Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Arlington’s Fort Ethan Allan has been the scene of conflict in three notable instances.

First there was the Civil War (which prompted its creation in 1861). Second, there was the great dog park fight seven years ago (the upshot being the county’s solomonic decision to move the facility a couple of hundred yards from remains of the fort).

And now, there’s a passionate but civilized dispute about the coming year-round exhibit commemorating it, which got moving with the Civil War sesquicentennial.

Visit the site at Old Glebe and Military roads — as I have since I attended elementary school at nearby James Madison -and your senses respond to a soothing green space framed by a tidy row of suburban colonial homes. You get little inkling that those two shrub-covered berms that rise above ground level were once part of a major strategic obstacle preventing Confederate troops from marauding over Chain Bridge into the Union capital.

Venture close and you’ll spot some “Please keep off the earthworks” signs and surveyor’s pegs in the open space once romped upon by local pets. The county is laying groundwork for what will become an outdoor museum, with improved signage describing the fort that housed a thousand Union troops and 32 cannon.

Consult the text, photos and maps in “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to Civil War Defenses of Washington,” by Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, and you see why Ethan Allen was built, as part of a chain around the District, by troops from Vermont, who named it after their Revolutionary War hero.

Though garrisoned in succession by units from eight states, the fort was primary home to the 4th New York Heavy Artillery soldiers. Occupants saw one skirmish with Mosby. A Philadelphia unit watched from its walls as one of history’s early military balloon flights monitored rebel troops four miles distant in Falls Church.

To bring this drama alive, neighbors in the Old Glebe Civic Association led by Burton Bostwick spotted their chance to upgrade the fort using their eligibility for $300,000 in 2010 bond funds under Arlington’s Neighborhood Conservation Program. Following completion of an archaeological analysis, the plan is to bring in lighting, pathways and a replica of a cannon.

A three-foot-high brass model evoking the fort’s layout is being paid for by neighbor Homer Knudsen, I was told by Rich Samp, neighborhood coordinator for the project. Also, “the hope is to plant grass or place mulch on the berms to prevent them from becoming poison ivy jungles,” Samp said.

One glitch was the county’s move-apparently with little notice to neighbors-to chop down trees on the property, drawing fire from some privacy-conscious homeowners on Military Road.
A thumbs-down on the project comes from Judah Best, an attorney who lives across Old Glebe Rd. Though he loves history as much as anyone, he told me, he worries about increasing traffic to an area with scant parking. More important, says Best, why spend thousands “in these lean times to commemorate what happened 150 years ago?”

Such austerity is pooh-poohed by Michael Leventhal, Arlington’s historic preservation coordinator, who is excited about interpreting for a new influx of visitors the fort’s military value from both the offensive and defensive perspectives. “What’s public is public” he said. “It is not the private compound of the neighbors.”

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]