The First 750 Words

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Non-Fiction -> History,  Military History

Fort Myer, Virginia

Overlooking Washington DC, Fort Myer holds a commanding view of America’s capital. Built in 1863 and carved from the Custis-Lee estate, this historic US Army post was known as Fort Whipple. It was one of the defensive fortifications of the Capital during the Civil War. As the war ended and re-unifying healing began, only it would remain. To honor the Army’s first Signal Officer, Major General Albert J. Myer, it was renamed in 1881.

Many well known names contributed to molding the acres of Arlington Heights. These acres are distinguished by unique events and firsts. Among them are:  beginnings of military aviation, first aviation fatality, US Army Cavalry showcase, first location of “The Three Sisters” and the National Weather Service. During World War I, Army officers trained here who headed “Over there…” to fight.  Since 1942, it’s the home of the US Army Band – “Pershing’s Own”.  Then in 1948, the US 3d Infantry – “The Old Guard” was re-activated and adopted Fort Myer as home.   Over 200 timeless photographs combine with a great story of the first one hundred years – 1860s to 1960s – displaying evolution of this national landmark over time:  buildings, people and events – now many images are for the first time presented in one work.  A “first time published” Abraham Lincoln note discovered during the research phase is the golden nugget of the book.

Buy the book.


Look around Fort Myer today and the history-makers are the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment – the “Old Guard,” The US Army Band and Headquarters Company of the US Army.  Yet Fort Myer has a history which began 8735FORTcvr.inddduring the US Civil War when it was completed in 1863.  It was first named Fort Whipple after Major General Amiel Weeks Whipple, who was mortally wounded in the battle of Chancellorsville.  The location chosen, some say because that’s where the general ordered an observation balloon launched to spy on the Confederates.  The area of the present day installation also includes where Fort Cass, a lunette was built as the first line of defense and part of the “Arlington Line.”

On 12 April 1861, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina harbor and the US Civil War began in earnest.  It was 26 MAY 1861 when Union troops crossed the Potomac and commanded the high ground surrounding and including the Custis-Lee mansion.  After the defeat at Bull Run and the closeness of the Confederates, Union General George B. McClellan was concerned about the safety of the nation’s capital. Although several forts were constructed in early 1861 – the first at the two bridges which crossed the Potomac – other fortifications were planned and built. These included several lunettes, such as Fort Cass, which was carved from the original Custis-Lee estate acreage.

In 1862 Major General John Gross Barnard was named chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac. He’s also been called the “Father of the Defenses of Washington DC.”  As McClellan conceived where to place the defenses to protect Washington DC, Barnard designed and oversaw the construction. By the end of the war, a network of nearly 70 fortifications connecting with over 90 batteries would be built to eventually surround and defend the US Capital.  Around each fort and battery, the land was clear-cut two miles in all directions to provide a clear line of sight and fire for the artillery.  Most of the wood collected from the clear-cutting was used to construct these military compounds. They were earthworks with bombproofs and very few permanent buildings.

Upon inspection of the defenses, it was determined that additional fortifications were needed. In augmenting the Arlington Line that was built in 1861, several fortifications were added – one of them on Arlington Heights to redouble the presence of Fort Cass.  This was Fort Whipple which was completed in 1863. Facing west, it stood on the high ground to the northeast, a bastioned earthwork. It had a perimeter of 640 yards and emplacements for 47 guns.

Named after Major General Amiel Weeks Whipple – From July 1861 to October 1862 he was involved with the defenses of Washington ultimately as a brigadier general commanding a division of volunteers headquartered at the Custis-Lee mansion. On August 28, 1861 he ordered a balloon aloft to survey the confederates from a spot where the fortification bearing his name would be built. General Whipple died in Washington on May 7, 1863. President Lincoln attended his funeral and said that he was there as a friend of the family and not as President of the United States. The President not only gave his autographed photograph to the widow, but he gave a Presidential appointment to the older son of his friend as referenced in a note he wrote that will be found on page 15 of this book. After Lincoln was assassinated, there was found on his desk another note asking his successor, if anything happened to him, to appoint the younger son of General Whipple to Annapolis. This was duly done by President Andrew Johnson.
The first occupants of the fort was the 14th Massachusetts Heavy Artillery Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel L. P. Wright (some say that the current “Wright Gate” entrance to Fort Myer is named for him, others believe it was for the Wright Brothers). In 1864 Lieutenant Colonel Ranald S. McKenzie was promoted to Colonel in July; he became the commander of the garrison and of the 2d Connecticut Heavy Artillery Regiment. It was General Ulysses S. Grant who commented that McKenzie was the most promising officer of the Army.  He would go on to command the 24th Infantry – Buffalo Soldiers – in the Indian Wars and ultimately achieve the rank of Brevet Brigadier General.

When the Civil War ended, the fortifications around Washington DC were abandoned.  It was only Fort Whipple that would remain until present day.  In 1881 renamed to Fort Myer to honor the US Army’s first Signal Officer, Major General Albert J. Myer, the installation was first the headquarters of the US Army’s Signal Corps School.

As the “last one standing”, Fort Myer has the distinction of many unique events and firsts. Names such as Myer, Sheridan, Barnard, Greely, Henry, Hatfield, Wainwright, Joyce, Patton and many more have contributed greatly to molding the acres of Arlington Heights that has become present day Fort Myer. Among them are: The beginnings of military aviation, the first aviation fatality, a showcase for the US Army Cavalry (both cavalry regiments of the famed Buffalo Soldiers had troopers who were posted here), first location of “The Three Sisters”, the Society Circus, the first application of the telephone and origin of the National Weather Service. General George S. Patton, Jr. would especially leave his mark upon Fort Myer since he would be posted here four times during his career, the final time was from 1938-1940 when he was both post commander and commander of the 3rd Cavalry.

Buy the book.


John Michael is a native of South River, NJ and has traveled extensively. He moved to the Washington DC area in 1994. It would be the meeting of a retired US Army Special Forces Officer who would begin him on the path to the subject of his new book.

Since 2000, John Michael has photographed the final honors at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC). This work, his way of giving back to those who have given so much in the service to the United States, has allowed him to immerse himself into the study of military history and heraldry. John Michael published the first and second regimental “Old Guard” Calendar in 2009 & 2010. His photography has gone beyond ANC and includes event photography at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and military associations. John Michael is an honorary member of the National Capital Region Chapter of the Special Forces Association. He also is an honorary member of the Presidential Salute Battery of The Old Guard – 3d Infantry Regiment, US Army, and an associate member of the Old Guard Association and a member of the Association of the US Army. Recognized in 2009 as a Center of Influence for the US Army, he was invited to participate in the “Army Strong Experience” at Fort Meade, Maryland. A friend of the US Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team, he’s been skyward with these  US Army’s “Ambassadors from the Skies” several times



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