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Capital Defense


Spread a map of Washington on your kitchen table. In the middle, just below the D.C.-Maryland line, you'll see a circular pattern of green patches. Many are parks, with names such as Fort Reno, Totten, Slocum and Bunker Hill to the north; and Fort Mahan, Chaplin and Dupont to the east. South, below the Capital Beltway, you'll see Fort Foote, Fort Willard Circle and Mount Eagle; and west, Forts Ward, Scott and Marcy.

These sites are all that remain of fortifications built during the Civil War to defend the nation's capital -- a circle that stretched 37 miles, making Washington the most heavily protected city in the Western Hemisphere.

After the war, many of the forts were returned to the original prop-erty owners and fell victim to neglect and development. Some sites became parks. Several forts have been partially preserved or restored, but even at the most neglected sites, discoveries await map-wielding sleuths who find the high ground that once protected the capital.

Thousands of people unknowingly traverse the locations of these long-lost forts in Washington and Northern Virginia. Golfers on the ninth fairway at Alexandria's Army-Navy Country Club tee off alongside ramparts of Fort Richardson, while visitors to Fort Lincoln Cemetery, just over the Washington line in Prince George's County, traipse over the site of Battery Jameson. Catholic University students on the way to clas line in Prince George's County, traipse over the site of Battery Jameson. Catholic University students on the way to class pass near the site of the gate into Fort Slemmer.

Terrified of attack by rebels who had thrashed U.S. troops at First Manassas (or Bull Run) in July 1861, federal officials began seizing privately owned fields, orchards, homes and churches to construct the forts.

In all, 68 earthen forts and 93 batteries, or gun emplacements, were built on what then were the outskirts of Washington. They were strategically placed, close to major roads and rivers that represented invasion routes into the city.

Rifle trenches connected many of the forts, creating a nearly impregnable defense. A relay signal system of 70 flags and torches, usually atop fort magazines and walls, permitted communication between them.

Fort walls, or parapets, were made of dirt. They were 12 feet to 18 feet thick and 18 feet to 22 feet high, stabilized by log supports called revetments. Ditches in front of the parapets and abatis -- barriers of felled trees -- provided further reinforcement. Magazines protected the ordnance, and "bombproofs" sheltered soldiers from enemy artillery.

Period photographs show the farmland that surrounded many of the forts, requiring attackers to approach across open ground.

By mid-1862, more than 37,000 soldiers manned the defenses of Washington -- men combating boredom and malaria more than rebels. (Only one fort came under sustained fire during the Civil War.)

The duty was monotonous, wrote a soldier from Arlington's Fort Ethan Allen (the current site of the Madison Community Center), "unless coupled with incidents of real warfare ... but the only thing we have to record is a remarkable dream of one of the men, in which he saw the Confederates scaling the parapet."

At Fort Stanton, named for Lincoln's Secretary of War (today a park with a panoramic view of Washington), another trooper wanted "rebs to come along and be knocked sky-high by these big guns, yawning and rusting for something to do."

At Fort Greble (in Shepard Park, across the Anacostia Freeway from Bolling Air Force Base) one soldier used his rifle as a fishing rod, dropping a line into a large puddle that formed in a trench after a rain. His superiors, failing to get an explanation for his behavior, deemed him insane and discharged him -- whereupon he shouted, "That's what I was fishing for!" and left the fort, discharge orders in hand.

With only the occasional troublemaker or Confederate raider to worry about, some defenders turned to the bottle, gambling parlors and other temptations lurking in Washington. One Connecticut soldier explained how his "professing Christian" comrades at Fort Scott (site of today's Fort Scott Park) were abandoning "their religion and are now losing their character."

Along the river

The sight of Fort Washington, 13 miles south of the capital, would have deterred many an enemy force. This stone behemoth (the only non-earthen fort in the system) still looms high atop a forested bluff on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Now in Fort Washington Park in Prince George's County, the fort is a popular site for visitors.

During the War of 1812, British troops marched into Washington and torched the Capitol, White House and other public buildings in August 1814.

The American commander burned the fort (then called Fort Warburton) to prevent the Redcoats from seizing it. The fort's ashes were still warm when Pierre L'Enfant, who had overseen the planning for much of Washington, began designing its reconstruction.

