Forts: “Too Heavy to Level Down”: Fort Beauregard in Manassas

Earthworks and manmade fortifications have withstood battle, nature, and development to serve as tangible reminders of the American Civil War. Hopefully, they will be around many more decades to serve as teaching tools for battlefield trompers and Civil War students. Yet I have always found it ironic that for all they have withstood and for all of the tons of earth moved to make them, a simple sign stands alongside the remnants of many earthworks saying something to the effect of “Please stay off earthworks,” which gives visitors the sense that these formidable mounds of earth are, in fact, very fragile. Now don’t get me wrong, you should not walk on Civil War earthworks. But these signs and gasoline-powered back hoes can make it easy for 21st century viewers to forget just how effective earthworks were at stopping bullets and shells and saving lives.

Wartime Fort Beauregard (NARA)

This thought came to mind while sifting through research I completed about Fort Beauregard in Manassas years ago. It was the first Confederate-built earthen fort surrounding Manassas Junction. In June 1861, soldiers of the 11th and 17th Virginia spent time “making the position [around the junction] as impregnable as possible.” “The work,” wrote the 17th Virginia’s historian, “progressed rapidly; large earthworks and field fortifications, with wings and covers of rifle pits, and infantry works, sprang up on all sides. Details from the different regiments in camp were daily employed in digging and ditching.” By the end of the Confederate occupation of Manassas Junction in the spring of 1862, there were 17 earthwork fortifications around the vital rail junction.

On March 13, 1862, New Jersey brigade soldiers advanced towards the abandoned Fort Beauregard. The wily Confederates “mounted pine logs in the parapets” to throw off the Federals. “I expect the Johnnies laughed at the cautious manner in which we advanced on those wooden guns,” wrote one soldier. “It was no joke to us; we expected them to belch forth grape and canister into our ranks” until they discovered the innocent caliber of the wooden logs. “We had our laugh while making coffee over the fire from the wooden guns,” joked the relieved New Jerseyan. Fort Beauregard saw real action later that year when “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates reoccupied and used it to pounce on the same brigade of unsuspecting New Jerseyans during the Battle of Bull Run Bridge on August 27, 1862.

After the Civil War, the local populace began to plow away the war’s scars on the landscape. “Wherever we turn the eye rests on some dismantled fort or rifle pit, now grown over with wild shrubbery and with now and then a small tree grown from the seed of fruit eaten by some soldier whose remains may be buried beneath the sod of yon cemetery,” wrote one visitor to the area in 1869. Fort Beauregard and many other fortifications “still stand, but instead of the frowning guns and the tramp of the sentinels with his glistening bayonet as it reflected the sun’s rays, they are now the favorite resort of the goat and sheep that browse upon their parapets and rest in their embrasures.”

The imposing walls of Fort Beauregard in 1904 (The Baltimore Sun)

Even 22 years after its completion, another newspaper correspondent recalled, “Fort Beauregard is still an imposing piece of fortification, earthwork, with beech trees, pear trees, willows, and in fact all kinds of wild as well as tame woods climbing over.” Despite its abandoned state, the earthen walls were stout: It is too heavy to level down and restore again to the dominion of the plow. But nearly all the other lines and earth forts have quietly surrendered to the husbandman.” By 1904, it was regarded as “the only fort in the vicinity in a fair state of preservation.”

The walls of Fort Beauregard can still be seen in this 1937 aerial view.

Time and more powerful earth-moving machinery eventually spelled the demise of Fort Beauregard. As Manassas, Prince William County’s seat, grew and flourished and buildings were constructed, the fort that was once “too heavy to level down” was flattened for a shopping center. Today, nothing remains. Ultimately, all of these earthworks and fortifications can be leveled by today’s technology.

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5 Responses to Forts: “Too Heavy to Level Down”: Fort Beauregard in Manassas

  1. Brian Swartz says:

    Thank you for this introduction to Fort Beauregard

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    Gone, but not for… ever. In recent years, Ground-Penetrating Radar and Near-infra red photographic imagery captured by satellites have been successfully used to “find lost structures,” sometimes several feet below current ground level. In addition, the continual improvement of DNA technology is allowing identification of “unknown soldiers” buried over 100 years ago on battlefields in Europe. [See https://www.army.gov.au/our-work/unrecovered-war-casualties/world-war-one-war-end-all-wars/fromelles-project ].
    The future holds limitless promise for Archaeological discovery. In meantime, as regards forts and battlefields, is it not preferable to “preserve what remains?”

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  4. billhenck says:

    Just out of curiosity, which shopping center?

  5. Pingback: Forts: Conclusion | Emerging Civil War

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