Thursday, July 17, 2008


One of the favorite picnicking spots in the Washington area is Hains Point, overlooking the Tidal Basin, now home to a baseball field, tennis courts, swimming pool and other sports amenities.

The extremely large golf course dwarfs every other sports activity there at all hours of the day. Those of a certain age will recall it as an excellent viewpoint for the nightly submarine races in the area. Its view of the river through the towering weeping willows makes for a peaceful oasis in a busy city.

Few who go to Hains Point know the man for whom it was named. Peter Conover Hains was an officer in both the Civil War and World War I, and his engineering talent gave us the Tidal Basin and surrounding land.

It is a little-known fact that Hains fired the first shot at the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861. He had been commissioned a second lieutenant in the artillery, and it was his responsibility to fire three rounds from the largest Union weapon on the field - a 3-ton Parrott gun firing 4-inch, 33-pound projectiles. This served as a signal that the attack had begun.

His target was said to be a white house beyond Bull Run, it not being known if this was the Robinson farm, the Henry House or perhaps another one. The battle would rage for some time until Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson‘s troops sent the Union men packing.

Siege of Vicksburg

Peter Hains was born on July 6, 1840, in Philadelphia, the son of ashoemaker. He secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and graduated along with George Armstrong Custer in 1861, just as the Civil War was beginning, and in the first four-year class the academy had. Previously, the education at the academy comprised five years.

He would be one of nine men in that class who would attain the rank of general, a class from whom would come 26 Confederate officers and 31 Union officers. Enlisting in the Union Army as a second lieutenant after graduation and serving with the 2nd United States Artillery, he was promoted to first lieutenant on June 24, 1861.

Hains would participate in 30 engagements during the war, receiving awards for gallantry and meritorious service in the Battle of Hanover Church, Va., where he was breveted a captain on May 27, 1862. It was the Siege of Vicksburg, however, where his other skills came into play.

When the chief engineer fell ill, the young lieutenant was left to design the siege for the Union Army’s 13th Corps under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. It was a decided feather in his cap, and the result of his innovations and service saw him breveted a major on July 4, 1863. Even today, a monument stands at Vicksburg in recognition of his accomplishments. Unfortunately, no such marker exists at the Point that bears his name in the District of Columbia.

Lighthouse designer

As the war was winding down, Hains married Virginia Jenkins, daughter of the chief of staff to Union Adm. David Farragut. He had transferred to theTopographical Engineers in 1862, and to the Corps of Engineers in 1863, prior to being breveted a lieutenant colonel on March 13, 1865. (He did not become a full colonel until August 1895.)

After the war, he served as district engineer for the Corps of Engineers, overseeing the Fifth District of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Many lighthouses were designed and constructed under his guidance, including Morris Lighthouse in South Carolina and the lighthouse at St. Augustine, Fla.

Hains designed the 3,200-ton, 158-foot-tall lighthouse in South Carolina, which still stands, even though what once was on a beach 1,300 feet from the shore now stands in the water over 1,600 feet from the shore.

It appears that Hains was one of those men always researching and learning. By 1873, he was appointed engineer secretary of the U.S. Lighthouse Board, serving for five years. While serving on the board, he translated what was considered a standard in European lighthouse design and construction, the “Memoir Upon the Illumination and Beaconage of the Coasts of France.”

Smelly swamp

From 1882 to 1891, Hains served as chief engineer on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Were it not for him, the expanse of land known today as the Tidal Basin would not have been completed. In that day, it was a swamp of the worst sort, full of stagnant water and with a disagreeable odor covering all of its 650 acres of wetlands.

Hains’ experience in the Virginia peninsula during the war, as well as in the Maryland and Rappahannock campaigns, gave him hope for the reclamation and development of the Potomac’s smelly expanse. The area’s shoals formed an odorous mud flat stretching from the White House to below where the 14th Street Bridge now stands.

Congress argued about it for several years, but, after a severe flood in 1881, finally approved $400,000 to improve navigation on the river and to do something about the smelly flats. While this was a tremendous sum for the time, the expanse of land was so valuable that it more than paid to redeem it.

Hains set about to design a seawall, dredging the channel and removing the swampy dirt across the flats to a railroad spur. This land would ultimately become the park that bears his name, although contemporary usage identifies it as Potomac Park or East Potomac Park.

According to a 1997 talk given by his granddaughter, Mrs. Bernard Hains, supplemental problems included providing new maritime approaches to Washington and furnishing needed tide and flood control

He also planted trees and shrubs to help in holding together the reclaimed and reconstructed lands and laid out roads and paths. It was his decision to remove the old 14th Street Bridge in favor of a new one. The construction of the original one had made it a menace to navigation for some time.

Military patriarch

In 1890, Hains designed and built the “National Road” from Aqueduct Bridge to Mount Vernon, later renamed the George Washington Parkway.

Hains spent 10 years on the Panama Canal Commission, and at age 64 he attempted to retire from the Army. He was named brigadier general of volunteers on May 27, 1898, and was appointed brigadier general in the regular Army on April 21, 1903, prior to his retirement in 1904.

In 1918, and well into his 70s, he was recalled to active duty for World War I, a special Act of Congress making him a major general and placing him in charge of the harbor at Norfolk and its river district. His final position was as engineer of the Eastern Division. When he again retired, he was the oldest military officer in uniform.

Hains became patriarch of a military family. One of his two sons attended West Point and the other want to Annapolis. His grandson, Peter Hains III, graduated from West Point in 1924 and became a highly decorated hero, landing at Normandy in World War II. Peter Hains IV graduated from West Point in 1952, in time for the Korean conflict, and retired a colonel. All are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, along with Gen. Peter Conover Hains, who died at Walter Reed Hospital on Nov. 7, 1921, the only officer to have served in both the Civil War and World War I.

With the 148th anniversary of the Battle of First Manassas (or Bull Run, depending on one’s preference) on Saturday, it is sad that his name is so little known. Yet for all of his honors and achievements, one can drive through Hains Point and never see a mention of the man for whom it was named and by whose efforts it became possible. Apparently some sort of sign does exist down on Maine Avenue for his connection with the park. Still, one wonders why a historical marker is not prominently displayed in Hains Point.

Martha M. Boltz, a member of the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table, is a frequent contributor.

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