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The Civil War History Around Us -- The Defenses of Washington

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 3

By 1861-it had been almost fifty years, the War of 1812, in fact-since an invading army threatened the capital of the United States.Unlike that war, Washington was now literally surrounded by the enemy. Maryland remained a slave state, and if Mr. Lincoln hadn't suspended the writ of habeas corpus and jailed most of its state senators, Maryland undoubtedly would have joined Virginia and gone South.

Virginia lay just across the Potomac. From the President's House in Washington, Confederate flags could be seen waving over the seaport of Alexandria. Although both the North and the South thought they'd beat each other pretty fast and life would go on as each imagined it should, the City of Washington stood totally undefended. Then came the secession of Virginia, followed by two shocking Northern defeats at Bull Run.

After secession, the Union Army quickly occupied the entire northern Virginia perimeter, including the high ground at Robert E. Lee's wife's plantation of Arlington. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, led by Brevet Major General John Barnard, began to build a series of fortifications known as the Defenses of Washington. These installations, eventually numbering 68 forts, 93 batteries, with 807 cannon, 98 mortar, and 30 miles of rifle trenches, along with roads to connect them, made Washington the most fortified city in the world.

Today, most of these locations are remembered throughout many local neighborhoods in the names of housing developments, apartment buildings ("Fort Strong Apartments, the 'Perfect Place to Call Home'"), and shopping centers. A few locations are preserved. In Arlington, Fort Ethan Allen is the site of a hotly debated dog walk and Fort C. F. Smith was dedicated in 1994 as a county park and nature center. Fort Whipple, now known as Fort Myer, is home to the United States Army Band and "The Old Guard," the Third U. S. Infantry, whose duties include guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and providing ceremonial oversight for the 5400 military funerals held at Arlington Cemetery each year.

The best preserved of these locations is Fort Ward in Alexandria, which was a model of 19th century military construction. Named for the first Union naval officer to be killed in the war, Fort Ward was the fifth largest of these installations. Today we can see most of its original bombproofs, guns and bastions and over 800 yards of 25-foot high walls. The gate has been reconstructed as it originally appeared, and the grounds include an officer's hut and a museum, built to resemble a Union headquarters building.

The museum has an impressive permanent exhibit of Civil War artillery, artifacts, and uniforms. The current temporary exhibit details the activities of the United States Sanitary Commission, and includes items displayed during the Sanitary Fairs. These were popular fund raising events that collected millions of dollars to support the Union soldiers. The docents at the museum and gift shop are welcoming, talkative, and extremely knowledgeable on many aspects of local as well as Civil War history. Whether you are a Civil War enthusiast on vacation, or a Washington area resident who hasn't taken advantage of living near this little-known gem, visit Fort Ward now, and often!