Hold the Fort

Maryland: From its perch above the Potomac, Fort Frederick offers walls of history, plus access to fishing, hiking and biking in surrounding park lands.

January 31, 1999|By Charles W. Mitchell | Charles W. Mitchell,Special to The Sun

Four major wars have been fought on American soil. The first protected early Colonists from the depredations of the French, the second and third freed them forever from the British yoke and the fourth determined whether America would be one nation or two. Fort Frederick, 18 miles west of Hagerstown, in Washington County, served in all but the third (the War of 1812).

Built in 1756 by the Colony of Maryland to protect its English settlers from French soldiers and their Native American allies, the fort today sits atop a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, in Fort Frederick State Park. There, along the base of the Appalachian Mountains in the Cumberland Valley, it stakes its claim to being the best-preserved Colonial fort in the nation -- the sole survivor of a score of 18th-century fortifications built along the Potomac and its tributaries.

A legacy of war

The mid-18th century was a period of opportunity and conflict for the coastal English settlements that stretched from Maine to Georgia. Movement was gradually westward toward the agricultural lands of the Ohio Valley, and toward inevitable collision with the French who were moving into the valley from Canada. The French and British both enlisted Native Americans as allies, and the conflict between them, from 1756 to 1763, became known as the French and Indian War. English settlers in Western Maryland were especially vulnerable to attacks by Native Americans.

Horatio Sharpe, Maryland's proprietary governor from 1753 to 1769, persuaded the state legislature to build Fort Frederick, funded in part by taxes on unmarried men, Roman Catholics (who had to pay double), spirits and billiard tables. Sharpe then raised a force of 500 to man it, noting that "Our Barracks are made for the Reception & Accomodation of 200 men but on Occasion there will be room for twice that number."

Named for Frederick Calvert, the sixth Lord Baltimore, the fort served as a staging area in 1758 for troops and supplies during the campaign to recapture Fort Duquesne (in present-day Pittsburgh) from the French. In 1758, a smallpox epidemic killed 600 at the fort, which five years later became a haven for 700 refugees fleeing the Indians -- some of whom later became allies.

British and Hessian prisoners were housed inside the fort's walls during the Revolutionary War. Union troops garrisoned at Fort Frederick to protect the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad during the Civil War skirmished sporadically with rebels who slipped across the Potomac.

For many years following its military service, Fort Frederick was either abandoned or farmed privately, its stone walls -- built to withstand cannon fire -- used by one enterprising farmer as a livestock pen. The state of Maryland acquired it in 1922, and the walls -- the majority of which are original -- were restored and stabilized by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. In 1974, the Fort became a National Historic Landmark.

In and around the fort

Start your visit at the Visitor Center, where you'll see a display of uniforms from the fort's three wars. See the 16-minute film on the construction and history of the fort, then inspect the impressive array of Native American artifacts unearthed in Washington County -- bearing in mind that what you see is but a third of the park's collection.

From the Visitor Center, it's a short hike to the fort (though parking is available there also). It remains a simple structure, a walled rectangle of stone, with arrowhead-shaped bastions that once held cannon gun decks protruding from each corner.

The wooden barracks have been reconstructed and are adorned with the period clothing and personal affects of enlisted men and their officers who would have served there during the French and Indian War. Plans are afoot to rebuild the officer's quarters (whose original foundation stones are visible), the powder magazine, gun decks and the catwalks that once accommodated sentries and, during attacks against the fort, musket-wielding defenders. The quarters are small, as were the standard British weekly rations for each man: seven pounds of flour and beef or pork and a pint of rice, with daily rum rations mitigating the paltry portions.

Just outside the fort are several other buildings. Captain Wort's Sutler Shop has tasteful wares, including Williamsburg pottery, pewter items, period children's games and some camping supplies. Snacks, sodas and ice cream are also served. (Unruly children may be placed in the stocks in front of the shop.) Adjacent are reproductions of a carriage house, barn and blacksmith shop, also built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC museum there explains the restoration of the fort and is replete with 1700s-era artifacts excavated during the 1930s reconstruction.

The rest of the park

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