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Civil War 150 in Arlington: The Toll on the Trees

by ARLnow.com August 8, 2011 at 3:28 pm 4,326 28 Comments

It’s hard to imagine now, given the county’s tree-lined streets and abundance of leafy parks, but during the Civil War much of Arlington was a tree-less, barren wasteland.

Thanks to its key strategic location across the Potomac from the District, Arlington County was home to 22 Union forts during the Civil War. In order to see an approaching enemy, soldiers often cut down 1-2 miles of trees around each fort.

The photo, left, illustrates just that. Fort C.F. Smith, now a county park along the George Washington Parkway in North Arlington, was surrounded by a denuded landscape that allowed soldiers to mount an effective, fortified defense against any Confederate force that might have tried to invade attack Washington.

Civil War historian Dr. Walton H. Owen II, author of Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington, says that while large expanses of trees were cut down, some were spared.

“Contrary to what many people believe, not every tree was cut down,” Owen said. “Trees located around homes that provided shade were often saved because that was the Civil War equivalent of air-conditioning.”

The means by which the trees were cut down is fascinating in its own right. Owen cited a quote from the book The Seventy-Ninth Highlanders: New York Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, published in 1886, that discussed the domino-like felling of an entire forest.

It was an interesting sight to witness the simultaneous falling of a whole hill-side of timber; the choppers would begin at the foot of the hill, the line extending for perhaps a mile, and cut only part way through the tree, and in this way work up to the crest, leaving the top row so that a single bow would bring down the tree – then, when all was ready, the bugle would sound as a signal, and the last stroke of the axe be given, which brought down the top row; these falling on those below would bring them down, and like the billow on the surface of the ocean, the forest would fall with a crash like mighty thunder.

For the next four years Arlington and the rest of the country will be marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Among the upcoming events planned in commemoration, the Virginia Civil War HistoryMobile will be camped out at the Arlington County Fair from Wednesday to Sunday.

For more information on Arlington’s Civil War history, see the Arlington Virginia Civil War web site or contact the Arlington Historical Society.

  • Richard Cranium

    All those trees? My GOD! Just think if what would have been done to them had they suggested allowing a Walmart!!!

  • war is sad every-which-way you look at it.

  • CW

    I’ve heard that there aren’t any trees left in Donaldson Run after this weekend’s storms. It’s a wasteland over there; nothing’s getting out and the lines of communication have been severed.

  • “invade attack” typo.

  • the ARLNow community

    Wait, you mean things haven’t always been the way they are now? Damn, that might cause me to rethink my outlook on the world.

    Nah. I’m happy being self-centered……

    • madisonmanor

      And in 150 years from now, at least one of the following will be said:
      1. Can you believe that 150 years ago Arlington had single-family homes instead of these massive buildings?
      2. Can you believe that some people wanted to close the Artisphere? Only 20 more years and it will be paid off!
      3. Won’t some republican please run for County Board?

      • Greg

        Vote “NO” on Columbia Pike HoverTram!

  • JimPB

    Smart folks — using the falling top most tree to start a successive downing of trees below.

    Trees around homes as their A/C. I experienced that. My bedroom as a boy In Cincinnati was on the second floor front facing west. Thanks to large trees in front of the house, there were few summer nights when I didn’t sleep in comfortable coolness. My experience was the same during my summer times at my mother’s parents’ Southern plantation-like house (operated as a hotel) in NE Arkansas.

    The good old times weren’t all that good, but there were some good things that we would do well to have today, like trees for summer shade and coolness and for blocking the cutting NW winter winds.

  • steve85

    Of all the things that’s going on we talkin abour tree. Wow didn’t know trees could cause a disruption in the news. I guess people care about a damn tree more than humans

    • MC 703

      Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard.

      At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it.

      I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

    • jan

      It’s because we care about people that we care about trees.

    • normal

      You’re trying too hard, steve.

  • R

    Oh my, Greenpeace and all the other environmentalists during the Civil War must have been appalled and protesting in the streets.

    • PikerShorts

      Greenpeace was not founded until 1971.

      • normal

        And there were no streets back then.

        • northern aggression

          No streets? I hope this is meant to be sarcastic. There were definitely streets during the Civil War in Arlington. They might not have been paved, but there were streets.

          • normal

            I was completely serious. Just like I am now. No, really.

      • Sergeant Hulka

        Lighten up Francis. I believe it was a joke and if you didn’t get it you obviously take things too seriously.

    • the ARLnow community

      This is exactly what I was talking about….

  • Person

    Thanks for sharing this story….This is pretty interesting. I had no clue that this was going on during the Civil War.

    • MC 703

      The CVS in Clarendon has pictures on the outside facade of Arlington during the CW. Actually a lot of the CVSs in the area do. Very cool.

  • Now I understand

    Micky Simpson must have built the forts?

    • Charlie

      No, no, the forts were better. And they used real genuine wood.
      But yes they did maximize height and coverage in the name of market forces.

  • Stew Magnuson

    Love these kinds of articles. Keep them coming.

  • Mr. Brown

    I have an independant engineer who will tell you that the county won’t listen to our demands to save our Civil War Forts. Removing the Forts doesn’t make the county safer! Invading armies will need to slow down to make a right turn, and this will cause a invading army bottleneck. We are outraged residents who demand the county stop removing our Civil War Forts.


    • JammingEcono

      +10, sir!

    • no sense of humor

      I don’t think invading armies are a threat any more. And the link doesn’t work!


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