A Military History of Army Navy Drive
By RADM F. Neale Smith, USNR (Ret.)
Arlington County's Army Navy Drive parallels Shirley Highway (I-395) extending northward from S. Adams St. to S. Nash St. where it turns east to Jefferson Davis Highway. It was one of the oldest roadways in Arlington.
While Virginia was still an English colony, it was a section of the road from Alexandria to the ferry running alongside a stream called Long Branch which emptied into Four Mile Run. The ferry ran from what is now Rosslyn across the Potomac to the mouth of Rock Creek at Georgetown. Long Branch, rerouted with the construction of Shirley Highway, now flows along Army Navy Country Club, under Shirley Highway, into the apartment developments south of 28th St., and alongside the Long Branch Community which takes its name from the stream. Army Navy Drive, formerly known as Old Georgetown Road, takes its present name as an access road to Army Navy Country Club, a private golf and tennis club established in 1924 by a group of Army, Navy and Marine Corps officers.
A stroll along the 1.l mile stretch of Army Navy Drive (Old Georgetown Road) between S. Adams St. and S. Nash St., up Nash St. to the park at Arlington Ridge Road is a walk in history, particularly the military history of the United States. For more than 200 years, long before there was a Shirley Highway or I-395, this "woods path" alongside Long Branch, on the western side of Arlington Ridge, has been used by soldiers.
In September 1781, American troops under the command of General George Washington and French troops under General Rochambeau marched southward from New Jersey over that section of Old Georgetown Road enroute to Yorktown, Virginia, where they defeated the British in the decisive battle of the American Revolution.
On September 8, Generals Washington and Rochambeau, in the vanguard of their armies, had arrived in Baltimore. The following day General Washington "riding sixty miles a day reached his home at Mt. Vernon which he had not visited in six years." Concerned that the poor condition of the road over which he had just traveled would hinder and delay the armies, on September 10, the day following his arrival at Mt. Vernon, Washington dispatched a letter to Col. James Hendricks, the Deputy Quartermaster General at Alexandria, directing Col. Wagner (instead of marching the Militia to Williamsburg) "to employ them in repairing the Roads from George Town to the Ford of Occoquan," and to "see that the landings on both sides" of Georgetown are "made good..."
Days later, thousands of American and French soldiers, baggage wagons, cavalry and cattle crossed the Potomac River at Georgetown. They entered Virginia, and following the "ancient road from Georgetown to Alexandria," tramped through what is now Arlington Cemetery, crossed over the bridge and through the wooded valley along Long Branch, on a road that would later become Army Navy Drive.
A road to higher ground
Eighty years later, the Civil War was underway, and the area through which this section of road passed was called Green Valley. Once again the road was bearing troops, horses and wagons on an American army. Green Valley Manor had been built by Anthony Fraser in 1821 on his 1,000 acre estate which was "alongside both sides of lower Long Branch Creek." The Fraser estate was the scene of considerable activity during the Civil War. The first troops to cross into Virginia on May 24, 1861 marched down the Green Valley enroute to Alexandria and camped on the banks of Four Mile Run.
The Union Army constructed a series of forts for the defense of its capital city, Washington. On the top of Arlington Ridge, at the northern end of Green Valley, where the Old Georgetown Road crossed, Fort Albany was constructed. Southwest of Ft. Albany, on the west hill of Green Valley, where the Army Navy Country Club now stands, was Ft. Richardson. It commanded the highest ground of all the forts on the Virginia side of Washington. An emergency hospital was established on the bank of a small stream called Rapid Run that flowed into Long Branch. Rapid Run is said to have run red with the blood from amputations following the battle of First Manassas.
The Green Valley Manor house was near the present Forest Hills development at 23rd street. It was the site of another Union Civil War Hospital and Convalescent Camp which extended west into what is now Shirley Highway and Army Navy Country Club. Thousands of soldiers traversed the road (now Army Navy Drive) between the two forts and the hospital.
On the home front
Another 80 years passed and the country was at war. Early in World War II, thousands of military and civilians were coming to Washington in support of the war effort. Over 20,000 people were to be in the newly constructed Pentagon, headquarters of the War Department. President Roosevelt declared Arlington County to be a locality where there was an acute housing shortage which could "impede war activities." A 20-acre site at the south end of Army Navy Drive became the first large-scale property in the nation built under the War Housing Insurance Fund.
Two story brick buildings were constructed to provide over 600 apartment units for workers in the many industrial plants in the area. The development, called Arna Valley, took its name from Army Navy Drive. For many years following the war, the apartments, because of their proximity to the Pentagon and other military facilities, were popular as rental units for military personnel assigned to the area. The buildings were there for over 55 years. Many soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen walked the mile and a half along Army Navy Drive to the Pentagon, not knowing that they walked in the footsteps of Revolutionary War and Civil War soldiers.
Today, at the start of a new millennium, and nearly 220 years since General Washington and his Continental Army marched to Yorktown, the Old Georgetown Road Army Navy Drive is used daily by the Armed Forces of the United States. It is in the flight pattern for military helicopters approaching and leaving the Pentagon.