and a vaulted brick saucer dome, is as handsome as the exterior.

The British are coming-and going. There and there and....

When the British occupied the Arsenal during the War of 1812, American troops spirited away as much gunpowder as they could carry, hiding the rest in a well on the east side of what is now the War College. The British troops, perceiving that something was in the bottom of the well, lowered a lantern to ascertain what booty might be cached there. Reports at the time estimated that 30-40 British troops were killed and approximately the same number injured in what was described as "a tremendous explosion.” A witness reported, "…the officers and about 30 of the men were killed and the rest most shockingly mangled."

As we begin to return north on 2nd Avenue on the western side of the narrow fort, Building 21, stands on the right, toward the center of campus. Originally called the Model Arsenal, Building 21 is now known as Davis Hall Davis Hall, in honor of Brigadier General Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr., the first African-American general in the U.S. Army.

Oral history has it that President Lincoln came here to inspect new developments in ordnance during the war. The building now houses the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Building 20, the east wing of the first federal penitentiary, is at left. The gallows stand just east of current tennis courts.
Building 20, the east wing of the first federal penitentiary, is at left. The gallows stand just east of current tennis courts. | Source
Building 20. The Lincoln conspirators were tried n the top floor.
Building 20. The Lincoln conspirators were tried n the top floor. | Source

You think they're just tennis courts

Straight ahead on the left side of 2d Avenue is the Fort McNair Officer’s Club, but the tennis courts across the road on the right are on the site of the original 1829 federal penitentiary. But wait, there’s more!

In 1826, the government purchased this land as the site of the first federal penitentiary in the United States. President John Quincy Adams selected Charles Bulfinch, the architect of the Capitol to design it. The location was ideal because prisoners could be delivered by water instead of through the crowded streets of the city.

North of the tennis courts, Quarters 20, Grant Hall, is all that remains of the penitentiary and the most famous—or infamous--room on Fort McNair.

And the first federal penitentiary, too

Once the east wing of the penitentiary that housed among its inmates eight prisoners charged with conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln, the top floor of Building 20 was the site of the conspirators’ pile and the setting for Robert Redford’s movie, The Conspirator.” Mr. Redford had the room measured so that he could have the site precisely recreated for the courtroom scenes in his film. It is in the process of being restored to its condition at the time of the trial.

A historic marker stands on the east side of the tennis courts, marking the site of the gallows where four of the conspirators, including Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the federal government, were hanged.

The bodies of the executed prisoners were buried at the site until their families were allowed to claim them in 1869. The body of John Wilkes Booth, who had been killed by federal troops in Port Royal, Virginia, taken to the penitentiary and buried under a storage room at the prison for four years.

Another explosion!

Roughly between this site and Marshall Hall a munitions factory that produced 120,000 cartridges a day employed hundreds of young—mostly Irish— women. Women were preferred because their slender fingers were more suited to packing cartridges.

A historic marker on the site recalls June 17, 1864, when a spark ignited the gunpowder. The resulting explosion or their resulting burns killed 21 of the young women. President Lincoln and Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, led the funeral procession that was estimated to have been a mile long.

Dodged malaria, but not appendicitis

Farther north on 2nd Avenue, a row of brick colonials dating from 1905 marks Generals’ Row, housing for senior military leaders including the president of NDU.

At the north end of 2nd stands an unassuming building that currently houses transient officers. When the Washington Arsenal became Washington Barracks under the Quartermaster Corps in 1881, it served as an army hospital, in which Major Walter Reed, regimental surgeon for the 2nd Artillery, conducted some of his research on insect-borne diseases. In 1902, he died there as the result of complications from an appendectomy.

The barracks

East of Walter Reed’s hospital stands Building 52. Originally a barracks, this building also once housed the Army Music School. Since 1962, it has been home to the Inter-American Defense College, serving select military and civilian leaders from throughout the Americas.

The next barracks to the east, Building 10, houses Company A of the 3rd Infantry, part of the Presidential honor guard. The Old Guard also participates in special performances such as the Twilight Tattoo and spirit of America programs including a summer series at Fort McNair.

I have not mentioned the golf course. A nine-hole golf course designed on the post in 1972 no longer exists, although it continues to be listed in D.C. area golf guides.

I could add that President Obama often enjoys a little B-ball at one of the fort’s facilities, but then you’d expect me to tell you where and I’d have to….

And now the bad news

Unfortunately, entrance to Fort McNair requires an official reason (unless you are attending the Twilight Tattoo.) and government-issued ID. And a vehicle search. Well, it is not the most open site in Washington. But as you drive past the big brick wall on P Street SW or 2d Street SW, at least you will have the pleasure of knowing how much history those walls contain.

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Comments 2 comments

lions44 profile image

lions44 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

Great hub. It is too bad we can't visit the place. You really did your research. Voted up.


cdonegal@aol.com 3 years ago

Thank you. It is possible to enter. You need only a driver's license and the willingness to have your car searched.

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