In 1824, the newly finished installation was named for the nation's first president.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Fort Washington was the only installation protecting the capital. As worries mounted that Virginia and Maryland might join the brewing Southern rebellion, Army engineer George Washington Custis Lee reported on the fort's readiness. When he found it manned by one lonely pensioner, Army commander Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott grumbled to Lee that it "might have been taken by a bottle of whiskey."

(That spring, young Lee and his father, Robert E. Lee, both resigned their posts in the U.S. Army.)

The firing arcs of Fort Washington's massive guns ensured coverage of all approaches from the Potomac, and they only shot once during the Civil War, at a gunboat that ventured too close. The fort remained a fixture in the nation's coastal fortifications through World War II.

Visitors today will find a 371-acre national park with hiking trails, a working lighthouse and sites for fishing and picnics. Stop at the visitor's center for a self-guided tour map and seven-minute orientation film.

Fort Washington will entertain all ages; kids especially will love the tunnels and narrow passages in every corner. The subterranean structures that provided housing for laundresses and their soldier husbands are ideal hiding places. My daughter and I watched the only remaining inhabitant, a groundhog, scurry into his hillside burrow.

Ten miles north of Fort Washington lie the remains of Fort Foote, an earthwork defense that further protected Washington against naval assault from the south. The dirt walls, 20 feet thick, were designed to repel both moisture and enemy shells.

An enemy could be caught in crossfire by Foote's guns and those of now-vanished Battery Rodgers, across the Potomac in Alexandria. President Lincoln enjoyed visiting Fort Foote, where in August 1863 he dined on peaches, cheese and champagne.

The site, now opposite a housing development, is reached by a short gravel road. A gate barred auto access, so I set out on foot onto a narrow trail through the foliage. Four deer bolted at my approach.

The Potomac's proximity assured me that I was nearing the fort. Then the hump of overgrown earthworks appeared on my left. I rounded a bend on the trail and stopped before three enormous cannons, silent sentinels in this surreal setting. I had stumbled upon the famous 15-inch Rodman Guns, weighing 49,000 pounds each. These giants, operated by a 12-man firing crew, hurled 500-pound cannon balls a distance of three miles.

The western front

The secession of Virginia on May 24, 1861, threw Washington into a frenzy. Federal troops moved quickly into Alexandria and Arlington and began work on defensive fortifications.

Fort Ward, the fifth largest installation in the capital's defenses, protected the Leesburg and Little River Turnpike (now King and Duke streets) approaches from Alexandria to Washington. Now operated by the City of Alexandria, it is the only restored fort in the system, and a stellar 45-acre site.

Named for the first naval officer killed in the Civil War, Fort Ward features educational activities, living histories and a museum and research library, all with free admission.

After orienting yourself at the museum with the informative 12-minute video, take the self-guided tour (45 minutes at a leisurely pace), starting with the replica of the fort's 1865 front gate and restored officer's quarters.

The fort's northwest bastion has been restored to its 1864 appearance in original engineering drawings. The magazine and bombproof have been re-created. Large gun emplacements protrude through thick earthen walls, and infantry platforms between them allowed defenders to lay down a withering fire. Angled rifle trenches outside the walls thwarted enemy flanking maneuvers.

We were surprised to learn that the men who manned these forts lived outside their walls, spending time inside only to drill and keep the fort battle-ready. A soldier at Fort Ward noted that, from the cupola of the chapel at the nearby seminary, "rebel troops could often be seen crossing the fields some three miles distant."

The George Washington Parkway, on the Virginia side of the Potomac, took us north to Fort Marcy. Named for Gen. George McClellan's chief of staff, this fort stood in a line of forts and batteries that protected Washington from attack via the Chain Bridge that spans the Potomac.

A sign promised earthen remains on the fort's west side. Though the trail is sandwiched between homes and the noisy parkway, we savored its cool dampness on a hot afternoon as we searched vainly for the remains.

The far side of the parking lot, however, led to clusters of cannons and overgrown earthworks. I thought of one soldier's description of Fort Marcy food: "Breakfast is pork, crackers and coffee, yesterday we had plenty of beans and a few small ears of corn to roast ... our rations are mostly bread and salt junk."

We drove east from Fort Marcy across the Chain Bridge, which looks eerily similar to Civil War photos showing Union soldiers guarding it.

We passed Fort Reno Park, the site of the first Washington fort. Nothing remains of Fort Reno, which kept watch over the Rockville Pike (and was named for Union Gen. Jesse Reno, killed in the Battle of South Mountain in 1862).

