By Elliot Carter
Fort Reno is today home to a park, reservoir and middle school. Flashback 150 years ago and the site was a Civil War military fortification. Located at the highest point in Washington, Fort Reno's guns watched over the strategic intersection of River Road and Rockville Pike (today Wisconsin Avenue).
The fort was built by 600 Pennsylvania reservists. It had two sections, and the main fort was linked in with the forward battery by a communication trench. Earthworks circled the position and protected gun platforms and bombproof magazines. When construction was complete the garrison was strengthened by 3,000 additional troops from New York, Indiana, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The troops had a sprawling tent camp nearby and did not actually live in the fort.
Reno's main armament consisted of howitzers, Parrott guns and Coehorn mortars. If the position came under attack, additional troops could file into pre constructed rifle trenches. A massive 100-pound Parrott gun was the largest artillery piece at the fort. The hypothetical maximum range of this weapon was five miles, meaning it could rain down fire on Arlington and deep into North Bethesda. During the Battle of Fort Stevens the cannon got three confirmed kills near the present day Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Fort Reno was the largest of the Civil War circle forts defending Washington, and its importance came from its elevation. Even with the availability of telegraphs in the 1860's, line of sight communication were still used as a reliable backup. When Gen. Jubal Early led his raid on Washington the Fort Reno signal station first detected the rising dust of confederate troops approaching from Bethesda. They used flag and torch relays to rush the information back to the city.
Tenleytown (then "Tenallytown") was still a small hamlet during the Civil War. George Perkins, a New York private, described it in a letter home as a "pretty little village with one tavern ... embowered with trees." The tavern he references was once operated by the eponymously named Sarah Tenally. The fort drove rapid growth in the area. The thousands of garrison troops patronized local businesses, and also served as a magnet for freed African American slaves who settled in the area.
The photographs below are from the nearby Fort Stevens. They provide an idea of what Fort Reno would have looked like. More photos and maps of the Circle Fort system here.