David Stevenson's Civil War
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
Fort Foote occupied what felt like a remote place four miles south of Alexandria and eight miles south of Washington, D.C. With no access by road and despite daily contact with the outside world when supplies were delivered by boat from Alexandria, a sense of isolation created boredom. After the 2nd Battalion of the Ninth New York Heavy Artillery had been there a while, perhaps on several occasions, some soldiers, including my great-great-grandfather David Stevenson on at least one occasion, fueled by boredom and a little whiskey, commandeered the fort row boat. Crossing the river in unauthorized night raids, they stole chickens from some Virginia farmers. Once, the soldiers were turned into the commanding officer by the farmers who claimed to be Union sympathizers. The soldiers were thrown in to the stockade for a couple of days. Was David with the group that stole chickens that particular night? We do not know for sure.
This is the only Civil War story David would tell his granddaughters. Great-Aunt Maxine was fourteen when her grandfather, David Stevenson, died. During the Civil War he was a private in the New York 9th Heavy Artillery. Aunt Maxine used to ask him what he did during the Civil War. She was frustrated that all he would tell her was that he stole some chickens, while her male cousins were given more details about his wartime service.
So on a windy, cold November afternoon, Aunt Maxine's son Robert and I decided to satisfy her curiosity in a tangible way. We took her to visit the ruins of Fort Foote atop Rozier's Bluff along the Maryland bank of the Potomac River just south of Washington, D.C. Our goal was to not only tell her about what David did during the war, but to also show her where it happened.
David had been working in Canada when he enlisted on January 26, 1863. No one has figured out how or why David chose to volunteer in Victory, New York–his home was in Michigan. He was assigned to Company C of the New York 9th Heavy Artillery, a regiment organized on September 8, 1862 as the 138th New York Infantry Regiment. It was renamed on December 19, 1862.
When David joined the regiment in Washington, D.C., it was spread between three forts that were still under construction–Forts Gaines, Mansfield, and Reno. All three were also located in the city's northwest side. And incidentally, my great-great-great-grandfather, William Wallace Davey, was also stationed at Fort Reno later in the war (read more).
About 5 a.m. on August 14, 1863, the 2nd Battalion, which included Company C, of the New York 9th Heavy Artillery under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William H. Seward, Jr. (son of Secretary of State William H. Seward) shipped down river to an undeveloped spot on Rozier's Bluff save for a single boat dock where they arrived around noon. Their mission was to build earthen fortifications for what was soon to be named Fort Foote. Eventually the fort would include roads, housing for both officers and enlisted men, huts for some of the wives who accompanied their soldiers, and various outbuildings associated with manning a military installation in the 1860s and 1870s.
Today the location is nearly as wild as it was when the 9th arrived, although the adjacent malarial swamp has been drained and turned into a housing subdivision. It is a testament to Robert's determination that he navigated Aunt Maxine's wheelchair over some pretty rustic terrain. The photograph above was taken at the entrance to Fort Foote, where the earthworks are still visible on either side of Robert and Aunt Maxine as well as, in the background, the remnants of the central bombproof that ran the length of the fort. David might have helped dig the dry moat on the land side of the fort or build the ramparts and parapets from cedar post walls and chestnut log roofs that were then covered with dirt.
While David was at Fort Foote, President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and a number of generals with their wives visited. The soldiers had fixed an anchored target on a raft at a measured distance out in the river that they knew they could hit. Just as they prepared to demonstrate their skill and the power of the massive Rodman cannons, the Confederates on the Virginia shore sent out a rowboat, cut the target lose, and towed it around a bend in the river. With their target out of sight, the soldiers were forced to continue the demonstration without boasting of the distance they were hitting.
Despite the cold, we took Aunt Maxine inside the fortifications, pointing out the walkways and pathways with which David would have been familiar. We went around where the 15-inch smooth-bore Thomas J. Rodman cannons were mounted. Two are left in their emplacement, unmoved since 1864 when David was there. We explained how heavy and loud the cannons were. It took 200 people to pull the cannon up the hill from the dock to their emplacements. A crew of 12 could fire a shot every 4 minutes. They had a three-mile range, but their aim was not so precise. It took 40 pounds of powder to fire the 434-pound cannonball. As Lieutenant Colonel Seward's wife recalled, she could not roll one over on the ground. When Fort Foote was finally abandoned by the Army in 1878 and left to return to its wild state, two of these massive Rodman cannons were left behind.
On May 18, 1864 the New York 9th Heavy Artillery joined the Army of the Potomac. They served under both General Grant in the Overland Campaign and under General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Ultimately they were witness to both the siege of Petersburg and the surrender at Appomattox. Active fighting provided David the opportunity for advancement. David was promoted to corporal on November 18, 1864 and sergeant on March 8, 1865. On July 6, 1865 David was transferred to the New York 2nd Heavy Artillery before his discharge on September 29, 1865.
Visiting Fort Foote was an emotional experience. Somehow its wild, unkept state, the bracing breeze, and the crisp crunch of dry leaves underfoot made it easier to hear the echo of a bustling military camp in one's imagination. There was a sacredness to walking where my great-great-grandfather had been. At 101-years of age, was it worth Robert's effort take his mother on this journey? How much did she really comprehend and remember? When they returned home, unprompted she related to her daughter-in-law much of what she had seen and been told, proving it is never too late to connect with one's heritage.
McDowell, Charles. Ever True: a Union Private and His Wife: Civil War Letters of Private Charles McDowell, New York Ninth Heavy Artillery. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2004.
Roe, Alfred Seelye. The Ninth New York Heavy Artillery. Worcester, MA: F. S. Blanchard & Co., 1899.