Across the road from the Nature Center in Rock Creek Park we followed the hand-painted signs on the short trail leading to Fort DeRussy (look carefully for the fort marker).

Situated on a farm that overlooked Rock Creek Valley, Fort DeRussy protected the Milk House Ford Road. Dense woods envelop the remaining earthworks and rifle pits, and a brewing thunderstorm heightened the spot's mysteriousness. The hum of insects reminded me of the Rhode Island soldier who complained in a letter about the flies, bugs and lizards stirred up during the fort's construction.

Lincoln under fire

South of Rock Creek Park is Fort Stevens, 5.2 miles from the U.S. Capitol. It stood watch over the Seventh Street Road that led into Washington from Silver Spring (Georgia Avenue today).

On July 10, 1864, Washington nervously awaited news of Confederate Gen. Jubal Early, who was approaching the capital with 10,000 men. Early had just defeated a Union force at the Monocacy River, in Frederick County, terrorizing Baltimore en route toward the capital.

This audacious strike at Washington was intended to siphon federal troops away from the Union siege at Petersburg, Va., in the rebel heartland. Early hoped to seize the poorly defended capital, if only briefly, and during the confusion liberate thousands of rebel prisoners at Point Lookout, in St. Mary's County.

Federal troops in Fort Stevens spied the dust of Early's men coming down the Seventh Street Road on the morning of July 11. The area forts were lightly defended -- civilians and even a hospital brigade of convalescents had been pressed into service.

Rebel skirmishers and sharpshooters began firing from vacated houses and undergrowth along the road, about 1,000 yards away. Cannons from Forts Stevens, Slocum and DeRussy answered.

The commander-in-chief arrived to watch the action. Legend says that President Lincoln watched from atop a parapet as rebel bullets flew around him.

He was urged to get down -- accounts range from a private's barking, "Get down, you fool!" to the more subdued claim of the son of Secretary of State William Seward, a member of the president's party. Frederick Seward wrote that a soldier touched Lincoln's arm and begged him to get down, "for the bullets of the rebel sharpshooters may begin to come in any minute from the woods yonder."

Hundreds of men later claimed to have saved the president's life, or to have seen him exposed to rebel fire that day. One New York private said of the battle that Lincoln and his party "think it was a splendid sight, but we poor fellows could not see much fun in it."

Union reinforcements arrived from Virginia in the nick of time. They drove the Southerners into full retreat, through today's Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Men from the Government Printing Office, manning the guns of nearby Fort Snyder, "laid aside their weapons of destruction, [and] resumed their places in the office," according to written accounts.

The 41 federals who fell are buried in Battleground National Cemetery, a half mile north of Fort Stevens.

Thus was Fort Stevens the only fort to see action during the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln the only sitting president to be under direct enemy fire. The irony of the episode is more acute given that former Vice President John C. Breckinridge, who had run against Lincoln in 1860, commanded the assault.

Today the fort consists of rebuilt parapets with masonry revetments that face north, the direction from which the rebels attacked. Buildings mar the open vistas the men saw those hot July days, while neighborhood residents walk their dogs through the fort's grounds.

I stood where Lincoln stood, my back to the large American flag that flies over the site. I imagined the 1861 landscape, sharpshooters' smoke and bullets thudding into dirt -- and considered the consequences had the rebels seized Washington.


9 a.m.: Enjoy a vigorous stroll on the path along the Potomac River at Fort Washington. Then head up the hill to the visitor's center and fort.

10 a.m.: Tour the fort. Show unruly children the two dank prison cells just inside the entrance, where insubordinate Union soldiers were punished.

Noon: Picnic at Fort Ward in Alexandria. Imagine bored Union soldiers drilling across the ground where your picnic table stands.

12:45 p.m.: Stop in the visitor's center, then tour the fort -- children can take cover behind the ramparts of the restored bastion, looking for advancing rebels.

2 p.m.: Back to the visitor's center for "Boots and Saddles," the exhibition of Union cavalry items in the museum.

4 p.m.: Enjoy a walking tour of Civil War sites in Old Town Alexandria, many of which still stand. These include the Lyceum (a former guard house for Virginia Volunteers), the Duke Street Prison (a slave pen before the war), and Robert E. Lee's boyhood home.

6 p.m.: Refreshments at Waterfront Park, overlooking the Potomac. Look south across the river for the bluff housing Fort Foote.

7:30 p.m.: Dinner at Gadsby's Tavern in Old Town Alexandria, a favorite of George Washington's.

