Giving a fort its due

July 20, 1999|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- Today there is nothing remarkable at all about Fort Stevens, which sits behind the Emory United Methodist Church.

At rush hour the cars speed by the fort, which was one of a circle of such fortifications hastily created around Washington as the notion of a swift war of rebellion faded and the prospect of a long civil war hardened.

By the spring of 1865, there were 68 such forts, connected by more than 30 miles of military roads. They were the Union's way of protecting a capital that was squeezed, geographically as well as emotionally, between Virginia, which was in full rebellion, and Maryland, which was full of slaveholders.

During the middle of a summer's afternoon, nary a soul strides across the grass or pauses at the battle plaque, or climbs up to the parapet where, at the height of battle 135 Julys ago, Abraham Lincoln faced enemy fire himself.

One of the jewels of America's hidden history is Fort Stevens, not only because it brings to life the desperate struggle to keep supply lines to Washington open, but also because of the great drama -- the forgotten fight -- that gave Lincoln perhaps the most intense brush with battle that any sitting president has ever experienced.

When an Army surgeon was cut down by a Confederate sharpshooter only yards from Lincoln, the president saw the consequences with an intimacy that no battle report could provide.

The world was different then, and so was the view from Fort Stevens on what is now Georgia Avenue. Today, the automobile traffic hardly ever pauses on what then was a major route for horse-drawn wagons supplying Washington.

The men who looked north beyond the fort wall had an unobstructed view for two miles, maybe more; Walter Reed Army Medical Center would be built later to block that view. And one day in July 1864 the war came here, the only time a Civil War battle was fought within the District of Columbia.

It was brought here by Gen. Jubal Anderson Early as part of an effort to draw the Union army away from Richmond -- and as part of an audacious plan to capture the Union capital and to kidnap President Lincoln.

Fort Stevens was a tempting target, sitting there only 5.2 miles from the Capitol, defended by hundred-day volunteers who wore the Union blue but who were themselves very, very green. But the Confederate troops' movement was slowed by the Battle of Monocacy near Frederick, Md., and Fort Stevens was reinforced by seasoned vets.

The attack was repulsed, the battle forgotten, the fort left to fight its war of attrition against wind, rain, sun -- and fading memories.

Now a group called the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition has polished off an inventory of the hidden history of Washington, and one of the gems is the little park at Fort Stevens.

Indeed, the fort may be on the verge of enjoying a modest renaissance. Recently, the National Park Service celebrated the 135th anniversary of the battle with tours, Civil War songs, games and speakers.

Somewhere on the dusty shelves of the Park Service is an old plan to restore many of the Fort Circle parks, as these forgotten fortifications are called. No one's looked at that master plan for years.

But maybe, with the country's budget surplus and its historical deficit, someone might. The capital, like the country, was shaped by war. The people of the capital, like the people of the country, can be shaped by remembrance.

David M. Shribman is Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 7/20/99

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