History of the Washington Arsenal

John DeFerrari's picture

From the Streets of Washington blog. Full article is at: http://www.streetsofwashington.com/2017/08/the-washington-arsenals-explosive.html


While little private manufacturing took root in Washington in the early 19th century—much to the disappointment of early developers—government industry was another story. The federal government ran major manufacturing facilities, most notably the shipbuilding and munitions activities at the Navy Yard, which helped to grow a thriving community on Capitol Hill in the early 1800s. Another vital government industrial activity was the production of army munitions at the Washington Arsenal, located at Greenleaf's Point, where the Anacostia and Potomac rivers meet (now Fort Lesley J. McNair). A significant portion of the army's cannons, bullet cartridges, and bombs were assembled here, and it was every bit as dangerous an operation as it sounds.


Undated drawing of the Washington Arsenal (author's collection).

Earthen fortifications were constructed on this strategic point of land as early as 1791, making this one of the country's first permanent military installations. At some point in the early 1800s, an arsenal opened here. George Hadfield (1763-1826) was the architect of the arsenal's first permanent building, which was completed in about 1803. Hadfield was responsible for many of Washington's early official buildings, including the old City Hall, the original executive office buildings that surrounded the White House, and the Arlington House mansion that would later be the home of Robert E. Lee. Hadfield designed a suite of buildings for the arsenal, including a central office building, several workshops, a gun lot, and a parade ground.

Detail of the original fortifications on Greenleaf's point, from Andrew Ellicott's 1792 map of L'Enfant's plan for Washington (Library of Congress). 

The arsenal served primarily as a final assembly point for guns and other munitions. According to historian Wilhelmus Bryan, "To the Washington Arsenal were brought as a distributing center guns from the Government manufactories at Harpers Ferry and Springfield and cannon from the Foxall foundry, near Georgetown, as well as armament that had seen service. Men were employed to mend and clean guns and to provide fittings and carriages for the cannon." In addition to assembling cannons and other ordnance, the arsenal also manufactured ammunition.

Full article with many illustrations is at: http://www.streetsofwashington.com/2017/08/the-washington-arsenals-explosive.html