Capital Defense

Civil War: On the trail of the forts that once protected Washington from Confederate invaders.

September 24, 2000|By Charles W. Mitchell | By Charles W. Mitchell,Special to the Sun

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.

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