Lack of supplies delayed fortification

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Lack of supplies delayed fortification

June 20, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

We know that the Alexandria Common Council instructed James Hendricks to write Governor Thomas Jefferson in May 1781 that a fort and blockhouse were under construction here. While we do not know if these structures were located on Jones Point, it was a likely spot for defense from British privateers who sailed up the Potomac. Nor do we know whether the construction was ever completed. The letter to Jefferson stated that a "Considerable part of the work ... is already executed and one Nine and Two Twelve-pounders mounted on travelling Carriages at the expence [sic] of a few of the inhabitants who Voluntarily advanced their money for that Service expecting to be reimburs’d [sic] by Government." The mobility of the cannon apparently allowed the townspeople to move the carriages "to some place of safety if a superior force should come up" according to another letter addressed to Jefferson the previous year after a privateer tried to take a ship in Alexandria’s harbor.

Problems with privateers continued for American ships in the 1790s according to T. Michael Miller’s history of Jones Point published by the Historical Society of Fairfax County. During George Washington’s presidency, the Congress in 1794 passed a bill to construct defenses in specific ports. Secretary of War Henry Knox gave the orders to military engineer John Jacob Rivardi to fortify Baltimore, Norfolk and Alexandria. Our town was "to be fortified with works for 12 pieces."

The process of building the Alexandria defenses is well documented and must have been frustrating for Rivardi. His task was to erect earthen parapets "faced with strong timber and filled in with such earth as can be had." Regarding defenses on points of land, Rivardi was instructed to cover the batters with a "redoubt or other enclosed work in which the Garrison should reside constantly either in a Barrack or a Strong Blockhouse." The magazines wee suppose to be built from "massy timber, and be six feet thick on the roof..." Furthermore, the magazines should be "properly ventilated and free from dampness. They are to be of a size sufficient to hold one hundred and fifty rounds of powder for each piece of cannon..."

The location of each fortification was left to Rivardi’s judgment. While Rivardi was expected in Alexandria in April 1794, he had not arrived by the 29th of the month according to Col. John Fitzgerald, Washington’s former aide-de-camp and a leading Alexandrian. On May 4, however, President Washington and Secretary Knox gave the task of building Alexandria’s fortification to Jean Arthur De Vermonnet, a French engineer who served as captain in the Continental Army. They stated that "The sum to be expended for the works to defend Alexandria is not to exceed $3000 exclusive of the expense of the cannon." Vermonnet wrote Governor Light Horse Harry Lee "to acquaint you that the fund allowed to fortify Alexandria being small, I have chosen Jones’ Point for the seat of a good battery, which will protect the place against the enemy by water..."

He developed a plan for construction by June and also "a means for establishing a cross way through a marsh, which will enable the carrying of materials and earth." Vermonnet noted however, that wood was scarce and difficult to find "without an enormous price." Correspondence continues to document supply problems, as well as "the difference there is between the activity of the people of the southern states with the northern, is the cause of great difficulty in forwarding any public work..." The crossway was finished in July, yet in August the engineer still waited for supplies. Eventually materials arrived, but the militia responsible for building was absent. Eventually by 1796, the fort project at Jones Point was abandoned after the expense of $4,936.36. What happened to the fort and what were the fortunes of the undefended town during the War of 1812?

This caption appeared with an image printed in the Gazette: 

The 1794 fort, which apparently was never completed, appears on Jones Point circa 1803, Alexandria Deed Book G.