Mr Steen Goes to Washington – Arsenal That Is

Producing a book of history,  one that chronicles over two centuries of activity is none the less a challenge in itself.  Besides locating and assembling the content of the book, selecting the right cover image is part of that challenge.

After digging through special collections, online resources and trips to the archives, it was a challenge to narrow down the selection to choose one photograph from the hundreds that were inspected and collected.  One was needed that would convey the historic nature of the first fortification in the new Capital City of Washington DC.

With acreage just about one hundred, Fort Lesley J. McNair is a small US Army Post – in fact, it’s probably the smallest active post within the US Army.  Roosevelt Hall is the iconic building that traces its origins to the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White who designed the building named after President Theodore Roosevelt – who laid the cornerstone.


The US Army’s First Official Photographer

One was finally selected, it was an Andrew J. Russell photo taken while he was at Washington Arsenal.   Russell was one could say the first official photographer of the US Army.   Russell took his first photographs with a camera that he borrowed. Colonel Herman Haupt used Russell’s photographs to illustrate his reports. Haupt arranged to have Russell removed from his regiment on March 1, 1863, so that he could photograph for the United States Military Railroad and the Quartermaster Corps, until he mustered out in September 1865. Russell was the only military officer to photograph for the War Department during the Civil War.  So one could consider Russell the first official photographer of the US Army.

A Cover Photograph is Chosen

When Captain Russell visited Washington Arsenal in 1865, little did he know that he was capturing an image that would later appear on the cover of a book.  The riveting  photograph of a row of artillery with the Model Arsenal building and a Soldier mounted on horseback in the background was selected to grace the cover of the book  “Images of America – Fort Lesley J McNair”  However, that’s when the challenge began.  The artillery needed to be identified, and among the network of advisors, none knew what they were.

Washington Arsenal with the model arsenal building and confederate napoleons

Washington Arsenal with the model arsenal building and artillery

Enter Marshall Steen of Steen Cannons

That need generated another research effort to be launched.  After several hours of digging among many sources, Steen Cannons was found.  They build reproductions of artillery for the National Park Service or for private collectors or just about anyone who would like a fine reproduction..   Marshall was contacted and the photo was sent … he graciously provided a quick answer …  “They’re Confederate Napoleons!” –  however, the return suggestion came in that  “This is a Union arsenal!”   the reply was …  “Accept the fact that they are Confederate Napoleons.”

Armed with this information, the description was entered into the book “Images of America – Fort Lesley J. McNair” and it was published, though still puzzling that Confederate artillery was at a Union arsenal.   Further research resulted in an “EUREKA!”  Another photo was found that showed the artillery along with caissons and limbers sitting at Rocketts Wharf in Richmond, VA awaiting shipment back to Washington Arsenal.  Mystery solved!


Artillery Park at Rocketts' Wharf in Richmond Virginia

Artillery Park at Rocketts’ Wharf in Richmond Virginia




Images of America - Fort Lesley J. McNair

An  Author Autographed copy of the book is available for purchase.  Buy the Book

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