When you go... The Fort Circle Parks are administered by three different parts of the National Park Service: Rock Creek Park, National Capital Parks East and George Washington Memorial Parkway. The forts can be visited in any order -- I went clockwise, beginning with Forts Washington and Foote. Information on northern forts can be found on the Internet at www.nps.gov / rocr / cultural, the Rock Creek Park Web site.

Fort Washington, 13551 Fort Washington Road, Fort Washington 20744

Phone: 301-763-4600

Online: www.nps.gov / fowa

Getting there: From Baltimore, take I-95 south to the Capital Beltway to Indian Head Highway south (Exit 3); right onto Fort Washington Road into the park.

Hours: April-October from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; November-March from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Admission: $4 a vehicle.

Tips: Get a self-guided tour map at the visitor's center, which features a bookstore, exhibits and video.

Fort Ward, 4301 West Braddock Road, Alexandria, Va. 22304

Phone: 703-838-4848

Online: www.ci.alexandria.va.us / oha /


Getting there: From Baltimore, take I-95 south to the Capital Beltway to I-395 north. Exit onto Seminary Road east. Turn left at the fourth traffic light on North Howard Street to West Braddock Road. Turn right; park is on left.

Tips: At the visitor's center, get a Fort Circle Parks map showing the fortification system as it appeared in 1865. View the excellent video before touring the fort.

Hours: The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Historic site is open from 9 a.m. to sunset.

Admission: Free

Fort Foote, Oxen Hill Road, Oxen Hill

Phone: 301-763-4600

Getting there: Follow directions to Fort Washington and then take Indian Head Highway to Old Fort Road to Fort Foote Road.

Fort Stevens (within Rock Creek Park)

Phone: 202-426-6828

Getting there: Follow Rock Creek Park directions to Military Road east (it changes to Missouri Avenue) and then turn left onto 13th Street. The fort is at 13th and Quackenbos streets, N.W.

Rock Creek Park, 3545 Williamsburg Lane N.W., Washington 20008

Phone: 202-426-6828

Online: www.nps.gov / rocr

Getting there: From Baltimore, take I-95 south to the Capital Beltway west and exit at Connecticut Avenue. Proceed south toward Chevy Chase through the Chevy Chase Circle to Military Road. Turn left and go a little over a mile to the brown sign, Rock Creek Park-Nature Center. At the traffic light, take the next right, and follow signs to the Nature Center.

Hours: The park is open during daylight hours daily. Hours at park facilities vary; call for information.

National Capital Parks East

Phone: 202-692-6038

George Washington Memorial Parkway

Phone: 703-289-2500

Coming events

Fort Washington

Sept. 30-Oct. 1: Universal Soldier Day. Demonstrations of military uniforms, equipment and tactics during the past 2,000 years; artillery demonstrations. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Oct. 1 and Nov. 12: artillery demonstrations; visitor participation encouraged. 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Oct 28: Coast Artillery: exhibit of artillery equipment from the 1890s to the World War II period. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site

"Boots and Saddles: U.S. Cavalry of the Civil War": Exhibit showing the service and equipment of the Union Cavalry, with weapons, uniforms, original images and riding gear; through Feb. 1.

Oct. 14: Friends of Fort Ward bus tour to Cedar Mountain, site of the battle between Union Gen. John Pope and Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Trip is led by author / historian Gregory Mertz. Registration and payment is required by Oct. 10.

Saturdays in November: Civil War video series, featuring selections from the Smithsonian's Great Battles of the Civil War, each about one hour; 2 p.m.

Rock Creek Park

Sept. 30 and Oct. 1: Ranger-led, half-mile hike to Fort DeRussy, to learn how this small, dirt fort helped repulse the rebel attack on Washington in 1864; 2 p.m. both days (meet at Nature Center).

Oct. 7: "Stories of the Fallen." Ranger-led tour and talk about the men of Fort Stevens who died defending their capital; 1 p.m. (meet at Battleground National Cemetery, 6625 Georgia Ave. N.W., north of Piney Branch Road).

n Oct. 15: Anatomy of a Cannon. Learn to load and fire a 19th-century artillery piece; 2 p.m. (meet at Nature Center).

Recommended reading

"Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington," by Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, provides details, period photographs, engineering drawings and anecdotes on every fort and battery in the defensive system. The book is out of print but available at the Fort Ward Visitor Center gift shop.

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